Tuesday, June 7, 2011

the state of the industry, part IV: Design

You can probably tell by now I’m not an expert at anything concerning games. I’m just a regular guy who really enjoys them. Still, like any regular guy, I’m allowed to have opinions, passions, and curiosities that may drive me to do some pretty silly things. This whole series is one of them.

I haven’t really said anything that hasn’t been said before. I also haven’t said anything that hasn’t already been done before. With these two things in mind, it’s understandable then that a regular guy like me would get frustrated at the clear lack of thoughtfulness that goes into the execution of so many games. But that’s unfair. We all know that just because quality information (and products) exists, it doesn’t mean that all products will be produced with quality. It’s like how Timmy (that’d be me) takes 3 hours to do 30 derivatives while David (my brother) only takes 1. The difference isn’t in the information, it’s in the person.

Did I just say the world is full of dumb people?

Anyway. This week’s discussion is about Design. As always, before we begin, let’s relist the elements of the current thread to help people get caught up/familiarize themselves with what’s been said so far.

All caught up? Good. There’s no need to take too much time reading (or re-reading) the previous posts because to be honest, this one is a doozy. Design encompasses all of the preceding things under what I like to think of as the Grand Unifying Theory of Gaming. The motto is: “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

Wait. No. I mean it’s: “super omnes de signum”. Above all else, Design.

I love latin. It makes everything sound so much more…latin. One more time, with gravitas!

Design is the key to any endeavor. The quality of the design depends on vision, passion, and commitment. It’s a lot like love. I had an English tutor who used to tell us students, “if you do not understand this passage, you are not loving it enough,” emphasizing the “love” with this flourishing right hand and a harlequin gape (think: the mouth of the Scream mask). It was true, what he said. Love means passion and commitment, and a deep longing to realize (create) something substantial and long-lasting. It’s what drives the desire for a complete understanding of whatever it is we are working with.

A short disclaimer before we move into the next section: due to the extremely abstract nature of the angle which I’m approaching this at, I’m going to use mostly examples to illustrate the terms and concepts I’m talking about. Unfortunately, using concrete examples always lends itself to the possibility of what I call “Holey Arguments”, in that, because concrete examples are never perfect nor self-contained, using them to describe or explain abstract concepts will be inevitably flawed. All I ask of you then is that you try not to take whatever example I happen to use too far into the realm of specifics, and instead try to focus on understanding the concept I’m trying to illustrate rather than getting caught up in the quality of the example. (I’m not trying to make excuses for picking crappy examples. I’m just trying to cover my ass in a philosophical sense.)

Alright. First, we have to define exactly what the word Design means, and what it is we’re referring to when we use it. Design is:

·       An idea. Like Chris Hecker’s Spy Party, the design is the idea of pitting two unequal forces against each other and seeing who wins.
·       A mechanic. In Red Faction: Guerilla, nearly every mission completion requires utilizing your tools to demolish buildings/objects in the world.
·       A plan. In Flotilla, combat is the primary element, and is always conducted in a completely empty 3D space. The design is to allow the player to design a plan to defeat the enemy. This also refers level design.
·        A set of rules. Prescriptive statements/predetermined actions. The kind of rules that the player must follow when playing the game. Games like Fallout employ this type of design.
·       A set of limits. Descriptive statements/sandbox gameplay. The game sets boundaries or open-ended mechanics and the player plays with variations within those boundaries. The most recent and probably relevant examples of this are games like Minecraft and Terraria.

So you can immediately see from the examples I’ve chosen to describe each aspect of Design that I’ve already kind of lost a bit of specificity. Many of the elements of design appear in some degree in every game, but it is up to the developer/designer to decide what kind of balance she would like to strike when realizing that design. Here is where I really have to clear things up: A Design is a vision.

In the movie Inception, Cobb describes dream construction to Ariadne as the ability to reside in the space between creation and discovery. Having a vision is similar to this idea. It’s one thing to have an idea, but an idea coupled with an understanding of how to execute it on top of the perspective to refine it added together with the power to realize it is a vision. Nothing more, nothing less.

At this point, I would normally move on to discuss at length the common complaints of gamers about games today, but in the interest of time (and of the subject), I’m going to just focus more on what design is, which I think will give us a better understanding of what those common problems are and what we can do about them.

Designing games is actually an extremely complex exercise in anthropological, philosophical, and psychological techniques. In terms of anthropology, games are cultural vehicles: they transmit information, traditions, beliefs, customs, and worldviews. Philosophically, they are modes of thought: entire games from a certain perspective, or based off a certain assumption, or the logical progression of a certain idea. In psychological terms, they are manipulation devices: to suspend disbelief, to anticipate and respond to certain behaviors with both positive and negative reinforcement, and to teach players new behaviors through these mechanisms. These are the tools that a game designer has at their disposal when creating a game. At the same time, they must choose a center around which they will subsequently build their game. And this, my friends, is where the trouble comes in.

