Every December we allow our dedicated staff to take a vacation by running two Best Of weeks where we rerun the best of the year. My tradition for my column is that I always use the first week to run what I thought was my favorite article on design and I use my second week to run my personal favorite column.
As it's the first week, you get a meaty design article today. Having done Five Hundred and Counting recently, I had most of this year's articles graded, so I looked through all my five-star columns. My favorite ended up being one I hadn't graded yet.
Here are my runner ups:
The winning column was actually a two-parter that was inspired by a speech I gave to my daughter's fifth-grade class about game design. I had been meaning to write the column for about half a year, but other topics kept popping up that were more topical. I eventually got to it, and I was very happy with how it (and the speech) turned out. If you have any interest in designing any kind of game, I strongly urge you to give this a read.
Happy holidays, everyone!
This is my daughter Rachel.
She is my eldest child and is eleven years old. (My other two children are my twins Adam and Sarah, who are seven.) This year she started middle school. While there are all sorts of issues I could write about related to that, this story actually takes place last year when Rachel was in elementary school in fifth grade.
Rachel's teacher was a man named Darrell Nichols, or Mr. Nichols as Rachel called him. Mr. Nichols is the kind of teacher every parent wishes for. He loves kids, he loves teaching, and his enthusiasm and passion run through every assignment he gives. For example, the class needed to learn about simple machines. Rachel's project was a Rube Goldberg machine.
Fifth grade was a wonderful year for Rachel, because she loves learning and Mr. Nichols loves teaching. What does any of this have to do with game design? It turns out quite a bit. You see, in the beginning of the year, I went to what is known as curriculum night. This is where the parents get a chance to meet their child's teacher and hear about the plans for the year to come. In this meeting, Mr. Nichols said that he enjoys having parents come and speak to the class. Come talk to him and he'll find a way to take whatever expertise a parent has and make it relevant to something the class is learning.
At the end of curriculum night, I went up and introduced myself to Mr. Nichols. I told him I'd be happy to speak to the class. (I'm not exactly shy when it comes to public speaking.) He asked me what I do for a living. I said I was a game designer. Excellent, he said. He had just the project for me to help with.
It turns out that every year the fifth grade studies the American Revolution. The big assignment for that section was that the class had to make a game related to the subject matter. Could I come talk to the class about how to design games?
He asked me to keep the talk short. Fifth graders, he said, can focus on a speech on a single topic for about half an hour. Also, it would be great if I could condense my presentation to a handout that was one side of an 8.5"x11" sheet of paper. Could I do that?
Obviously, I said yes. While meeting all the requirements he asked for would take some work, the real challenge, I realized, was that I had signed up to explain something very complicated in the simplest possible terms. I had to boil the essence of game design down to something that I could explain to a fifth-grade class. In doing so, I made some discoveries of my own.
They say that the best way to learn is to teach. Having to understand something well enough to explain it to beginners requires a strong grasp of the subject matter at hand. Now, I'm a man who loves restrictions, so I saw this as a wonderful opportunity. What follows is the handout I gave to the students along with some of the explanation I used with my talk. Then, because this is a Magic design column, I'm going to explain why I feel Magic meets the criteria I've set up.
After thinking about the presentation for several weeks, I decided that I wanted to make the topic very hands on. The students were going to be making their own game, so I decided I would explain what things they needed for their game. After thinking it over, I ended up with nine needs. I then came up with one more for a nice, even ten.
Ten Things Every Game Needs – by Mark Rosewater
- #1) A Goal or Goals
There needs to be a point for your game. What are your players trying to do? How do they win?
When you sit someone down to explain a new game to a beginner, usually the first thing you tell them is what they're trying to do. What's the point of the game? How do they win? A common mistake beginning game designers make is that they focus too much on the cool thing the game does and forget why the players are doing it.
As my background is writing, I enjoy the parallel to telling a story. You have a main character. He or she has to want something. That want is what drives the story. The goal is what drives the game. Due to keeping my sheet to one page, I didn't go into depth on this point, but here's something else important to know. The players have to want to do the thing the game drives them to do.
The goal has to be attractive, meaning that the act of getting to the goal has to sound enjoyable. (You'll see how these all tie together. Fun isn't until #8, but it's important in every facet.) Players will want to play the game because they will like the idea of doing what the game tells them to do. The "stick needles into your face" game, as an example, is probably never going to catch on.
Also, the goal has to be very clear and precise. Another common beginner design mistake is to create a game where the goal is murky. The players fumble around trying to figure out what they need to do. Don't do that. Let the players have plenty of flexibility in how they solve the goal but make the goal rigid and exact. Usually if a player has to ask "Did I win?" the game is lacking in the goal department.
