Sunday, January 29, 2006

Questions that must be answered by the designer about every game design

Can we come up with a set of questions that can be used to define the nature of a game (whether non-video or video), if we have settled on the structural choices?

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

What's the difference between the structural elements and these questions? A designer MUST choose something within each of the structural elements (not 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. 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.

Here are the questions I've come up with so far (in no particular order):

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 more plausible choices a player has, the more complex the play, but that is not always true.

Role of chance
Anywhere from essentially none (chess, checkers--the only chance is who plays first) to complete chance (the cardgame "war"; or just rolling dice against each other; Candyland, Chutes and Ladders)

Number of "sides" (generally, 1, 2, or many) and players
football has 22 players, but only two sides
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)

Symmetric vs. Asymmetric
symmetric--similar starting positions/forces (typical of abstract games)
asymmetric--different starting positions or forces (and sometimes different objectives)(typical of historical simulations)
["Big box" video games are often symmetric; asymmetry often comes from different starting characters]

Zero-sum (ZS) vs. 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)

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" games 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.

What is the outstanding mechanism involved? [Someday I'll attempt to list genres/mechanisms separately. Not anytime soon, for mechanisms!] What is the genre involved (this is related to theme/story, and is very important in video games).

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"

What is the "take that" factor? Is the game "serious" or "just for laughs"? This one requires little comment.

See or the February 2005 Games Journal. This article about Romantic and Classical playing styles also has application to the next two questions just below.

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 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 often indicates a highly fluid game, and a fluid game usually requires adaptability more than planning from the players.

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.

How is "kingmaking" treated? "Kingmaking" 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? 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.

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. While not all games need to have these phases, the question might be, What phases does the game naturally fall into? For example, 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.

My structural list rose from seven to nine elements through discussion on design forums, and I suppose this list will grow and be modified, as well.

Lew Pulsipher

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