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    Distilling Game Design

    Game Design and Theory

    The9BitGame
    I have always hated chemistry, I despised the time I spent in my school's chemistry lab, watching the hours tick by and thinking about my Nintendo 64 waiting for me back home. Needless to say, I'm awful at chemistry. That is why I was so surprised that a simple chemistry concept would so harmoniously and flawlessly apply to Game Design. In this article you will learn what is Distilled Game Design and how should a Game Designer apply it to the Game Designing process.

    Always Start With the Feels

    In order to design a game, I believe that the key question you must ask yourself is: "What is it that I want my player to feel when he's playing my game?" Do you want their hands to tremble in fear? Do you want them to feel frustrated? Do you want them to feel morally challenged? I don't think that Ron Gilbert's intention when he created Monkey Island was to make his players feel scared, or that FlukeDude intended his players to feel relaxed when he came up with The Impossible Game (Even the name is frustrating, stressful and challenging!). Before figuring out the nuts and bolts of your game, before thinking of a cool and complex apocalyptic story, even before creating that first prototype, write down what your gamer needs to feel when playing your game. This will act as an objective item against which you will be able to measure your game in all of its development stages. Oh but if only it was that simple! Emotions are one of the most complex areas of human behavior, we are always feeling something, even when we don't know that we're feeling it ourselves. Most of the times we are feeling things that we attribute to the wrong causes; actually, feeling misattribution is a very important part of how game designers make players feel what they want their players to feel. Stanley Schachter and Jerome E. Singer developed what is called the two-factor theory of emotion, which states that every emotion is based on two factors: a physiological arousal and a cognitive label. This means that when someone feels an emotion, a physiological reaction occurs (their heart-rate may rise, their palms may sweat) - and most basic feelings share the same physiological reaction. The difference between feeling in love and feeling fear is in the context, so based on the situation that is happening around us, our brain associates the physiological arousal to a particular cognitive label. If your heart is racing and your palms are sweating and you're trapped in a cage in front of an angry and hungry tiger, you associate the physiological reaction to fear, but if you have the same reaction while dining with your significant other, your brain tells you that what you are feeling is love. Based on the two-factor theory of emotion, what you need to do to make your player feel how you want them to feel is provide them with the correct challenge (physical, moral or mental) and set your game in the correct environment to give them context. One of the game designer's toughest jobs is to understand how human emotions work and how to manipulate them at will. I recommend reading Tynan Sylvester's book "Designing Games: a Guide to Engineering Experience" to understand more about emotions and how can you manipulate them as Game Designers.

    What is Distilled Game Design?

    The emotion that you want your players to feel will serve as the base for the design of your complete game, so after knowing what this emotion is, distilled Game Design comes into action. Distilled game design is nothing else but the very essence of our game. It's the one (or two or three) things you can't take away without risking producing the emotion that you need to make the player feel. For instance, if you want to make your player feel frustrated, you may be able to take away cutting edge graphics and sounds, keeping only well-balanced mechanics and their progression, and you'd still be making your players feel frustrated. If you want your player to feel hilarity, you may be able to take away some challenging mechanics, but you wouldn't take away your hilarious graphics, SFX or humorous context story. Let's also remember that there is a gamer for every game, and the core of your game needs to maintain the player's interest in your game. For more on this subject, I recommend reading about Mih?ly Csikszentmih?ly's theory of flow in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience and in Alexandre Mandryka's article "Fun and Uncertainty". As game designers, before designing your game, you must go in your chemistry lab, set up a distillation process, and develop a prototype with a balanced amount of core mechanics, great story, cutting-edge sound and/or amazing graphics that when stirred up causes the emotions that you need the player to experience. This will be your game's purest state.

    Early-Stage Feedback

    The next step is feedback and iteration on your distilled game and mechanics. You need to give this distilled prototype to your players to taste and get from them key answers about the taste of your game. Does it taste like frustration, like fear, like happiness, like anger? You need to observe them react to the flavor of your game instead of asking them. If you see anyone taste very spicy food, you will see their face turning red, and they will ask for more water, you don't need to ask them if it was spicy to know that it actually was. If your players do not obviously react with the emotions you need to bestow upon them, you need to re-balance or re-make your game prototype until you get them to feel what you need them to feel in an obvious way. Remember, this is your game distilled, it's the purest flavor of your game, and it needs to be strong before adding any other component. A word of caution my designer friend, you must choose wisely who your testers are going to be. You can read Richard Bartle's essay "Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs" and Bart Stewart's article "Personality and Play Styles: A Unified Model", to learn more about gamer types and make sure that your tester gamer type matches your target gamer type. Know thy gamers, but don't know them too well, if you test your game with your mom or your life buddy, you may guess what they are feeling in a deeper, non-obvious level. Remember, you need the emotions to show in your tester's faces and reactions.

