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Starting Practices for Game Design

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In this chapter from Players Making Decisions: Game Design Essentials and the Art of Understanding Your Players, Zack Hiwiller talks about how to get started thinking about game design, including theme and mechanics, designing for others, and familiarizing yourself with analog games.
This chapter is from the book
  • Be great in act as you have been in thought.
  • —JEAN PAUL

If I can relate only one lesson in this book, it’s that the way to become a game designer is not found in the pages of any book, no matter how well-written. The key to becoming a game designer is simply to make games.

When asked about their game ideas, students often answer with riffs on their favorite large AAA games. Their ideas are often about making the next Skyrim. That is taking an overly large bite. They subtly ignore the massive complexity of these games, which often have development teams that number in the hundreds.

Making games is a complex affair. Even comparatively simple mobile games can be really complex. Rami Ishmail, cofounder of award-winning developer Vlambeer, is no stranger to complexity: “Even the simplest of games is really complex. When you’re starting out you can’t see that yet. That’s why you need to start simple.”1

Analog Games

Many aspiring game designers do not even consider analog games such as board or card games. Fewer still consider role-playing and storytelling games or sports. Yes, even sports have designers! Games are such a broad medium that limiting yourself to just large, complex games for specialized game consoles is narrow-minded and will lead to only a narrow understanding of the craft. Analog games in particular are a great place to start your design practice because of how analog games typically expose all the inner workings of the game to the player. You may lack exposure to some of these games, so in TABLE 4.1, I have provided a list of some analog games—board games, card games, role-playing games (RPGs), and sports games—along with their level of complexity.

TABLE 4.1 Example Analog Games and Complexity Levels

Game Type

Simple

Medium

Complex

Board Game

Loopin’ Louie

Can’t Stop

Ticket to Ride

Pandemic: The Cure

Power Grid

Dead of Winter

Card Game

Love Letter

The Other Hat Trick

San Juan

Dominion

Race for the Galaxy

Magic: The Gathering

RPG

A Penny For My Thoughts

Fiasco

A Quiet Year

Microscope

Dungeon & Dragons

Pathfinder

Sports

Four Square

Darts

Badminton

Dodgeball

Football (American)

Roller Derby

It’s important to note that board, card, RPG, and sports are not the only categories of nondigital games. So many examples fit these categories that it makes them salient choices to study. Games are incredibly diverse if you take the time to look. What labels categorize fantasy baseball, I Love Bees, Mafia/Werewolf games, or the activities involved in the Jejune Institute?

To illustrate what I mean by complexity, let me give you an example. I once created a 15-card analog game for a game design contest. I really enjoyed the experience, so I thought I would make a digital version in Unity, which is a popular game engine for digital-game development. What took me only an evening to design, assemble, and test as an analog game took weeks to fully implement digitally. I had so many contingencies I needed to address. Although bugs or vagueness can be reasoned out in a card game, a digital program needs to be explicitly told how to handle all contingencies. Changes are more robustly handled by humans who are OK with ambiguity; programs need clarity.

Another reason to start your game design experience by making analog games is that analog games tend to expose all their workings to the players. Digital games, on the other hand, often hide their mechanisms from both players and designers—they hide their mechanisms from players behind code and from designers by abstracting the game’s workings. For instance, in an RPG, you may notice that players have difficulty rolling die to get a certain number, and thus they allow an attack, twice in a row. In an analog game, the reasons should be easy to track down: The players are doing the math themselves, so the inputs and outputs are clear. In a digital game, these calculations are obscured in code somewhere. When you get clear feedback, it allows for quick iteration. However, when you are making digital games, it’s often the case that you can’t even find out where a problem is hiding!

In the book, Tabletop: Analog Game Design, famed designer Greg Costikyan writes: “As many game studies programs have discovered, tabletop games are particularly useful in the study of game design, because their systems are exposed to the player, not hidden in code. It’s easy to misunderstand the essential nature of a digital game, if you focus on graphics or narrative without appreciating the way in which system shapes the experience.”2

Always err on the side of simplicity. With this rule in mind, it makes sense to start by developing board or card games.

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