There are ever only two ways to create a game. The first, more traditional mode of creating games (in academic terms, since the creation of formal game studies) is to create system-centric games: in other words games which follow a strict set of rules that limit player behavior to that set of rules. Think traditional pen-and-paper games or board games. Games that you typically think of as “chance” games are traditional system-centric games. The second mode of creating games is a newer (although in anthropological terms older) focus, that of player-centric games: games where boundaries (not rules) are set and the players are let loose to play within those boundaries. They may perform unprescribed actions (i.e. things that the creator did not “intend” but that the boundaries allowed), or creative actions depending on the width of berth of these boundaries. Games that are typically described as “sandbox-style” or “emergent” fit this category.

If you’re perceptive (and I know you are!) you’ll see an immediate problem. Not any sort of logical or syllogistic problem, but a real-world one. Games, by virtue of the nature their creators and participants, are neither system- nor player-centric. They are always a combination of both. Some games are predominantly system-centric, so much so that it’s easy to categorize them as such, but in view of the participation of free agents (individuals not necessarily bound by the narrow rules, or capable of circumventing them by outsmarting the creator), they can be considered player-centric as well. And the creator must take into account these player-related factors, and in fact design a “space” large enough, in addition to the rules, for these individuals to play the game in, even if the game is intended to follow strict guidelines. At the same time, most player-centric games are actually well-defined systems with a limited number of possible actions, but with fewer predetermined consequences (prescriptive behaviors). In other words, even the sandbox is just sand, in a box.

The complaints and hangups that people tend to have about the quality of game design then is what I believe to be a confusion of the ideas of the designer and the expectation of the player. Note here that I won’t go in to the realm of crappy coding and shoddy porting, I’m talking about theoretically functioning games. And that makes up the majority of the games that make it to Market (both AAA and indie). Still, these are the games that people have problems with. 

When a player is disappointed in the lack of scope of a game, has the designer failed to provide a large enough space for their prescriptive action to occur in? When a player is eventually bored by the “lack of content” in a sandbox, has the designer failed to provide an adequate amount of possible actions for the player to perform? These two questions form the basis of hype words like “emergent”, “epic”, “substantial”, “mind-bending”, “action-packed”, and “time-sucking”, which in turn are the direct cause of player dissatisfaction during play.

We all want our games to be epic, emergent, substantial, and time-sucking. We want “immersive” gaming experiences and “cool” moments, but do we even know what they are? Do we even know how to experience them? The onus of these two questions actually falls on us, the player, to produce. The designer may facilitate it, but the amount of immersion and enjoyment you receive from a game is largely up to you. Why do you think children are so easily amused when they’re young? Are the rules of physics or biology or life any different at that age than our current one? No, but the perception is. So what exactly is the designer’s responsibility in the creation of the game experience? Here are my opinions:

  1. Game Space – adequate (not meaning adequate in player terms, but in design terms) material and room given to manipulate said material and room to the extent intended by the designer. If the intent is narrow, then the space may be narrow. If the intent is wide, then the space better be damn wide. Still, there must be Material and Space.
  2. Game Rules – logical (not necessarily real-world logical, but intra-system logical) rules and consequences for actions performed in the given space. The game space must have the quality of verisimilitude: having the quality of being believable. Notice this is not that the game must make sense objectively. It must make sense INTERNALLY, within the system. There must be a certain amount of predictability within the game so as to allow the player to feel like they are actually participating, as opposed to be tossed about by whims or chaos.
  3. Game Objectives – attainable (and this can vary from person to person, hence difficulty levels) goals with tangible rewards. Loot, levels, stats, cutscenes even. These can be used as markers for progression, and tie in to the idea of verisimilitude. These rewards and goals must also be linked in terms of their quality. Simple goals return simple rewards, difficult goals return greater rewards. Rewards must be tangible. Some people like to argue that mastery itself is a reward, but I argue that mastery is not a tangible, intra-system reward. It is assumed that it is possible to be reached, but to argue that it is something that should replace tangible ,intra-system rewards is pretty ridiculous. And also really snobbish and elitist.

If these three elements are executed correctly, I believe that players will find themselves quickly and easily sucked into the game. But we all know that this often is the case, and yet players remain unimpressed or unimmersed. There is a fly in the ointment.