Magic does wonderfully at this need. What's the goal? Defeating your opponent in a magical duel or, in more mechanical terms, driving his or her life total from 20 to 0. That sounds like fun and it's clear what needs to be done. In fact, I believe one of Magic's strengths is the clarity of its goal.
But wait, can't I win with decking or poison or having a giant deck or whatever other alternate win conditions the cards allow? Yes, you can, and that's fine. One, the core goal doesn't change (defeat the other player in magical battle) and two, those alternatives are a tiny, tiny part of the overall game experience. A game as large and flexible as Magic is capable of supporting a few alternate win conditions, but that is because of the overall clarity of its goal, not despite it.
- #2) Rules
There needs to be a list of what players are and are not allowed to do. Restrictions are an important part of a game. Accomplishing your goal shouldn't be too easy.
The design of most products is about making things as easy as possible. When you're designing a lamp, the goal is to make the lamp simple to turn on and off. Game (and puzzle) design is unique in that the goal of the design is to actually make the thing harder to do. Once you've set out the goal of the game, the next part of the design is to make meeting that goal a challenge.
Game playing is essentially about overcoming obstacles. You want to do your thing and the game, of its own accord or often through the other players, tries to stop you. Accomplishing your goal is fun because there's a rush in completing a difficult task. Biologically, the body has to be able to motivate you to do things, so it tends to reward you chemically and emotionally (some would argue those are the same thing) for doing them. As a game designer, you have to build the hurdles. Make them too easy and there's no thrill in victory. Make them too hard and the player never gets to win.
Regular readers of my column known that my favorite mantra is "restrictions breed creativity." Nowhere is this more true in game design than rule creation. Your job as a game designer is to force your players to have to be creative to overcome the restrictions you create. Spend time thinking about what goals you've set and how your players would naturally want to complete those goals. Then start throwing obstacles in their way.
If creating enjoyable moments is one theme of this column, another is the importance of clarity. A second major function of the rules is making it crystal clear what the players are and are not allowed to do. Ambiguity is wonderful in many facets of life. Game playing is not one of them. Every moment players spend trying to figure out how the game works is one where they are pulled out of the game experience (there are exceptions to this, but I'm talking about the basics here).
Magic's rules are both a curse and a blessing. Their curse is that they make the game hard to learn. I've talked numerous times about the barrier to entry when learning to play Magic. Once you are invested in the game though, the rules become a wonderful thing. Problems have an answer, and there are means to solve them (our Game Support team among them).
From the perspective of keeping you from your goal, Magic's rules are a masterpiece. Richard Garfield, Magic's creator, did a wonderful job creating a structured, balanced game system. Every strategy has a counter-strategy. The game's open-ended structure allows players infinite ability to find solutions and create new problems for their opponents. One of the reasons I believe that the game keeps players so long is that the depth of strategy is remarkable and a key part of this is the rules system, which creates so many intricate checks and balances.
- #3) Interaction
There needs to be some aspect of the game that encourages the players to react to one another. What does your game do to make the players interact?
Players have to want something. The game has to make acquiring that thing challenging. The next step is making sure that everyone is playing the same game. The simplest way to do this is to give all players the same goal, making each of them an obstacle of the others. However you do this, though, it is crucial that your game interconnects the actions of the players.
Why is this so important? There are several reasons. First, a big component of game playing is the social interaction. Computers and hand-held devices have made it easier and easier to play games solo. The reason that traditional gaming is still popular is that it has one huge advantage: face-to-face interaction. Humans are by nature social creatures. Gaming plays into the desire allowing people to interact. As interacting is one of the key goals, it's important that your game reinforce this interaction.
Second, there's a great conservation of resources if you use other players as the needed obstacles. Magic, for example, does a great job of challenging a player because they are matching their wits against another person like themselves. Self-selection also means that players will tend to play against players who share their vision of how the game should be increasing the chances that all parties have a good gaming experience.
One of the things that Ramp;D is constantly conscious of is making sure to keep the interaction in the game. This is one of the reasons, for instance, that we are very cautious with what we call combos—that is, groups of cards that combine to create a giant effect that usually wins the game. If the combo is powerful and fast enough, there's no reason for you to even concern yourself with what the other players are doing.
Magic's two greatest tools to creating interactivity are both card types: creatures and instants. Creatures force interaction because they require you to bring the action to the opponent. Attacking allows blocking. Instants create interaction because they allow you to act during a time that normally is focused on your opponent.