    What comes now?

    After nailing your distilled game design, you can add some minerals. If, for instance, your distilled game design tastes like fear, you can now add other ingredients that enhance this flavor. Do not make the mistake of adding ingredients that make the flavor get corrupted. If, for instance, you are making a cake and you'd like it to be sweet, adding a bit of salt may be OK, but adding too much (or a little more than a bit) may ruin the flavor you had intended, making it salty instead of sweet. If you are designing a horror game and you'd like to add humor into the game, don't lose sight of your distilled game design: your game needs to scare your player, this is why it's being brought into the world. So maybe you should add very subtle humor, but if you make a cartoon dressed like a clown singing kid songs walk on the screen in an abandoned city where your player is expecting gruesome zombies to come out of the darkness any second now, I have a feeling that you might ruin the mood. This was an obvious example, but don't underestimate the power of trade-offs. Deciding to put a cartoony clown singing or making the environment too dark or too bright may result in sacrificing the flavor of your game. Trade-offs can result in good games and they are an important part of the game making process, just be sure that the flavor is not sacrificed. In fact, one of the most obvious signs to stop adding features is when your game starts tasting differently than your distilled game. After making your game (and during the development process), you need to give your testers a bottle of your game and a bottle of your initially distilled game, and they need to taste the same. If your player feels the exact same basic emotion as he felt when tasting your distilled game, you've managed to enhance the emotion for which your game was born and you most probably have achieved making a great game.

    Conclusions

    • Know what you want your player to feel when they play your game.
    • Develop a distilled prototype that makes them feel that way, and iterate until the emotions are obvious in your player's reactions.
    • Choose your player wisely, don't just test your distilled prototype on anyone.
    • Add more elements into your game that enhance the emotions that the player is feeling.
    • Give your game more testing sessions and make sure that it tastes the same as your distilled game.

    References

    Tynan Sylvester. Designing Games: A Guide to Engineering experiences. Alexandre Mandryka. Fun and Uncertainty. Bart Stewart. Personality and Play Stiles: A Unified Model. Richard Bartle: "Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs" Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience


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    1) You just copy/pasted your first blog entry. You have two blog entries. While that's not really a major issue in terms of content, it does bring some issues with the tone of writing and concerns about motives.

    2) You accidentally refer to your design audience as a male in paragraph 3. 

    3) I think if this is the only approach a designer has in their toolbox, they severely limit themselves to the types of games they can design. Not every game has an emotional component to it. Take the game of Chess as a classic example. It's mostly an intellectual game. There isn't much emotion to any part of the game play sequence, yet its an excellent game. Could you design a game similar to chess if you just chase after emotional reactions? If we abstract ourselves a bit and look at game design, and look at games such as horse shoes, croquet, soccer, bean bag toss, darts, pool, etc. we can see that the emotional response is not the central design influence. Games have a few essential ingredients:
    1. They need to be fun
    2. They need just the right amount of challenge
    3. They require some sort of growth in player skill (reaction time, aim, strategizing, strengthening, etc)
    4. There should be some secret sauce which makes the game "interesting"

    4) As far as evoking emotions go, that's the central focus of telling a story. Thus, movies, books, TV shows, and some video games which tell a story must evoke some sort of emotional response to have an engaging story.

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    Hey slayemin, thank you for your comments, they are all very valuable!

     

    I just want to clarify that this is not the only approach a designer has in his or her toolbox, it's only a philosophy o basing all game design in his or her player's experience.

     

    Great thing that you mention chess! I believe that every player has different experiences, but I played chess for many years and no game has provoked me such strong emotions as chess. I believe that chess is about domination, is about playing your game the right way to crush your opponent, I felt so empowered every time I beat an opponent (even more when it was on tournaments), so frustrated every time I lost and so excited every time I thought about a winning strategy! Tynan Sylvester talks abuot the emotions behind chess in his book Designing Games: A Guide to Engineering Experiences. It is a good example of provoking emotions only with mechanics (no story behind it).

     

    As for a game having to be fun, agreed! But it is such a subjective perspective that it gives the designer no way to measure their developed products (again, this is just an approach to game design). Take a look at Alex Mandryka's video Pleasure and Fun for Game Design and his blog Game Whispering, he has a very interesting approach to designing games that create pleasure (and the differences between pleasure and fun)

    These are all just approaches of Game Design, I thought I might share them with you in case you find them interesting, for me they were paradigm shifters!

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    Awesome article!!!

