Saturday, April 24, 2010

Essential Design Questions

(From GameCareerGuide, 14 April 09--you can click on the post title for the original)

Twenty questions that must be answered
by the designer about every game design
Lewis Pulsipher

“It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.” James Thurber

A while ago I discussed the nine fundamental structural sub-systems of any game. (17 March, (Summary below.) These elements are a good starting point for defining your game concept, but there’s a lot more to be said.

As a reminder, the structural elements are:
1. Theme/History/Story/Emotion/Image.
2. Player Interaction rules.
3. Objective/victory conditions.
4. "Data storage" (Information Management)
5. Sequencing.
6. Movement/Placement.
7. Information availability.
8. Conflict resolution/interaction of game entities.
9. "Economy" (resource acquisition/conversion).

The following are questions, or “decision points”, for a designer to consider after he or she has established a framework. It should be most useful to people who are learning to design games. This list has grown as I’ve tried to come up with a set of questions that can be used to define and refine the nature of a game (whether non-electronic or electronic), once we have settled on the structural choices.

What's the difference between the structural elements and these questions? A designer MUST choose something within each of the structural elements, or there is no game yet (not consciously choosing is itself a default choice). On the other hand, he or she can ignore any of the following questions, but other elements in the game will create some answer to each as the game is developed. Yet many of these questions are as important, in the long run, as those fundamental structures. As a designer, I'd prefer to answer the questions initially rather than stumble into an answer, but others may have a different point of view.

Many of these questions are primarily of interest in non-race games with more than two sides. Races aren't unusual in video games (Mario Kart is the most well-known recent race game), yet they are a very specialized version of multi-sided games because in most such games there is little you can do to hinder the opposition.

Many boardgames and most card games are “multi”-sided (more than two sides). A trend in video gaming is toward multi-sided games, a way to have several people participate and compete directly, rather than indirectly via high scores or times, with one another. Over time, then, some of these questions will become very important for many video game makers.

Here in summary are the twenty “questions” I've identified so far, followed after the question list by a brief discussion of each.

“Distinct” questions (yes/no, or just a few possible answers): (“digital-style” questions)
What is the genre of the game?
Is it competitive or cooperative?
Is it Symmetric or Asymmetric?
Is it Zero-sum (ZS) or Non-zero-sum?
How many (human) "sides" (generally, 1, 2, or many) and (human) players?
Is this an “emergent”/rules-dominant game or a “role-assumption”/story-dominant game?

Spectrum questions (a wide range of possibilities along a spectrum, “analog-style” questions)
How “big” and how long will the game be?
How complex is the game?
What is the level of action or “granularity”?
What is the role of chance, how much does chance play a part in the game?
How strongly will the decisions of the players influence the outcome of the game?
Which kind of skill does a player need to use, adaptability, or planning?
Which kind of skill does a player need, quick reactions (typical in shooters, for example), or careful deliberation?
What is the level of Fluidity or Chaos?
Is the game largely "mechanical" or "psychological"?

Other questions:
What is the outstanding mechanism involved?
What are the dynamics of being ahead or behind in the game?
What phases does the game naturally fall into?
Is the game "serious" or "just for laughs"?
Is the game “ruthless” or “nice” (a competition or an entertainment)

“Distinct” questions (yes/no, or just a few possible answers): (“digital-style” questions)

What is the genre of the game? This is related to theme/story, and is very important in electronic games, less so in non-electronic. Genres might be “sweep of history” game, “shooter”, role-playing game, real-time strategy game, resource management game, etc. But a designer may not think about genre to begin with, and may end up with a game that defies standard genre-categorization.

Is it competitive or cooperative? Most of the time the game will be competitive, but occasionally, all (or almost all) of the players will cooperate with each other. “Co-op”, to an electronic gamer, means two or more players cooperating against the computer, say in a “shooter” game. On the non-electronic side we have Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings game, where all players cooperate, and Days of Wonder’s Shadows Over Camelot, where there might be a traitor amongst the players; in both cases the game system provides the opposition.

Is it Symmetric or Asymmetric?
$ symmetric--similar starting positions/forces (typical of abstract games)
$ asymmetric--different starting positions or forces, and sometimes different objectives, typical of historical simulations
AAA list electronic games are often symmetric from player to player, except that there may be asymmetry coming from different starting characters. Starcraft (as many other RTS games) is asymmetric because the three races are functionally different.