Another big part of Magic's interaction is the inclusion of cards that answer problems. Richard understood that a key to making trading card games work is to make sure that every threat had an answer, which allowed decks to change over time as the metagame shifted. Magic is a game about change, and a key part of making this happen was giving the players the tools to combat whatever was currently the dominant strategy.
- #4) A Catch-Up Feature
There needs to be a way for players that have fallen behind to catch up. A game becomes frustrating if a player feels like he or she has no chance to win.
Another way to think of this requirement is the idea of investment. In order for a game to function at its best, all its players have to care. If they don't then the core of the play group's attention will shift from the game. How do you keep focus on the game? By keeping all the players invested in it.
The biggest reason players disconnect from a game is because they no longer have any investment. The number-one cause of this is a belief that you can't win. The point of the game is to complete the goal from #1. Once you are no longer able to do that (or, more importantly, once you no longer believe you can do that) the game stops having any pull over the player.
The classic way to do this is to build something into the game that allows players that are behind to catch up. There might be some random event with a huge swing. Players in the lead might pick up handicaps. The game might be built such that the gains made in the game get larger as the game progresses. No matter how you do it, it's important to make sure that players always have something to hope for even if that hope is a small one.
So what is Magic's biggest catch-up feature? The answer lies in a very clever part of Magic's initial game design: the mana system. Because you slowly build up over time, the game encourages you to play cards that work best at various times during the game. What's so wonderful about this is that it means that you always have cards you can draw that are optimal and suboptimal. For example, a one-drop is a wonderful first turn draw, but a horrible tenth-turn draw. A five-drop, though, is the exact opposite.
Because cards have variance based on where in the game they are drawn, they make sure that there are always good and bad draws. This swing in utility allows players who are behind to make dramatic comebacks. In addition because the draws are hidden information it helps keep players in the game because there is always the hope of a drawing a card that will swing the game in their favor.
- #5) Inertia
There needs to be something in your game that moves it along towards completion. You have to have something built into your game that makes sure it ends.
What do I believe is the number-one problem game designers have with the first game they design? Game length. A well-crafted game should end before the player wants to stop playing. How do you accomplish this? By making sure your game has enough inertia.
The idea behind inertia is that your game in a neutral state should be pushing the players towards completion. If the players are fighting against the game to end it, on average half the time the game will not end when they want it to. That means half the games will end with the players unhappy with the game.
One of my writing professors used to say, "The key to having the right story length is to make your story as short as you possibly can make it and then cut ten percent."
Your game has to end as early as you can make it end. It 's much better to have a game that you wanted to last longer than one that you wanted to stop earlier. You'll play the first one again, possibly right away, and you might never return to play the second one. The trick to doing this is to set up your game so that it pushes the players towards completion.
Let's take Magic as the example. What does Magic do to ensure its completion? It keeps raising the power level of its spells. The mana system works such that as you get to the late game you have the ability to play larger and more powerful spells. The game will end because these spells are big enough to make it end. The game creates a system that enables the players to end it.
- Halfway There
I originally planned this as a one-parter, but as I began writing it I realized that I needed two columns to do it justice. In two weeks I will share the second five things every game needs.
Join me next week when we look at modern design.
Until then, may you learn by teaching.
Ten Things Every Game Needs, Part 2
- Previously on Making Magic...
This is Mr. Nichols. He was the fifth grade teacher for my daughter Rachel. (An awesome teacher, by the way.)
Mr. Nichols is responsible for this article. How? He got me to volunteer to speak in his class about game design. The class was about to start a project where they had to make a game about the American Revolution. My speech was to be thirty minutes long and I had to provide a handout that fit onto one side of an 8.5 x 11" piece of paper. Restrictions breed creativity (or so I've heard) and I found this assignment to be very illuminating as to what makes games, and Magic in particular tick. I called my talk "Ten Things Every Game Needs." Two weeks ago, I revealed the first five things: A Goal, Rules, Interaction, A Catch-Up Feature, and Inertia. Today I get to the last five.
Before I start, a quick aside. What I am presenting in this two-parter is essentially an Intro to Game Design. Are there exceptions to what I am saying? Of course. I don't think one would start an Intro to Art class by jumping into Cubism. Rules can be broken once you understand why they exist in the first place. So yes, there are very good games that might not meet one of the ten criteria I've listed, but if you're making your very first game, I would try hard to hit all the criteria I'm talking about here.
With that aside out of the way, let's get back to my handout. As with last time, I will explain each of the criteria more in depth and then talk about how I feel Magic does a good job of meeting it.
