Thursday, July 31, 2008

Please note: Games don't evolve

A tiny pet peeve of mine is when someone says that a new game or new edition is the "next step" in the "evolution" of RPGs. That's a line of crap. Games don't randomly mutate over generations. They are (more or less) intelligently designed. Some corporate committee or gang of designers or lone RPG nut directed the development of that game. When you say a game has "evolved" what you're actually doing is buying into some marketing flak or carnival barker's line of baloney that somehow their new product is more fit than others. The next time someone tries that malarkey on you, consider asking what totally random mutations in the product make it a better fit under the current environmental pressures.


  1. It depends what you mean by a game.

    D&D 3.5 as we were playing it in the gestalt-ragnarock campaign certainly evolved. Some rules were tried and rejected (the one that let us gestalt Level Adjustments with Class Levels), not surviving the pressures of play. Others were introduced and adopted... and survived (didn't we start off only allowing gestalt for half-orcs and half-elves?). The ruleset we began the campaign with certainly wasn't the one we ended it with.

  2. I think games do evolve, but that doesn't mean that the latest version of a game is the best or fittest. It just may be a mutant doomed to extinction.

  3. D&D 3.5 as we were playing it in the gestalt-ragnarock campaign certainly evolved.

    Uh, no. The rules changed. More importantly, the rules were changed by a directing intelligence. That's so the opposite of evolution that it makes my head hurt to see people equating the two. You might as well argue that our campaign was Up because it was so clearly Down.

  4. From

    Evolve –verb (used with object)
    1. to develop gradually: to evolve a scheme.
    2. to give off or emit, as odors or vapors.
    –verb (used without object)
    3. to come forth gradually into being; develop; undergo evolution: The whole idea evolved from a casual remark.

    Most RPGs satisfy all of those definitions. Especially D&D with it's many updates, small but significant changes to the rules (immediate actions) and other changes that happen over time. The game you are playing at the end of the life cycle is significantly different than the game you started playing.

    Or if you go with the second definition (which took me by surprise), they all stink.

  5. I object to a 'step' being assigned with evolution. You can either evolve or take a step, sorry, you don't do both.

  6. Anonymous10:24 AM

    Jeff, I think you're putting too much of the theory of evolution into the word evolve. The word predates the theory and random change is not a necessary component.

    Those who purposely invoke evolution in their use of the word are so very wrong. But they're ok if they just mean change over time or the addition of new paradigms.


  7. Individual groups make rule changes. They may think they are “intelligently designed ” changes but (IME—and certainly including my own blinding stumbling) it’s really closer to random mutation.

    When one of these mutations “works”, the group keeps using it. Other groups chance upon it too. The groups that chance upon it tell others about it. Eventually people paid to “design” games notice it and “inspired” by it.

    Oh, forget it. You’re right.

    (Well, except maybe for the “intelligently designed” part.)


  8. I agree with what Jeff is saying. It's not half as complicated as some comments make it seem.

    The word "Evolution" is used in gaming to imply that a new/updated version of an older game, or an entirely new one, is a natural progression of the older counterpart and superior to them.

    This is, of course, bollocks because it all comes down to personal taste. Not only that, it might sound offensive to those folks who like an older game and don't apreciate being told their preferences are atavistic or something.

  9. Anonymous11:38 AM

    "The word "Evolution" is used in gaming to imply that a new/updated version of an older game, or an entirely new one, is a natural progression of the older counterpart and superior to them."

    I don't think you can usually say that a word or phrase is used consistently within a hobby (unless you're willing to do a linguistic analysis of a large sample); there is typically a great deal of variance. Occasionally, it's used as in the above, but often not.

    I often see it used as a progression over time to a new state without a clear break between states. Someone might say "The campaign evolved into a die rolling contest to get the best treasure." without meaning the play was superior to what it was at the start.


  10. Both in and out of the hobby, I’ve most often seen “evolve” having a positive connotation. While “devolve” is used for a negative connotation.

    Not always. True.

    It’s when “evolve” is used to suggest that older games/editions were inferior that tends to set my teeth on edge.

  11. Anonymous11:51 AM

    I think there is a lot of evolution in gaming. True evolution comes from feedback from players, or adapting to an ever changing market.

    D&D is a hit-or-miss with it's development. OD&D had a lot of evolution going for itself. The supplements and DM articles were like a battleground for rules and concepts that worked or failed, and the early editions (1e, and basic) was the end result. The 2nd edition was just conservative stagnation. Beyond the major rule changes (which was more of an overhaul then any real development), 3rd edition was more of an evolution on a marketing level. The EPIC FAILURE of T$R's marketing strategy in the 90s was the death knell for the company, but Wizards learned well and adapted. Obviously not enough, for 4th edition is just de-evolution - plain and simple!

