The Art and Science of Game Design

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There Will Be Games

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I’m not a game designer. I have some ideas, but I doubt that I’d ever have the patience and perseverance required to see a design through from inception to endless rounds of play testing to a final finished product. This clearly limits what useful commentary I can make on the design process, but that doesn’t seem to stop me from trying - I’ve become very fond of repeating a certain mantra about what constitutes a workable design goal and what doesn’t, the idea being that “must tie in strongly with ancient Roman theme” is a goal likely to lead to a good game, whereas “must play within 90 minutes” will likely lead to something shallow and forgettable. But this is a pretty negative way of approaching the subject so I thought for once that I’d turn the tables and suggest a process which might help designers to focus on the positive goals and bypass the negative ones. Apologies if the following sounds like I’m trying to teach people to suck eggs on a subject in which I have limited knowledge. That’s not my intention. Rather I’m throwing out this rather abstract piece in the hope that some of the ideas herein might encourage debate and some better suggestions.

I got the idea, rather strangely, from a book on business management I was forced to read as part of my working life. The chapter in question proposed that there were three basic principles a company needed to embrace in order to find its unique niche in the market and exploit it to the full. Reading it, I was unable to resist the parallel between this and the concept of finding a unique niche for a game in order to avoid the horrible fate of it becoming yet another identikit Euro-clone such as those which seem to flood the gaming scene nowadays. The comparison isn’t perfect, but bear with me while I walk you through the three principles and how I see them translating in terms of game design.

The first idea is that if you want to be successful at something, it has to be something you’re passionate about. This requires no explanation at all in order to maneuver it into the world of games. If you’re a World War II history nut and you want to design a game, a World War II wargame is almost certainly going to be the best place to start. If, like me, you’re a Tolkien obsessive then some sort of fantasy game is going to be more your style. If you’re a maths whizz, then exploring a particular mechanic or statistical irregularity that interests you will be the way to go. I don’t see this as limiting in any way the starting point for a game idea - the immense variety of things that people get themselves excited about means that there are an equally immense number of places to jump off. It doesn’t have to be a theme - although this does seem to be a pretty common point at which to start.

The second concept is that you need to spot what it is that your company can do better than anyone else. Not just what you’re good at, but what you can do better than your competitors. In gaming terms I see this translating as a search for an interesting space to fill. Does the world really need another game about D-Day? If you really think it does, what is it about your idea that makes it worth pursuing - an ingenious mechanic, perhaps, or a much lighter, faster game than previous attempts have managed. Whichever way you try and categorise games it seems that virtually every slot is over-subscribed and in many cases the only thing about the new products which are better than the old products is production values. Look at some of the games which have stood the test of time: Cosmic Encounter, Settlers of Catan, Titan and others - each was in its own way and in its own time a terrifically innovative game. If you want your game to have the chance to be something equally special, you need to find out what it is about your idea which hasn’t been done before by someone else. That doesn’t mean every new game has to be a bag of totally new, radically innovative mechanics: often you can come up with something new by recombining old ideas together. But whatever it is, it needs to occupy a slot in design space which is, at the very least, sparsely populated.

The third idea is that every company needs a single measure by which to determine whether or not it is succeeding in its goal. This needs to be thought about carefully, not just taken as a standard business measure like ROI, but something which is specifically tailored to what that company is good at. This is the hardest to translate into game terms, but it seems that the key is to appreciate that there ought to be one overriding goal for your game that you can check against, and that other goals are secondary and need to be thrown away if they clash with your first goal. This is important because it’s an easy way to make sure you don’t start to dismantle what’s important and unique about your game in the interests of trying to shoe-horn it into weak design parameters such as limits on play time or rule page count, or even on getting a certain spread of player numbers. If you’re trying to make a simulation of Dutch trading in the 17th century then ask your play testers, continually, whether or not the game makes them feel like 17th century Dutch merchants. By all means trim the play time, explore new mechanics, tweak balance or whatever it is you feel you need to do to make a better game, but as soon as you’re told that the latest change makes it less like a game about Dutch merchants, undo it and rethink it.

The inspiration behind these three concepts comes from a somewhat curious source - an essay by the philosopher Isiah Berlin titled “the Hedgehog and the Fox”. It purports that there are two types of thinkers in the word: those who constantly seek for new experience and information and believe the world cannot be described in simple terms (whom he titles foxes) and those who, in contrast, view the world through the lens of a single, often very powerful and challenging, idea (whom he calls Hedgehogs). When trying to work up something great, the argument goes, a Hedgehog approach is superior because the have focus - they work on a single concept at a time and build it up to the best it can be, refusing to be distracted by shiny new things they might encounter along the path. If the shiny new thing can fit in with the overriding concept it is accepted, modified if need be, and slotted in. If not, it is ignored. The idea that a “hedgehog” approach is the best one for a game designer seems entirely obvious to me. It takes a lot of time and effort - focus - to make a successful game. And if nothing else people like me, for I’m most certainly a fox, wouldn’t have the staying power to see a game all through design and development. There are too many other interesting things in the world to see and do and think about!

Sorry for the relative brevity and blue-skies nature of this piece, but inspiration runs dry sometimes, and I think there are valid issues to discuss here. There’s not much else to say, really, especially since I lack any practical experience in the subject, but those are my thoughts on how designers might, should they want to, go about ensuring that whatever they create has some sort of sense of innovation and timelessness about it. I’d be interested to know what you think on the subject. Not just my suggestions, but the surrounding issues. Should, for example, we actually expect designers to want to be in the business of creating innovation and timelessness or is it more a matter of, as one designer said to me recently, “gotta eat and all”?

Matt is the founder of Fortress: Ameritrash. He is also a regular columnist for Board Game News.

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Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.


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