What We’re Doing: Underlying Principles

Today was going to be about awkward rules. However, I realized that while I’ve talked a lot about using legal analysis, I haven’t really explained how it works to readers who aren’t familiar with it. I want to remedy that, and in the process discuss in a bit more detail what is driving this blog. We’ll come back to awkward rules in a little while.

At its most fundamental level, legal analysis works like this: there are some facts. Those facts give rise to an issue–the legal question you want to answer. To do so, you go back through the annals of the law to find the rule(s) applicable to your issue. The you compare the facts to the rule(s) to get an answer; the answer is called a “holding,” but it’s basically an answer. That answer/holding may end up being used as a rule in future cases.

So, for example, suppose John Doe takes someone’s car without that person’s permission, joyrides it around town, and crashes it into a tree. If you had absolutely no pre-existing knowledge of the law, that might give rise to the issue “do these facts make out a criminal offense?” (We all know John Doe stole the car, but again, suppose you had no knowledge of the law whatsoever.) Your research might reveal, depending on one’s jurisdiction, a rule that looks something like “taking another person’s property without that person’s permission, intending not to give it back, is theft.” With that rule one might conclude, based on the facts at hand, that John Doe committed the offense of theft; he took the car without permission, and joyriding it dangerously suggests that he did not intend to return it.

There are many pitfalls in this process. First, one must correctly identify the legally relevant facts. You have to know that Jon Doe’s particular name doesn’t matter; if you think it does and spend all your time looking for rules specifically about John Doe you aren’t going to get anywhere. (Of course, there are occasions when John Doe’s identity does matter–think of signs in subways specifically noting that there are extra penalties for harming a transit worker. Sometimes you need some knowledge of the rules in order to detect the relevant facts.)

Second, the issue must be framed correctly. To give an example from Over the Next Dune’s development, for a long time it was possible for the players to get close to their goal with the searchers far behind them. The searchers would rarely catch up, and so the endgame was very easy. I cast the problem as “how can the searchers be kept relevant throughout the game,” which first led me to try various ways to let the searchers “respawn” in more relevant positions and then, when those proved unsatisfactory, to reduce the size of the board. The latter solution worked well, but I only tried it because I had stated the issue broadly. If I had considered the issue to be “how can the searchers respawn to be relevant throughout the game,” I would have kept going down a futile path.

Third, the rule has to be correct. If your calculator thinks that 2 + 2 = 5, it will give you wrong answers no matter how carefully you frame the question and input the numbers.

The problem I’ve seen in game design is that there are lots of facts and issues, but very few reliable rules. Even the rules which are commonly propounded are, to use a term from my college days, under-theorized; we don’t understand them well enough to know their limits and proper use.

Let me give a quick example. Mark Rosewater, lead designer of Magic: the Gathering, once made a list of rules for game design to teach to kids. One of the rules was that a game should have inertia; it should move toward an ending. That’s clearly true for Magic, but players of role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons might disagree. Role playing gamers often look back fondly on long campaigns, and see keeping their games going as a virtue; these games don’t want to move toward an ending, they want to keep going indefinitely. Similarly, I know people who have sunk hundreds of hours into various Elder Scrolls games, exploring and adding to their homes/castles/wizard’s towers/etc. Those players would be happiest if the game never ended–if it had an infinite amount of interesting stuff to see.

Do those examples mean Mark Rosewater is wrong? He’s an incredibly successful designer, having shepherded a brilliant game–and it is brilliant, as even its detractors (who often focus on its collectible distribution rather than its gameplay) generally agree–for many successful years. We should hesitate to say he’s mistaken.

I think the real problem is that Mr. Rosewater’s rule isn’t applicable to all games. In legal terms one might say that didn’t identify all the relevant facts; the case presented was about making a marketable game intended for relatively short individual plays, but he just presented it as being about games. His rule is right–so long as one understands it thoroughly and knows when to apply it.

My goal for this blog is to improve our understanding of the rules that are already out there, and to develop new rules where they are needed. In doing so, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants–and yes, Mark Rosewater is one of them–who went before me. I’m not sure if I’ll ever see farther than they have, but my hope is that by using a legal analytic structure I will be able to see clearly, and to impart what I’ve seen effectively.


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