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Subject: Toward a Methodology of Game Design rss

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Timothy Marlorme
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I should preface this post by saying that everyone's creative process is a beautiful and unique snowflake. In this post I am simply putting forward a methodology that I have found very helpful in my recent design projects (and that you might find useful in yours).

First, here are some of the (potentially faulty) assumptions under which I am working:
1) It is difficult to develop a system without some kind of theme from which to draw inspiration. By no means impossible, just difficult.

B) It is difficult to create a clean and well balanced game by attempting to represent all of the myriad possibilities of a given theme. That is to say, if you depart from the question, "This thing exists within the theme, how do I represent it in my game?" it is hard to arrive at a balanced and clean system.

III) It is easier to develop a clean system and then apply a theme to it than to start with a theme and develop a clean system from there. Good examples of this principle are games like Munchkin, Twilight Imperium, and Runequest.

With those assumptions standing, I have begun creating games as such:

First, you have an idea of a mechanic that you would like to explore. Secret bidding, tug-of-war resources, hot potatoes, tragedy of the commons, VP tension, etc. Whatever mechanic you want to play with, use it.

Second, you get an idea for a theme that can be represented with that mechanic. Whether it's wizards dueling, nations at war, building a farm, or exploring the galaxy makes no difference. Your mechanic should fill a central role in the theme. Example: If you have chosen secret bidding, why not make a game where you are trying to bribe the pope in 16th century Italy to elect the church officials that you favor?

Third, make some basic game design decisions about how you will represent certain important concepts. Example: Are you spending VPs on bids? Are your church officials on a map or in a hand of cards? Are you representing the influence of powerful families or military at all? Once you have some loose answers to basic game design questions, you can move on to (what I consider) the most important part: abstraction.

Fourth, abstraction. You will now remove all identifying thematic marks from your game. Cards have no names and are given alphanumerical designations. Maps are abstracted into geometric shapes. Victory Points are just called VPs, etc. What this allows you to do is focus on the gameplay itself without having to ask yourself the forever nagging question, "Does this mechanic make sense within my theme?" The reason to avoid this question, is that it can stifle good game design. For now, you just need to worry about creating a good core mechanic and smooth gameplay without being distracted by the nuances and realities of 16th century Italian church politics. Once you have a good system, its time to re-apply the theme.

Fifth and finally, re-apply the theme. Name all of your cards and some up with explanations for your effect. If something seems weird now, do some subject research, think outside the box, and ask some of your more linguistically gifted friends how they would explain this idea. This part may be creatively taxing, but remember that at this point you already have a good game. You just need to explain it. At this stage you may even want to add interesting and thematic rules elements on top of your core system. That's fine! You may find that the old theme no longer fits, or that a new theme fits better. That's fine! You still have a good system to work from.

In the end, what I am saying is that it is easier to create a story for a good set of rules than it is to create a good set of rules from a story. This post is just a few ideas of how to get there.

I recognize that this is not a methodology that is right for all games. I seriously doubt that anyone using this process would have come up with Twilight Imperium (a game I adore) or Original Munchkin (a very popular game). Grandiose Ameritrash games are unlikely to come out of this process. Also, this is probably not a good way to create zany games which are less about balance and more about wackiness.

Dominion is a great example of a stellar system whose theme seems to be whitewashed over it. Change the names of the cards and Dominion could be about just about anything you want. The system is what made the game a hit, and what keeps us coming back for more.

If your goal is a clean and balanced system, but you can't get inspiration without a theme, this method might be of some use. At least, it was for me.

Thanks for reading everyone, let me know what you think of this process and feel free to share a bit about your own.
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Paul Imboden
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TeaIsForTim wrote:
In the end, what I am saying is that it is easier to create a story for a good set of rules than it is to create a good set of rules from a story. This post is just a few ideas of how to get there.


I'll agree with "easier". I'm not certain about "better". But I'm just One Guy -- YMWV.
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Nate K
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Well, it's definitely not the only way to design a game. In fact, I don't think I would ever, personally, use this method. I'm too much of a fan of thematic games to want to abandon theme for a large part of the design process. But it's definitely one way to go about it. I hope others find this to be useful.
 
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Jason D. Kingsley
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TeaIsForTim wrote:

1) ...

B) ...

III) ...


This looks intentional, which makes me happy.
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Joe McDaid
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I don't see why designers choose to separate theme and gameplay as if they should be designed one after another. They should be evolving together.

So far when it comes to the games I've been designing feed back comes in two forms, the artisitc elements and the game play elements. I got whole novel length forum posts about how 'sector' was the wrong word to be using which is completely thematic in nature. However, what I call 'sectors' in the game have very important rules attached to what a sector is. But it's still feedback and it's still important to consider when making the game whole. For the record I've started calling them Systems..:3
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Timothy Marlorme
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Jice wrote:
I don't see why designers choose to separate theme and gameplay as if they should be designed one after another. They should be evolving together.


I agree that this should be the case ideally and overall, but what I posted is more of a breakdown of my specific process than anything else.

I was finding myself blocked by questions of, "How should this idea be represented within my rules?" without necessarily having a fully polished set of rules to refer to. What this tends to lead to (for me) is a system clogged with thematic rules that are hard to disentangle from the core system. This is how I avoid that, and perhaps it will be helpful for people who are having a similar problem.

That said, theme and gameplay evolving together does make for some of the most engaging and immersive games, when done right.



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Christopher Zinsli
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spindrift wrote:
TeaIsForTim wrote:

1) ...

B) ...

III) ...


This looks intentional, which makes me happy.


This is a silly way to use my first posting here, but that reminded me of Home Alone:

Megan McCallister: You're not at all worried that something might happen to Kevin?
Buzz McCallister: No, for three reasons: A, I'm not that lucky. Two, we use smoke detectors and D, we live on the most boring street in the whole United States of America, where nothing even remotely dangerous will ever happen. Period.
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Ben Pinchback
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Being an engineer and not an artist per say, my mind gravitates towards mechanics first, second, and prolly even third. There's usually an original and generic placeholder theme, but once I get a good handle on what the mechanics are gonna be, theme tends to change multiple times until something sticks. Eventually though the final appropriate theme clicks and helps to evolve the game into its finished form.
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