Game Design and Formal Game Elements

Games are made of formal and dynamic elements which are combined to create a final product. What are the formal elements that game designer has to think?

Game elements can be classified in multiple ways and a lot of game designers have generally classifications that fit their own game design team. Fairly well known classification follows Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman (Rules of Play, 2004 MIT Press) which sets up following formal elements: Players, Objectives, Procedures, Rules, Resources, Conflict, Boundaries and Outcome.

Players: When player joins the game gameplay takes over mundane life. There are number of considerations that start from pondering player vis a vis game system. First, the invitation to game should be engaging process itself. Second, the number of players greatly change the social dynamics around the game. Game designed for a specific number of players is again far different from game designed to range of players. Third, most games have uniform roles for all players (for instance, Chess). Some games have variety of roles for player to choose from. This is common in team game like Football. Finally, there is need to consider different kinds of play styles.

Player Interaction patterns: These patterns determine interaction between player, game system and any other players. Player interaction patterns are described in “The Structural Elements of Games” by E. M. Avedon. Following interaction patterns can be considered:

Single player versus the game is most common pattern in video games. Game creates conflicts for player to solve.

Multiple individual players versus the game has number of players who compete against each other in company others. There is no need to have any kind of interaction between players. Players compete against each other indirectly so there is no mechanism to directly destroy opposition players. Many family board games use this pattern.

Player versus player has two players who directly compete each other. Many sports like for instance Tennis follow this pattern. This is most common pattern for strategy games. This pattern creates intensive head to head competition.

Unilateral competition has two or more players competing against one player. This works fine in ”free for all” situations (for instance Tag) or in asymmetric games where multiple players must co-operate to defeat one player (who has considerable advantages). This pattern combines both cooperative and competitive gameplay.

Multilateral competition games have multiple individuals competing against each other. Videogames use term ”multiplayer” to describe this pattern. Most board games have tuned this type of game to 3 to 6 players.

Cooperative play game has a group of players cooperating against game system. This is common in children’s board games but rarely used in adult games (for instance Pandemic). Many computer role-playing games have co-operative quests combined with competitive play.

Team competition games have two or more groups competing against each other. Many sports like Football or Basketball follow this pattern. Team competitions are highly addictive to spectators (fans) so this pattern is very powerful in gaming.

Objectives: Game has objectives so players have something to do. It is something players try achieve within rules of the game. Some games have different objectives to different players while some games allow player(s) to choose their own objectives from list of several objectives. Some games allow players to form their own objectives. There can be partial objectives to help player to reach full objective. Finally, objectives set the tone of the game.

Following list of objectives from ”Game Design Workshop” by Tracy Fullerton is fairly complete: Capture, Chase, Race, Alignment, Rescue or escape, Forbidden Act, Construction, Exploration, Solution and Outwit.

Capture: Objective of the game is to take or destroy something opponent has while avoiding being captured or killed.

Chase: Objective of the game is to catch an opponent or elude one if you are being chased.

Race: Objective of the game is to reach the goal before the other players.

Alignment: Objective of the game is to arrange game pieces in certain spatial configuration or create conceptual alignment between categories of pieces.  For instance, solitaire or Othello.

Rescue or escape: Objective of the game is to get defined unit or units to safety.

Forbidden Act: Objective of the game is to get competition to break rules by laughing, talking, making a wrong move or otherwise doing something they should not. For instance, Twister.

Construction: Objective of the game is to build, manage or maintain objects. Resource management is often core gameplay element. For instance, Settlers of Catan.

Exploration: Objective of the game is to explore game area. This is typically tied to other more competitive gameplay objectives.

Solution: Objective of the game is to solve a problem or puzzle before competition.

Outwit: Objective of the game is to gain and use knowledge before other players. This can be either outside the game (for instance, Trivial Pursuit) or inside the game (for instance, Diplomacy board game).

Procedures: Procedures are play methods. They state directly what player can do. Video games typically tie procedures to gamepad or keyboard buttons. Board games have typically lists what player can do within their rules. Procedures are different from rules in video games because rules are generally hidden while procedures are not. Games have typically four kinds of procedures: starting action (to put game in play), progression of action (for ongoing activities during the gameplay), special actions (that can be triggered during gameplay due special game state game is currently) and resolving actions (that close the gameplay).

