Monday, July 16

On Design Space

Future Article: Simple but Deep

Design Space, when spoken of in reference to game design, tends to refer to the exploration of the intricacies of the mechanics available to the game.  Design Space is most visible in games that are able to constantly evolve and bring to mechanics to play, like most trading card games and many tabletop RPGs.  It’s harder to see the how the design space has been explored in completely finished games, and obviously less visible in video games, where is math is hidden deep in the code.  I’ll be talking mostly about recognizing the design space available as you create and game, about creating mechanics that have a wide range of available design space, and about how to understand the benefits of limiting design space.
When creating a game of any kind, you’ll be identifying the core mechanics of your game, and it is important to understand how those mechanics interact, when they should interact, and if they should interact at all.  To look at an incredibly simple mechanic, let’s take jumping in Super Mario Bros.  The designers asked themselves what could be done with jumping, and noticed that Mario’s head could hit the underside of blocks, and suddenly, a huge number of possibilities emerged.  Coins, Power-Ups, breaking blocks, tonnes of secrets were suddenly available.  The designers were able to find a method of merging the available mechanics, and created a game that became surprisingly deep.  Ask yourself: do you know where every single power-up is?  And by paying a little extra attention to a simple mechanic, the designers added depth and required no increased complexity in the controls, nor much additional learning on the part of the player.  Simple but deep, the holy grail of design.
Similarly, look at your mechanics, no matter how simple those mechanics are.  In games like Magic: The Gathering, the designers have spent an immense amount of timing looking at the available mechanics; they have examined every stage of a player’s turn, and asked questions about every element.  Does your game contain rolling dice?  Monopoly paid enough attention to have rolling doubles mean an extra roll, and even enough attention to make 3 doubles land you in jail.
This is what every surface in my place looks like.
I’m going to plug the hell out of one of the games I’ve been working on.  Mis-Anthropos (working title) is a co-operative multiplayer card game in which players build would have decks of cards to create societies that must weather the cruelties of fate.  The game is almost entirely about mechanic synergy.  I’m not going to claim it’s magnificently designed, but I do think it relates to this article.  When I started designing the game, I wanted to create something that would rival the complexity of Magic: The Gathering.  A goal as lofty as it was impractical.  Magic is tonnes of fun, but it takes a huge investment of time and understanding.  Magic is not the pick-up-and-play game I was hoping to create.  I went through a lot of design options, but I knew that too often I was leaving myself too much open design space.  I couldn’t add mechanic after mechanic without making the game an unreasonable mess to learn.  I had to close in the space, so I began cutting mechanics.  First thing, I cut down the number of cards, and as such, cut mechanic after mechanic.  Eventually, I cut the idea of a deck at all.  I figured, if the game is about building a society from nothing but effort, then that’s all the player should get to begin.  In limiting my design space, I was able to get a clearer understanding of how the mechanics could support the theme and flavour of the game.  I initially couldn’t see how too much design space could be a bad thing; it’s always nicer to have more options, right?  It became obvious, as I went on, that the type of game I was making was muddy and confused.  Too much space and too many options means too much to learn.  Good games are able to introduce mechanics over time, letting the players become accustomed to a play space before adding new challenges.  This is the purpose of every Magic core set, to give a coherent, relatively easy-to-understand space in which all players can share understanding.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Magic is anywhere close to flawless, but I do see the concepts they’re attempting to use.
Little off topic.  Back on track.  Design space is something a designer must consider.  They must be able to see and understand the interactions of each and every mechanic and variation on those mechanics.  Understanding the design space available allows you to truly understand the reach of your mechanics and the dangerous places your game could go.  Also, it is important to understand the extent of design space you wish to create.  You could allow for a hundred different mechanics, all of which have special interactions, and create a rewarding and diverse system, or you can build three mechanics, but allow for them to interact in myriad ways and create something easy to learn, hard to master.  It all depends on what you want from your game.
As a final note, your design space should reflect the interests of your audience.  If your audience is a family of four on family board game night, you don’t need to and shouldn’t create a vastly intricate web of mechanics, but that doesn’t mean you can slack off just because your game only has a couple.  No one will find family game night fun when Dad figures out how to power game and crush everyone every time.  Attending to the details will keep the game flowing, free, and fun.

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