So You Want to Try Game Design

Welcome! Game design is an endlessly fascinating and exciting field. It’s awesome that you want to try it out, and you can get involved without needing to invest anything more than your time and curiosity.

A lot of people will tell you start by learning something like Unity or GameMaker. Those are both good programs, but there’s a certain amount of lead time involved as you learn them. My suggestion would be to start by creating some games; once you’ve gotten a sense for where you want to go with your first design(s), you’ll be better positioned to judge which tools will help you get there.

Instead of working on the computer, begin by learning with Magic: the Gathering. Try making up some cards, and then play them and see how they work out. (Don’t worry about making them pretty–just cut up slips of paper and sleeve them with normal cards.) Expand that into a full set, or design a cube for drafting. Get used to reaching into a game’s systems.

While you’re doing that, play some games that will give you a sense for just how vast the genre is, and how limitless the opportunities for creativity are. Gone Home, Proteus, Beyond EyesPapers, Please–the list goes on. Challenge yourself to see games in new ways.

Don’t neglect to read, either. There’s a lot of great writing about game design out there. The links page above has some; when you’ve exhausted that, I’d recommend Salen and Zimmerman’s Rules of Play.

Game design is sometimes fun, always challenging, and incredibly rewarding. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do, and that the advice above helps you get started. Again, welcome!


Theory: The Limitations on the Rules

I propound a lot of rules on this blog, and I present them as things you should always do. However, it’s important to recognize that they are not necessarily immutable or universally applicable. While I don’t believe rules are made to be broken, I do believe that they need to be properly understood—and that means giving due weight to their limitations.

One might reasonably ask why it is that game design rules aren’t as reliable as, for example, the laws of physics. I can see at least four reasons:

1. Game design rules are sometimes in tension, and so it might not be possible to follow all of them at once.

Wargames are called upon to provide reasonably accurate simulations of the conflicts they’re based on. That often means putting in some period detail. Fire in the Lake is a good game about the Vietnam War for many reasons, and among them is how it incorporates actual events and issues to create a you-are-there feeling.

At the same time, elegance is usually seen as an important design goal. Just as too much chrome is bad for the look of a car, too many special cases and deviations from the general pattern is bad for a game experience.

Top-flight wargames can balance these two considerations, detail and elegance, but they will always be in conflict. It’s just not possible for such a game to pursue either elegance or historicity to their fullest extents; doing so will prevent the game from achieving its broader goals. The design rules have to bend.

2. Sometimes you get more by breaking a rule than you do from following it.

League of Legends is arguably the most popular game in existence today. It also, as its VP of Game Design points out, breaks the rules sometimes. That’s not because League’s designers don’t know the rules; it’s because they recognize circumstances where they can get more than they give.

As a non-League example, think back to the Babylon 5 CCG. The B5CCG was probably “wrong” to have lots of off-card states to track. However, those states created levers cards used to impact the table-talk at the heart of the game. B5CCG broke a rule because doing so was important to that specific design.

It may be that this is just a subset of the previous situation; the B5CCG may actually have been following a rule (perhaps one as yet unelucidated) when it added meters that had to be tracked on a playmat. However, I think the question of “should I break this rule, given that I’ll get a lot of benefits” comes up often enough to deserve its own entry. If the cost-benefit analysis supports it, the answer is “yes.”

3. We know that some games break rules and get away with it.

An act that contravenes the laws of physics is going to have big problems, but we know from experience that games can break the rules of design and be a lot of fun. Maybe that means they’re following deeper rules than we’ve yet discovered; maybe that means the rules are mere guidelines. Either way, there’s clearly a limit to how much respect the rules of design are due.

4. I don’t know everything.

The fact is that I’m learning as I go. Sometimes I’ll have an incomplete understanding, and thus propound an incomplete rule; sometimes I may just turn out to be wrong. Rules are best when they’re made by the best, and I’m not there yet.

