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Getting the Point

Copyright Sean M Punch 2000

I was invited to write this piece on point-based roleplaying games, and on GURPS in particular, because I am the line developer for GURPS. What is GURPS? The Generic Universal RolePlaying System: a point-based, multi-genre RPG from Steve Jackson Games. What does a line developer do? In my case, I advise the marketing department on what we should be publishing, read proposals, choose writers, iron out rules issues, proofread manuscripts, and ensure the stylistic and philosophical consistency of the line. It might, therefore, come as a shock to many when I argue the merits of point-based games not from the viewpoint of design philosophy, nor on artistic or technical grounds, but on the basis of sales and marketing.

Marketing to Players

The success of a RPG can be measured by how many gamers it reaches and influences. The most successful games in these terms are the ones that appeal most strongly to players – not necessarily at the cost of appealing to GMs, but certainly with less regard to GM opinion than to player opinion. This is because players are in the majority: for every GM, there are four, six, even a dozen players. This does not mean that a game marketed to players will sell four, six, or 12 times as many copies as one aimed at GMs, but it does mean more sales. And when the players decide that they like a game, the GM has to follow suit. The GM might be the ultimate power in the game world, but sales happen in real life – and in the real-life social group that is the gaming group, the GM is just another gamer with one voice and one vote.

Thus, the marketing problem is: "What do players want?" Elegant rules design tends to appeal to GMs, who have to interpret rules and deal with the consequences of character design, but this appeal is weak for the majority of players. Artistic and technical superiority appeal to our intellect, but the purchase of luxury and hobby goods is ruled by the emotional, gratification-seeking side of our psyche. In light of these two observations, the marketing problem can be refined to: "What appeals to players and (to bring this around to our topic) how do point-based games provide this?"

Flexibility

One thing that players love – that all consumers love, regardless of the product – is options. The GM really doesn't much care about options: she is the final arbiter, the creator being, the Prime Mover. Her options are limited only by her imagination. She can create characters who can do anything and plots that can go anywhere. She can choose the genre, setting, and power level. If she lets the rules limit her, it is only because she deigns to accept those limits. In her hands, any game system is ultimately flexible.

The players, on the other hand, have much more limited control over the game. There are really only two means by which they can influence the direction of the game: through their choices during character design, and through their actions during the game. Only the first is a "right" that can be entrenched in a game system, since the GM holds all the cards and can always overrule attempts to influence the game through actions. Thus, the sole guarantee of player freedom that can be engineered into a RPG is a character-creation mechanic that gives the players maximum flexibility and control.

To determine what form this mechanic should take, we will look at the three main classes of character-creation mechanics found in RPGs today (ignoring "systemless" character design, which is beyond the scope of this discussion):

1. Random. Systems which use die rolls, card draws, etc., to establish character abilities. The main problem with these mechanics is that they take away some of the players' control and put it in the hands of a random number generator. It is common to let players move around a few die rolls or "cook" the results a little, and some rules sets use a reward system to offset poor die rolls, but all forms of random character generation ultimately sacrifice some of the players' control to the fickle gods of chance.

2. Collective. Systems where the players engage in "bidding wars" for a limited number of character options, or where the characters are designed by consensus. The difficulty with these systems is that control over each character rests not only in the hands of that character's player, but also in the hands of all the other players. Once again, this takes a degree of control away from the person who actually has to play the character.

3. Point-based. Systems where the player allocates points, dice, etc., to buy the abilities he wants for his character. These systems put everything in the players' hands. There is no randomness and no need to accept consensus. The only limit on player freedom is the GM's veto power, which applies to any of these systems.

Thus, the most flexible mechanics – and the ones that will give the players the most control, ensure their happiness, and by extension sell the most games – are clearly point-based. Point-based character creation offers a free capitalist system as compared to the theocracy of random generation and the communism of collective design; it lets each player buy what he can afford, look for the best deals, and manage his own resources.

Appeal

Flexibility is not the whole story, however, although it is a major part of it. Having plenty of options certainly appeals to the control freaks and the math geniuses, giving them almost instant gratification, but this in itself is not enough to make a game a winner. People play games for lots of reasons, and it is important to examine them all. I like to identify seven main areas. These are arbitrary, and overlap somewhat, but I think they cover the spectrum:

  • Catharsis: The release of unloading frustration in a harmless way.
  • Entertainment: The thrill of playing for laughs or for kicks.
  • Escape: The trip of being stronger, smarter, more powerful, etc., in the game than in real life.
  • Puzzle-solving: The satisfaction of putting together the best team, solving the mystery in record time, etc.
  • Socialization: The joy of getting together with a few pals with common interests.
  • Storytelling: The challenge of making the events in the game into a coherent and continuous story.
  • Theater: The challenge of acting out a role.