  12. "More importantly, the rules were changed by a directing intelligence. That's so the opposite of evolution that it makes my head hurt to see people equating the two."

    Depending upon your definition of evolution.

    Biological evolution is generally thought of as depending upon randomness (at least at a certain level of description) - although even that is arguably iffy. Games are pretty clearly non-biological.

    I don't really see your point here.

  13. Anonymous12:15 PM

    Well game books are made out of organic matter. Books are made of paper-paper comes from pulp-pulp comes from wood-wood comes from trees. So if trees have evolved at all over the last 30 years, perhaps rpgs have as well :)

    In a more cosmic sense, I don't think evolution and intelligent design are mutually exclusive. Evolution might be a tool used by the designer.

    In another sense, I completely agree with you Jeff. Well beyond the realm of rpgs, people often ascribe things to vast impersonal forces or "society". People make individual decisions- not society. Society is just a bunch of individual people.

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. This argument seems familiar somehow.:)

  16. I agree. Semantics aside, tabletop and rpg games and games rules all work. It just depends whether you are into simulation, narrativist etc..

    The fashion and style of games and gamers may change, but 2nd AD&D is still viable and playable. The degree to how good or bad it is is open to debate. But 4e is not an evolved version of 2e.

    Of course this theory does not apply to White Wolf games. All of those suck :)

  17. When someone say's to me a game has evolved, here's what I tend to hope they mean:

    The game is a new edition of an extant game, not a total rewrite. The changes that have been made are largely incremental. The previous version has been played extensively, and players have found issues with it. Some of these issues have commonly-houseruled solutions that tend to improve gameplay. We've incorporated those solutions to at least some degree. Other issues didn't have obvious solutions - at least ones that didn't involve dramatically changing a number of game mechanics. We've done our best to solve those issues. In some cases, we had to make far-reaching adjustments, but we have tried to minimize the effect these adjustments have on gameplay.

    D&D 3.0 to 3.5 is a good example of such a change.

  18. For many the word evolution is synonymous with survival of the fittest. As pointed out earlier evolution also a word that means gradual change.

    I would say "get over it" as far as the use of evolution. But unfortunately Jeff is right in that companies use the "next evolution in RPGS" to indicate that somehow their new rules are "better". That is rightly bullshit.

    The way that rules are better is in the criteria you define. By looking at different rulesets (and combinations) you can say this ruleset is "better" at meeting my criteria.

    But without knowing what criteria are, then saying something has evolved is bullshit.

    For example my upcoming Points of Light isn't "better" than the traditional grand setting in a box

    It only better when you consider my object is to make drop-in settings that easily fit in a DM's existing campaign.

    Knowing that people can look at the product and judge it. Say well Rob you missed the mark. It is just as hard to use this as any product from campaign X. Or Rob! Using this is easy I found spots for all four lands, I hope you make more.

    But I just went around saying "Point of Lights" is the next evolution of settings, better than anything else that came out. Then It would be right to call me a pompous jerk.

  19. If a game publisher ever says "Our new RPG is the next step in the evolution of RPGs, and by "evolution" we explicitly mean the most modern definition of biological evolution, and not any of the dozens of other common and historical uses of the term ... and it's not even a metaphor, dude; we mean it literally," then yeah, totally.

    Otherwise: huh?

    I agree with edsan and Robert Fisher: it's ugly when people use such junk to imply that older designs are somehow inferior instead of reflecting different tastes and market trends.

  20. I agree 100% with this post.

  21. Anonymous3:31 PM

    In any sense of the word, a company coming out with a new edition is rarely evolution. If they simply looked at how people played the game and got rid of rules that didn't work and added wide-spread house rules, it could be argued that it is evolution.

    When they redesign the game to what they think it should be, it can in no sense be considered evolution. It might be better or it might be worse, but it is not evolution.

    Also, more highly evolved does not necessarily mean better (though popular opinion certainly believes it does). There are plenty of species that got too specialized and got wiped out when conditions changed. I do see that happening with games. They add more and more rules to please the old timers but make them too complicated for entry level players.

    For a truly evolving game, I think it would have to be something truly open source. Something along the lines of a Wikipedia of game rules perhaps.

  22. Anonymous4:44 PM

    Don't you just love Semantics, Jeff :)

    Me, I think games don't evolve, but GAME THEORY can, and that can prompt change in the way that game is designed.

