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Game Design Philosophy 101

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Okay, I've had this written up as an intro and forward to my game page (if and when I ever get it up). It talks a little about my personal game design philosophy, mostly in regards to Strategy and Roleplaying games. School has been absolutely killing me the last few weeks, but I figured I may as well put this up since it was already written up. What's it all about? I thought I should start off on what may seem to be a tangent. My game design philosophy. I want to create a game experience which focuses on one or more aspects of human experience that are created from or reinforced within a framework of a proscribed set of rules in a fictional background. Read that again if you have to...it's important. For me, what makes games fun is being able to experience something, not necessarily winning per se. Winning to me is having the player come away with a vivid and or educational experience which he can reflect on even while not playing. In other words, the game is just a means to end, the end being an experience, inspiration or insight which allows the player himself to take into his own personal life. But this experience is shaped and confined by the rules-system of the world. In other words, while a Deus Ex Machina is not disallowed, what happens must be be reasonable within the confines and definitions of the game world's rules (and background). At times, it may seem like I'm coming off a soapbox, or trying to railroad certain game design paradigms down your throat. My intention is more to make the readers of this page understand why I've chosen certain gameplay elements that I have, not necessarily to say, "This is how gaming should be done!". To each their own. Reality blows. Doesn't it? Here I'd like to point to my own proclivity in game design. When faced with a choice between realism or dramatic flair, I've chosen realism. Why? Because to me, realism in its own way provides a distinct drama. The trick is in culling those things which tend to bog down gameplay that have too little to offer to the end result compared to the time required to do them. So on one hand, some may find trying to sort out supply routes as boring and tedious and dull. But this is because they think that the time invested in detailing these issues is not concordant with the impact these details have on the outcome. And this is where I disagree and believe that realism becomes its own reward. There's a saying that has always intrigued, "God is in the details". I believe it is precisely because too many elements have been abstracted out for fear of the realistic details being too tedious that players now have a misconception of what the principles of warfare or other complex events are all about. The other misconception is that how something happens isn't as important as what happents. This leads to the notion that causality isn't as important as effect. I've seen a new style of gaming in which the details of conflict is abstracted to this degree. I think this is a dangerous path to tread, for it is only when we understand why events have occurred that we truly begin to understand the world around us. In other words, the journey is just as important if not more so than the destination. But realism to me doesn't mean that one can't play in make-believe worlds. The ability to transcend today's capability with the fantastic allows for experiences which otherwise would be difficult if not impossible to achieve. The trick in handling the fantastic realistically is in its consistency. Consistency should be striven for both in its own internal workings, and in how these fantastic elements shape the world they belong to. My favorite example is teleportation. For example, if your world has teleportation as a relatively common means (say as common as people today flying commercial airlines...something they may do once a year on average) think of the ramifications this will have on society. How will a country defend its borders with such capabilities? If questions like these are not answered, then the hobgoblins of inconsistency will wreak havoc on your gameworld, destroying the illusion that this is could be a real world. Then our emotive and experiential link with this world is slowly destroyed meaning that while we may like its superficial elements, the depth of it will be lost. What price victory? or "We had to kill 'em to save 'em" Perhaps my greatest divergence lay in my beliefs about what constitues victory. In strategy or wargaming, often it's very simple; he who wins the war wins. In roleplaying, it can be a bit more cloudy. But when designing a game, the concept of victory should be foremost on the designer's list, afterall, without defining what victory is, how can one introduce any semblance of balance or know what is required to achieve victory? And within this lay a second, shadowy problem. The notion of "play balance". Without play balance, conditions for victory are rather meaningless aren't they? At least this seems to be the reasoning for many designers thinking. But I've challenged this idea by considering why we need balance in the first place. For some, the obvious answer is to make things fair. But why do we make things fair? In order to make the possibilities of victory even for everyone. Perhaps it's just me, but I see a bit of circular reasoning here. We need victory conditions. In order to have fair victory conditions, we have to introduce play balance. When we have play balance, victory conditions can be set, or so the logic goes. For me, balance exists for a competitive mindset. A mindset in which the ultimate purpose to play a game is to win. As I noted in the first section in GamePhilosophy, this is not my intent. My intent is to get across an experience to the player, including perhaps the experience of loss and sacrifice which can not be achieved through physical victory. In other words, the game designer can not come up with the victory conditions...instead the player himself must. By the actions he chooses, and how the player internally responds to the events, the player creates his own victory conditions. In my mind, there is only one good way to allow the player to create his own victory conditions. Some designers feel that interactivity and its sidekick freedom of choice allow this. I think however that the genesis of player choice comes not from game designer given control of a protagonist, but rather information. This information provides the nucleus from which the player, if he carefully considers this information, is allowed to make up his own mind. This is why fixed linear storytelling has fixated humanity for eons. By allowing the player enough information to absorb himself into the happenings of the fictional world, he is (subconsciously) able to decide on his own value system. As an interesting aside, the careful