The seven constants of game design, part one – TechCrunch
Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly writes a regular column on all things video games for TechCrunch. He is a games industry consultant, freelance designer and creator of a leading design blog. What are the games. You can follow him on Twitter here.
There are endless paintings, but also a more finite sense of what is a great painting versus what isn’t. Likewise, there are endless games, but also a sense of what works and what doesn’t. The unlimited space of video games is delimited and their unlimited possibilities have limits. There are, it seems, rules to game design.
“Creative Constant” is a term I use to describe these rules. These are the fundamental pragmatic realities, describing form, that we designers face. I call them constants rather than limits because limits sound like arbitrary rules meant to be broken. Don’t get me wrong: there are certainly plenty of arbitrary rules around video games waiting to be torn down, especially genre conventions. However, the constants are different.
A constant is an ever-present factor, a boundary in some respects but also a pillar. The maximum speed of light (vs) is a constant, for example, whose effects are felt throughout the universe. vs seems to imply that traveling to other stars will be harder than just building a faster spacecraft, but it also plays a role in translating mass into energy, relativistic interactions and so on. Our knowledge of vs contributed to the development of the most modern technology.
Constants exist outside of our ability to affect them directly, so it’s up to us creators to figure out how to use them. In the realm of gaming, it may seem that the first and most obvious constant is “platforming”. Platform constraints are often primary considerations in the development of any game (from control paradigm to supported business models and user demographics), but they are also changeable. What holds us back today won’t tomorrow (and vice versa) and so platforms are always moving targets. They are therefore not constant.
Similarly, it is tempting to identify “the player” as a constant, because of course games are always being played and therefore we must always think of the player. True, but not specific. Most game design constants relate to the psychology of the game, the way players think and see, but they need to be separated to be meaningfully discussed. Ditto ideas to do with “the public”, “the market” or “the rules”. These are all part of the game-making landscape, but are too variable or general.
After thinking about it for a while, I think there are seven constants in game design that you can’t escape, but can play with to create a powerful game.
In an older version of this idea, I used to say “fun” was the first constant, but fun is a fuzzy word for a lot of people to analyze, and for new wave game designers, it’s a stupid limit. To play a game like dys4ia it’s not for fun as such, but it still has a little something. I realized later that what I really meant was “fascination”.
I often meet game designers who want to avoid systems. Dice rolls, rules and numbers all seem so boring, so mechanical and so mathematical when what the designer wants to create is emotion, story and meaning. So she goes out and creates experience-driven games full of interaction with no system or light on the interaction (like games don’ts) and gets a cold reception. “Walking around is fine,” players say, “but where’s the gameplay?”
The players are right. The lack of interesting logic, gears and levers, numbers, operations and mechanics gives games a short half-life. They might be nice to play with for an hour or two, but they don’t last. Within the critical community this may not necessarily be a deal breaker (often looking at games as part of a conversation about the arts), but outside of this group it is quickly run into difficulties.
A game should be fascinating. It needs active, economical mechanics that bounce off each other to create the illusion of a dynamic problem. Whether it’s a massively complex simulation like you’ll find in City Sim 5, the elegant rules of a sport or the rudimentary puzzle solving of adventure games, compelling systems are one of the key vectors that attract players and keep them engaged. Then when you engage them, you can bring the emotion. But he doesn’t survive well on his own.
The difference between a perfect game and an imperfect game is the quality of information players know. Chess, for example, is a perfect game because all its pieces are on the board, the players know all the rules, and therefore all the possible moves. Poker, on the other hand, is an imperfect game. Players know the rules but they don’t know who has what cards at any given time. They have to guess.
All video games are imperfect, even those that appear otherwise (like computerized versions of chess). Indeed, in all cases, the player is playing with a black box of code whose exact rules and operations are unknowable. The game enforces the rules according to its own hidden structure, usually without telling the player how it works. Thus, the player plays the game as much to discover what he is doing as to master doing it, while the game asks the player for confidence. This has many curious side effects.
The first is that players become very sensitive to fair play. In sports, fairness issues often arise between players (such as low level cheating in football which is considered a legitimate part of the game), but in video games players often have a problem with the system itself. -same. They think a game is unfair to them, for example, when the developers know it isn’t. They perceive imaginary slights where none exist and even view fixes that break the balance in their favor (like increasing loot rates) as fixing “broken” gameplay.
Another is the sense of a world behind the game. Part of the reason video games are so compelling as narrative experiences for some people is the sense that it has hidden layers. Players often assign character and personality to non-player characters (and sometimes even objects) that are not actually in-game due to their flawed interpretations of information. They come to believe that the world of Hyrule is bigger than they realize, and urban myths spread about ways to unlock their hidden secrets. They see the scribble of “The Cake Is A Lie” on the wall of Portal and imagine a whole story behind it, regardless of what the game designers had planned.
Imperfect information is a wonderful constant. Video games can be played with confidence, they can be scary, wonderful or magical precisely because we never know what is really going on beneath their surface. As a designer, you still have the power to impress players because of this.
Every day, we humans deal with tens of thousands of sensory inputs, from the noise of traffic outside our windows to the music from the movies we watch, the conversations we have with coworkers, or the flavor of beer. which we appreciate. In all this information there are threats to our survival, degrees of urgency and attention, lower order information that does not need to be memorized and other data that is of a great importance.
As such, one of the crucial skills we’re developing is aggressively filtering input so we can focus on what matters most. To use a computer analogy, your multi-core brain may be working on problems, thinking about relationships, or lazily dreaming, but at least one of your cores still acts as your filter. You don’t get killed at crosswalks because your filter pays attention to oncoming traffic and interrupts your other thoughts to say “Hey, watch out!”. Even if we don’t like the distracting feeling of urgency, it saves our lives.
Games are unique among media in that they actively engage us. We interact with them and are fascinated by them. We also often play them with a sense of purpose. We can lose lives, fail, face daunting challenges and be unable to overcome them, all survival situations. Whether in the frenetic jumble of destinythe need to complete tasks to advance an adventure or the moment when there is only one coin left while playing a slot machine, games have a powerful relationship with urgency.
We expect it, and even need it. Games without some sense of urgency feel oddly flat, while those that deploy it are often the most engaging and emotional at the same time. But one of the side effects of urgency is that the more urgent the game becomes, the less attention we pay to the intricacies. We only rate on usefulness rather than importance, and this can be problematic for games with creative ambitions. Chekhov’s Pistol may work in a dramatic context, but in Loss a weapon is only a tool.
Urgency is the primary reason cinematic storytelling doesn’t work as well as it should in the video game context. Either the player is too busy to pay attention, or they are too engaged in the game to be interrupted by sections of the narrative. The story therefore finds itself in a dissonant relationship with the player. On the other hand, games that can play on that sense of urgency and use it to convey the situation without resorting to cinema often succeed. Whether in the slow boiling form of papers please or the tumult of left for deadoften the key to good storytelling in games is to lose the “telling”, and instead suggest, guess, throw seeds, and let the player find out for themselves.
(Next week, part two…)