- #6) Surprise
There need to be elements of your game that the players cannot predict. People enjoy being surprised. You have to make sure that your game has moments that are unexpected.
One of the themes of my column is that to be good at game design you have to understand what makes humans tick. Humans love surprise, provided that it comes in the context of something that they are comfortable about. (One of these days I'm going to write an article all about my communications education and how it has defined how I view design. Comfort and surprise are two parts of what communication does to draw in an audience. Okay, now you're all going, "But Mark, what's the third piece?" Ironically, it's completion. It's going to be an awesome article.)
The reason I believe surprise is so beloved is that humans enjoy not always knowing what's going to happen. There's a thrill to the unknown. When you walk into a game, you've enter a comfortable space where it's now okay to be surprised. That's the psychological answer to why you want surprise. Player's enjoy it. Now let's get to the other reasons.
Reason two for wanting to add surprise to your game is what we call depth of play. To keep a game interesting for the players, you want for it to exceed their ability to understand what they have to do. If players can look at a game state and always know what to do next, the game will quickly become boring. Hidden information (the quality of a game which allows surprise to happen) makes it much harder to know what to do because it makes the decision tree infinitely more complex.
Also, hidden information allows one player to know something the other doesn't, which brings information gathering and player reading to the game. Players can use clues (what the player did in the game or how they behaved or reacted to things) to make educated guesses as to what the hidden information is. Educated guesses make for much more in-game tension than definitive knowledge.
Reason three to want surprise is replayability. Games that have the ability to surprise are by their nature less consistent because in order to surprise someone, the game has to allow various outcomes. This results in games that have more variety to them and thus are more enjoyable to play again and again.
The key to Magic's surprise is the library and the hand. The former makes sure each game plays out differently, and the latter provides hidden information to keep suspense during the game. The other big avenue for surprise is spells and effects with randomness built into them. Innistrad notched up those types of spells and effects because we found that the unknown helps create the suspense we wanted to capture the horror genre feel. The success of those cards in Innistrad (with the data we have so far) leads me to believe that future Magic sets might be more willing to play in that design space.
- #7) Strategy
There needs to be something in your game that allows players to get better over time. The reason people like playing games again is that they want to use knowledge from past games to do better in future games.
There are two main things that provide replayability. One is variety of play. The other is the continuity of the experience. It's very easy to think of each game played as a single occurrence in a vacuum but that's not how it's actually perceived. For example, have you played 1,243 games of Magic, or do you play Magic?
While some games continue from session to session (roleplaying games being the most famous example of this), most games start and end within each episode of play. What tends to tie them together is the relationship the player has with the game. As he or she plays more, this relationship matures most often through the player's understanding of the game. Essentially, the more you play, the better you get.
Because this growth of experience is so important, game designers need to build into their game the ability for the game to grow with the player (and one could argue the player to grow with the game). The simplest way to do this is with strategy. Make the game have plenty of opportunities for players to learn and improve. If it does, this helps keep players connected to the game because each time they play they will improve their skills and "level up."
I use the term "level up" because the idea of leveling is something that is so important that many games bring this aspect to the forefront. How do you know you're getting better? Because the game shows you that you are, often giving you access to more tools or resources.
Magic nails this category. Richard created a very dynamic game system with deep strategic elements. Add to that the layering of a trading card game (where players have to construct the very game components they are playing with) and the ever-evolving metagame (with new cards constantly being released and old cards rotating out of formats) and you have a game about as strategically complex as has ever been created.
- #8) Fun
There needs to be something that allows the players to enjoy themselves. The number-one reason people play games is for entertainment. If your game isn't fun to play, people won't want to play it.
I have played my share of first-time games (I'm not talking necessarily only about published ones, just games of which they were the first game the designer made) and of all ten categories, this is the one that is most often missed. That might come as a surprise, because at its core game playing is a form of entertainment. But many inexperienced designers (and one could argue some experienced designers) get so caught up in the minutiae of their games that they miss the most important question of all: Is the game fun?
Of all the ten criteria, fun is by far the most subjective. It's very easy for one person to enjoy what another would hate, but game design is about creating fun experiences so this is something every game designer has to care about. This is where playtesting becomes so important. There is much you can learn by looking at your game, but fun is not one of them. Fun comes from the play itself, which means part of designing a game is playing—and not just by you, but by others, some of whom you shouldn't even know. (Playtesters often sugarcoat reactions if they have a personal relationship with the designer.)
Here's the best litmus test for a game. Have some people you don't know play it without your guidance. When they are done, have someone (not you) ask them the following question: Would you want to play this game again? If you get anything other than a very enthusiastic "yes," your game is not fun enough.
