Table of Contents
Game design, in its most pure sense, is the creation of the rules that govern the gaming environment. At the base of every finished game is a game design. Strip away the techno-geek graphics and the ambient sounds. Strip away the marketing hype. You are left with a set of rules driving minimalist iconic representations. A strange miracle occurs. People enjoy playing the game. Yes, people enjoy playing Tetris, Net Hack, and pixilated games from the early 80s. Developers even enjoy playing the primitive prototypes used to test their ideas. Why? Because the rules that govern the gaming world create an entertaining experience regardless of the eye candy piled on top.
The successful creation of these rules is not magic. We've seen process charts for art asset creation. There are dozens of development strategies for producing quality code. This essay attempts to derive a game design process, a coherent set of interelated practices that help ensure quality design.
First I made the relatively safe assumption that people exhibit predictable responses to reproducible situations. Next, I noted how game designers create a given psychological situation in the player's environment that cause players to respond in a variety of desirable ways. I recorded proven practices that help create these enjoyable gaming environment . Finally, we organize the practices into a highly disciplined iterative process that dramatically improves the 'fun' of a game project. For lack of a better term I call this process Evolutionary Design.
Board Games and Novel Writing
The practices of game design are derived from intimate experience with a wide variety of game projects. The core principles that drive a simple arcade game like Pac man should also be evident in a sophisticated tour de force like Deus Ex. With this thought in mind, I analyzed the design process of a lowly board game.
"A board game", you cry. "Such a thing has no cut scenes or fuzzy logic NPCs!" I concede there are differences. Writing a novel requires a variety of additional techniques not found in a short story. Still, the rules that build a good short story are found in abundance in a novel. If a designer can successfully create the minute-to-minute user experience in Donkey Kong, then he or she has a powerful foundation for creating a much longer involved game such as Mario 64. A board game is lot less complex than Donkey Kong, and as such it is a perfect vehicle for discussing game design fundamentals.
The questions I ask in computer game design end up being the same questions I need to ask in board game design. What makes the player want to play another few minutes? What is an efficient process of rule creation? What are the pitfalls of balancing a game and what are techniques that help avoid these pitfalls? If my board game produces answers that parallel useful solutions for video games, then perhaps we have stumbled upon a set of universally helpful design tools.
One should never be afraid to discuss 2,000 years of massively successful non-electronic gaming in the same breath as Doom XXV.
© 2002 Daniel Cook. All rights are reserved.