…the real work is the film, and the tasks that go into the completed film are all parts of the process. To put it bluntly, as long as the film is made, it doesn’t matter what method was used…
– Hayao Miyazaki
A lot of times, we don’t quite know what the game we are actually making is. It doesn’t matter whether we’re working by ourselves or with a team… the problem can still arise. Maybe we have a collection of features we think we want. Or we have requirements from managers or money people. We perhaps have an IP license in the mix. We have a target market. We have a deep burning desire to express something, something personal or something aesthetic or something lofty.
For me, formalizing tools like this is like tying string around a finger. It’s to help me remember.
In my experience, teams that can articulate the soul of the game are more likely to be successful than those who aren’t; and teams that have not yet jelled or that are new to gamemaking are the ones least likely to know their game’s soul.
One of the things that I have often done in my career is work with a team on games that aren’t mine. In that situation, I don’t have a personal stake in what the message of the game is. I just want the team to be successful in making what they want to be making anyway.
I have found these four questions to be very useful in helping pin down that soul, that core.
- What is the game system about?
- What is the game’s experience about?
- What is the player’s goal (in the system)?
- What is the player’s goal (in the experience)?
When I myself conceptualize a game, I might start off at either end: an interesting system idea, or an experience I want to capture.
When I myself conceptualize a game, I might start off at either end: an interesting system idea, or an experience I want to capture. I have a whole bunch of puzzle games that I did because I wanted to capture the feeling of looking through a kaleidoscope. That’s experience-centric. I have board games that are entirely based around mathematical structures that seemed interesting; for example, I am well along on one where the primary rule of placement for pieces is based on fractals. That was an entirely mechanical idea. Inspiration can hit from any angle, and these questions are about fleshing it out.
In general, I tend to find that most teams start with experiences; starting with systems seems to be relatively rare these days. That experience doesn’t need to be “closed off,” or unambiguous. Indeed, it might well be composed of questions, designed to leave the player full of questions. That’s a perfectly valid experience to aim for.
Here’s what a simplistic RPG set of answers might look like:
- What is the game system about? Popping XP bags for advancement and loot, all of which make me able to pop larger XP bags.
- What is the game’s experience about? The journey from beginner to powerful hero.
- What is the goal in the game system? To reach the maximum power level.
- What is the goal of the game experience? To make the player feel powerful.
This is pretty generic. By framing the questions this way, it helps me think about what more the game could be about, how it could express something richer and more complex.
I have written this up before, but with Ultima Online, also an RPG, there was a design document called “Setting Implications.” The timeline for UO stated that each UO shard was a parallel world, that the Avatar had never visited; the split in the timeline happened at the end of Ultima I, when Mondain was defeated and the Gem of Immortality was shattered.
The setting statement implies that the regular course of the Ultima games is the aberration in the normal course of events. Normal worlds in the multiverse do not get set under the caretaking hands of a Time Lord, therefore they do not manifest such recurring forces as the Avatar and Lord British and the Guardian and all the other characters who make up what we know in the regular Ultima sequence.
Instead, the normal world is composed of daily power struggles, of ethical dilemmas without clearcut answers, and clearly have a lack of guidance from outside… the regular Ultima series is a gradually developing course in ethics, beginning with simplistic good and evil (Mondain, Minax, Exodus), to the notion of ‘absolute’ virtues in a rather Aquinas-like philosophy, and from there towards the notion of ethical relativity that manifests in U6 and later episodes. Thus the regular Ultimas develop the concept of ethical behavior gradually.
The goal then for the setting and theme of Ultima Online is to recapitulate this development on an individual basis, permitting players free rein to behave as they prefer–but also to incorporate the notion that has been implied in all the mainstream series: that ethics and governance are essentially the same subject. That what is proper ethical behavior on the part of the individual, i.e. the governance of one’s impulses and desires, is also proper behavior for those who seek to govern others. Thus it is that Lord British becomes the exemplar of behavior in Ultima Online, rather than the Avatar, for in the normal course of human events, people do not develop into the sorts of external forces that the Avatar is in the regular series.
In Ultima Online, the underlying game mechanics do not only reward behavior that considers the good of the many, they demand it. The game’s basic principle is that of governance and conservancy. The role of the player seeking to continue the thematic impulse of the Ultima series is therefore that of governance–the process of developing into someone in the game context who seeks to emulate Lord British’s goals of equitable governance. The system poses irreconcilable ethical dilemmas just as any ecological system must, and the player will simply have to navigate these as best they can.