Is it Zero-sum (ZS) or non-zero-sum?--in the former, any gain by one player comes from a loss by another

Diplomacy is an epitome of zero-sum; Risk has some aspects of it, as do many wargames with strong economies (e.g. Axis & Allies). Role-playing games (electronic or otherwise) are rarely zero-sum, though there is the element of “I kill monster, I get monster’s stuff”. RTS games are zero-sum in the sense that there is usually a limited amount of resources available, and if one player gets a resource, the others cannot get that resource.

Another way to pose this: is your opponent's loss your gain, or your gain your opponent's loss? If the game is two player ZS, the answer will always be "yes" . If it is multi-player, someone will gain when someone else loses.

ZS vs. non-ZS can be posed a different way, not quite the same thing: how easy or hard is it to hinder an opponent while at the same time helping yourself? If it's easy, you're closer to ZS; if it's hard, you're farther from ZS. (An important aspect of most "Euro" boardgames is that they are far from ZS.)

Games in which you score points regularly through the course of the game tend to make zero-sum unlikely, I'd say, and encourage situations where it's hard to hinder an opponent while at the same time helping yourself. (How many games let you take points away from another person that have already been scored?) Of course, there are exceptions, this is a tendency only.

How many (human) "sides" (generally, 1, 2, or many) and (human) players?

This question is related to the “Player Interaction Rules” sub-system, and one could argue against including it here. This one concentrates on the number of players and sides, however.

Football has 22 players, but only two sides. When video game people say “multi-player”, they often mean in this sense of many people playing, but no more than one or two sides or “every person for himself”. “Multi-player” in the non-electronic world usually means “more than two sides, one player per side”.

Axis & Allies or War of the Rings can be played with four or five people, but is a two-sided situation (regardless of attempts to use strange victory conditions to make it appear otherwise, there are only two primary interests)

Electronic games, until recently, have almost always had one human side, and the computer as a second side. True “solitaire” games have one side and a non-active obstacle that is more like a puzzle than another side. Where there is only one side, as in the card “game” Solitaire, what you really have is a puzzle. Still, someone must design these “puzzles.”

Is this an “emergent”/rules-dominant game or a “role-assumption”/story-dominant game? Board and card games, especially the “traditional” games, tend to have no narrative, no story. There is a set of rules, and play “emerges” from those rules. “Rules-dominant” might be a better term. Many electronic games, such as Tetris, also have this characteristic. Another way to look at this is that in these games the player does not assume a role, he does not usually think of himself as a person experiencing some aspect of an imagined life. Even in Monopoly, theoretically a game about real estate trading, players don’t think of themselves as entrepreneurs.

But many electronic games, especially the newer ones, incorporate an avatar, and a story of some sort happens to that avatar. The player thinks of himself as the avatar. These might be called “role-assumption” or “story-dominant” games. Which is yours?
The epitome of the story-dominant game would be made in an environment like The Matrix or the Star Trek holodeck. Some designers believe that the designer should, as much as possible, “hide” himself within the game, so that players are less likely to think of it as a game and more like reality. Opposed to this is the rules-emgergent point of view, where the players know they are playing a game with rules, and want the designer to do his best to make rules that result in an entertaining game.

Spectrum questions (a wide range of possibilities along a spectrum, “analog-style” questions)

How “big” (and how long) will the game be? You can design little games, short games, “monster” games, games that take 10 minutes to play, games that take 40 hours to play. What will it be? The audience has a lot to do with the answer to this question.

How complex is the game? Complexity can come from the rules or from the play, or both. The rules of chess are fairly simple, but the play is complex. Generally speaking, the larger number of plausible choices a player has, the more complex the play, but that is not always true. “Euro-style” games try to keep the number of plausible decisions small at any given time, in order to avoid “analysis paralysis”. In many electronic games, anyone who dallies when making a decision is wiped out, so the number of plausible decisions must be fairly small.

What is the level of action or “granularity”?
This refers to what kind of “force” or “agent” the player controls. If it involves violence, is action conducted on a tactical (individuals), grand tactical (battles), strategic (warfare including economics), or grand strategic level (series of wars)? A shooter is always tactical, an RTS is generally strategic, Civilization is grand strategic. If the game does not involve violence, it still has a level of action, which is most likely individual. Mario games are always at that level, for example.

Another way to look at this is, how many “pieces” does the player control/keep track of, from one up to hundreds. At higher levels of granularity, economics of some kind (production of units) is likely to be important.

Abstract games may be difficult to gauge, though in the end they tend to involve one piece at a time, as in Tetris, or a few as in Bejeweled. Checkers and chess are tactical games, as the number of pieces is quite small and only one can move at a time. RPGs are necessarily tactical.

