Monday, April 13, 2009

On the Keeping of a Kingdom

Has it really been 6 months since I posted here? My concept of time has been simply mad this year.

A couple of hiatuses from, and subsequent returns to, game design, have lead to a crystallization of my thinking on the process. I find I'm less inclined to go down poor paths, to flesh out ideas that aren't workable. My instincts for good and bad designs are growing more keen, and I can bring them to bear on less well-formed designs. I was attempting to pin down what exactly the insights are, but they're slippery. Here's a start:

- Don't fall in love with engines. I sometimes figure out a conceptual way that certain game entities might interact, creating an engine that the player can influence. This is a bad starting place for a design, and placing such a mechanism first is going to put you down a design path that is unlikely to actually be fun, and will to tough to deviate from mentally. This was the biggest problem with much of my early designing.

- What is the challenge structure? This is the biggest insight I've had, is to ask this. Challenges, as I think I discussed in a previous post, are at the heart of interesting gameplay. When the player sits down, what challenges are presented to them? Ask this of any new design you have, if you don't have a good answer, work on the idea until you do. If you still can't solve it, its not a good design.

- What is the simplest version possible of this game? God, this exercise is useful, this is a great way to judge the early viability of a game.

- What are the first two sentences you say to a new player when you sit them down to play this game? Imagine you are just sitting down to play this game, and it is being explained to you, is it something that you want to play? This is an important step-back method later in the process, when you're trying to sort the details out. Is there a core way to explain the game to someone new that is understandable (grokable even) and appealing? So often you wander from the core of what you wanted to do in a game, get so excited about some mechanism that its become impenetrable to the new player.

I think games need to be constructed in layers of elegance, and that this can be detected by the way that a new player perceives the game. Is there a quick, high-level picture of what the game's about? Does the rest of the stuff fall under that as reasonable extensions of the initial principles?

My point is, a teachable game is a good game. The more easily players can internalize the logic of your game, the sooner they can get to the business of playing it. Thinking about how you would present the game as it currently exists is a valuable exercise in the quality of the design.


This is all to say these are techniques for seeing your game in terms of the experience it provides, rather than the makeup of its parts. And this doesn't mean the decisions that are presented, or the per-turn nuances that you're trying to create: that's the sort of stuff you think about naturally while you're designing. The challenging part is to see the big picture, to see if all that stuff is adding up to a game.

Because honestly, usually when you take a stab at the detailed mechanics of a game, you're going to end up with ones that just don't work. Its such a fragile, fickle, brittle, wicked thing, game design, the low level stuff you create that seems good in isolation just rarely works in the broader context. The trick is to recognize that early on, and try again, and again, and to keep your searches shallow and your process broad. When you dive too deep into a given mechanic, and invest too much time into it, and allow too many assumptions inherent to it to calcify, you've ruined the entire design for yourself. You're no longer able to throw it away and try something else, it has crusted into place around the rest of your design the two have to live or die together. So they die.


So yes, this is all a bit dramatic, mostly for effect. Of course generating ideas is good, as is exploring them, falling in love with them, honing them and being patient. Finding elegance is hard work. But I rant like this because I think that the other side of the coin is easy to ignore, especially for the novice designer (like me, still, to be honest). Of course, yes, you can throw ideas away, and good designers do. But my point is, its harder than you think, and hard work and focus on a given idea that shows promise is not always the right course of action.


This ties into two general design theories that have come into focus for me this year, that I will allude to just briefly here:

1) Design is about creating approximations of the outcomes and experiences that you expect your design to lead to. You need to create sketches, models, mental simulations, actual simulations and other approximations of your design, and see how they fare in approximated practice. This is tough in board game design, where the actual experience is borne of the complex unknowable interactions of mechanics and human minds, but the tips I mention above are a start.

2) There are special challenges when you are designing information-based products such as software and board games, when you are creating not a physical object but a system of rules and ideas. In these cases, too much depth early on is a death stroke. Its as if your first step in designing a building was to lay down a huge iron column and decide what to do from there (with apologies to Christopher Alexander).

Here's the myth about software design and board game design: that mental design decisions are wholly malleable. The ideal is that you just think about stuff, and if a given solution doesn't work, well, you'll just try something else. You won't.

Once you've thought about a given idea in enough depth, put the effort into developing it, gotten used to thinking about certain idea's you've developed as givens and constraints to work around, they become solid. They become as solid as if you'd physically started building something.

What you need to do in board game design, and software design as my ongoing research is trying to prove, is take lots of little stabs at the problem. Explore it from a variety of angles at minimal depth, and slowly work your way in. The preliminary work on one angle will provide the means to understand the other angles, and as long as you don't go deep on one too early, you won't lock the whole thing up and ruin it.

Some of the tips I mentioned above are towards this aim. You think about the challenges, the simple version, the explanation of the game. They yank you out of your current angle, show you the others, show you where they clash. And if you're lucky, you can try to build an elegant solution that involves the shifting of all of the angles' needs, instead of building them around one big calcified spike of an idea that you're just too attached to.


Again, I know, this is all very dramatic. The idea of spikes you can't move, of all these angles, of clawing your way back out of your ideas? Its only to draw contrast to what you might think about game design.

Every idea you generate is a double edged sword that represents progress in one direction, but resists deviations from that path. Its a fortress. You've staked out a space, and now you can use it, but if you try to uproot it, it will bristle with crossbows from palisades. Build little outposts on the landscape, but don't let any of them get so strong that they defy you.

Edit: added 3rd section as something of a response to Chad's comment - thanks Chad!