Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Game Design Equation, Part 2

YOUR GAME = Desired Emotion / Experience + Mechanics + Theme/Setting

You're going to want a legal pad by your side when you go through this post. It's meaty.

Today we're going to explore game design at it's core, because in order to understand something, you have to get down to it's most basic unit. We can't talk science without atoms, we can't talk writing without words, and we can't gaming without emotion, mechanics and theme.

When you're designing a game, whether that's a card-trading game, or a board game or a structured tabletop RPG using licensed characters and cinematic plots or something home-brewed, there sits at the heart of it a desired experience. You want the players, and you (presumably as its first GM) have an experience in mind - you want your game to be a certain way, you want the time you spent playing to feel a certain way.

Part I: Desired Emotion & Experience
Because game design is a practical task, take that legal pad next to you and write down some words, concepts or phrases to describe this desired experience. Ask yourself the question, "How do I want the game to be?"

Maybe you've written down things like:

  • Fun and easy
  • just like [insert favorite movie title here]
  • fast-paced
  • my players want to do it again
You want to stay away from the mechanics and setting here, because we'll get to those next. For now, think only of the experience of people around the table while playing. The better you can detail this experience, the easier it is for you to put your finger on it, the more evocative and expressive the game will turn out. 

Add to this list, or in a second column, a list of emotions you want the players to experience while playing. This is just a list, you don't have to tie emotions to things you've already written. Do your best to have more 'player' feelings than 'GM' feelings, but don't exclude the GM side of play either. 

I should point out now that there's no 'wrong' length to any of the lists we'll create, and if you only have one item on it, that's fine, in time you can always expand it later. What matters is that you've put something down on paper. 

Your list may have things like:
  • excited during combat
  • nervous during suspense
  • happy to play at all
Now stop and congratulate yourself because you're one-third of the way done with the first draft of this game. Onto part 2.

Part II: Mechanics
Games can live and die by their mechanics, since it is lifeblood of play. Mechanics are the practical application of creative desire, and should be relatively codified in such a way as to answer basic questions and promote imagination about future issues. 

Basically - mechanics should be 'how' the things you want to do get done but they aren't meant to be everything to everyone. Remember that play is a collaborative event, and no game is ever going to be able to account for all the potential things a player can do (or not do, depending). No game should be a Swiss Army knife, constantly trying to do everything, as that sounds and feels desperate, like a child begging a parent to pay attention to them. Don't be a desperate designer. 

Likewise, don't swing the pendulum the other way and over-specialize. Your game might do one thing well, it may have one or two strong building blocks at the base, but by no means is your game just about the rolling of dice or the playing of one specific card in one specific context is it? Yes, the game can be driven/railroaded towards that situation time and again, but there's a decided lack of emotion and fun in always going back to rolling that die just because it's the only part of the game that you know works. 

When talking and thinking about your game, those elements you get really excited about, or the ideas you want other people to be excited about should have mechanics. Also, if your game is "about" something, that "about"ness should be mechanized too. It's really hard to have a game where players are police who catch robbers if there's no way for them to find and/or catch robbers. 

But how much is too much? Does EVERYTHING need a rule? No. You have to let the game be collaborative, remember? You have to trust those GMs and players to take what you've given them, and use it their way...so long as their way doesn't absolute ruin your intention...but if it does, so what? You cannot ultimately control that. All you can do is provide them a skeleton with some meat on the bones, and it's up to them to Frankenstein it to life.

Your best mechanics should be the clearest to understand, not the most convoluted. And you should be able to distill explanations of mechanics down to easy-to-grasp sentences. To practice this (and develop the critical skill of being able to explain your game), get that legal pad again, and write out first the mechanic and then an explanation.

It might look like this:

* Roll Fudge Dice and add your [Attribute] to the result.
* Roll Fudge Dice and count the plusses. To this number, add your [Attribute] score. The end number is the number used for [whatever mechanical issue we're talking about].

Or maybe this:

*Roll d100, subtract X% for difficulty.
* A percentile die is rolled, and from the result a penalty is assessed. The result is the percent chance of [whatever mechanical issue we're talking about]

Yes, it's going to be clunky if you're new to thinking this way. Yes, it's not going to be pretty writing. But that's why the world has editors (Hello. My 2012 calendar open, and we should talk.) But just like all your other favorite skills and habits, you got better at it over time with practice. 

Mechanics are dictated by the story and they also dictate the story ahead. The GM will take the players through the imagined/created story and at some point will turn to the mechanics because the story got them there. If we're telling the story of conquistadors encountering natives, then at some point, we're likely going to have mechanical instances of combat. The story has brought the players and GM to that experience, and the mechanics will walk us through the parts of the experience where chance/risk/luck/The Force plays a role.  

Also, the resolution of those mechanical situations will shape the story going forward. In the above conquistadors versus natives example, if the conquistadors get walloped by the indians, then the story will advance differently than if both parties fought to a standstill or if one side ran away. The story will ALWAYS move forward, it may not move forward in a way that you or the GM intended. But adaptability is a good thing. Both designer and GM need some amount of adaptability in their thinking, because it will have profound and positive impacts on the experience of play. (Note: If the game is supposed to have a certain situation go a specific way, it should be narrative, not mechanical)

We end now with the top of the pyramid.

Part III: Theme/Setting
I've talked previously about finding your theme. You're going to want to do that exercise now before going further. Now let's look at what the theme can do. 

Theme and Setting (which is the theme objectified) are where the meal that is your emotion and mechanics are eaten. Up until this point, your game is nebulous and can occur anywhere. This is where you place a firm stamp on where the game occurs, how it occurs and to a deeper level, why it must occur. 

A game's setting dictates parameters for the players. A game that occurs in 1492 won't have planes in it. A game that occurs in deep space likely won't have American politics at its core. The setting gives you a playground to explore, and the mechanics are the swingset thereupon. The theme is the...lax supervision that allows you to run from the slide to the monkey bars and tease that one kid for his pants falling down. (Not that I'm bitter about my pants falling down, but I was sensitive and stuck on those damn bars for five minutes until you were done laughing) Theme cooperates with emotion you want to express to cohere the mechanics and setting together into a game

Likewise theme gives you a different axis of parameters for players. A "serious thrilling" game should not have too many moments of slapstick humor. A "fun rainy day" board game should not result in arguments about the nation's death penalty. Codifying and expressing your theme are critical if you want your game to feel unified. 

Note: We're going to talk more about this soon

But that's enough for now. Happy writing.