Tuesday, July 05, 2005


It can be a difficult thing to bring to the surface those principles in games that I enjoy. That is, elucidating the mechanisms of fun and play seem very easy to feel-in-my-gut but not so easy to analyze. Part of this is due to the sheer amount of different game mechanisms and the way they tie into theme, tone, control, graphics and audio to create that specific game.

A game, for me, has no quidditas, no fundamental substance which determines its game qualities (apologies to classical scholars that might object to my word choice). There are no Platonic Ideals of gamehood from which specific examples of game are derived.

I sometimes realize that I've been a game designer before, when I was a child. That my seemingly-chaotic play would often coalesce into a formalized structure. Although that structure could be incredibly unstable, fluidly changing with a capricious child's dictatorial whim.

In one of my neighborhoods all the kids would gather at the park and play rummy. This became a regular thing, not cemented into schedule but understood. From those countless games we would hack out variations, altering rules to fit our playstyles. Amazingly, we would keep these variations organized in our heads. When the time came to play, we'd say the game was John-rummy, or Todd-rummy or Jake-rummy.

Play can be chaotic or ordered. I used to build grand Lego vehicles and then destroy them in a manner befitting their blockish hubris. This was the rule for my creations: You may live, for a time, and then you must be demolished to your individual components. A game?

Play is not always a game. A game is always play.

Let me state that differently. Play does not seem to always fall within a game structure. A game seems to always involve some kind of play.

Forgive me if I end up repeating things uttered by artists for centuries.

How does one design a game?

Have an idea.

Yes, that always seems the first step, for really almost anything. Possibly anything at all. Need to get across the room? Have an idea of crossing it first.

I like to look around and find some kind of real-life process and think of how to model that in a game. Maybe washing dishes, which I hate. How would I formalize a dish-washing method? What risks and rewards are inherent in this system? What kinds of sticks and carrots can be added? What kind of time system should be utilized?

And, of course, finally, does this work as a game? If it can function as a game, should it?

I find that much of my time nowadays is spent playing games and looking at the systems of those games and not nearly enough time in simple play, devising my own systems and creating my own games.

A motivated designer might analyze every type of game imaginable for ideas of what to do and what not to do - and while some seemingly-awkward mechanics will be transmitted to future games, others will be purposefully rejected.

A dedicated designer should design; I am guilty of oft-ignoring that simple advice.

I can't say I've codified my own set of design guidelines. Maybe it's something that happens ex post facto, when you lay in the sweaty aftermath of finally finishing your game, and you look over the wreckage you made of your life and sanity, and you wonder, "Why was I so compelled to make this thing? What about its specific methods and intricacies and mechanisms so fascinated me that I willingly fine-tuned them to satisfaction? By what agency did those mechanisms provide joy in their unfurlings?"

Then you start writing a lot of nonsense that lends some small order to the chaos of gaming. And simultaneously contributes to that chaos. Ah, the grand contradiction of critical analysis.

Yes, yes, I have argued here before on the utility of having a shared critical language of game design. I'm not going to backpedal - such a language might be immensely useful for development teams to share information, for worldwide mod-projects linked only by e-mail to adequately describe their goals (to team members and web surfers), for analysts to develop an actual process of criticism, even for review sites to talk of common elements instead of just associating genres that might be largely inconsequential.

But we don't need that language.

Gamers have a language, it's just couched in the trappings of specifics. The outer layer is still surrounding the inner concepts and this can be just as useful for analysis. How have the mechanics of Mario been carried over to each successive generation? How have they been altered?

I'm often more concerned, not with what a game asks you to do, but with how well it implements doing those things.

Criticism can smack of elitism. Explaining how Citizen Kane artfully arranges its narrative and how the direction heralded a creative revolution in film can be difficult to convey. Simpler to just mandate appreciation and damn those that question.

We tie our own likes so much with what we can appreciate that often appreciation equates to like - thus another's dislike can damage our ego because it seems to strike at our reason. Our own logic is always the best.

The structure of games can lead designers to think of them as ordered systems. An ordered system can be analyzed and optimized. "There is a formula for making a successful game, if only it could be found." Yeah, right.

I don't think there are any perfect games. Only perfect moments in games, where whatever they are meant to accomplish goes off completely without a hitch. Maybe that's complete immersion for the player, or bringing forth that feeling of accomplishment, or influencing an opinion, or creating decisions with impact. Or all of those.

When such a thing happens . . . well, it's those moments that sweeten the endeavor.

Those moments happen when I play guitar, too. When my fumbling fingers seek the groove and I forget the circle of fifths and I no longer count out the rhythm or worry about notes or scales and things just click.

1 comment:

andrew stern said...

nice post!