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  • The Nine Structural Subsystems of Any Game

    - Lewis Pulsipher
  •  A game can be thought of as a system (as in "systems analysis", for the computationally inclined). What I'm trying to achieve here is a list of the fundamental sub-systems that are necessarily a part of any game (excluding sports such as baseball or swimming). This list may help inexperienced designers, because if they think about all nine of these systems as they rough out their game, this will help them conceptualize and arrive at a playable idea.

    We could discuss endlessly what is a game and what is not; let's just recognize that, within your definitions of "game", you can probably find an exception that doesn't have all nine characteristics.   I think that's a function of definition rather than a failure of the analysis, but that must remain a matter of opinion.  If one of these systems is completely missing, you might have a toy or puzzle, but not a game.

    There are many examples "on the edges", such as Katamari Damacy. To me, Katamari Damacy is not a game. Solitaire (the card "game") is not a game, because there's no conflicting interest, no active opposition guided by intelligence-they are more like a puzzle or toy. But both of these activities fit the Nine Structures framework.

    I want a framework that will help a designer think about games. Some people, in listing fundamentals of games, discuss "state" in considerable detail. I've tried to avoid "state" and "state-changes" as much as possible, simply because I don't think that an organization dominated by state is very useful to an inexperienced designer. "State-change", in particular, seems to lump an awful lot together in one pot. My ultimate goal is to have something that will be useful to inexperienced designers, and to be able to expand each category to exhaustively list alternatives within each structure. I want designers to be able to treat the extended list as a sort of checklist, to help them make sure they've thought about all the vital aspects of their game early in the process.

    I've tried to list these subsystems in an apparently logical order, but every one is just as fundamental as every other one.

    Here is the list, followed by brief explanations and some examples:

    1. Theme/History/Story/Emotion/Image.

    2. Player Interaction rules.

    3. Objective/victory conditions. 

    4. "Data storage". (Information Management)

    5. Sequencing.

    6. Movement/Placement.

    7. Information availability.

    8. Conflict resolution/interaction of game entities.

    9. "Economy" (resource acquisition). 

    Sometimes the system is assumed, or the choice is to have "none", but still a decision has been made about the category. For example, in Tic-Tac-Toe (Noughts and Crosses) there is no acquisition of resources, but it still has an economy of "unlimited pieces" -- it could have a way to gain resources, and there are variations where you do. Another example: a very abstract game has no theme/history/story, but the designer chose to take that approach, nonetheless.

    Theme/History/Story/Emotion/Image. These are listed in order of common usage, not necessarily importance. Story can be absolutely vital to a role-playing game, but is essentially absent from many games. Historical games use history to a greater or lesser extent. Many Euro-style boardgames have a theme that may or may not have affected the construction of the game. And we can still have abstract games without anything related to theme.  Many video game designers want to design "an immersive experience" to elicit one or more emotions from players.  And even a single image in one's mind, a scene or "movie clip", can characterize a game.

    Player Interaction rules (and number of players). Is it a cooperative game, or a game like Doom (the boardgame) where one player controls the "badguys" and the others cooperate against him or her, or a competitive game (typical), or is there some other relationship between and amongst the players?

    How many separate interests are there in the game?  How many sides?  Some "games" have only one and so may be more properly be called puzzles or toys.  Some have several sides (many boardgames, some online RTS).  Some have just two sides but several interests because there is more than one player per side (Team Fortress, etc.). 

    This subsystem determines how the players interact with one another.  For example, in a multi-sided game, are negotiations allowed? Physical intimidation? (The answer to that is almost always "No", but it is a decision, and I have seen games that involved physical intimidation...). 


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