The nature of the gaming industry (and other subjective entertainment products) is curiously saddled between two opposing interests: the interest of the audience vs. the investor. The producer (game developers) of the entertainment product must address both of these interests if they are to meet with financial and critical success, but a producer spread too thin will inevitably fail. Also, because of the opposite nature of these two interests, it places producer in a constant conflict-of-interest scenario: to create true game experiences that fulfill all three elements, and to create a product that sells as many units as possible.

In order to fulfill the three elements, the focus of the design must be razor-sharp. Unless one has infinite manpower and resources, this usually means the scope and scale of said game must be concomitant with said resources and manpower. As a result, limited scope and scale results directly in limited appeal. Limited appeal does not produce legion sales. This is the dilemma.

The solution so far has been hype. Hype pumps the features of a given game without a word to its inherent limitations. “No game can be everything, but this game is, I promise”.  Recent examples of these kinds of hype are Dragon Age 2, Mass Effect 2, Fallout 3, Terraria (I cite Terraria to bring up an important point: hype is not always generated by the media. It is often generated by the community). Hype fosters an environment of deceit and one-upmanship that I believe is detrimental to game development over all. No game will ever be the answer to all your prayers. They are incapable of it by their very nature.

So what’s my solution then? It comes in two parts: one for the players, and the other for the designers.

  1. Need to be educated – that’s right. I said it. I know, it’s unpopular to think that you need to know more about your hobby or something you really don’t take seriously so that you can enjoy it more, but it’s true and necessary for the survival of the hobby. And I guarantee you, if you really take the time to research not only the game you’re interested in, but its design, its intent, and what it is really meant to do, you’ll appreciate it more. Not less. So wait until that TotalBiscuit WTF video comes out before you make that leap. WAIT NO I MEAN WAIT FOR MY VIDEO REVIEW. Fudge!!
  2. Need to be open-minded – games are certainly about the players, but they are also about the creators. We can’t forget that when we play a game, we’re playing the creation of another human being. Perhaps this human being was under the thumb of a less caring, non-gaming related human being, but a human being nonetheless. And to that end we need to take their design and their circumstance into consideration before rendering judgment. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we should pay for and enjoy crappy games. But don’t go writing games and developers off until you know exactly what’s going on behind the scenes. Also, more on the point, we need to be willing to see where a game is trying to take us, as opposed to constantly trying to make a game play the way we want it to.
  3. Need to be honest – We need to be honest about what we want in a game. And it needs to be honest in the sense that it’s within the scope of what games are. We all know what games can and can’t do (by now, for those of us who’ve been around long enough doing these things), and we need to start being open about it. And when we ask for something more, we need to be more magnanimous about it, especially since we’re not the ones in the position of designing and creating them.

  1. Need to be focused – Make the game that you intended to make. Have a vision. Don’t just have a napkin or a single idea or a thought in your brain and then start making a game. Have a game planned out on paper, and then add the meat. Don’t change the game to fit the art, or the sound, or the story, or the whatever it is you’re thinking is cooler than your game. If you think something is cooler than the game you’re making to express that thing, then make THAT thing, not a game.
  2. Need to be smart – Think like a player. This is all about playtesting. Ideas are cool and ideas are good. Ideas are the start. But not all ideas work, even if they look good on paper. This means you need to go out and test your idea before actually going ahead and making it. And if the idea DOES fail, let it go and try a new idea. Also, when I say idea here I’m referring to execution of design, not the design idea. Usually, design ideas are all great (if they aren’t feasible it’s usually due to technological limitations or resource limitations, in which case, be more realistic or efficient), but it’s the execution of these ideas that are flawed. Playtesting allows you, as a designer to sharpen the design idea into something more concrete, playable, and accurate to the actual idea.
  3. Need to be honest – Honestly, tell us what the game is. Not what it could be or what it might be or what you hope it will be. What it is. If you have a real design that works and that makes sense and has been playtested (not FOCUS-tested! Don’t ask your players if it’s FUN, ask your players if it WORKS the way you intended), then it should be concrete enough to be described in words. So put it in words and put it in your press release instead of some BS about it being immersive and groundbreaking and having the coolest art in the world. This is game, and I am first and foremost going to PLAY it, not only watch and hear and read it. Be honest, what does the game PLAY like.

Anyway. If you made it this far I want to thank you for bearing with my ranting and raving about a topic that’s far more complex than I’ve given it credit for in this relatively short blog post. Hopefully, if you made it this far, you’ll have some opinions that you’d like to share on it, or simply a nod of affirmation (or head-shake of disagreement). I love feedback, and this is a topic I’m really interested in far beyond simply playing through these things. They are experiences, and not unlike life itself, can have meaning and insight into the way we interact and expect the world to react to us.

Thanks for reading!