Sunday, January 24, 2010

From the Desk Top: The Pursuit of Good Game Design

Some Principles of Good Game Design

irbyz said here: "Indeed, but avoiding wholesale re/conjuration of one's campaign world on a regular basis or because of poor decisions in its development that cannot be easily papered over is still perhaps worthwhile being wary of?"

The above quote is yet another starting point of thought on designing games/game scenarios/and world-crafting.  The overall idea might be recast in this way:  what we adhere to can or will force us upon a path.

Embarking upon game design involves many choices and tough questions.  Of course we know that the end result must be fun for the player(s).  But beyond that, and more importantly as the front matter to this, designers must ask these questions:  Who?  What? Where? When? Why? and How? before, during and after the design has been prototyped. For published RPG adventures this tenant is most important as it points to areas where they are weak and in need of improvement.  Designers, unlike fans of their games, must stand aside and let critical intercourse take place in order to effectively achieve their creative ends.  If this is not apparent in the initial process, or worse, if the chosen model  is a worn one, then it will not push the boundaries of design but will merely imitate something, with varying results.  This raises the question which should be at the heart of every designer to begin with:  Why?  If the answer is less than the sum of the reason for providing a new idea which has worth in standing apart from other models, then more questions need to be asked to pinpoint their 'why'.  If this process is outright ignored then good design will be ignored; and if one cares not for good design then ultimately they do not care for those who they design the games for and they or their fans must therefore question their artistic morals and/or reasons for proposing or accepting such designs to begin with.

Basing designs on past models is a practical approach and is used in most game designs over the history of games. Let us assume that we have a design proposal for an underground adventure emulating EGG's "D" series.  In fact, let us further propose that the designer "loved" them and wishes to cast his or her design in the same light.  All fine and good, but what is the purpose of said emulation? Why must there be emulation?  Fiction writers and fine artists face the same questions.  I love Hemingway.  Picasso was the best.  Emulation is in itself a flattery; but as our past publishing history has shown, not many unique designs spring forth from strictly limiting creative efforts to wholesale emulation.  When basing one's designs on past models designers must in course properly identify the overall utility for doing so; and while atomizing these parts there may be, in the best cases, found a base of tools for them to work with in creating something unique. These are components, like structure, theme, narrative transitions, dialog, style, design weight, creative range, and so forth.

Short Example:  The Theme. The "Theme" is about an underground adventure. Thematically this has been done a thousand or more times in fiction and RPG.  What will set yours apart from the rest?  Nothing as good as defining if the model has been much overused from the onset:  look around, if you want a unique design, one that will actually challenge your artistic fiber rather than just add another coal to a fire which everyone is throwing said lumps upon, then don't do what others are doing, that simple.

This then begs several questions, such as, "Are the models which precede our own designs unworthy or broken?"  The answer to that is simply no and/or maybe.  What one designer brought to bear on a theme is of consequence in considering ultimate design goals but all of these components are just guides.  But if you find yourself a mere imitator, or worse, only a shadowy part thereof, then the emulation is not worthy in any case, for it takes what is a good example and exalts it with faint praise, while in turn lowering the design standard.  Take for example the imitators of Tolkien's LotR for a good comparison.

The next question is, "Then what am I to do as a designer if faced with insurmountable choices of models to draw upon?"  In answer, one can design their own models.  It is similar to asking what car manufacturers ask every year in their competition with each other.  How will we make a better car that is more attractive to consumers?  More mileage, sexier, more room, drop down seats.  In essence, "Features."  Does this make each separately branded car better? Or is each just another car as every manufacturer is doing the same thing? We are now in a very general area of concern that rarely perpetuates truly unique designs but instead more often roots them to a mocking principle. Specifically, designers must look at their designs to add non-competitive features to them.  That is, do not look at the models beyond the fact of initial realization.  I have a car.  I have an underground adventure.  By peering too long at the path of others' designs, one will eventually walk these paths for better or worse. And as with car manufacturers, more often a designer will then be but a "tweaker" of what already is and has been done, and this is not unique design.  By adding non-competitive features to your design, it will start to grow in uniqueness and sooner or later, through nursing that growth, you'll have something that stands apart from the rest.

Free Form Expression and Thinking as a Tool to Excellent Design.

