What game designers should care about

What game designers should care about

So much of the conversation about a game’s design bounces from the very broad to the very specific without stopping to consider what really matters: the human emotion game dynamics give rise to. But if designers can spend more time at this level they can make more innovative games.

If there was one maxim every designer should know by now, it’s this: “Different strokes for different folks”: We know that what precisely makes a good game is incredibly subjective. Even when conditions are ideal – a perfect teach, the right amount of space and time for the game to occupy, quantity of noise or quality of ambience and a willing audience – no one game can be guaranteed to please everyone at the table. People are different so they respond differently and they are looking for different experiences at different times.

Commercially, another maxim follows: if you try to please everyone, you are on the right track to pleasing no one. Just like any other form of art or entertainment some people will love it and others will hate it. There’s an audience for Cards Against Humanity and there’s an audience for Brass. Sometimes they are even the same people, but rarely ever are they competing in the same context.

We could leave it there: celebrate the diversity of people’s interests, call it all a big wonderful mystery and park the whole thing. We could all get on with our lives, keeping pumping out random game concepts and fiddling with cool mechanics; all in the hope they stick, while publishers magically try to match them out to viable markets.

But from a designer’s perspective, this is a huge cop out. Beyond the broad warning to resist our “people pleaser” instincts, its not an actionable insight. It’s not actually going to help us make better games. Luckily there is so much more we can say and do.

Because as much as it’s true that people are all different, they aren’t that different.

People are both relatively consistent in their taste across time and have tastes that many others share, even if they are always in some kind of minority together. Fans of logic puzzles will tend to enjoy the process of deductive reasoning in any form they encounter it. Aspiring actors, from professional to the most unfulfilled amateur, will tend to throw themselves into roleplay whenever the opportunity is presented. Gamblers find any game of luck – an uncertain outcome over which no control can be exercised – somewhat magnetic. The “heavy euro” hardcore will recoil from those very same situations precisely because the player is at the mercy of chance when what they want is control: Present them with a mechanic with output randomness and they are already on the defensive because they are having flashbacks to so many “feels bad” moments in their gaming past.

In short: there are things they like and dislike in the experience of the game that are applicable across many game contexts, regardless of specific type of game in question that are the reason they play. Some of these broad truths are already in common currency as ‘facts’ about the way boardgame markets work and some already hinted at by proxy – in an incredibly haphazard way – in our notions of game genre; like “strategy game” or “party game”. But, despite these taste responses being at the core of why people choose to play on game over another, they get little detailed scrutiny.

The specific type of pleasure (or discomfort) being experienced in a game is rarely subjected to a properly rigorous evaluation that might lead to the discovery of how they actually work: How much the execution of themeing allows players to slip into light roleplay and banter in an area control game where the only real world representation is a single simple piece moving from one grid hex to another. To what extent the slight and deliberate overload of possible options at a given juncture stimulates the heavy gamer’s sense of a strategy title’s depth; making them feel they are getting to grips with something brilliant. The level of thrill in the “now or never” moment that a player must make an educated guess about a puzzle’s solution in a deduction game; when their opponent looks to only be a turn from a successful guess themselves.

Instead when games are discussed I notice there is often a very curious blending of the highest level cursory analysis with the very specific; a journey which tends to miss the critical middle register of experience and human emotion completely. At a very high level a game is described as “fun” – a word so general as to be close to useless – or stimulating in very general terms (or very exceptionally when things have gone very badly: “not fun”). Then, in an instant, the assessment dives directly into specific mechanics, artwork decisions or basic thematic questions. Even in the assessments that are able to move past the merely descriptive, so much is taken for granted that the opportunity to discuss the middle register – where experience is actually formed – is glossed. I see this both in the formal setting of a boardgame review, written or recorded and in many more casual conversations I hear about games among designers.

Why is this crucial layer missed? It seems, to some extent, be merely the result of how domain language tends to work. Our knowledge of the hobby’s genre terms (“worker placement”, “bidding”, “wargame” etc) often leads us explain in – and eventually think in – in these shortcuts exclusively.

The problem is that these shortcuts, like nearly all genre terms, are only describing the most easily categorised and most concrete elements of these games; like their mechanics or theme. They say almost nothing about the more nebulous and difficult to express business of experiences they create. As a result it’s very possible discuss a game very competently in its nuts and bolts without ever beginning to touch on the question of why or how it makes someone feel a certain way.

