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Intermission: Geldon’s Three Pillars of Game Design

Whether it’s my recent diet (I’ve lost about 10 pounds in a week and a half) or playing with BYOND coding, my mental engine has been supercharged lately. A chart reflecting my mental state right now looks something like this:
Geldon's Thought to Spam Index Graph

Regardless of the cause, today I’m forcing myself to take a break from BYOND coding in order to put some serious thought into what kind of game I’ll be developing. The thing is, while I was thinking about what game I was going to develop, I came to realize what standards I hold in terms of game design. This is basically a warm-up exercise for me, but you might find what I came up interesting.

  1. The game must be fun.

    What is fun? If that doesn’t seem like a deep question for you, stop and think about it a bit. The question for a game designer isn’t what fun feels like, the question for a game designer is how can I create that feeling in my players? I don’t think anyone’s mastered the art of generating fun, the best we have in theories.

    The best book I have on my shelf on the matter is Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun. There, fun is examined as primordial force, with the find conclusion being that fun results from being genuinely engaged in a learning process.

    Another nice theory on fun is Xinghan Chen’s flow theory. This is basic realization that fun in games results when the game is neither too hard nor too easy. When you hit the “sweet spot,” you’ve got “flow.”

    Example: Lately, I’ve been pretty enthralled with BYOND Dream Maker. It’s not a game, so clearly that alone was not generating fun. Instead, it’s just an activity that hits that ‘sweet spot’ of learning for me, producing results often enough to be satisfying, yet not being so easy that I’m bored of it.

    Because generating of fun is hardly a complete science, a good game designer shouldn’t take fun for granted. They need to critically think about why their games are supposed to be fun, an recognize when results aren’t being met. There may be whole new kinds of fun, waiting to be discovered by the game artist who goes that extra mile.
  2. Long-term games must change over time.

    Whether you side with Raph Koster’s theory or just flow in general, they point out that any given game eventually stops being fun. This general consensus is that this is because the player’s skills outgrow the challenge offered by the game. Your players are learning creatures that can and will adapt over time to your game.

    For the most part, this is not so much a problem: if that’s all you have to show, let the audience go home – what do you care, they’ve already paid the price of admission. However, in a subscription-model game (such as an MMORPG) the admission is paid on a monthly basis. The common result is a mechanic that tries to force the player to stay even when the flow is gone. Players often describe this as “the grind.”

    Let me take a moment to point out just how bad grinds are. People don’t want to play grinds, to the point where they’re willing to pay others to play grinds for them or program their computer to do it for them. Where economic incentive exists, so also does crime. A grind bears all the earmarks of genuine human suffering. This is the opposite of what a game is supposed to be generating!

    If you can’t trust players to stop playing when your game no longer entertains, you’re going to have to take matters into your own hands. Along these lines, I recommend that your game needs to do is change over time. This is the realm of dynamic content.

    In a MMORPG, dynamic content is typically considered, “content generated by the players, PvP events, and so on.” That’s a start, but there’s more to harnessing the power of dynamic content, and it could be found when I’m playing my average MMORPG.

    Example: “I’m playing a level 40 character and those levels are coming slower than usual. I don’t get many new abilities anymore, but instead have to work on mastering my existing abilities. This lasts a few hours of play, but the vast majority of time I’ve already mastered my character and am just killing monsters because I have to. I’m feeling the grind, now.
    Eventually, I get frustrated and quit, and start flaming the developers on their very own forum. I cancel my subscription to the game and think I’m free of it. Then, three months later, I hear that there’s been some major changes done that I just have to try out. Just when I thought I was out, they fished me back in – why is that?! At least on a subconscious level, it’s because I think change has introduced something new to master. (Of course, I may be bitterly disappointed to discover it did not.)”

    The ideal utilization of dynamic content is not to make the game world change over time — I’m not saying that’s a bad thing (static worlds are less realistic) but it has nothing to do with sustaining the fun. The actual goal is to keep the game challenged enough to maintain the flow Thus, the best utilization of dynamic content is to give the player more to learn over time as needed. This is the exact kind of changing that long-term games need to offer.
  3. In making the game marketable, do not diminish the fun.

    This is not because I’m a “games are art” style game designer, who thinks it’s a travesty when an artist is asked to make their work stupider for the masses. (I am a “games are art” style designer, but that’s not the reason why I believe this “pillar” works!)

    Instead, I believe that games that dumb themselves down in the name of marketing success do so on false premises. For the game designer, the mental process of trying to make a game that suits a market segment is pure delusion: You invent an imaginary friend called a “casual gamer,” decide what your imaginary friend likes to play, and develop a game that would please them. The result is a game that truly pleases no-one but your imaginary friend.

    It’s attempting mind-reading. Despite what powers of intuition you may think you have, chances are the only mind you can read enough to base a game on is your own. Use that: make a game you would want to play. That’s a far safer bet than trying to understand the mythical “casual gamer.”

    Yet, maybe you’ve some data that strongly suggests that the game you would want to play isn’t what would sell. So, some kind of compromise is needed. How to get around that? A change in perspective: Do not think selling your game as trying to guess what someone else would enjoy and make a game to please them. Instead, think of selling your game as making it presentable enough for someone to try your game.

    If it’s a good game, the person who tries your game is likely to be willing to buy it. This works on a daring premise that, while players’ tastes will vary, a good enough game will change their tastes accordingly. So your role is to make the best game you know how to play — a game you know you would enjoy — and then adapting the presentation in such a way that it’s receptive to the people you expect to sell the game to.

    Diner Dash screenshot.
    “The “flow” in Diner Dash is solid: move objects where they need to be at the right time, with a random element necessitating watching for visual queues as to when that right time is. It engages the mind of the player and promotes learning, therefore it is fun. However, you’ll have a hard time marketing what is essentially moving dots from column to column.

    To compensate, they adapt a market-friendly presentation. The back story of a main character perhaps-not-coincidentally-named ‘Flo’ working hard in a restaurant to serve the customers (us), along with friendly graphics and an accessible interface, is integrated. The core ‘flow’ mechanic remains untouched, but now we’ve got something that marketing doesn’t need to work nearly as hard to market.“

    Consider this: I mentioned I liked Diner Dash, and now maybe you’ll give it a try. Once you try it, you’ll probably like it, and now you are a conduit in which you can recommend the game to friends.  What do you do when you’re considering playing a game but don’t want to try it? Exactly: ask a friend who has.

    Word-of-mouth remains one of the best (if not the best) influence(s) on if something sells. This is a quality that the game designer is largely responsible for. If the core “fun” of the game was compromised to make the game more marketable, you’re less likely to enjoy the game, and less likely to recommend it to others.

    Inventing a game you know you’ll enjoy and dressing it appropriately seems like a much better approach than trying to design a game only your imaginary “casual gamer” friend would enjoy. If you’ve never enjoyed games to start with, maybe you’re not cut out to a game designer – it’s like a musician who can’t hum a tune. (Granted, judging by some music these days, that doesn’t seem to be as much an impediment to their market success as you’d think.)

As I said, this was a warm-up for me. There might have been more pillars, but three pillars is enough. It sounds like I’ve a full day’s work already!

I would like to end on this note, however: Above all, make a game that you would enjoy playing. This isn’t just for the reasons outlined in pillar 3. It’s because you may well not have the motivation to pull through if the game you’re making bores you. (Well, maybe if you were getting paid for it… but that kind of motivation won’t neccessarily generate a game I have a chance to enjoy, now will it?)
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