Saturday, November 12, 2005

The seven (or eight) structural subsystems of any game (video or non-video):

A game can be thought of as a system (as in "systems analysis", for the computationally inclined). What I'm trying to achieve is a list of the fundamental sub-systems that are necessarily a part of any game. This list may help novice designers, because if they think about all seven of these systems as they rough out their game, this will help them conceptualize and arrive at a playable idea.

I want a framework that will help a novice designer think about games. There are other ways to analyze the fundamentals of games, e.g. in terms of states and changing state, but I don't believe that point of view helps new designers much.

This scheme is related to games that are models of something (often, of some reality); I have not tried to include sports, such as football or basketball, in which people participate bodily. The systems should apply to a tabletop sports game, but perhaps not to the sport itself.

If one of these systems is completely missing, you might have a toy or puzzle, but not a game. For example, in Katamari Dimachy (sp?) there are no victory conditions, and you have a toy. Sometimes the system is assumed, but still a decision has been made about the category. For example, in Tic-Tac-Toe there is no acquisition of resources, but it still has an economy of "none"--it could have a way to gain resources, and there may be variations where you do.

I've tried to list these subsystems in an apparently-logical order, but every one is just as necessary as every other one.

Objective/victory conditions. In other words, what causes one player to win, (and what causes the game to end)? Role-playing games have no end, but do have objectives: usually to acquire experience points and (magic) items. The game ending can be arbitrary ("play five rounds", yet there will still be a way to determine the winner at that point.

“Data storage”. (Information Management?) Something has to record the current state of the game. This is often a board/map. In Tic-Tac-Toe, it's the nine-box layout. In card games, the layout of the cards on the table, and the cards themselves, store data. Pieces can store data, in particular the traditional cardboard pieces of wargames that contain movement, attack, and defense values. A detailed map stores LOTS of data.

Sequencing. In what order do things happen? "Simultaneously" can be the answer, but taking turns is the norm in non-video games. Even in video games that appear to be simultaneous, there is usually a hidden non-simultaneous sequence (as that is the nature of most computing).

Movement/Placement. Players generally manipulate something, most often pieces on a board or cards in their hand or on the table. Chess and checkers have movement rules, the Asiatic game Go has placement rules. Movement/placement one at a time is the norm. Even paper-rock-scissors has movement (as well as sequencing) rules.

Information availability. What information about the game available to all players? In traditional boardgames all information is available, but in card games information is largely hidden. Five-card draw poker has a lower level of information availability than Texas Hold 'Em, because in the latter you see some of the cards "held" by the other players.

Conflict resolution/interaction of player-controlled entities. What happens when an action of a player leads to a conflict? This can be as simple as in Tic-Tac-Toe (conflict is not allowed, you can't place your mark where the other player already has one), or it can be simple as in chess (when a conflict occurs, the moving player always wins). In checkers you jump a man in a conflict. In Go you surround stones to capture them.

You can argue that Tic-Tac-Toe has no conflict rules, that movement rules govern where markers can be placed; but in this view a choice has still been made, that there will be no conflict. It is possible to have a game without conflict, such as a race game or many card games. There's no conflict in Solitaire, either.

"Economy" (Resources). How are new pieces/capabilities acquired? Some games have no way to acquire these, but that is still a decision made about the game. Even games that don't appear to have an Economy have some elements, for example, in chess you can promote ("queen") a pawn, and in checkers you can make a king. Many modern games, especially many computer games, are economic/resource management games.

Originally that was the extent of my list. I may want to include an eighth:
Player Interaction rules. What governs how the players interact with one another. For example, in a multi-player game, are negotiations allowed? Physical intimidation? (The answer to that is almost always "No", but it is a decision, and I have seen games that involved physical intimidation...) Some people might include this in Conflict resolution/interaction.

This is an "ongoing" work. Any comments?

Lew Pulsipher

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