Design Metaphors and Philosophies

Much like every other medium, there are really no hard and fast rules to making a good game. “Add nice graphics,” or “Make sure the gameplay is fun” is hardly a schematic for making a good game, and could be roughly equated with back seat driving, telling someone to be sure to remember to use their turn signal when their turn signal is already on. That said, there have certainly been some attempts to give a basic grounding in what design principles work or don’t work in game design, by a great many individuals. There are a fair number of similarities between these authors (which is unsurprising, since they all read each other and come from similar backgrounds in the industry), but what I personally find more interesting is the differences between different authors, and what metaphors different designers have found most effective for them.

One of the earliest books I read this semester was A Theory of Fun by Raph Koster. While not explicitly about game design per se so much as a discussion about the fundamental concepts of fun and play, Koster does also explore the method he finds most effective for game design. His metaphor is based around his theory that games are fun because the brain is constantly seeking patterns to process. With that in mind, he tries to find new patterns for the brain to process by thinking of a verb that would encapsulate an action or series of actions, and then designs the game mechanic around that verb (or if the game is expansive enough, verbs). From a ludological perspective, this is a very appealing method of design, since the game mechanic quite literally designs itself. This does not leave much room for a narrative-centric game, however.

Chris Crawford in Chris Crawford on Game Design takes a slightly different tack on the issue. His design chain begins with some form of creative motivation (a particular idea for a theme or element in a game, like building a game around the idea of thermonuclear war), and THEN shifts to the verb-design principle. This is purely my personal opinion, but I really don’t think it matters that much which comes first: the idea or the verb. In either case, you are defining a context and an interaction within that context before doing anything else, and whether you think of the context first or the interaction first, it still doesn’t matter.

As a counterpoint to these design philosophies, several game designers interviewed in Marc Saltzman’s Game Design: Secrets of the Sages opt to develop as robust a world as they can, and then find challenges for the player to overcome, with the form of interaction growing out of what those challenges are. What’s interesting with this philosophy is that it creates the context, then the challenges for the player to overcome, then the action verb, and only then do you start discussing story progression and general fun factor. It is definitely worth noting, however, that the designers that discuss this method (notably Hubert Chardot, lead designer of Alone in the Dark) are fairly consistently designing adventure games, a particular genre of game where the player’s areas of interest are generally prioritized in that same order: world, challenge, interaction. Other designers in the book (in particular platform and action game designers) tend to follow Crawford’s order.

In Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams on Game Design, the authors take yet another tack. They break the elements of a game into three parts: game mechanics (how the world of the game functions), storytelling and narrative, and interactivity. Which element you choose to start with is then largely irrelevant and up to the designer’s preferences on which they wish to start with. In their eyes (and I tend to agree with this particular philosophy the most), it doesn’t matter if you decide you want to make a world where a particular logic or set of rules is in effect, and then make a back story to justify it, and then decide how the player interacts with that world, or any variation therein. What they really tried to drive home, however, was the importance of documenting each of these elements, so you aren’t stuck in a perpetual loop of incremental additions or alterations.

Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman’s writing on the subject in Rules of Play is arguably the most divergent syntactically, though the underlying concepts aren’t really all that alien. They also simplify design elements into three parts, though what those parts are differ: the context, the participant, and meaning. The context is fairly self explanatory, defining the space of the game (objects, behavior, rules, narrative et cetera). What we’ve been defining as interactivity, however, has elements in both the participant, and meaning. The participant is the player, and as a design element, describes how the player interacts with the context of the game. “Meaning” as a design element is describing the results of interaction, the impact on the participant and the context (what value does that action have? Are they awarded points? What do those points do? Does their action progress the story? What sort of feedback are we giving to create meaning?). This design metaphor is certainly the most organic of the ones I’ve discussed, which is part of the reason why I’ve found it so hard to describe. By not breaking down the design elements too much, it becomes easier to make a more natural design document, where each aspect of the game can (at least in theory) be more thoroughly encapsulated into a more holistic description. For small team development in particular, I think this method of design would be invaluable, since it would keep everyone involved and aware of the importance of each and every part. For large team development, where work tends to be parceled out and compartmentalized, I think the design document would become a bit unwieldy.

I’m not really in a position to judge which philosophy or design metaphor is more correct. I know which feels the most natural to my own creative process, though, and I suspect that ultimately is the real test of a metaphor’s effectiveness. The fact that these books are all written by successful game designers certainly points out that each process could technically be considered “correct”. My personal preference is first for the philosophy described by Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams, but the organic approach to design described by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman is also highly attractive to me. If I learned anything from comparing these methods, it’s that you simply need to choose a method and run with it. No matter how you choose to think about it, it’s the actual act of making the creates a game.

Work Cited:

Crawford, Chris. Chris Crawford On Game Design. Indianapolis: New Riders Publishing 2003.
Koster, Raph. A Theory of Fun for Game Design. Scottsdale: Paraglyph Press, 2005.
Rollings, Andrew; Adams, Ernest. Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams on Game Design. Indianapolis: New Riders Publishing, 2003.
Saltzman, Marc. Game Design: Secrets of the Sages. Indianapolis: Brady Publishing, 2000.
Zimmerman, Eric; Salen, Kate. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. The MIT Press, 2004.