Peter Perla, for those of you who haven’t been following along with the surge of military interest in civilian off-the-shelf simulations, is one of the white hot centers of the new Golden Age of gaming. He is a principal research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses (which should immediately hire me, while I’m still available), one of the historical pioneers of wargaming practice in the US military. Accordingly, Perla is a prominent spokesman of serious wargaming practice among a widening field of notables including Rex Brynen, Tom Mouat, Phil Sabin, and probably ten other people who will embarrass me when next we meet.
“Design proposes and development disposes,” Perla writes in The Art of Wargaming. Such a straightforward epigrammatic attack deserves a great deal of attention. Perla does us the service of breaking development down to four steps:
- Validation of model, data, and scenario
- Preparing final rules
Preplay pertains more to the conduct of a professional game, including the logistics of its setup and running through a few turns in abbreviated form, just as a designer or developer might set up a presentation of his game at a convention for a public who has never before seen it. Perla’s practice, like that of GMT and DG, has the developer preparing the final version of the rules checking cross references, play aids, etc. In the commercial wargame world such a specialized detail work is best handed off to a proofreader. Perla’s task organization is better, as the developer will be privy to rules discussions with the designer and the attendant changes. This is a heavy, labor-intensive responsibility which, ideally, should be backstopped again by external copyediting. But Perla’s insights run deeper than production editing. “…[P]erhaps the most important and difficult task of game development is to ensure that the game can meet its objectives,” (Perla, 1990 #p211). Fair enough, though this begs the often-ignored question about a game’s objectives.
Professional games serve explicit professional objectives. What about commercial ones? Few commercial titles have any discernible objective beyond mild revision of existing tendencies or simply holding down a place in a pre-existing niche. Or simply existing as a unit of sale — though as we’ve seen, very few wargames actually take this on as an objective. This muddies the waters for a would-be developer. The goal of magazine games is vague beyond filling out a number. Magazines operate in perpetual liability of fulfilling subscriptions. Certain magazine games, especially those published on a strict schedule, are doubtlessly only given “good enough development” in view of the schedule. As usual, the meaningful constraint on civilian commercial wargames is time, not money. Interestingly, Perla also notes that developers should calibrate the level of detail in a system. This is a valuable insight I haven’t seen expressed elsewhere.
In the review of the game which occasions these articles, we’ve seen how nuance in 3LW was effaced at the added expense of more traditional graphics with extra fiddle. NWL is a much worse game for the development it received. It could even be considered unplayable, sans the dispensations subscribers traditionally accord S&T/MW . Yes, NWL is simply the kind of mediocrity to which we’re accustomed. The characteristic snap and lucidity of 3LW’s designer is much less present. But then, the shock of the new always did resist commodification. A fat and happy operation (or a meagre and complacent one) privileges running the presses above any other consideration.
Still and all, at least two magazine game publishers, Against the Odds and Battles have abandoned a regular publication interval (tacitly in the former case, explicitly in the latter). Even industry leader GMT is pausing production to overhaul distribution. Quality is always its own argument. ATO, Battles, and GMT simply produce better games because they take the time to do so. The hobby desperately needs less product and more deliberately produced, deeper games. Integration of Perla’s professional development standard to commercial practice would do a great deal to improve the situation.