When is a game “finished?”

Lots of talk in the last couple days about what constitutes a “finished” game. (My threads on teaching your game flowed out of that conversation actually.)
Matt Wilson, who wrote Primetime Adventures and Galactic, gives up the best rule of thumb on this I’ve seen so far:
“You need players to consistently be able to sit down and play your game out of the box, without help, without you available as an unpublished supplement.”
There you go. It’s nice that so many of these indie games have the author easily available to answer questions, but the best ones — Dogs and PTA spring to mind, as they have for a few days now, but Conspiracy of Shadows and TSoY are there too (they may not be in-game-referencing-friendly, but the rules make sense without lots of online help — are the ones where that’s not necessary; where you are reading Actual Play threads not to understand what the hell to do, but just to get cool ideas.


  1. Having just bought (and read twice!) PTA, I would not have put it so completely in the, “Playable out of the box,” genre. While the ideas are there, and the meta-context, there’s _very_ little in the way of description outside the mechanics. I would have loved to see more of the types of scenes being created with it just to increase the comfort zone. [shrugs] I think I can play good games with it, but I would have liked a little more hand-holding. Just me.

  2. It’s a good point, Meera. Here’s something I wrote in one of the recent threads:

    We never give enough examples. Not in any text. We could always have more. Vincent gives us example towns, but not enough examples from inside the ‘making them’ process. PTA gives me enough (almost one every page!) in the first 50 pages — that section I’m really comfortable with: making the series — but I want more the last 40, and as a result I’m less comfortable with “creating an episode”. 🙂 I can only think of one example in Shadow of Yesterday — the four or five page BDtP… that, and two versions of the cover characters.
    It’s not the only tool we have, but it’s one of the easiest to implement (that’s relative: I’m aware that writing good examples is HARD), and it’s always available, so it makes sense to use the hell out of it.

  3. It’s a tough one — I wish almost all of these systems had more examples, too. The web has turned out to be great for that, as folks play stuff and share experiences in forums and wikis and the like, but nothing beats the game creator actually coming up with Stuff.
    (And while it’s keep that the creators are often around to ask questions, over time I find the answers change as they move onto the Next Big Game Concept.)
    On the other hand, examples almost always fall short in some fashion. That’s why, of course, we have rules. Perhaps what we need are rules that are written *better,* so that the exceptions and nuances that are meant to come out in the examples aren’t as critical.

  4. The biggest problems with examples I see, as someone who writes technical documents regularly (not game rules, but very similar things in essence), are two… 1) you must write an example that is clear, realistic, and demonstrative of as many concepts as possible, which is a difficult combination, and 2) once you insert an example, you can’t change the rules the example demonstrates without reviewing the example for revision.
    (1) means you have to construct situations where you actually demonstrate several tricky aspects you want to enlighten. It’s easy to write an example of an easy rule, but it’s worthless. And it’s easy to write an example that just compounds the confusion of a hard rule. It’s much trickier to write an example that actually expands upon the explanation in a helpful manner. And it’s trickier still to use one example to explain multiple rules at once. But that’s the best kind of example; one that shows the inter-relationships of the rules in a way rule text is hard-pressed to do.
    (Though, as a note, I agree with Dave… better-written rules that require less exception and nuance to implement is a superior choice to better examples. But it isn’t always an available choice.)
    (2) means examples either lock your rules in stone or at the very least dramatically expand the work necessary to change the rules. As such, they are incompatible with rules still in the playtest/development stage, and problematic for any sort of living rules (as all RPG rules are). And it’s very easy to get caught in a revision-trap, trying to update an old example that actually needs to be replaced because the rule changes have outstripped its usefulness.
    Thus… examples of concepts (which are well defined and rarely changing), easy to write and maintain; most games are good at these. Examples of rules, tricky to write, very hard to maintain; most games are actually quite poor.
    And, of course, the WORST kind of examples is the kind that are actually rules disguised as examples. New rule concepts need to be given as rules, not slipped in as part of an example. I could name a couple of 1996 games that are particularly bad on this count… but I won’t.

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