Game Design Philosophy Guidelines.

This isn’t so much a ruleset and several thoughts i’ve accumulated over the years as I consider the prospect of being a game designer.

This is more like the underlying fundamentals that I begin with as I think up game designs and begin to write more game design documents. Apart from the other stuff I’ve learnt such as the Mechanics / Dynamics / Aesthetic triptych, this is more an ongoing philosophy I’m building as I think about games. It’s mutable as I learn more, discuss more and get feedback, but I think it’s a good framework to consider when thinking of games and the stories I can tell with those games.


1> Games are a series of interesting decision. – Soren Johnson.

Games are a unique interactive medium. Making decisions is the method in which the game engages the player into its system. These decisions can range from anywhere between risk vs reward scenario, what to do next, where to go. The player is essentially trading time for a sense of reward in the game, and that sense of reward derives from making the right decisions at moments in the game. I don’t think this means that all decisions have to be big, hugely consequential decisions, just that those decisions are well defined within the context of the game and clear about the general outcome, if not the entire outcome.

We have to make decisions in games, that how we interact with them. If it’s just instinctual rote activity, the game becomes boring. WoW, for instance, has a fairly rote pattern of skill use after some time. Playing as such renders the game boring to all but the most masochist of players. But ask any wow fan, and they don’t cite the combat system as why they play. The decisions to be made in Wow is the efficient use of time to get the best gear, through whichever points are in vogue. The combat is just a method in which to get there. The skills are not the interesting decisions, it where to do with those skills that’s the interesting bit. Games without any interesting decisions are less interactive, because there’s little for the player to be engaged with.

These decisions also lead me to the second point; in the process of considering these decisions, players should be frustrated a little, because …

2> Games are the art of enjoyable frustration. – Andrew P. Mayer

Gamers want to be challenged. That’s not that controversial a statement when we realize the appetite for challenge differs among people. Some are content to be challenged with the concept of time, simply figuring the most efficient amounts of click to get to get  a sense of rewards, (i.e. Facebook games, Diablo). The frustration lies in the sense of time they’re fighting against. Others prefer a more mental challenge, or an uncompromising system that punishes minute mistakes, (i.e. Starcraft, Demon’s Soul) Games as enjoyable frustration demonstrate a safe environment in which we can conquer challenges and thus feel in control of our situations. It’s that rewarding feeling of beating a challenge that often more enjoyable than just a series of activities. The frustration comes in trying to beat the challenge.

Frustration isn’t about battling horrible UI, or poorly implemented design decisions, it’s about finding a careful balancing act between not giving players that easy a time such that they feel they’re wasting it, and enough of a leeway, and an idea on how to beat the challenge. This frustration is important, because it’s a key part of how players experience the game, and a key part of how they tell themselves they’ve conquered a particular game. That’s their personal narrative, which leads to…

3> The player’s narrative is more important than the game’s narrative

The stories we best remember are the ones that we can best relate to. In games, this often means the stories of what happened to us.

This doesn’t mean games can’t tell a story, it simply means that games are much better at making players feel as if it’s their story, not that they are watching someone else’s. Games can often provide the narrative tools in which players form their own stories. In civilization, it’s how your civilization rose up from the ancient age to conquer the world, in starcraft, it’s how you fended off the zerg rush and pounded your opponent with mass reapers. When we can insert our own imagination into the story, when the game supports our telling of tale, we can identify with the game better.

What’s difficult is getting the players to relate to that story. Supposing I want to tell a story that more epic, that touches of much greater ideals than good versus bad, or corporations are corrupt, and aliens are evil. It’s tougher to get an audience to relate to material they may not always be familiar with. Hegelian dialetics is more often than not going to fly over the heads of the average gamer, but yet seems to be one of the core tenets of Fallout: New Vegas. Similarly, Planescape explored the existential anguish of a man who has lived a thousand lives. Which of us gets a chance to do so.

What game can do is present it in the form of the player’s story, yet still introducing the player to these ideals, through whichever narrative tool a game has at its disposal.* Games are suited to this, we have an enraptured audience when the game is good. We can take the time to explore some concepts, because …

4> Games don’t need to say something, but they should be about something

This one is more a refutation of Richard’s Bartel’s original assertion that games must say something. I don’t games can say anything in particular. By the nature of their interactivity, they can say multiple things about a single subject. Games, unique to any other medium can react to the player’s input, and thus create branching paths, multiple outcomes, and various story threads. It isn’t limited to a linear narrative.

This is a semantic argument, as I’m not saying games can’t say anything, but that they can say multiple things on a single subject. Essentially, be about something, but be about the multiple perspective on a subject. Take for instance Brenda Brathwaite’s Train. The game itself doesn’t say anything. As a collection of mechanics, sans the knowledge of its reason, it’s a fairly simple game about transporting resources. The game doesn’t really say anything until it’s designer mentions what its about.

In other words, “art reflects the spectator, not the artist.”

Stray Thoughts

*- I should probably try and categorize some ways in which games can tell stories. Cutscenes are a perennial favourite, as is the level mise-en-scene. But I’m fairly certain that it’s worthwhile to sit down and think about some other ways in which games present a story from the designers point of view, and contrast it when it’s a more player owned story. Maybe that’s a series of posts I can begin.

– There’s always the case of a lot of this stuff sounded more awesome in my head than when I actually wrote them out. Maybe I really should be writing this late at night, when I’m not neurotic about my word choices.

– Interesting decisions tend to be a huge umbrella. Solving puzzles are composed of interesting decisions. What if I were to do this there, etc. The decisions are always what do I do, what can I do, and what tools do I have to do it.


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