That is a huge trap for a designer. Because it risks missing the woods for the trees: the experiences that burn games into people’s memories, the moments that have them hankering to bring them back to the table rather than the mere stuff – both physical and abstractthat makes them up.

Take the deckbuilding game as a genre. When a hobbyist tells you they like games of this class, you could choose to take that at face value. Whenever they hear about a new one they’re interest is piqued. They’ll probably get some pleasure from trying these it just because they tend to like most games in the the category so much. They might even be more prepared to give this new game the benefit of the doubt if it’s less than superbly slick (though such devotion to a style of game might equally go the other way). Clearly as an expectation setting genre label, it has some considerable practical value.

And yet you’re really interested in what is going on, it’s highly unlikely that the real reason they like deck building is just because they are deck building games. The fact that they are deckbuilding games might even be one of the less important things about them. Dive below the surface, venture down into what it is about deckbuilding games they actually enjoy and you find a range of experiences, moments and stimuli that they tend to engender. It’s these that the fans keep coming back for, not the genre for it’s own sake.

Deckbuilding games, for instance, all tend to elicit a strong sense of progression. Players tend to start in a fairly weak position with cards in their decks of obvious limited value. Rapidly, and very tangibly, they improve their position by literally adding better and better cards. This change is underscored by the consistent ‘beat’ of the reshuffle: Each time, it occurs and you draw your new hand you can really see it’s getting better and better – engendering a sense of growing power. When you remove the bad cards through scrapping or trashing mechanics this sense of improvement is felt even more acutely. The weak card is gone, never to be seen again. You know, as you bask in that quiet satisfaction of improved efficiency, you are only going to draw into the ‘good shit’ from now on; you have literally moved the odds in your favour; further driving up your sense of control.

This progression is also, crucially, your progression. The deck you make it unique yours. Even if you choose to copycat another player, you make the choice to craft its identity one way or another. Here and there you make slight alterations and what results is a physical realisation of your way of playing the game. You’re expressing yourself as a player; not just making the right moves but making your moves. The deck you build is in, in an albeit limited way, a creative enterprise on some level because its a literal record of your choices.

Those choices can also be used to do things that are clever. Most deckbuilders feature a wide array of different card effects which can be cleverly combined. Such “combos” when they are pulled off fill you with a sense of intellectual sanctification and achievement; again because its good to feel clever as well as powerful. If you’ve been particularly clever and the game allows it, you might even be able to craft an engine in your deck; a set of consistent combinations which reliably produce a given result to drive you to success. In this, there is a real pleasure in the craft itself of the careful programming and application of strategic thinking to solve a problem.

And yet at the same time, the game is always an exercise in luck where a surprise lurks behind every card draw. The act of drawing cards to see what you get is also innately pleasurable in the same that unwrapping a Christmas present is. You don’t know what you’re doing to get; maybe it will be just the right card to set your turn ablaze, maybe it won’t help you much. But either way the momentary little jolt of anticipation and uncertainty is there.

These pleasures – Surprise, anticipation, self-expression, progression and power – might often result from genre’s typical dynamic – if and only if they are well executed. But none of them are unique to deck building games. Other games have just as much capability to hit these emotional notes. But if designers don’t dive into these experiential specifics to understand what their appeal is then they’re limited to an understanding of the whole genre as a black box that tends to produce non-specifically desireable results. They have to parrot-out and repeat entire genre mechanics (with at best, random additional variations for the sake of ‘newness’) because they can’t innovate within it in a goal directed way. They can’t say why exactly a game is actually landing (or not) with it’s intended audience: what specific emotional beats a game has and why, as a result it lands with some audiences not for others. They’re only choice is to either collide two known genres at a high level together or simply attempt to do the same thing better than a previous incarnation through relatively random experimentation. Sadly as many Dominion copycats have already proved, this normally means less good than the previous game.

It’s easy to see why this is the case. If you only have genre as a tool its very hard to be innovative because such classifications are the crude approximations of the easily categoriseable, defined by what is already well established. Starting from an understanding of the building blocks of experience, it’s much easier to end up in a place that no one has quite come from before. Not just by randomly throwing stuff at a wall but constantly being guided by the many subtle constituents of this called “fun”; and bringing them to life in the lives of other human beings.

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