The Hard Part About Live Action Design
Picture this: You’ve just developed your first activity for a live-action game: It involves gathering resources, bringing those resources to an evac point, and then defending the evac vehicle while the goods are secured. You announce the mission details to your players and get ready for a multi-phased battle of attrition:
Leading up to the event, each team spends almost an hour in isolated planning. In these makeshift briefing rooms, hundreds of players work together to plan team tactics and high level strategy on whiteboards and maps. With their plan figured out, Team 2 sets up a defensive perimeter around their stronghold and hopes for the best. As the clock ticks down the final moments before the mission, Team 1 finishes gearing up and is ready to begin their assault. Tonight belongs to them!
The mission begins at 8:00pm sharp. But shortly after the offense leaves the building, disaster strikes!
As you watch on in horror, your players’ cleverness completely shatters your intended plan. All of your hard work now looks more like this:
In this example, Team 2 pulls an unexpected audible and decimates the offense. After a brief attempt at a recovery, the offense is completely eliminated. The mission ends at 8:20pm, having barely gotten to Phase 2.
Scenarios such as this are expected in games where players can quit a match and boot up another game online, but in the realm of live-action games – which tend to be one-and-done experiences with massive community anticipation leading up to the event – you simply can’t allow unexpected player decisions to prematurely end your game. But what can be done to prevent this? Players are incredibly clever, and there’s such a wide spectrum of player performance and participation levels.
Simply put, the hard part about live action design is unpredictability.
Structuring a Flexible Reality
Live action games and experiences naturally encourage player creativity; when you already know the rules and limitations of the physical world, you are much better equipped to exploit them in potentially risky ways. When high-risk plans succeed, they substantially help one team; when they fail, they substantially help the other. The problem is that either outcome involves a potent change from the expected attrition pacing of the experience. So what can we do?
We can increase ambiguity so that players have just enough information to act, but no more. The value of this is twofold:
- Intensity increases – when players don’t know everything, there is an increased sense of discomfort and intensity
- Developer control increases – by having undisclosed variables, developers can use negative feedback loops to discreetly reduce variance in team performance
As an example, let’s take the initial flow chart and show what would potentially work even better:
This gives enough information to players (they know what tasks they’ll need to do in what order), but obscures certain details, such as exactly how long each activity will last, and exactly where they might take place. If desired, this type of ambiguity can be furthered for increased intensity. If, for example, this activity was the grand finale of a larger game, the Mission Details may read something like this:
“Go collect MacGuffins from the surrounding area. We’ll give you more details once we hear from HQ. Good luck!”
This is very ambiguous, and arguably does not give enough information to strategize. If the goal of the finale is to test raw skill and adaptability and/or if the finale involves frequent opportunities for high-risk tactics, this is ideal. Just be sure to give players enough information that they would feasibly do what you want them to do.
Bringing it All Together
This whole time I’ve written to you on the difficulty of uncertainty in a live-action experience and the strategies to overcome it, but the truth is that this article is entirely independent of the medium: Every strategy listed is equally relevant for board games, live-action games, and videogames. Wherever there is undesirable unpredictability, the strategies above can help you create a framework that reacts quickly to player activity before it’s too late. Think about it:
- Is your live-action game quickly becoming dominated by one team? Introducing “hidden” mission rewards that are given in addition to explicit rewards are a great way to supplement the weaker team’s payout without players knowing that the rewards were adjusted.
- Does your game’s community feel like your newly-announced dungeon DLC doesn’t have strong enough loot? Consider teasing your players with images of the loot, but do not disclose the specifics of their use or stats until you have a better barometer on their perceived worth.
- Have the players in your tabletop game started to feel unchallenged? Restore the thrill of uncertainty by keeping enemy strength and numbers unknown from your players, allowing you to unleash as many or as few as you need (Dungeon Masters have been doing this in tabletop RPG’s for decades).
In each of these situations (though it’s certainly harder in board games without DM’s), we are designing systems that enable the experience to react to players in a way that supports good pacing. And by employing a little bit of hidden information, we’ve also made these changes virtually undetectable, so players won’t feel like they received an unfair advantage/disadvantage.
This level of control comes at a high cost of responsibility: Poor dynamic balancing can make failure feel encouraged or a massive victory feel shallow. But when applied correctly, these techniques can certainly make the difference between a short-lived disaster and a lasting positive experience.