selection of information is how manipulation of choice and thinking begins (think propaganda or zealotry). While freedom of choice and interactivity go hand in hand, information and questioning are constant partners. If players are unwilling to question and to think for themselves, then such open-endedness in game balancing will be lost on them, for you could toss all the pertinent information you wanted and they would never see between the lines. While this idea is already prevalent in paper and pen based roleplaying games, the idea has not spread to other genres of games. Some may see this alternative victory condition in roleplaying to be inherently subjective, but not in something like a wargame which is inherently objective (either you win the war or you don't). But think of it this way...what if the means do not justify the end? What if in order to win you had to burn down towns full of innocent civillians? In other words, victory conditions must always be embedded within a context, and this context can only be presented by proper information. Leave out too much info, and the player must simplify his decisions which can create a very one-dimensional feeling. Razor's Edge So balancing itself can influence victory conditions but this in turn can lead us to a very objective mentality in which victory is determined like a scoreboard. This same thinking can apply from the macro level to the micro level as well. In strategy games it is often very convenient to make units cost a certain amount of points. The trouble lay in how one arrives at the value of a unit. Is the value based on how powerful the unit is? Or is the value determined by how difficult it is to manufacture or produce? My personal belief is that valuing items based on their perceived worth in battle is asking for problems. The problem lay in the fact that a unit's effectiveness is usually very environmentally dependant. For example, a unit with powerful longed range weapons that can target both land and air based enemies will be very powerful in wide open spaces...but next to useless in thick dense vegetation terrain. So what price is this unit worth now? Moreover, some units individually may be worthless, but when combined be very powerful. The point is that the combined effectiveness of an armed force is more than the sum of its parts. In roleplaying games, it is very common to see points-based character creation systems. Back in the dark ages of roleplaying, most games required the player to roll their attributes. Of course, the experienced GM was never too surprised to see an 18 (out of a possible 3d6) roll, on at least one of the 5 or 6 attributes, and usually no attribute lower than a 9....unless the GM made the player roll in front of him("Damn George, I've never seen anyone roll 7 one's out of 10 dice before....that sucks for you"). Not only was chance seen as something usually unfavorable because you never knew what you were going to get, it also meant that the player didn't get to play a character that his vision of what the player could do. So RPG's slowly started going the "Design your character" route. Unfortunately, this too has the same problem as the valuing of units in strategy games. The purpose of Character design was to create a fairness for all starting players as well as to give a rough estimate as to the power levels between characters. A 200 point character should be roughly twice as powerful as a 100 point character right? Well, it never really works out this way...again due to the contextual "worth" of a given system. So how does one reconcile being fair with also trying to come up with some sort of valuation system? The simple answer is....don't worry about it. But this requires a level of maturity and understanding on behalf of all the players, which usually isn't possible. So my game philosophy is very concerned with creating things which have a logical consistency to them which makes sense both in the value of a thing, as well as the very design of a thing. Can I get fries with that? In the real world, all things are created based upon certain laws or rules. This is true whether you talk of people, or of material things. In inanimate or material goods, the laws of physics and economy usually dictate what an object is capable of doing, and how hard it is to produce. For example, no matter how much money you put into research and development, a gun can have only so much power for a given weight. Unfortunately, many game systems allow no such restrictions...they simply allow the designer to create the intended effect, and then base both the subjective value of a thing, as well as its objective cost (in game terms) on very abstract sets of rules. Moreover, this applies not just to inanimate things like weapons or vehicles, but also to people themselves. Would it make sense to have a character in a medieval setting be allowed to be literate or own a sword? Would it make sense for a character created in today's setting be allowed the skill of using military anti-tank weapons, and yet never have served in the military (or been a terrorist)? And yet, these sort of loopholes can only be plugged up by the common mantra of gaming, "use your common sense". While no game system can account for every possibility, I firmly believe that the more a game system requires the GM to weed out inconsistencies and implausibilities, the weaker the design is. Therefore, my game philosophy is geared for the creation of things which are constraint-based. As I discussed earlier, causality is important in my game modeling. Understanding how an effect is achieved and accounting for it creates more consistent and believable results. Using a heavier dose of physics to create material goods along with some simple economic rules creates designs which require forethought and strong concept design. Using the principles of psychology, sociology, history and cultural study, it is easier to create fully fleshed out characters that feel real, both in terms of their capabilities, background, skills, knowledge and posessions. Pass that by me again? In the end, I am concerned mostly about creating the attention to detail that creates a sense of immersion and connection with the setting. The rules exist as a constraint system that does most of the job of adjudication and arbitration for the GM. The rules system should also provide insight into the causality of events so that the players can try to manipulate to the best of their ability, the events that they can control to maximize their effectiveness. This includes behavior from large scale battles with thousands or troops, to the individual level where even one's principles and personality are subject to scrutiny. And lastly, there must be a bounty of well defined, purposeful information to provide the backdrop for the game environment. Everything exists within a context and without the context it's very difficult to get the full picture about anything.

