Monday, June 20, 2011

Simplifying a Game

Almost always, when I talk with groups of people about game design, I quote Antoine de Saint-Exup'ery: "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."

Recently as I answered questions after a session, someone told me about a RPG he'd designed and tested, that all the testers said was too complex. "How do I simplify it?" he said.

An assumption here is that the testers, by and large, aren't able to say exactly what must be simplified, they just know that currently there's too much.

First, I said, try to write down the "essence" of the game in a few sentences. This can take some doing, believe me. Ideally you've done it already, but if you had, perhaps you wouldn't be having the too-much-complexity problem to begin with.

There are different ways to characterize the essence of a game, sometimes structurally, sometimes according to what the player does, sometimes in another way or a combination.

Example (Britannia): "On an anvil of blood and terror they forged the destiny of an island!" In this epic wargame four players each control several nations playing at different times with different objectives throughout the Dark Ages history of Great Britain. Romans, Britons and Gaels, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Normans --they all play a part in the history of Britain. Combat is resolved with dice. This is a strategic game of achieving objectives, not of conquest, though many invaders conquer much of Britain at different times. 4 to 5 hours for experienced players. "Invade Britain. Rewrite history. Rule."

Then think about the various aspects of the game in relation to that essence. If something doesn't contribute to the essence, can it be removed? Surely, at the least, it can be simplified, abstracted, or combined with something else. Every game (tabletop or video), at bottom, is fairly simple, and your job is to retain its simple heart and remove what doesn't contribute enough to that heart.

Second, make a list of the major features or elements of the game, perhaps 10 to 20 of them. Consider again how they contribute to the essence, and how you can remove or simplify or combine as appropriate.

After you have (in your mind, at this point) removed or simplified what you confidently can, give the list of the (now remaining) features to your playtesters and ask them to decide which could be removed entirely, and which should be simplified. (This may not help much if testers disagree about whether the game is too complex.) Don't ask people to rank each feature in comparison to the others, as that can be quite hard. It's much easier for people to divide a group into four parts, in this case from most important to the game down to least important. You might even want to write the features on separate 3 by 5 index cards to make it easy for the playtester to sort them.

Whether you ask playtesters individually or in groups depends on what you think they'll be most comfortable with.

Then consider how you can get rid of the items in the bottom quarter, or even the bottom half if the game is much too complex.

Then playtest the result, of course.

I've listed these in an order beginning with what you can do on your own, to what you can do in conjunction with your playtesters.

1 comment:

Paul Owen said...

Very sound, although I recently had the opposite problem. I designed a card game based on submarine combat, refined it a bit, then tried it out with my wife - only to find out that I had oversimplified it. It ceased to be fun. I dropped the project altogether in favor of working on something else, but I think at some point I need to go back and consider why I thought it would be fun in the first place, and explore what I might have omitted or purged that needs to be part of its "essence."