Break in the Frame
Yee Rides Again

Successful Game Design

ControllersTraditional game design is based upon the practices of tabletop game design, that is, writing rules (now generally called ‘game mechanics’) that are implemented into programmed systems. This method works. But it misrepresents the practical aspects of the process by obscuring the relationship between games and players. Games are never invented from nothing: they exist as variations of successful player practices.

Excluding young children, all players come to every game with their own pre-existing player practices already well-established. Defender (1981) was difficult for arcade players to learn because it’s control scheme was nothing like the other arcade games of the late 70s and early 80s. The computer strategy game Steel Panthers (1995) uses a hex map because thirty year's earlier Avalon Hill’s second edition of Gettysburg (1961) established the benefits of these over square maps. DOOM (1993) and Quake (1996) used arrow keys rather than WASD because movement in most Western RPGs up to then had been controlled that way, with mouse-look simply creeping in as an optional alternative interface for games mounted on the Quake engine. Changes were incremental, not revolutionary, because utterly innovative practices become a barrier to play, creating negative word-of-mouth, high risk of bad reviews, and  thus no eventual community.

Community is the big issue here. As I wrote to Dan Cook earlier this year, no-one plays alone. Commercially successful game developers (and indie game devs who can feed themselves) have in common that they either made a game for existing communities of players, or they founded a new community around their game. In all cases, the player practices are contiguous with earlier player practices – either in terms of interface, fictional world, or agency (which is to say, the intersection between the two). The three work together, and all three are important – although in different ways to different players, who may experience a variety of aesthetic flaws as a result of their preferences. Clashes between interface practices create perplexity; clashes between world and agency create ruptures; clashes between agency and interface generate inelegance. All discourage players from engaging in a new community, but not all are strictly game design problems (rupture in particular is often a narrative design issue).

Successful game design doesn’t have to minimise all these aesthetic flaws, because not all players are bothered by rupture, not everyone is sensitive to inelegance, and some players willingly persist in the face of perplexity. But it is the last of these flaws – perplexity – which is the greatest problem for games courting a community of players, because players can adopt a new game easily if its players practices are close to those they already know, and this applies to interface, world, and agency practices. If a games interface practices cause perplexity instead (by being different from player expectations, founded on prior experiences), there is a barrier erected around the game and only a minority of players will get through it. Indeed, contemporary games have developed new community practices to offset this exact problem – such as Wikis that provide detailed information of player practices expressed as game mechanics, and guides that introduce players to new practices gently. Even so, successful new games achieve their success by taking advantage of existing player practices, and only vary them to a relatively small degree, such that players can switch from an existing player community to that of the new game with minimal complications.

A few examples may be helpful. Blizzard’s all-conquering World of Warcraft (2004) did not create a new community but rather absorbed others that were already engaged in very similar player practices. Firstly, the DikuMUDs that had near-identical practices to WoW but used a text interface, followed by much of the MUD community in general (including the other early ‘graphical MUDs’ like EverQuest). Secondly, computer RPG players, since they had very similar practices in interface, world, and agency, but usually played in single-player worlds. Thirdly, tabletop role-players, from whose player practices all these other communities descended. World of Warcraft effectively monopolised the role-playing game lineages, and their communities, through high production values, careful community management, and a buffed-up version of the practices of Dungeons and Dragons (1974). It ultimately became such a huge player community than even the wellspring of its player practices, D&D, began to copy it, with its fourth edition rules clearly geared to appeal to the community WoW had stolen away from the table.

Similarly, Mojang’s monolithic mega-hit Minecraft (2009) was readily available to a hugely diverse community of players because it used a standard interface, one that descended from Quake’s mouse-look combined with inventory mechanics from the cRPG lineage (those largely added to the pool of player practices by 1987’s seminal Dungeon Master). Minecraft did not succeed by monopolising existing communities, however, but by being able to be played by a huge pool of players (thanks to its low-perplexity ‘standard’ interface, and a strong supply of wiki content to bridge the gap to its high perplexity crafting system). Once it was rolling, it then supporting hugely diverse player communities thanks to the open configuration of its numerous regimes of play – from peaceful construction, to vicious permadeath that descends from early digital D&D variants such as Rogue (1980).