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Interesting concepts.

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For me, balance exists for a competitive mindset.


Well, there's also the balance inherent in game difficulty. Make the game too hard, and few people will be good enough at it to see much of your pretty little gameworld. Make it too easy, and people will snore through most of it. This is a tough issue with some types of games. Take Tak 2 (gamecube). My mom struggled through most of it, punctuated with swearing and lots of electronic death screams. And yet a lot of people seem to think it's an easy game. So while to my mom it sat in the "barely doable" spot on the spectrum, many others didn't get the satisfaction of FINALLY getting past point X, because they did it right the first time.

Considering that each person has different abilities to get through certain types of games, each designer is going to have their own ideas about this. Hudson Soft made a lot of what I considered to be evilly hard NES games (Milon's Secret Castle, for instance), but I guess they were better at that sort of game and didn't even think how it'd affect us of the reflex-challenged camp. On the other hand, I've rarely found an RPG that I consider hard. It doesn't matter whether it's the 4 element dudes in FF2 or the 4 Sinistrals in the Lufia games...I generally get through the battles without any of my guys dying or even breaking a sweat, and yet I watch others play through these parts and die over and over and over again.

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My intent is to get across an experience to the player, including perhaps the experience of loss and sacrifice which can not be achieved through physical victory.


In some instances, this could be great. "Well gee, I finished the RPG and killed the evil Jikauna, but all my friends are dead. Oops." Taken to extremes, it could suck massively though. "You mean I just wasted 80 hours on this game just so I could be totally defeated by overwhelming odds? Why did I waste my money on this crap?"

The simple fact is, people are used to winning. Or at least trying to. Give them seemingly insurmountable odds, and they'll still assume there's a way to win. It's all there, right in Star Wars. A small group of people goes up against a mighty empire, and they still manage to win in the end. Of course, some RPG's have implemented the "unwinnable minor boss fight" where no matter what you do you can't kill the bad guy. And players generally whine about it. I personally don't mind it too much, but most people are far too competitive for my tastes.

