Monday, February 22, 2010

Themes and Implicit Promises in Game Design

Note: I originally started this article about 8 months ago before lots of major life events took place. So, it's a little late getting posted.

I was reading some posts on a blog about video game design entitled "Theory and Principles of Game Design" by Adrian Lopez. Specifically, there was a short article he wrote about a "design flaw" in a basketball video game called "In Your Face" where he criticizes the "coin flip" animation at the beginning of the game because it's "cosmetic" - meaning the human player "always gets initial control". He said that this breaks the game's "implicit promise" to the player because what happens does not "agree with the player's expectation that a coin flip should produce random outcomes". (There are links to the articles at the end of this post if you want to go read more about some of his thoughts along these lines.)

These articles got me thinking. Specifically, with respect to the decision to play a game, when someone actively decides to sit down and invest time in learning a game that is supposedly about theme "X", but plays nothing at all like what one would expect a game about theme "X" to play like, then a virtual "promise" has been broken between the theme of the game and the player.

Usually, the more "rich" a designer wants a theme to be, the less abstract the game will be. This is because theme is often more fully developed with nuances in the game that reflect the narrative. The more nuances, the more reflective of the narrative the game play will be. However, the more nuances there are, the more "rules" there will have to be in the game in order to create a sufficiently diverse palette of game mechanics to reflect the theme to a degree that can be classified as "rich". If you want games very heavy in theme, one way to find them is to go buy one of the big-box games from Fantasy Flight. However, you'll also typically be buying a game with a much thicker rule book and with lots more exceptions to the general rules of the game for specific circumstances.

Take wargames as a genre as a further continuation of this idea that the more a theme is reinforced, the more rules are needed to support that reinforcement. With many wargames, the objective of the design is not necessary to create balanced game play. It's to recreate as much as possible a historical skirmish, battle, or war. To do that as accurately as possible, you'll see rules about landscape (with different rules governing different types of landscapes), morale considerations (with rules to govern them), different types of weapons (each with different rules governing how they work), etc.

Having said all of this, for Eurogame designers, this idea of thematic reinforcement can present somewhat of a problem as Eurogames are noted for their simplicity of rules and relatively streamlined mechanics. So, how does one design a Euro-style game without creating a "promise" that will be broken once a player sits down to play the game?

I would argue that the better a designer gets at designing games, the more and more that designer thinks about ways to portray the elements and objects within his game as things that act on as much of an intuitive level as possible for the people playing the game. When people have to make huge "leaps" in logic in order to accept that something happening in the game is as the theme is describing it, then the flow of game emersion is disrupted and the fulfillment of the game experience is lessened. The same thing happens in movies when one watches an actor having to deliver very poorly written dialogue. When dialogue is identifiably bad, it will come off as phony. The cascading consequences of that are that the viewer is then immediately reminded that that is an actor on the screen, that the walls and objects in the scene are merely props, that the clothes are just costumes, and so forth. It pulls the viewer away from the story being told and reminds the viewer that it's all just an illusion. The same effect can happen with board games.

I think that one huge mistake a person can make in trying to design a Euro game is to think that it's okay to just put together mechanics and then try to figure out a theme in the aftermath. I think that a commitment to consistency within a theme will tend to drive the mechanics towards more interesting interactions than would an approach that is purely mechanic based. Thus, if someone has a cool idea for a mechanic but not a theme, my first suggestion is to commit to a theme before going much further with the mechanical development. Otherwise, you could end up with a game that, though interesting, unfortunately breaks its promise to new players once they actually start playing it.

Here are the articles I was talking about:


Seth Jaffee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Seth Jaffee said...

I completely agree with your assessment. I believe the essence of game design is to integrate the theme and the mechanics as much as possible while keeping the rules as streamlined as possible.

You're right, a more thematic game will have more little rules to govern all the chrome, and for each piece of chrome the designer must ask the question: is it worth it?

I have published 1 game, Terra Prime, which is a highly thematic game. As a result, there are some additional fiddly rules that I sometimes wish I'd left out... but doing so would have impacted the thematic immersion of the game. It's a tricky balancing act, but I know as a game player I prefer to play a game whose theme is well integrated over a game with a strictly 'pasted-on' theme.

Okie said...

Great post Mike. And nice response Seth.

I definitely agree that the balance between mechanics and theme is crucial to the enjoyment and playability of the game. It is also very true that the tipping point of this balance will vary depending on the genre and the audience. As you point out, wargames and other simulations are catering to a different audience and as such the balance will be different than that in a lighter style game.

While I agree that designers shouldn't necessarily design by coming up with mechanics and then trying to paste theme on top, I suspect the opposite method can also be hazardous (coming up with a theme and trying to force mechanics to fit it).

I haven't personally developed a game (at least nothing officially...I made up games as a youth, just never pursued it) but I think it's a matter of determining who your players are and what kind of experience you want them to have.

There are a number of wildly successful games in which the theme works but could easily be changed completely without affecting the nature of the game. Does this light theme-mechanic attachment mean it's a bad game? Not necessarily. If the mechanics are solid and provide a fulfilling experience to the player, then the theme just acts as glue to piece the disparate mechanics together and create a vocabulary in which the players can communicate.

I think it's a delicate balance but one that needs to be evaluated individually for each game. I don't believe there's a hard rule that can dictate that "mechanic A must always be associated with high theme while mechanic B can fit with any theme."

Great conversation.

Mike said...

Thanks for the comments guys.

Seth, I agree with the questioning process you refer to. One of the guys in our guild, Alf Seegert, likes to phrase it as "does it pay its own way?" - meaning is the mechanic or rule worth the trouble of having it in the game? If so then great. If not, then throw it out.

I also agree with the point you make Okie in that going to the other extreme (i.e. "let's go for theme - who cares if the mechanics are a mess") can be just as bad.

Mike said...

I've had to shut down comments on this particular post. I don't know why but it's received a bunch of spam comments compared to other posts I've made and I'm getting tired of coming on here and deleting them.