Saturday, July 16, 2011

A couple explicated maxims of game design

Here are a couple of maxims/truths about game design.

“Don’t Panic”. When you’re playtesting a game, don’t let an odd result in one game bother you too much. If it looks likely to happen again and again, once people know about whatever happened, then you need to fix it. But “whatever happened” may be just an outlier, something very unlikely to happen.

On the other hand, you need to see what you can do to avoid destructive outliers. Mike Gray of Hasbro told a story about a game he was introducing to Hasbro’s design group as a candidate for publication. The main part of the game didn’t get going until a 50/50 event was positive. When he showed the game, it took something like 13 times for that event to be positive. By that time the game was ruined, and had no chance with the design group. The designer had failed to anticipate the admittedly unlikely possibility, much to his detriment. He needed some kind of trigger that would have got the game going, perhaps an increasing probability, or simply a “trigger is positive on fourth try”.

In Law & Chaos, playtesting went very well, but in the very long run experienced players learned to anticipate many possibilities and the length of the game could go far above the typical 15 minutes to one hour (to two and a half hours). I introduced a trigger that changed the parameters slightly (increasing the number of ways a player could win) so that games wouldn’t run very long.

“A game is always a compromise”. This especially applies to “realistic” video games; tabletop game designers usually recognize that given the tools available they can only compromise on “realism”. You can never achieve as much as your wilder imagination hopes for. So look at the good you’ve done, don’t look at what you failed to do. Games are models of reality, and reality is too complicated to comprehend in a game (though the Star Trek “holodeck” will come close, should we ever get there). Game design requires idealism, the ability to pick out what’s important and depict that, rather than try to depict all of a situation.

Tabletop military simulations sometimes founder on designer attempts to “depict all of it”. The game then becomes so complex, or so long, that it isn’t enjoyable to play even for much of its intended audience.

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