The three R's

Game design is the act of serialized decision-making. And so, good game design is the process of making many decisions well. In the context of a fiction-based video game, I've found that three principles should be applied when considering each design decision you're presented with. Obviously the earlier, bigger decisions require much deeper consideration on these fronts than the later, micro decisions.


Restraint is the act of resisting the urge to throw in every idea you have simply because it sounds cool, awesome, or hilarious. Pop culture in-jokes, gratuitous violence and sexuality, and self-indulgent story content tend to benefit the designer before the player. Do you want to make an idea simply to make it ('I want to make it so you can blow dudes' heads off,' 'I want to make a chick with big boobs,' 'I want to make a Monty Python in-joke,') or does it objectively benefit the identity of the design? Lack of restraint is adolescent. Restraint is based on tastefulness. Restraint will save you time because it is a culling behavior. Restraint is your first line of defense against executing on bad ideas.


Rigor is applied through the act of objectively and deeply considering the practical implications of an idea. No design element is an island-- in fact, almost every design element is connected to every other by a complex web of dependencies. An idea that is not analyzed rigorously is destined to unstring that web, simply due to lack of consideration. Rigor is the act of questioning your idea unflinchingly from every angle, as this veteran programmer does for a couple of big ideas that sound good on the surface. Your job is to attack your design idea from all directions-- technical and gameplay systems in equal measure-- and find the holes in it before moving forward. Is your game engine capable of supporting this design element? Are any other design systems in conflict with this element? Any new idea must stand up to intense scrutiny before you move onto the implementation stage. This isn't to downplay the role of iteration-- even the most deeply examined idea will need to be iterated upon once you have it running. The intent is to root out those problems which would be "so obvious" once you got around to implementing the thing, and avoid spending time on an idea that is inherently untenable. As the old carpenter's aphorism goes: measure twice, cut once.


If Restraint questions the "what" of your idea, and Rigor questions the "how," then Rationale questions the "why." Does this idea fit into the broader experience-- the identity of the gameworld, the conceits of the fiction? What is your justification for this thing's existence? Many of the fictional conceits for established genre mechanics in BioShock are wonderful examples of clever Rationale: why are there heavy weapons and vending machines selling ammunition in an undersea utopia? Because this society fell into civil war between its inhabitants (motivating them to construct grenade launchers, crossbows, turrets, etc. from scavenged materials) and was hyper-capitalist (meaning that war profiteers were free to exploit the conflict by selling bullets to the combatants via convenient vending machines.) In other words, Rationale can be seen as coming up with "excuses" for mechanics' presence in your gameworld, but this is a two-way street: your fiction might reasonably imply mechanics (a game set on a desert island might 'want' a cooking mechanic) just as the mechanics of your chosen genre might require adjustments to your fiction. The question is whether you can wrap your idea in a clear, easily-graspable Rationale, or whether it will disrupt the player's experience, sticking out like a sore thumb (as a counterpoint from BioShock, the Bot Shut-Down Stations had this latter effect for me.) An idea without clear Rationale feels arbitrary, and threatens the integrity of the player's experience. Mechanics with clear Rationale have a unifying effect, helping the whole of the experience hang better together.

Hopefully the above three principles are clear, and can help you analyze a design idea in its early stages. The goal is to arrive at a lean, coherent design, wherein every element supports every other. The challenge is to be objective in your questioning, not to fall in love with any one design idea, and to pare down carefully but liberally until you arrive at the core experience you want to convey. Hopefully, embracing Restraint, Rigor and Rationale from the outset will better guarantee smooth sailing as your ideas make the leap from paper to playable.




There is a Goodwill outlet down Fillmore St. from my apartment. Being that this Goodwill is in the middle of San Francisco, there are sometimes exciting finds in the used software section. Most recently, I picked up an original boxed copy of SimCity (on 3.5" AND 5.25" floppy!) as a cheap collector's item-- the cover art is wonderful, one of my favorite video game box covers:

Inside, I found the following slip:

click for big

20 years ago, the makers of SimCity could reasonably solicit users to submit bugs and suggestions through the post, in exchange for "nifty prizes." (Don't forget to include your phone number in case we need more information!) Web forums have taken over this function, sure, but there's something incredibly nostalgic about picturing some computer game player (in, let's say, Minnesota, on a chilly November evening in 1990) sitting down at his kitchen table with a ballpoint pen and writing out his great ideas for how to improve SimCity, then walking out to the mailbox and sending the letter off in hopes of receiving a reply from the game's creators, and maybe a nifty prize.

Times have changed and cheap nostalgia is easy, but I don't think it's unfair to lament the personal feeling the games industry had to it at the turn of the 90's. The entire industry has gotten exponentially larger in the intervening years, and so the creators of the biggest games tend to be the furthest distanced from the average player, unsurprisingly. Certainly this is one draw of the indie games community-- that it feels like a community, with relatable individuals making small, personal games to share with their dedicated playerbase.

It's wonderful. But it doesn't diminish the fond memory of buying a box of disks from Babbage's or Egghead Software, taking it home, and feeling that you'd opened up a personal conduit to the creators of the thing you held in your hands. We may have entered the age of impersonality... or maybe we just need to restart the practice of packing in a signed letter with our street address on it.