    I really liked this "psychological" approach on game desigh as I was always interested in human interaction - behavior as a hobby.

     

    And those book recomendations were really helpfull!!! :) :)

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    It's mostly an intellectual game. There isn't much emotion to any part of the game play sequence, yet its an excellent game.

     

    Couldn't you argue that "emotionlessness" or "calculating calm" could be targets for a game? Maybe "feelings" or "emotions" aren't the right terms here. I suggest "state of mind." Horror games usually provoke a fearful state of mind. Goat Simulator provokes a kind of humourful state of mind. Chess tends to provoke an analytical state of mind. 

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    It's mostly an intellectual game. There isn't much emotion to any part of the game play sequence, yet its an excellent game.

     

    Couldn't you argue that "emotionlessness" or "calculating calm" could be targets for a game? Maybe "feelings" or "emotions" aren't the right terms here. I suggest "state of mind." Horror games usually provoke a fearful state of mind. Goat Simulator provokes a kind of humourful state of mind. Chess tends to provoke an analytical state of mind. 

     

    Sure, you could make that argument. But then someone can just attack the claim from another direction and say, "Lots of things create a state of mind which are not games, such as roller coasters and first dates."

    As a definition, it is too broad.

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    It's mostly an intellectual game. There isn't much emotion to any part of the game play sequence, yet its an excellent game.

     

    Couldn't you argue that "emotionlessness" or "calculating calm" could be targets for a game? Maybe "feelings" or "emotions" aren't the right terms here. I suggest "state of mind." Horror games usually provoke a fearful state of mind. Goat Simulator provokes a kind of humourful state of mind. Chess tends to provoke an analytical state of mind. 

     

    Sure, you could make that argument. But then someone can just attack the claim from another direction and say, "Lots of things create a state of mind which are not games, such as roller coasters and first dates."

    As a definition, it is too broad.

     

     

    Lots of things create emotions and feelings that aren't games, too. Film, music, and experiencing loss all evoke emotion in people. The idea of choosing an emotion to evoke is not unique to games. I don't think anyone was claiming that it was, either, nor can you logically infer that it is based on what's been said.

     

    Allow me to clarify what I'm saying. We seem to be discussing the premise that choosing an emotion to evoke in a player is a valid and useful method of game design. My argument is that "choosing a state of mind to evoke in a player" is a better premise because it includes games that merely choosing emotions to evoke does not, thereby addressing the concern you raised.

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    One little critique of your article. What one player feels when experiencing something, can be completely polarized in another player. Don't get too fixated on trying to force a specific emotion in players, cause players are different from eachother and you may end up boxing in and "stigmatizing" your design (i.e. making it great for a specific player type, but bad for everyone else).

    I would, as a little sidenote, also argue that prototyping (on the "macro" level of game design) isn't as necessary if your game is highly conventional, because there's more than enough games already in existence to give you some fair idea of your design's viability. This does, however, require you to actually know that those games exist in the first place. (This is one of those few areas in game development where gaming experience actually does matter a great deal.)

    What I described here is not the entire picture though, nor is it innovative. You're sort of "safing" your game. What most developers seem to do, however, is to use some safe conventional baseline and then innovate on component features of that main scheme (as a way to flesh out that mechanic). If you choose to do it that way, then obviously you'd need to prototype that new feature. I.e. prototype everything that is clearly traversing uncharted waters.

    Finally, to some people I think game design can be perceived as a bit more challenging than it really is (although that's not to say that game design isn't challenging at all). It seems like a few too many game designers are trying to be story tellers and movie directors (and Will Wright recently ninja'd that statement, arrgh). The primary function of a game is not to provide experiences for a player, but rather to give players the means to create their own. A game can (and in some cases should) definitely have both, but just remember that the gaminess of games isn't a function of great direction. It comes from great directability, the buzzword here being "emergent gameplay".
     

    But now I feel like I'm disgressing a bit, so I'll leave it at that. But my point is that both the psychology and technology of a game should be designed around the player being an accomplice (or lead, even) and not just a witness.

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    (i.e. making it great for a specific player type, but bad for everyone else)

     

    I think we are seeing a shift (in indie for sure) in not trying to please a broad audience and get more specific in player taste. Heck I think some players see that and appreciate it and change their own mindset when going into a game that they know is trying to do this. I think this is great! Instead of all the cookie cutters that we all know we'll mildly enjoy (or at least not be hugely disappointed with) we end up with games that require us to shift our mindset before we start playing. Sure we might not like it even after trying to do this, but we'll appreciate the diversity in games that we are getting. We might find 1 aspect of said game interesting and take with us of a feature we like to see in other games and let it be known which helps other developers.

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