Note here a recent exchange on this blog that became, and still is, a free form exercise allowed to define its own limits.  What started as a speculative post by Journalizer takes upon multi-dimensions of exchange.  In essence, it becomes free from constraints and expectations.  There is fun in this participation as there are no set limits of proportion or form.  In essence this is ART.  It is at the same time PLAY.  And overall it is a real example of possibilities when one does not confine themselves to a box but instead plays with ranges of expression.  All good designers do this, and more often they do this out of need to continue separating the thought process from the here and now, to stay in the abstract playground of creative expression so that anything can, and will, eventually happen.

As a designer one must ask many questions to promote the idea of an expressive design to successful completion.  What am I expressing here? And why?  How will I best achieve that? If your "base" answer to the second question is 'My Expression should be unique' then you have won the first battle against mediocrity, one which otherwise destroys any long-lasting success at design.  It then remains up to you, the creator, to find a unique ground on which to express and build your creation.  But remember this:  I can express myself by driving a BMW, but that does not make me unique as there are thousands of them out there (and as a car salesman friend of mine once added to this, "Yeah, and even then it doesn't much matter for expression if they are leased...").  Same for any type of design.  Just because everyone is driving them indeed makes them the SAME, and therein should be found the glorious contradiction which puzzles and challenges all those who wish to create anything which reaches beyond these predefined limits.

As I began this article, so will I end it, with a quote from a Scotsman, this one from a letter written by Robert Louis Stevenson:



"I am Philistine enough to prefer clean printer's type; indeed, I can form no idea of the verses thus transcribed by the incult and tottering hand of the draughtsman, nor gather any impression beyond one of weariness to the eyes.  Yet the other day, in the CENTURY, I saw it imputed as a crime to Vedder that he had not thus travestied Omar Khayyam.  We live in a rum age of music without airs, stories without incident, pictures without beauty, American wood engravings that should have been etchings, and dry-point etchings that ought to have been mezzo-tints.  I think of giving 'em literature without words; and I believe if you were to try invisible illustration, it would enjoy a considerable vogue.  So long as an artist is on his head, is painting with a flute, or writes with an etcher's needle, or conducts the orchestra with a meat-axe, all is well; and plaudits shower along with roses.  But any plain man who tries to follow the obtrusive canons of his art, is but a commonplace figure.  To hell with him is the motto, or at least not that; for he will have his reward, but he will never be thought a person of parts." 


Timeshadows said...

Interesting choice of font.

This directed toward anyone in particular 'round these parts?

Rob Kuntz said...

Hey TS:

Font? I had no idea what I chose... :)

Not really, the whole is a general treatise I am working on (again, the essays I have mentioned, including on Play, and others).

I have been adding notes along with the expansion of my memoirs. As I detail memoir sections on EGG, or Arneson, even one on MAR Barker who I met twice and had fine discussions with, Fritz Leiber (same), Len Lakofka, etc. well all of that becomes not only matter for the memoirs, but while organizing these memories they point to things in the past which were important then and still are now. Good game design included.

It's good for us all, or so I feel, myself included. And I am still learning. :)

Timeshadows said...

I eagerly await the complete work, but glean so much from each of these.
--Thank you, and thanks. :D

bubbagump said...

Interesting parallelism here with some of my own experiences and thoughts.

Years ago when I was struggling to build my first business, one of my mentors game me some grand advice: "If you want something you don't have, you must do something you haven't done."

I give the same advice to every person I coach. It seems the principle works well for game design, too, eh?

Anonymous said...

It's about fearlessly venturing out into the great unknown and returning with "knew" wisdom. However, I'll take Hemingway and/or Picasso as my guide any day.

Thanks for this post. I think it applies to creation of any kind because artists should never "confine themselves to a box"...

Rob Kuntz said...

Thanks to everyone for the comments. BG and I seem to be on the same wave length these days, as does Dr. Haukenlaurm, who I am late in responding to with an email.

@Journalizer: The comparison of Hemingway and Picasso, in retrospect, isn't as good a choice of course for those striving to meet those standards and perhaps a better one should have been forwarded for anyone wanting to design by imitation, but I was sidling away from the latter direction. There are many routes one can take in game design, but I feel, as you suggest, to "venture into the great unknown" sans predispositions is where unique design will most often occur, as it did, for example, for the designer of "Diplomacy," Allan B. Calhamer.

Yeah, a "box" is where you store manuscripts and books, right? ;)

@TS: Read part of the Wetlands Encounters; i do most reading before sleep, so hopefully I do not have nightmares of leaping lizards. ;)