    Evolution isn't always positive - it's a trial-and-error mechanism where (in an ideal environment), the negative evolutionary traits regress and the positive ones are strengthened. Don't always happen that way, of course :)

    It remains to be seen whether the evolution of the game theory behind 4.0 is positive or negative - that's going to take several years before we can even start to make that judgement.

    As the same time, Games Don't Rust either. We can still play and love some dumb game written in 1976, just as we can play that thousand-year old game called chess.

    Good post.

  23. Don't you just love Semantics, Jeff :)

    Evidently so. Sigh.

  24. Interestingly, when the OGL and SRD were put together back in 2000 it was the expectation of the crew at Wizards of the Coast (or maybe just Ryan Dancey) that the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons would indeed be an evolution. If I recall correctly, the OGL/SRD frequently asked questions document took the stance that "when fourth edition comes round, the changes will have undergone serious gradiated testing" or something to that effect.

  25. Anonymous2:21 AM

    1) everything greywulf said: wrong

    2) Truth: RPGs are like music or novels in regards of "advances"; e.g. there is no advancement, contemporarieness etc.

  26. Anonymous3:03 AM

    I have to disagree. Each new idea is an advancement as it gives new options to people playing the game. Just as music was improved by the introduction of the guitar or the development of music theory. That is, it gave musicians more options and/or gave them a better way of achieving what they want to achieve.

    As much as I love old school gaming, to claim that it cannot be improved is as silly as claiming each new edition is an improvement.

    As much as I dislike the "Here is the new, improved version of the game", I'm not real crazy about the old "You must play the game as written or you're not playing real D&D" either.

    Personally, I'll happily look for ways to make the game work better for myself and the people I play with. Don't care what edition or game system or crazy internet post it came from. For instance, love the "Kirk rule" and its inclusion would certain improve a certainly type of game.

    The thing is chess DID 'evolve'. It didn't start out the way it is now. It didn't pop out fully formed from someones head with no antecedents after all. Modern chess most probably was a mutant version of some older game. Just because it hasn't changed since then doesn't mean it didn't evolve. Sharks haven't changed much either, but they most certainly did evolve.

    Now if you don't mind, I'm going back to my Pendragon/Thrash/Extreme Vengence fusion.

  27. Anonymous3:11 AM

    So, smartypants which is the most advanced music. I eager to learn from you.
    And, which is the most advanced music theory?

    I´m totally waiting for your wisdom.

  28. Anonymous5:29 AM

    settembrini, you're confusing "advanced" with "evolved". They're not the same.

  29. Seems like I’ve written something about innovation in RPGs that would be appropriate here. Can’t seem to find it at the moment. u_u

  30. Anonymous9:26 AM

    The most advanced music and most advanced music theory is modern music and theory. That is not to say that that any particular piece of modern music is better than any particular piece of, say, baroque era music. But it is undeniable that the modern music composer has a much larger pool of tools and ideas to draw on when creating.

    Its not like the ideas and technology of baroque music was lost because swing music was invented. A person could still write baroque music today. But Bach could not write swing music in his day. Because music as a whole has advanced.

  31. But it is undeniable that the modern music composer has a much larger pool of tools and ideas to draw on when creating.

    A much larger potential pool of tools and ideas.

    (Which is not a criticism of your statement. Just that I think the adjective I injected into it is relevant to the topic at hand.)

  32. To put the recent discussions about "evolution" into context -- there have been some adds for 4e / D&D Minis that show the different ways a troll has been depicted across the various editions that's done in the style of the classic illustration showing the progression of an ape into a modern human.

    It's a clever marketing strategy, but it doesn't mean it's accurate. That is the type of evolution does not exist in game design. Design is not Evolution. Design is design.

  33. I agree with edsan and Robert Fisher: it's ugly when people use such junk to imply that older designs are somehow inferior instead of reflecting different tastes and market trends.

    That was pretty much my entire point here.

  34. Anonymous12:02 PM

    Yep, Robert, that is a better way of putting what I was trying to say. Though I might say rather "a larger pool of tools and ideas that can be potentially drawn on" as the tools and ideas aren't in themselves potential in that they do exist.

    One could almost say you evolved my point...

    Yeah, Jeff, I get your point and I think you are right. I think most of us can agree that the way evolution is being used is ridiculous. Still, it did stimulate some interesting (though tangential) discussion. What can I say, evolution of an artform is a particular interest of mine. Don't even get me started on the extension of copywrite law.