Monday, July 24, 2017

The Most Fundamental Fundamental of Game Design

Over the past few weeks I've thrown out dozens of prototypes and agonized over some my current projects. The problem? They're not fun.

There's a lot of talk about what makes for good game design and bad game design, but let's get down to what a game fundamentally is.

In concrete design terms, what are most games?

They're a bundle of systems we've all seen before.

You can boil down any game to a few simple basics that get reused over and over. This reductive analysis comes in waves, each time a slightly new view on the medium, a slightly different reductive take. Games are about learning skills. Games are Skinner boxes. Games are slot machines. Games enforce a magic circle.

While developing a game, we also tend to fall into this reductive analysis. We see the game before it's polished and we're too familiar with it to feel the impact of the assets. Since we're not playing it in the same way a player does, our view of the pacing is going to be wrong, too.

Like a movie editor in the guts of a reel, wondering whether to cut from this to that. Cut on this frame or this frame? Now I can't even tell if this shot is any good, I've seen it too many times.

Every medium is like this. There are fundamentals. Everyone argues over what they are and how to use them. But any way you slice it, while you're neck deep in creating the project, you end up staring those fundamentals in the face and second-guessing yourself.

Your RPG is boring and bland, just an oatmeal mush of cities and dungeons and level progression. To you. While you're in it.

And maybe it's bland to everyone else. You can't tell.

Just as the problem is universal to all forms of art, the solutions and workarounds are also universal. Anything a movie editor does, a game dev can do. Anything a writer does, a game dev can do. From small things like stepping away for a few hours to big things like making four different versions and having random people try all four.

But the biggest thing to do - in all forms of media - is to be trying to do something.

Too many people agonize over whether their fundamentals are "on target" without even knowing where they're aiming in the first place!

When a movie editor agonizes over cut A or cut B, the solution is to know what fits the movie better. What fits the story, the pacing, the characters, this exact moment?

When a comic artist hesitates over a page, they stop and think. "Maybe I should try to focus on page flow here to pull the reader back in." "These three panels of this person's face need a cutaway to their hands to keep things flowing." "This page should be spikey and fractured because the hero is on the ropes." "Maybe I should draw a few thumbs and ask someone which one feels loneliest."

This is obvious and well-understood in other forms of media, but in games it is often overlooked.

Is part of your RPG boring to you?

Well, what are you trying to accomplish with the boring part?

It isn't just a matter of rebalancing or decorating. What is your RPG supposed to feel like here? Why? Are you using the wrong approach? The right approach, but too much or too little? What other facets affect this and might be souring it? Level design? Story progression? Character design? If you have design pillars, what went astray?

By considering what you're aiming for and what the player should be experiencing, you can figure out which approaches have promise. You can get a grip on what you think is "boring" and pull yourself out of a featureless plain of potential options.

... it's the same in any medium.