Rules: Rules define game’s objects and actions available to player. Thus all rules must be considered in relation to players of game. Too many rules make it difficult to absorb the ruleset. Poorly written or simply cut off rules may leave players confused or alienated or leave exploits that destroy original intent of the game. Rules should be written to fulfill following things: define objects and concepts, restrict actions and determine effects.

Define objects and concepts because they are always representations of real life objects and concepts within game. They have variables with values. Board games have typically fairly simple definitions due difficulty of following multiple variables simultaneously and complexity of rules necessary.

Restrict actions because rules this way prevent players winning/losing game by accident and close potential loopholes within system. They can also be used to direct gameplay towards wanted player progression.

Determine effects because player’s decisions must have consequences. These consequences deal with two issues: First they provide variation to gameplay. Effects may be triggered due different activities and results providing uncertainty. Second, effects can be used to force player towards wanted gameplay. Penalizing and rewarding effects guide player’s activities through harvesting cycles.

Finally, rules have also other important tasks that game designer must consider. How players learn rules? How are rules enforced? What kind of rules work best in certain situations? Can there be patterns for rulesets? Can game designer and players learn from these rulesets?

Resources: They are assets available to player. Game designer has to decide amount and type of assets available and how they are gained during the game through harvesting cycle. Assets must be useful for achieving goals through gameplay. Assets must be both useful (they help player to achieve game goals) and scarcity (otherwise they lose their relative value in system and harvesting cycle no longer matters). Typically, available resources include: lives, units, health, currency, actions, power-ups, inventory, special terrain and time.

Lives are most common resource in arcade games where lives are easily lost. The idea is that extra lives prevent need to start again from the bottom. Generally, there is no downside in extra lives, the more the better.

Units are most common in games where player is represented by a number of units. They are most common in various strategy games. Units themselves can be up-gradable or evolve to different type and they are either finite or renewable. Biggest problem in units is determining their relative cost compared to each other and thus balance within game. Units typically require a lot of game testing to work properly.

Health dramatizes loss or near loss of lives. This assumes that health can be increased in game. Speed of how quickly health is regained is important too. Most action games have quick health gain in order to get back to fighting quickly while many computer adventure games take longer time to heal.

Currency assumes that game has a trade system where player can buy/sell items. Currency does not necessarily mean just money. Game can also have some kind of bartering system that accomplish same goals. Goal of currency system is to allow quick and easy access to items while barter systems slow acquisition of items considerably.

Actions are resource that changes game rules for player’s advantage. This can be additional actions per players turn (in most turn based games) or possibility of entering game state where player can function faster while others cannot as ”bullet time” in computer games (Max Payne videogame).

Power-ups are typically temporary activities that player can do way over normal rules that considerably aid player to achieve goals. These power-ups are triggered on players will when she sees it necessary and are typically scarce so she needs to search for them.

Inventory is based on idea that player needs to manage actively her resources which are not power-ups. These are typically maluses and bonuses brought by different kinds of bought or found items that are actively manipulated. Some inventory related items are switched during gameplay such as weapons or ammunition. Inventory systems have typically a general idea is that character cannot carry everything needed and must make a meaningful choice.

Special terrain is important in games where scarce resources can be extracted from strategically important terrain. This is typically related to economic system of the game and most commonly found in various strategy games. However, special terrain can also mean abstracted positions of particular importance. These are important in worker placement games.

Time is important resource in game where player needs to do multiple decisions in limited time. Time adds tension to game. Some games use counting clock as well.

Conflict: Conflicts are designed into game with rules, procedures and situations that player must solve to achieve their goals. Classic sources of conflict are: obstacles, opponents and dilemmas.

Obstacles are common in wide variety of games but they are typically most prevalent in single-player games. Obstacles can be physical (for instance water barrier in Golf) or mental (puzzles are common in computer adventure games).

Opponents are other players that are working against player. For instance, monopoly has multiple players who work towards winning by driving others to bankruptcy.

Dilemmas are decisions that have both good and bad consequences to player herself and/or other players. Point of decisions is that they have consequences in future.

Boundaries: Huizinga’s ”magic circle” is used to set barriers that separate game and real world outside it. These barriers are physical (for instance, a football game has pitch and typical board game have play area defined as board) or conceptual such as social agreement to play in a tabletop roleplaying game or many party games. Boundaries are important in sense that they limit gameplay in practice. Most games are closed systems. However, changing these boundaries can totally change game experience. For instance, alternate reality game Pokémon GO combines gameplay with few real world physical barriers.

