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  • Excerpt: A Systematic View Of Game Design

    [09.18.12]
    - Lewis Pulsipher

  • Caveats

    There is no single proper or right way to diagram this system, given the variety of ways that designers work, and in fact the original diagram was rather different several years ago although it still contains the same seven processes.

    This is not a diagram of creativity; it's a diagram of what happens. "Creativity," when it happens, is within the processes. Most of game design is not what we normally think of as creativity.

    Quality is not part of the system analysis diagram in and of itself. Ideally, every step in the process will be well done, but there is no assurance of it. If a designer leaves out some of these steps, he's less likely to create a good game. If a designer follows these steps, he may still end up with a lousy game, though it should not be an unplayable game (if it were, the blind testing would never work).

    Further reading: Cooperation and engagement: what board games can tell us

    Alternative ways to look at the process (MDI/MDA):

    Adams and Rollings in Fundamentals of Game Design list the stages of game design as:

    - Conception,

    - Elaboration,

    - Tuning (which is iterative and incremental)

    This describes three successive stages of design, and does not contradict the data flow diagram, but is a simpler way to look at it. In their view, the conception is a plan for a game. Once you begin to elaborate a game you should not make major changes in the plan, or should recognize that you've switched to a different game. That's OK if you have time and if you don't already have a contract to deliver a game with certain parameters (you often will with video games).

    MDI stands for Mechanics, Dynamics, Impressions. It is a way of thinking about the game as you create and modify it, something to help you think of questions and modifications.

    The three parts need to be discussed in reverse order. What we want to engender in the minds and hearts of the players, what we want them to feel and think, is one of the first things for a designer to think about for a game. What do we want the end result to be in terms of the effect on the players? That is, what impression do we want to make on the players? Some designers like to write, early in the conception process, a description in general terms of what they want the players to feel and experience.

    Mechanics is the rules or the mechanisms enforced by the programming, the parts of the game that in effect tell players what they can do and what they can=t do.

    Dynamics involves how the programming or rules interact with the players to produce events and challenges in the game. What a designer intends, what he sees in his mind's eye as he plays the game in his head, is often not what happens when the prototype is played. Often two qualities, emergence and serendipity, become important.

    Emergence, the appearance of new properties, often occurs when two or more mechanics interact to produce something unanticipated, something that is more than the sum of the parts. These new properties may be a surprise even to the designer(s). Rocket-jumping* is apparently something that emerged from the mechanics (rules) of video games, not intended by designers. Many rules/mechanics-dominant games (as opposed to story-dominant) exhibit qualities of emergence.


    *Rocket-jumping first emerged in the Quake series, and has since become a popular game mechanic in titles like Team Fortress 2.

    Serendipity is an unsought, unintended, and/or unexpected discovery and/or learning experience that happens by accident and sagacity. The word is often used in connection with scientific discoveries that someone Astumbles upon (e.g. penicillin). In this context, some designers may be particularly adept at creating rules, which lead to quite different kinds of gameplay than anticipated.

    The designer, then, creates game mechanics to provide challenges for the players, things for the player to do, and has in mind certain thoughts and emotions he wants to engender in the players, but the dynamics of those rules will often lead to quite different situations.

    The original version of this idea is MDA (Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics), devised by Marc LeBlanc (also originator of "8 kinds of fun"). The word "Aesthetics" doesn't convey adequately to most people, so I've substituted my own preference.

    However you look at it, the important thing is to recognize the iterative and incremental nature of creating a successful game.

    Stages of game design -- average time spent on each

    "Making an 80% game is very easy. A lot of games that are out there are just 80% finished. With more testing the game could be more elegant and the last 20% takes a lot of time. That's the difficult part." Reiner Knizia

    Knizia, who makes more than a million dollars a year as a freelance designer of board, card, and (recently) video games, is referring to the last 20% of changes in the game, which takes a lot more than 20% of the time.

    Time taken for each stage:


    This is, of course, my estimate, and can vary greatly from one game to another.

    [Editor's note: Some images in this article were added to the original text]

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