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But this requires a level of maturity and understanding on behalf of all the players, which usually isn't possible.


Case in point: Universalis. A GM-less cooperative storytelling game in which the players have the final say about everything, including their own "victory" conditions. Victory in this game is basically coming up with a story that all players like. Most of the rules that exist are tailored towards rewarding mature behavior, i.e. not running around killing off every guy a certain player creates for no apparent reason. Sure you *can* do it, but that leaves you with too few Coins to make the story go where you want it to, not to mention pissing off the other players and maybe making them gang up on you next time you throw in a Complication or toss out a Challenge. All the accounts of games I've seen on the game's website seem to have really mature players...people who don't try to be the winner, people who value the interestingness of the story created more than how many of the things they created survive in their original form.

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Would it make sense to have a character in a medieval setting be allowed to be literate or own a sword?


It depends on the logic of the gameworld. As long as something makes sense in the context of the gameworld, does it matter whether it's realistic in the real world? We're going back to consistency here. I mean, old cartoons are anything but realistic, but they were consistent. Every time you saw the Roadrunner lure the Coyote into falling off a cliff, you knew he was gonna stand there in midair for a minute looking confused, then fall like a stone and splat in a variety of cool ways. And you knew he'd never actually die, and he'd never give up despite the fact that he never really accomplished anything. So yes, maybe in my world it *is* realistic for a medieval type guy to be literate and own a sword. The problem is when you make a world where it's illegal for peasants to be literate, and then make sure all the interesting chars can read. (Not to mention the futility of having road signs with words on them in a mostly illiterate society. :P)

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I've seen Universalis mentioned several times on Indie-rpgs.com, but for some reason, the concept doesn't appeal to me. I think that communal storytelling usually isn't as powerful as having one voice provide direction for the story flow. Now, communal storytelling can be very interesting (and funny) in some regards, but to me, it's like the old saying, "too many cooks in the kitchen....". While too many GM's get the notion of "Godhood" get to their head, at least this form of abuse is easy to spot.


Getting to balance issues, the main thrust of my point here was in RTS game balancing issues. While you are correct that there is definitely a playability issue at stake, the big design consideration in strategy games is how to provide play balance through deciding how powerful certain elements can and should be. Then there's the matter of victory conditions that I went into. But you bring up a valid point. Deciding on how playable a game is will firmly impress on the player what kind of experience he will receive. Too difficult, and the player will feel the game is either cheating or is a waste of time. Too easy, and the game won't evoke the proper level of emotional or mental stimulus.

About the medieval literate comment, I was thinking about a serf when I wrote that. Obviously if one belonged to the clergy or nobility, then one's chances of being literate go up. But that just reinforces my point that you have to put everything into context. In "design your own character/unit" type of games, they almost never take into consideration the background of the world in deciding how to create the objects. So you wind up with things that don't make sense when you relate to the rest of the world.

How many times have you read or watched something and at some point something happens and you think in your head, "yeah...riiight". To me, nothing kills a sense of immersion and hence the experience more quickly than this realization. Now every person will have different levels at which their suspension of disbelief dies, and hence, you have to cater your game world to the kind of audience that you want to grab. Many people lament the fact that there are few mature oriented games out there, and the reason is simple. Cater to the lowest common denominator. By doing so, a designer can bank on appealing to more visceral elements, but in so doing, often also kills the suspension of disbelief in the process.

So I think it's crucuial for a game designer to think about what audience he is appealing to. This in turn will set most of the informational context of the game world. From this context, the development team can actually go about creating the actual game.