Given these implications, the game mechanics of Ultima Online must include a mechanism to reward players who successfully survive and continue to succeed, by granting them greater powers to govern others. Building castles, etc, is a possibility. Then again, the truest simulation of this may in fact be to simply let those with enough money build and gain power, and let their own natures or roleplayed natures determine their fates (hated tyrants or benign despots or enlightened rulers?). The design issue becomes whether this is an overt enough statement of the thematic underpinnings of the world.
You can see that the document ends with a question. And in fact, we did get player cities and governments in UO, but we also got the tyranny of playerkiller gangs. So the game itself ended up posing these questions too.
On the system side, UO was built around a simulated world with abstract properties, and around a use-based skill system. Both of these had big issues, but they lay at the heart of the game design even when they were removed in the development process!
So asking these vision questions about UO retroactively, we might say something like
- What is the game system about? Selecting and practicing the small subset of skills that you prefer.
- What is the game’s experience about? Living in a simulated world that afford you piles of freedoms.
- What is the goal in the game system? Becoming a master of the skills you select, and contributing towards the growth and preservation of the network that permits you/supports you in doing so.
- What is the goal of the game experience? Discovering the ways in which virtual (and real) societies work, and finding your own niche in an interdependent society.
I would note that these answers are probably much the same for Star Wars Galaxies.
I am currently working on several games in parallel. I have one that will take me a while to finish, because it’s evolved to something large. The game system involves placing or moving tiles on a board that have different symbols and colors on them. When they touch tiles that are similar in one of those ways, they can flip to them to your side.
This game began as purely mathematical, and through playtesting evolved a few extra mechanisms, such as territory capture based on surrounding empty spaces.
So I had a partial answer:
- What is the game system about? Converting opponent tokens and empty spaces to your side by using placement of tokens that share color or shape.
- What is the goal in the game system? When the board is deadlocked, having more of it on your side.
I had to ask myself, what is the game about? Well, I was doing this in the midst of all the contentious Twitter debates of last year, around not just “what is a game” but also issues of social justice, power dynamics in the industry, and much more. So what was on my mind was the subject of empathy. And I realized, this game, which didn’t at all start this way, worked very well for that. I started calling the game by a nickname in my mind: “Hearts and Minds.”
- What is the game experience about? Converting opposing units to your side by finding commonalities.
- What is the goal of the game experience? Bringing together widely disparate people by getting them to realize how much they have in common.
The more I played with this, the more I realized that I loved the board game presentation, but that the theme of converting hearts and minds through seeing commonalities needed a very different art treatment. In fact, probably needed a storyline. All of a sudden my little digital boardgame had grown into a saga of four peoples in a fantasy empire, and their political and economic struggles with one another. A story about the fall of a dynasty, and the rise of a new one. I needed JRPG style dialogue screens, isometric artwork, even unique clothing designs for each of the four tribes. The literal boardgame that was the birth of the idea becomes the empire’s preferred game, holding a role like chess or go in their culture, and you play it interstitially between campaign levels where you put the abstract lessons of the boardgame into practice with villages and merchants and army units.
And that’s why that game isn’t out yet. Scope creep aside, I think the design as it stands now is far richer and has something to say, born out of the intersection of those mechanics and that experience.
I had to push “Hearts and Minds” towards the back of my project list, because it had gotten big. (Alas, the one I pushed to the front also got big… that’s why the small card game looks like the likeliest to see the light of day first! About which more later). But I am pretty sure it will be a better game once finished.
This little vision exercise is not the only formal tool I use early on in developing a concept, of course. But since it is so easily packaged up, I thought it worthwhile to share. I should also point out that I rarely, if ever, actually march down the list of questions myself with my own work. I try instead to have these questions internalized. I have found that most of the time, I can train myself to just always have these questions in mind. I usually work intuitively, not off a checklist. It’s only when I get stuck that I pull out the checklist and force myself to pay attention to things that I know, but might not be using. I think most creatives have had that head-slapping moment where they say to themselves, “I knew that!” For me, formalizing tools like this is like tying string around a finger. It’s to help me remember.