Three of these areas are not significantly affected by the choice of character-creation mechanic. Entertainment and storytelling lie entirely in the realm of how you play the game – they have little to do with what is written in the rule book – while socialization is a meta-issue that transcends game play proper. I can come up with arguments both pro and con any of these three elements for any of the three character-creation mechanics I have pointed out, so I am inclined to give all three classes of mechanics a point in all three areas and be done with it.

Mechanics do influence the other areas on my list, however. Both catharsis and escape ultimately stem from having a greater sense of control in the game than in real life. Based on my earlier discussion about options, then, only point-based games score in these two areas. Collective and random techniques simply take away too much player control to rate here.

Puzzle-solving typically involves building a group of made-to-order characters and then working as a team. Point-based games get a point here for allowing this through customizability, while collective mechanics get a point for accomplishing the same thing through consensus. Random systems fall flat because they tend to yield a collection of odd-duck characters with abilities that rarely complement one another.

A good theater experience requires the game to pose an acting challenge. Both collective and random mechanics score here because they present players with characters which are not custom-built and easy to play. Point-based games lose out because they encourage players to run tried-and-true characters rather than challenging ones.

The score? Point-based 6, collective 5, random 4. This is hardly a decisive victory for point-based games, and players interested in a few specific aspects of gaming are more likely to choose a system that rates in those particular areas over one that rates higher overall. And some systems use other mechanics to work around their shortcomings; e.g., character classes can to some extent provide the team-building tools and diversity needed for a pleasurable puzzle-solving experience. But marketing looks at the big picture, and the big picture is clear: point-based games have the broadest appeal.

Who Cares About Sales?

Right about now, a lot of readers are probably asking "What do I care if a game sells well? That doesn't make it more fun." Trust me: you care, whether you know it or not. Better sales mean higher revenues; higher revenues go to pay for more and better product development, more skillful creators (designers, writers, editors, and artists), more and more regular game support, and more licenses to work with more popular – and hence more expensive – properties. And creators who get paid regularly have more fun, which means more stimulating and more creative games. See the trend? "Sales = More." For everyone.

In the context of this discussion, then, point-based games, by dint of being more flexible and ultimately broader in appeal, are positioned to outsell other kinds of games and thus offer more to the gaming hobby at large. There will always be exceptions (we all know that the #1 game system uses random character generation, not character points), but even those will bow to the need for point-like mechanics (the second edition of said #1 system provides for custom-built "kits" that were not present in its first edition; the third edition is rumored to be even more customizable).

Wherefor GURPS?

Coming full circle, putting on my hat as GURPS line developer, and hawking my wares, how does GURPS measure up? Its flexibility is self-evident: not only does it embody the general flexibility common to all point-based games, but by virtue of being generic, it attempts to cover any and all genres, while by virtue of being universal, it attempts to accomplish this using a single, unified set of rules. In short, GURPS can handle almost any genre, setting, or character concept. Games don't get much more flexible than that!

When it comes to game-play appeal, the system's detailed, point-based mechanics allow gamers who enjoy catharsis, escape, and puzzle-solving to create their "fine-tuned machines." However, this rational and mathematical aspect of the game is carefully balanced with exhaustively researched background material, extensive "Characters" and "Campaigns" sections, and copious adventure seeds in every GURPS supplement. These provide gamers who prefer entertainment and storytelling with all the resources they could want to run their favorite style of game.

On top of all that, GURPS offers a complete system of mental traits for characters – including totally flexible, user-specified quirks – that acts as a contract which ensures good characterization and a decent theater experience. The GM agrees to give the player more points with which to create his character in return for the player agreeing to "become" the character and act out his role as opposed to sleepwalking through it. This is bolstered by character-advancement guidelines that spell out (for the rules lawyers) that roleplaying – not killing or the accumulation of wealth – is what is rewarded by the system.

In fact, the only part of the gaming experience that GURPS can't provide is the social aspect – but even there, SJ Games strives to help out. We offer message boards and a chat area on our e-zine, Pyramid, where gamers can trade notes and arrange play-by-email and chat-based games . . . and our plans for the future include an online version of GURPS that fully integrates the rules system with interactive play.

Conclusion

As we enter the 21st century, I predict that point-based games will only grow more popular. Not only do they have a huge marketing advantage over other kinds of games, as I have discussed here at length, but the inevitable move online (as I hinted at for GURPS) will increasingly bring computers into the hobby. Computers excel at number-crunching and bookkeeping, and will serve to dispel one of the main objections voiced by gamers who dislike point-based systems: that character creation is too complex, mathematical, and time consuming. As well, by shunting the need to think about rules off to a machine, the games of the future will provide a more immersive gaming environment that emphasizes storytelling and characterization, thus addressing the other major objection to point-based systems: that characters tend to be collections of abilities on a page, not personalities.

I, for one, just can't wait . . .

Editor's Note

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