Game Design and Game
Players feel experiences from playing the game. Subsequently the gameplay must give them players different kinds of emotions that becomes play experience once play of game has finished. Thus, what is a game?
There are no clear-cut definition of a game in current ludology. There are number of competing definitions from various researchers and thinkers. Some of the more prominent older ones are Chris Crawford and Greg Costikyan and Robert Callois while many modern readers like Katie Salem and Eric Zimmermann who wrote Rules of Play (MIT Press) as well as Jesper Juul.
In my personal experience the most influential thinker in game design is Greg Costikyan who wrote essay ”I Have No Words and I Must Design” in 1994 in Interactive Fantasy #2. See it in http://www.costik.com/nowords.html . There is also newer version written in 2002 and published in Proceedings of Computer Games and Digital Cultures Conference, ed. Frans Mäyrä. Tampere: Tampere University Press, 2002. You can find it in http://www.costik.com/nowords2002.pdf . Cracking stuff!
Costikyan defines game as following: ”A game is an interactive structure that requires players to struggle toward goals.”
In my view this means following:
“An interactive structure ” means that player must be an active participant in a game and work according to game rules (structure). Player must thus be active in game and make things happen rather than follow passively what is unfolding. This interaction happens through rules provided by game designer.
“Struggle toward a goal ” means that game offers a good (not too hard and not too easy) challenge. Game must have some kind of conflict that players must solve or overcome using rules in order to achieve goals.
“Endogenous meaning ” means that game has things that matter only within the game itself. They are resources that are somehow limited forcing player husband scarce resources and make decisions concerning possible activities within these limits.
Conflict and Goal are of Paramount Importance
Game should have goals for players to struggle towards. This focuses the mind and provides common purpose for play for individual or a group. Will to win generally springs from the common and accepted purpose.
Goal cannot be achieved with struggle. Struggle is created by creating a conflict that must be solved by overcoming a number of obstacles. Nature, number and difficulty of obstacles differ from game to game but they provide struffle as a whole. Obstacles are difficult because player has limited number of resources in her disposal.
Goals may be explicit or implicit. Explicit goals are clearly defined victory conditions found in games like Chess or Poker. For instance, most board games have explicit victory conditions. This is not compulsory. Several games have implicit victory conditions such as SimCity, The Sims or most tabletop role-playing games. No matter the case it is important for game to provide goals for players so they are constantly focused to do something.
The Sims allows players to play simulated life of a person in a city interacting with other computer simulated persons. It has no explicit goal as player is allowed to play her avatar’s life as she pleases within rules. The implicit goal of the game is to experience a lot of activities and improve one’s house and tag along friends along the way. Socialization and generally good behaviour towards others is not compulsory but most mechanics support these kind of activities.
Eldrich Horror has explicit victory condition where players are supposed to work together to destroy powerful monster from destroying the World. The explicit goal is to destroy the monster by solving individual missions which typically require collecting clues, closing gates to other worlds and like.
Struggle in game comes from obstacles that require player to make decisions with limited amount of resources. This decisionmaking is a job for players who have to decide that to do. Decisionmaking can happen with either full or limited information available to players.
With full information player’s skill is calculating forwards what is going to happen next and then after that. With limited information players are faced with a chance that game mechanics surprise them. However, skilled player can often reduce chance of this surprise. For instance surprise can be reduced in most card games by calculating cards used and having a good memory.
No matter if player(s) have limited or full information available the decision should be a calculated risk based on previously gained experience, situation at hand and information available. It has been noticed that players do not like games where end result is the same no matter what decision has been made beforehand or where result is random no matter what has been decided.
Chess has all the information available to all players at all times. The decisisonmaking and thus player skill is based on planning several moves ahead of the opposition.
Poker is based on limited information. All players know some of the cards but no one knows all the cards.
Harvesting Cycle of Endogenous Resources
Harvesting cycle can be used to describe how players collect and use game’s endogenous resources. When players find game interesting and they want to win it, they concentrate more and more to collecting these resources. The more resources players have in their disposal, the better chances they have to overcome game’s obstacles. Thus harvesting cycle directly affects how players succeed within game structure.
Harvesting cycle is thus the most important way to control and direct player behaviour in game for a game designer. Harvesting cycles should be used to reward correct gameplay. However, Game designer must also think carefully what are the consequences if players do not behave according to harvesting cycle.
Metal Gear Solid V: Phantom Pain has following harvesting cycle: Player gains points from doing battlefield missions well. Additional points can be gained from harvesting different kinds of items in battlefield. These points are then used to build more and better equipment and assets that make more difficult missions easier.
Monopoly board game has money that is used to buy real estate within game. This money has no meaning outside game but it is very important within the game as inability to pay bills leads to bankruptcy and loss.
Alternative description of games
Computer game designer Chris Crawford has also pondered question of games in his book ”Chris Crawford on Game Design” (New Rider, 2003). He proposes a simple taxonomy for play activities from most to least interactive as Games, Puzzles, Toys and Story.
Games are rule-based systems where goal is to one player to win. They involve “opposing players who acknowledge and respond to one another’s actions. The diﬀerence between games and puzzles has little to do with mechanics; we can easily turn many puzzles and athletic challenges into games and vice versa.”
Puzzles are rule-based systems where goal is to ﬁnd a solution. They have little replay value.
Toys are manipulable but there is no ﬁxed goal.
Stories involve fantasy play but they cannot be changed or manipulated by the player
Game and Tabletop Role-Playing
Tabletop role-playing games have generally been thought to be different from other games because most of them do not have explicit goals. However, I do not agree to this and I believe that tabletop role-playing games are fundamentally similar to the other games.
In my view tabletop role-playing games have typically implicit goal that player’s avatar improves during gameplay. This can be achieved with endogenous scoring method (experience points) or character having more in-game resources (like better equipment and/or contacts). Harvesting cycle is thus improving one’s avatar so it becomes more capable to deal with future obstacles.
Downside of implicit goals in tabletop role-playing games is that players may feel lost at times. This is why game has a human gamemaster that provides them something to do. These goals are adventures and missions.
Furthermore, tabletop role-playing games are co-operative by nature. Individual players do not win by defeating other players. Their goals are typically same or at least have common ground within adventure or mission on what they want to achieve. Thus struggles revolve around defeat of enemies/monsters, social struggles, exploration and puzzles of opponent’s plot provided by gamemaster. Tabletop role-playing games are thus very flexible.
Take home tasks
Think what are goals in your game. What are the conflicts in the setting and what are the goals that players must achieve? Are there any hidden obstacles to solve that arise as part of gameplay?
Think harvesting cycles in your game. Ask yourself what is valuable to the players in my game? How valuable it is to them? Can it be made even more/less valuable? Why? How these harvesting cycles affect players’ motivations?