Intro: Talking about game design

16 Feb 2017

I’ve heard the argument before that it’s as hard to say anything useful about the entire category of “games” as it is to say anything useful about the entire category of “movies”. I agree with the sentiment, but I fear that perhaps this comparison doesn’t go far enough. A better comparison, perhaps, would be that it’s as hard to say anything useful about “games” as it is to say anything useful about “videos.”

And when I say videos, I mean any type of video. Movies are included, but so is everything that’s ever been posted to youtube. This better illustrates the point, I think: It’s crazy to think there’s any productive statement that can apply to Schindler’s List, and to a tutorial about installing a refrigerator, and to “Charlie bit my finger.” It’s just as crazy to think that we can make a useful statement that applies to The Last of Us, and to Super Crate Box, and to Chess.

Statements about the design of games in general, like the famous quote attributed to Sid Meier that “A game is a series of interesting decisions” inevitably have counterexamples. What about walking simulators? Those seem to get an audience that really enjoys them, often without having any meaningful decisions at all. Another claim that one might make is “Games should attempt to immerse their players in the world of the game.” What about The Stanley Parable? “Games should be focused around their mechanics, and stories shouldn’t interfere with the mechanics” What about Undertale?

It might just sound like I’m just saying that we can’t say anything useful about games, so we shouldn’t even try. But that isn’t my point: I think there is a solution to this problem. Just as it’s easier to say something about the category of “movies” than it is about “videos,” it’s easier to say something about a specific category of games than about all games. And we can, of course, get even more specific than “movies”: it’s much easier and more productive to think just about “horror movies” or “documentaries” or “action thrillers” or “romantic comedies” than to cram them together under the name “movies.”

A conversation about “horror movies” will be vastly more productive than a conversation about “videos.” Similarly, a conversation about the design of “strategy games” or “rhythm games” or “walking simulators” will be far productive than a conversation about “games.”

Being even more specific than conventional genre names could also be worthwhile: Just as it can be useful to divide “horror movies” into “jump-scare horror movies” and “psychological horror movies,” it might be can be useful to divide “strategy games” into two categories:

1: Strategy games which are designed from a purely mechanical perspective, and would still be just as interesting even without any elements other than their mechanics. Examples of games like this are Chess, Auro: A Monster Bumping Adventure, and Minos Strategos. These games either have no narrative elements, or those elements are entirely secondary to the mechanical elements of the game, and the game wouldn’t be much worse off without them.

2: Strategy games which are designed such that the non-mechanical elements of the game, like narrative or characters or feeling like a simulation of a real-world thing, are just as important as the mechanical elements, if not the more important. Games like this would include the Civilization games, the XCOM games, and most “4X” or “Grand Strategy” games. In these games, the story being told, or the visual aspects of the game, or some other part of the game that isn’t part of the ruleset, is a large part of the enjoyment people get out of these games.

For the sake of simplicity, I’ll call category 1 “Abstract Ruleset Games,” or “AR games” because these games are designed such that they’re rulesets can stand on their own, without any context around the ruleset or anything to supplement it. I’ll call category 2 “Hybrid Strategy Games” since they are games which combine the ruleset interestingness that AR games have with other elements, such as narrative or graphics.

There are very few games that fall perfectly into the category of Abstract Ruleset Games. Chess and Go are in there, but even for Auro, one of the games I used as an example of an AR game, one could make the argument that it is really a Hybrid Strategy Game. It contains graphics, music, and a story, and certainly some people would get less enjoyment if all those elements were removed. It’s difficult to find a modern game that is entirely abstract, and so if we are strict with what we call what we call AR games then the category will be mostly empty.

However, any Hybrid Strategy game has an Abstract Ruleset game embedded in it. If you strip any strategy game of it non-mechanical elements you are left with an AR game, and we can make objective statements about the quality of the AR game within any hybrid strategy game.

Of course, a statement about the quality of the AR game embedded in a game isn’t equivalent to a statement about the quality of the entire game. There are Hybrid Strategy Games that are very enjoyable to many people, but in which the embedded AR games aren’t themselves that valuable, but simultaneously there are games where the non-mechanical elements aren’t worth much, and almost all of the value comes from the embedded AR game.

Just as we can improve our conversations about games by focusing on specific categories of games, we can also improve them by being clear about exactly which parts of games we are talking about. If I tell you that I think strategy game X is bad, you don’t immediately know whether I think that it’s bad due to its story, its graphics, its ruleset, etc. However, if I tell you that the AR game embedded within game X is bad, you have much more useful information, and our conversation will be much more productive. The same would be true if I told you that I think the story or the graphics of game X were bad.

So, why am I focusing so much on the AR elements of strategy games, instead of the narrative or graphical elements? Essentially, because I think someone should, and right now there aren’t many people doing it. People have been studying visual art and storytelling for hundreds of years, but the art of designing a ruleset that is interesting to strategically interact with is relatively new, and is unique to the medium of games.

This blog will focus on the practice behind designing Abstract Ruleset Games. And to be as clear as possible, I’m not necessarily saying that AR elements are more important than graphics, or narrative, or any other aspect of a game. I’m just saying that it is a very important aspect, and the one that I, personally, am most interested in and will be writing about.