LARP design and the problem with geography

We’ve been running Zombie for more than five years now. We don’t really know where it’s going next – our main venue is likely to be occupied every weekend for the rest of the year with Zed Events, which we’ve been helping to organise crew for. That means we’re back hunting for spaces again, which most likely means reinventing the game from the ground up again to work with the new geography.

Level design is very tricky when the physical arena of your game space is laid out in advance for you. Many of the most serious challenges in creating our type of game stem from the constraints of physical space. Navigation, staging, set dressing and crucial game balance issues all arise from location. Different venues take different concentrations of survivors and zombies; they necessitate different objective types; they change the balance between mass play and individual play; they change the ranges and dynamics of combat in many ways. That’s all before you even start on the aesthetics and the safety issues.

Because of all that, each space needs a different approach to the game rules that puts the emphasis in the right place for the venue. (This is also what makes the game difficult to franchise – it doesn’t translate easily across venues without some serious thinking about scenario design.) In reality we’ve built at least three quite different rule sets now, all under the Zombie LARP umbrella, each one tailored to a different sort of space and player base. Now we’re moving again I strongly suspect we’ll end up with a fourth.

Journalism, advancement and level design

Spinning off a tweet by @jayrosen_nyu, I’ve been thinking about levels in gaming and what journalists could learn from them.

For the record, I don’t think that levels in the sense of levelling up are a particularly useful way of classifying news readers or users or players or whatever paradigm we choose to use today.

For many video gamers level grinding removes the fun from a game and turns it into work. In tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons unequal leveling within a group can cause such huge balance problems that small disparities between characters can prove insurmountable. And in both, leveling is an illusion – while the character’s powers and abilities increase and improve, so do the challenges they have to overcome. Much of the time leveling is simply a numerical way of forcing characters to go and explore before they can advance the plot.

Essentially, I’m not sure what useful lessons we can learn from leveling per se, apart from the lesson that it’s hard work and tends to encourage grinding as a form of competition – not meaningful engagement with content.

That’s not to say that every leveling system is evil, you understand. It’s just that these days there is a wide range of advancement systems to pick from – points-based cash-in or free-form systems, for instance, or activity-based systems, or good old achievements – and if we’re going to talk about user advancement systems we should talk about all of them and work out which ones are relevant for what we’re trying to do here.

But level design is a different matter.

Level design is about balancing technology and art. It’s about pulling together huge swathes of pretty content (pictures, video, audio, in this analogy) and making a coherent, structured narrative which makes it clear which way players are meant to go while giving them room to explore if they want to – and doing that within the confines of the tecnology available. That’s not a bad model for news online.

There’s a quote from this article that’s worth teasing out:

A level designer is not just an architecture monkey or a guy who throws “cool stuff” into the pot of development. Above and beyond everything else they need the ability to judge what is fun, what gameplay elements work and what do not. He needs to judge what content works in any context while making sure his work is cohesive with the rest of the game.

If you accept that the “game” is what we’re calling the “story” (or, more precisely, the “topic”) at the moment, then level design theories about pacing, controlled freedom, risk and reward start to become relevant to engaging the reader/user/player in what we’re trying to get across.

What do you think? Am I in a theoretical hole with no practical applications, or is there an analogy here that online and multimedia journalists could find useful?