Try letting go

I like rules. I think they’re useful. I’ll even go so far as to say that I believe in their power and utility.

However, the rules of game design aren’t as ironclad as the rules of science. Perhaps that’s because they can’t be; perhaps we simply aren’t as far along in our understanding of them. Either way, it’s always worth keeping in mind that the rules may not be leading you in the right direction. Recognize their limitations, and allow yourself the freedom to—judiciously—break them.

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.

The Case Study: Print & Play File

Here are the materials needed to play Over the Next Dune. This is everything you’ll need, from the map to the playing pieces on the map to the cards that move the pieces. Assembly instructions are in the game rules.

As with the rules, I would appreciate feedback–not on the gameplay at this point, but on the print-and-play file. Were there places where it didn’t match up well with the instructions? How could I change it so that the game would be easier to assemble?

Over the Next Dune – Print & Play – 1-24-14

The Case Study: Rules

Here they are: the rules for Over the Next Dune, the game I’ve been working on and our case study. Up to this point, every time I’ve taught this game I’ve done so by actually being in the room, physically demonstrating it. The players have always found it easy and intuitive. Writing the rules so that they are as easy to understand as those in-person demos has been quite the challenge. This is my current effort; I think it’s the best so far, but I know it’s far from perfect and would welcome feedback.

In particular:

1. What parts of the rules are unclear?
2. Right now the rules are largely plain text. Where would diagrams be useful?
3. What structural changes to the rules could I make to help players understand them? Should I move sections around, combine sections or split them up, or otherwise change the overall flow of the document?

What I’m looking for in this specific post is feedback about the presentation of the rules, rather than feedback about the rules themselves. Don’t worry, there will be plenty of time to go over the rules with a fine-toothed comb! I just want to make sure that the rules are comprehensible so that everyone is on the same page.

You’ll see that the rules start with instructions on assembling your own print-and-play copy of the game. Those files will go up on Friday, with their own feedback request. I’ll warn you in advance that they’re meant to be kind to your printer ink, so they’re not very flashy. However, they definitely get the job done.

Let me know what you think in the comments!

Over the Next Dune – Rules – 1-22-14

What we’re doing

A game should be fun. It might also be educational, exciting, informative, thought-provoking, and emotionally compelling, but underlying all of that a game needs to be fun. If it fails at that no one will play it, and your game will not be able to achieve any other goals you have set for it.

The problem for a game designer is that saying “a game should be fun” just begs the question of how one makes them fun. As anyone who’s ever tried will tell you, making a game—any game, of any sort—is extremely difficult. Making that game good is even harder. It’s tough even to figure out what “good” means!

Here on this blog the goal is to answer seemingly unmanageable questions like “how does one make a game fun.” We’ll do it using tools provided by the law. Judges, juries, lawyers, and others in the legal system have to answer big, impossible questions all the time—just ask any family court judge about dividing custody between two good parents. Legal analysis is designed to help us handle unwieldy problems. I’ve been using it in my game design work for a little while now, and I’m confident that legal analysis techniques will continue to prove just as effective in dealing with issues of game design as it is in dealing with intractable questions in every other area of life.

I’ll be up front in saying that I don’t have all the answers. It might be that no one does; games are as old as human civilization, but game design as a field of study is young. My goal is to discover some of the principles underlying good game design, using my legal training to structure the process.

One of the first things law students learn (at least, law students in the United States) is that judges can’t just wander around pronouncing the law; rather, they decide the specific case in front of them. In order to hew as closely as possible to proper legal analytic technique, I’m going to stick with that case-specific methodology. The “case” here will be a game I have been working on for over a year. We’ll look at its problems, try to resolve them, and in the process we’ll derive lessons that will help us going forward. From time to time we’ll also take a look at other games, analyzing them in the same way.

The first rule of game design is the same as the first rule of being a lawyer: there’s no substitute for hard work. Hence, you can expect updates every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

It’s going to be a long, bumpy, but interesting ride. I hope you’ll join me.