Outcome: Game should have uncertain outcome so player’s attention is held throughout the game. Players generally lose their interest in game when the end state is known and generally either start a new game or do something else. Outcome should be related to player’s interaction so player’s actions have direct consequence in game. Games can be further divided to zero-sum games and non-zero-sum games.

Zero-sum games have a clear-cut victory and/or loss conditions. Main advantage of these games is very clear definition of who won and did not. For instance, Backgammon has very clear victory conditions. Many sports have also very clear victory conditions.

Non-zero-sum games have grades of outcomes. The can be ranking systems, player statistics or multiple objectives. Main advantage of these games is to create player dilemmas and complex risk-reward scenarios which allow interesting gameplay and player strategies.

Formal Elements and tabletop role-playing

Most of the thinking concerning formal elements in tabletop role-playing games can be traced to writings of Gary Gygax (”Role-Playing Mastery”, 1987 and ”Master of the Game”, 1988) and Greg Costikyan (”I Have No Words and I Must Design”, 1994, 2002).

Table-top roleplaying games are similar to board games that there is effective upper limit to number of players due need to communicate effectively with all players simultaneously. Board games appear to be close analogy so 3 to 6 players appears to be a good design goal.

Table-top roleplaying games have two player roles: a gamemaster and a player. Gamemaster designs and runs imaginary game universe. Player creates avatar for herself who then acts in this game universe. There is one gamemaster and at least one player. A good design goal would be 1 game master and 2 to 5 player roles.

Tabletop role-playing games have one implicit permanent objective and multiple temporary objectives. The implicit objective is improvement of player’s avatar through play (using harvesting cycle). Temporary objectives are invented by players (both gamemaster and player roles).

Role-playing games are cooperative and thus players establish ongoing mutually beneficial relations with each other. Therefor players can ask other players to help them carry out temporary objectives of their own invention. These objectives spring from the game world that game master has devised. Players find opportunities and interests they wish to exploit within game world. Gamemaster’s task is to offer players additional objectives to pursue based on gamemaster’s and players’ interests. These objectives follow mission structure (typically called ”adventures”). Number of missions can be chained to a longer campaign allowing setting smaller goals as adventures.

Table-top roleplaying games stress players’ freedom of action within game world. They are effectively open world games where player can approach objectives in nonlinear way. Gamemaster is responsible for running the game world and responding to player actions. This can lead to emergent gameplay.

Table-top roleplaying game rulesets are typically set to emulate conventions of a specific genre or setting. Rules are not expected to cover all eventualities and many aspects of game world are simply not simulated by rules. Gamemaster is expected to use her own initiative to make rulings to cover situations that rules do not cover. This is a counterintuitive to board games but it is necessary as writing rules that cover all possibilities is not feasible endeavor to game designer. Furthermore, many players use also their own initiative to create additional rules or remove parts of existing rulesets. Rules has thus become a toolbox rather than final word in most games. Many tabletop roleplaying games actively encourage this kind of thinking.

The goal of the role-playing games is not roleplaying per se but to play a game where players have avatars who do things players find interesting and enjoyable. Players are expected to know other players and their game avatars. Players are expected to work together with gamemaster to create avatars as well as have continuous interest in game world and work together to create new content during gameplay. Gygax particularly stressed importance of teamwork.

Take home tasks

Formal game elements mean plenty of thinking for game designer. While these issues do not need to be set in stone immediately, it is advisable to think these issues over and then make informed decisions concerning pros and cons.

Players: How many players does the game require? How many total players can the game support? Do various players have different roles? Will they compete, cooperate, or both?

Objectives: What are some objectives of games you have played? What impact do these objectives have on the tone of the game? Do certain genres of play lend themselves to certain objectives? What about multiple objectives? Do objectives have to be explicit? What about player-determined objectives?

Procedures:  Who does what, where, when, and how? Who can use the procedure? One player? Some players? All the players? What exactly does the player do? Where does the procedure occur? Is the availability of the procedure limited by location? When does it take place? Is it limited by turn, time, or game state? How do players access the procedure? Directly by physical interaction? Indirectly through a controller or input device? By verbal command?

Rules: How do players learn the rules? How are the rules enforced? What kinds of rules work best in certain situations? Are there patterns to rule sets? What can we learn from those patterns?


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