Theory: What Can Game Designers Consider?

I’m on a bit of a Star Wars CCG kick right now, owing to the recent reset of the game. Not only is that stripping away a lot of accumulated cruft (thereby making the game a great deal more accessible), it’s also presenting an interesting design question: what are valid considerations for a game designer?

To see the problem, put yourself in the shoes of one of the people guiding SWCCG’s reset. Your job is to go through hundreds, perhaps even thousands of cards, and choose no more than 150 that will continue to see regular play. How do you do it?

Some approaches are intuitively obvious. You could look at each individual card, and ask “is this card good for the game, in light of the lessons learned since it was originally designed?” The message boards have many discussions in that vein. Alternatively you could take a broader view, asking “are the strategies that this card enables fun and interesting?” Players called for one card to be included in the new base set expressly because it was the centerpiece of deck that was both fun and fun to play against.

The issue gets tricky, though, when one considers factors outside the game proper. One member of the “reset strike force” argued against including cards that helped a deck which is expensive to build. He felt that the reset would fail to attract new players if they found out that the strongest tournament deck cost hundreds of dollars to piece together on the secondary market. The deck, and the cards that went into it, were essentially sacrificed to marketing considerations. Is that valid from a design perspective?

Similarly, there was a Dark Side deck that everyone agreed was fun, balanced, and generally good for the game. However, it was based on a card of an unusual type–an “Objective”–and none of the Light Side Objectives were going to make the cut. The Dark Side Objective was therefore left out, and its associated deck with it, on the thinking that the perceived unfairness of the DS getting something the LS wasn’t would bother players. Mark Rosewater would agree that people would dislike the incomplete pair, but the problem is external to the play of any specific match. Should a game designer care?

Underlying these issues is the general question of how we should define a game designer’s ambit. If a good designer cares about the game in play, and only that, then marketing-driven decisions are at best right for the wrong reasons and at worst actually harmful to the game. On the other hand, if the designer is crafting something larger–an overall experience that includes both play and the activities surrounding play–then it’s appropriate to think about how players will feel when they see an unbalanced card list.

In practice game designers clearly care about the experience. Most games are intended for a broad audience, after all, and the overall experience is part of how one attracts players. Nevertheless, I think it’s interesting to puzzle over the question in the abstract. Are game designers inherently marketers, or is that just a function pushed upon them? Is the marketing part of the game, or ultimately external to it? How far afield do we want game designers to go?

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