Significant growth in community was also fuelled by the ingenious early access business model, which Minecraft both invented and popularised. Unlike later early access schemes, Notch offered rising entry fees from a very low starting point – it was about $10 when I got it, I think it'd been half that when I first saw it, then later it was $20 and $30. Part of my buying decision was precisely the thought that I didn’t want to pay more later, and I’ll wager I'm not the only one who was drawn in this way. This is one of the two key reasons why Minecraft could not have come from a publisher, and could only have been an indie project. The other issue was its low-fi visual aesthetic, very much resembling my indie flop Play with Fire (2006) three years earlier, although there is no direct connection between the two games to my knowledge. (Indeed, the only person I’ve ever found who even saw Play with Fire is Miguel Sicart).

In Minecraft’s case, we can see how its success did not primarily come from its game design ingenuity, which merely provided the seed of appeal around which its communities gathered. It’s success was rooted to continuity of player practices from the lineages of FPS (for interface) and RPG (for world and agency). Minecraft cross-bred and thus hybridised the two key videogame lineages, but it was its inventive business model that provided a means of growing a new community organically and thus had a far bigger part to play in its success than design innovation. This is in no way a criticism. I have enormous admiration for the variations to player practices that Minecraft introduced, which have still not settled into any stable configuration in the games community at large.

Equivalently, superior community maintenance was more important to World of Warcraft’s success than design innovation, of which it had very little – and not because Blizzard isn’t full of extremely capable designers. A gainful comparison here could be made to id software, the only company to get significant traction from the shareware business model. It innovated the ‘standard’ interface – but it built its community on pre-existing interface practices, from the Western cRPG lineages (as noted above), and then grew a community with a non-standard business model. Only when that community was established did id get a chance to spread the now-standard mouse-look FPS interface (which eventually gives us the twin stick control scheme on console as well, via other developers’ variations).

Traditional game design works much of the time because game designers are already members of communities of practice and can therefore replicate and vary those player practices effectively. Those capable of abstracting these practices into ‘rules’ or ‘game mechanics’ inevitably end up in the role of game designer, because they can communicate play in the written form that helps holds big projects together. (Small teams can avoid documentation entirely in many cases, but larger games have no other reasonable option). Nonetheless, the work of games designers will succeed or fail according to how well it maintains and varies the established practices. When it fails, it is often because of unresolved conflicts over precisely which practices are being replicated or modified – especially in traditional publishing relationships. But successful game design has always been embedded within the already existing player communities, and new directions have worked far less often than variations on known themes, no matter what players say about what they think they want.

Traditional marketing is an even less reliable method than game design, in so much as the openly stated strategies (such as target demographics) utterly miss the point about why spending money can fuel the formation of communities. The players are largely already inside the communities for the various big game brands (Mario, Call of Duty, Mortal Kombat, GTA etc.) but can easily be enticed to play games with similar interface, world, or agency. Meanwhile, world-focussed media brands (Middle Earth, Disney, Lego, Star Wars, Harry Potter) provide further opportunities to bring existing player practices to their (largely zero-agency) communities, offering substantial commercial benefits – at a substantial price to developers. Indies can’t afford to do this, so they typically just rip them off – just like the big companies, actually! Tomb Raider comes from Indiana Jones, just as Halo comes from Aliens (with a Larry Niven twist), and Call of Duty comes from Medal of Honor, which comes from Saving Private Ryan (both being concurrent Spielberg-produced projects). Even the much-vaunted indie game Braid (2008) wholly depends upon the player practices of Mario it has borrowed.

So what should you do if you want to be a successful game designer? Well, the primary route to success is to be backed by big publishing money like Shigeru Miyamoto, Peter Molyneux, or Wil Wright – but there’s no way onto the thrones these days without first getting into the trenches. Indeed, there never was. So if you’re aiming for success, you have to be planning to grow a community somehow. If you can’t get, or don’t want, a brand license to make acquiring that community easier, you have to modify the player practices of an existing set of communities. There is only one other option: set your living costs low enough that you get to set the criteria of ‘success’ below the rest of the industry. I have great respect for those that do. But even they are still engaged in variations on the existing player practices. That’s what game design was always about – talk of ‘game mechanics’ is only a medium for the exchange of ideas. We should not let it distract us from acknowledging our intimate familiarity with the player practices of successful games, because we are all a part of at least some of these communities, and always have been.

ihobo will return in the Gregorian New Year.


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