What is the role of chance, how much does chance play a part in the game?
This can range anywhere from essentially none (chess, checkers--the only chance is who plays first) to complete chance (Candyland, Chutes and Ladders; the cardgame "war"; or just rolling dice against each other)

How strongly will the decisions of the players influence the outcome of the game? Some Euro games, and almost all traditional American family games, are designed so that even if a player is making mistakes, the gameplay can allow them to recover and win. In other words, we want the non-adult or inexperienced players to still have a chance to win. Many wargames are not so designed, and a person who isn't concentrating and isn't making good decisions will rarely, if ever, win. Years ago I christened this characteristic the "gyp factor". If a game lets a less skillful player win often, the skillful player is "gypped" (you can see what school of thought I come from . . .). See Here's the lead sentence: "The Gyp Factor (GyF) of a game is the degree to which it permits or prevents the expert (near-perfect) player from winning consistently against less than expert but at least average players. If the GyF is very low, the expert will beat the good player virtually every time--chess is an example. If the factor is very high, the expert wins no more often than the good player--in other words the expert is gypped because his additional ability cannot be exerted in the game".

See or the February 2005 Games Journal.

Which kind of skill does a player need to use, adaptability, or planning? Some games such as War of the Ring, and "card driven wargames", place the premium on adaptability, because you don't fully control what your side does. The roll of the special dice, or the draw of the cards, makes a big difference. Other games (chess, obviously, and traditional hex wargames) place a premium on planning. Euro games tend to focus on adaptability, which often makes for less analysis than older wargames. You can also suppose that the more information is available, the more planning is emphasized (think chess), and vice versa.

Related to this is the question, what is the level of Fluidity or Chaos in the game. How much does the situation change from one "play" (turn) to the next? How much can a single "move" by one player change the situation? A high "take that" factor (one move changes things drastically) often indicates a highly fluid game, and a fluid game usually requires adaptability more than planning from the players.

Which kind of skill does a player need, quick reactions (typical in shooters, for example), or careful deliberation? Probably the majority of electronic games require quick reactions, while the vast majority of non-electronic games require deliberation.

Is the game "mechanical" or "psychological"? That is, is the game largely determined by positions and pieces, or by psychological effects? This is a very difficult question: Which one is Diplomacy? While the mechanical aspects are important and occasionally vital, mostly it is a psychological game determined by negotiation (as most people play it). "Romantic" players tend to make any game psychological, while "classical" players tend to concentrate on the mechanics.

Further, experienced electronic game players tend to turn all the single-player games they play into mechanical exercises, finding the very best set of circumstances to give them the greatest advantage.

Other questions:

What is the outstanding mechanism involved? It’s possible that nothing will stand out, but many games are essentially an exploration of one mechanism–e.g., checkers, Tic-Tac-Toe, Tetris, Pac-Man.

What are the dynamics of being ahead or behind in the game? "Leader-bashing" might be defined as the tendency of players to gang up on, and drag down, the leader. If this is too easy, the game becomes an attempt to avoid looking like the leader. If it is too hard, the game becomes multi-player solitaire. Some games address this question by making it unclear who the leader is. In a three-player game in particular, the "petty diplomacy problem" (as R. Wayne Schmittberger calls it in New Rules for Classic Games) is related to this: when one player realizes he cannot win, how easily can he determine, by his actions, which of the others wins? (This ability to determine who wins is called “kingmaking”.) If it is easy to do this, then the game probably isn't much fun to play, in the long run, for many types of players.

This could be generalized in a different way, as “how easy is it to hinder another player, and how much can you help yourself AND hinder the leader?”

Some people believe that a good game naturally falls into three phases, the opening or beginning, the middle game, and the end game. Chess is often looked at in this light. (This is something like the “natural” three-act form of plays and films.) While not all games need to have these phases, the question might be, What phases does the game naturally fall into? For example, the boardgame Britannia has four phases: the Roman dominance, the Anglo-Saxon dominance, the Viking invasions, and finally the endgame with three (or four, in Britannia Second edition) kings in competition. Many real-time strategy games fall into phases, one being base-building, another being securing adequate resources, the final one being destruction of the opponent’s base(s).

If the game feels the same at all times, it will be less interesting than when it changes through two or more phases.

Is the game "serious" or "just for laughs"? Chess is serious, party games are just for laughs. Games for the Wii tend to be less serious than XBox360 games. Both types can be combined in one game in different amounts.

Is the game “ruthless” or “nice” (a competition or an entertainment)? Some games are “entertainments”, games where winning is either not the main thing, or is something that everyone can do (via cooperative gaming). They’re “nice”. Some games are competitions, where winning is very important, and “nice” is not part of the equation–so for short I call it “ruthless”. This question is different from “serious or for laughs”, but certainly related to that.

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