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Original post by Dauntless
Reality blows. Doesn't it?
Here I'd like to point to my own proclivity in game design. When faced with a choice between realism or dramatic flair, I've chosen realism. Why? Because to me, realism in its own way provides a distinct drama. The trick is in culling those things which tend to bog down gameplay that have too little to offer to the end result compared to the time required to do them. So on one hand, some may find trying to sort out supply routes as boring and tedious and dull. But this is because they think that the time invested in detailing these issues is not concordant with the impact these details have on the outcome. And this is where I disagree and believe that realism becomes its own reward. There's a saying that has always intrigued, "God is in the details". I believe it is precisely because too many elements have been abstracted out for fear of the realistic details being too tedious that players now have a misconception of what the principles of warfare or other complex events are all about. The other misconception is that how something happens isn't as important as what happents. This leads to the notion that causality isn't as important as effect. I've seen a new style of gaming in which the details of conflict is abstracted to this degree. I think this is a dangerous path to tread, for it is only when we understand why events have occurred that we truly begin to understand the world around us. In other words, the journey is just as important if not more so than the destination.


Reading this reminded me of this article: The Perils of Bottom Up Game Design.

I agree with you to some extent, but I'm inclined to think that rather than going for all out realism, carefully choosing different abstractions that bear more resemblance to reality is a better approach - and a more practical one, in terms of implementation.

There's more to it than protecting the player from tedious details. There's also the issue of avoiding overwhelming him with things to worry about, and/or then taking the game away from him with AI managers.

MOO3 is a classic example of this. The game was so intricately complex and detailed, that not only did the developers have to cut massive amounts of complexity to meet their deadline, they also found there was simply too much for people to manage. So they implemented AI managers which, quite simply, play the game for you. With or without the AI managers, the game was no fun.

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[i]But I've challenged this idea by considering why we need balance in the first place. For some, the obvious answer is to make things fair.


A less obvious perhaps, but in my opinion more important answer: To make things interesting.

Of course, perfect numerical balance is not required to make things interesting. In fact, I'm inclined to agree that making powerful stuff take longer and cost more isn't all that interesting anyway. But that does not mean it should be considered completely equivalent to the crap stuff. If however, you can get the player to consider the better units/items/whatever as a genuinely valuable resource, then perhaps he will naturally be a bit more sparing with his use of them. The interesting choice comes in: Do I risk using (and losing) my best stuff, but give myself a greater chance of victory, or do I reduce my chances of success but also reduce my overall losses by throwing in my crap? Or is there some happy medium inbetween?

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A 200 point character should be roughly twice as powerful as a 100 point character right? Well, it never really works out this way...again due to the contextual "worth" of a given system. So how does one reconcile being fair with also trying to come up with some sort of valuation system?


I don't think this is necessarily true. The points system gives all players the same opportunity to create equally 'powerful' characters (according whatever value system 'power' is judged) Thus the creation system is 'fair' even if the characters created by it are not necessarily equally 'powerful'.

I don't particularly care for the points system, but I don't think it is necessarily a bad system for character generation.

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Can I get fries with that?
Would it make sense to have a character in a medieval setting be allowed to be literate or own a sword? Would it make sense for a character created in today's setting be allowed the skill of using military anti-tank weapons, and yet never have served in the military (or been a terrorist)? And yet, these sort of loopholes can only be plugged up by the common mantra of gaming, "use your common sense". While no game system can account for every possibility, I firmly believe that the more a game system requires the GM to weed out inconsistencies and implausibilities, the weaker the design is.


The problem here may well lie in the communication of the context to the player.

Everyone has their own ideas about what might be valid in a fantasy or sci fi world. In some, dragons might be as common as muck, everyone and their dog can cast spells, everyone can read and write in fifteen different languages, elves dwarves and humans all live together in harmony cities and fight the evil forces of the Orks and the Goblins. In others, humans dominate the world, elves and dwarves and dragons are so rare that most people don't even believe they exist, magic is so rare and complex that even the lamest apprentice is looked upon with great respect and wonder - and fear. Even reading and writing are considered incredibly rare and valuable.

In order to enable players to make intelligent, context sensitive decisions about their character creation, you need to communicate to them where between these two extremes the fantasy world you've designed is supposed to lie - or else let them decide for themselves. To do that might require a fair bit of background reading on their part.

Of course, there's no real reason why contextual restraints could not be programmed in, except for the potential complexity of implementing it. You'd still want to provide plenty of background so they understant why those constraints exist.

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