Why is Magic fun? That's a topic worthy of its own column. Is Magic fun? Definitely. How do I know? Because I can watch the play patterns of the players. I have seen players play in a tournament for ten-plus hours and the second it's over for the day, what do they do? They play more Magic. Pick a social medium of choice (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Google+, etc.). Odds are I'm watching Magic players on it, and the common denominator on all of them is that Magic players really like to play and play a lot. Even in Ramp;D where it's our job to play Magic day in and day out, what do we do after hours? Play more Magic.
In my intro, I talked about how games can exist that skip one of the criteria (in the hands of an experienced game designer). There's one, though, they can't skip: this one. If a game isn't fun, it will never get played more than once. That is the ultimate truism of game design.
- #9) Flavor
Besides having mechanics, a game wants to have a trapping. It wants to be about something. Sometimes this comes first and the game is built around it. Sometimes the mechanics come first and a flavor is found to match it. Either way, games are more fun if the elements of the game refer a story or an environment or a theme.
Eight years ago, I wrote a column about the importance of flavor, and its role with function, in game design. The article makes a lot of good points so if you've never read it, I'd give it a look. Today, I will approach this issue from a different vantage point. A game designer has tools he or she uses to make a game. No tool, I will argue, is more potent than the tool of flavor. Let's walk through what it can do.
First, it allows you to take emotional investment built by your players, usually through other means, and bring it to your game. Let's use Innistrad as an example. The entire design of the set was to give mechanical flavor to the genre of horror. My design team and I didn't invent horror, but by using it we were able to create something that spoke to our players at a very deep level. We were able to take something new and make it familiar. As game design is all about connecting with your player on an emotional level, that's a pretty valuable tool.
But wait, there's more. What's one of the greatest obstacles to players playing your game? Something we call "barrier to entry." In order for a player to play your game they have to first learn how. Learning new things is difficult and intimidating, and if you get turned off during that process, odds are you will never play that game again. Barrier to entry is probably Magic's greatest weakness. (It's both hard and very intimidating to learn.)
Flavor lowers barrier to entry. Flavor helps explain rules that might otherwise seem random. Flavor helps players lock onto ideas. Flavor excites the player making the material less intimidating and encouraging the player to learn. Flavor is barrier to entry's greatest nemesis, and as they say, your enemies' enemies are your friends.
Flavor also allows you to make your game look good. I spend a lot of time talking about the importance of game design, but there are many other facets that go into getting people to want to play your game. Appearance is a big one, and flavor helps tremendously with appearance.
Magic uses flavor well. The entire trapping of the game as a magical duel helps define how the game hangs together. The art and names and flavor text pull people in. A very common "I started playing Magic" story begins with someone entranced by the look of the game the first time they saw it. As Innistrad demonstrates, flavor can also help define a set or a block. Flavor is a very important tool which I feel Magic uses very effectively.
- #10) A Hook
If you want people to play your game, there has to be something about it that encourages people to want to try it. If you're selling your game, the hook is what you use to market it.
I mentioned in Part 1 that I originally had nine criteria and added a tenth one. This is it. The reason I initially left this one off was that this criteria is all about selling your game and the kids in the class didn't have to worry about that. As I thought more about it, I realized that the kids were selling it, just not for a profit. Their games were going to be graded and a big part of that was going to do with how other students reacted to it.
This criteria plays up the fact that game making is not an art unto itself. It's not enough to just make a game; you have to be able to sell it. To do this, the game designer has one more criterion to worry about. The game needs something you can market. This could be one of many things. It could be a unique game mechanic, it could be an original theme, it could be a novel execution. The key is that the designer has to make sure that there is something built into the game that makes someone stop and want to know more about it.
When I first arrived in Hollywood, I believed that the hardest thing about becoming a screenwriter was writing a good script. What I found out once I got there was that producing the good script wasn't the hardest part (although to be clear, it's pretty hard). The hardest part was getting the right person to read it. The same thing is true with a game. No game, no matter how good it is, can capture someone if they never play it.
A game designer has many hats, but one of them has to be a marketer. You have to be conscious of how you're going to sell your game, because you have to make sure that it's in the design. This element is so important that you can't leave it up to chance. Can't you just create your game and worry about it later? Maybe you'll stumble upon in through the creation process. That's kind of like never buying food and just hoping you'll find something when you're hungry. It could work out for you, but it could also end disastrously.
The key to a good hook is that it's simple and easily understood. A hook has to grab a person's attention and to do that it has to have a clear and digestible message. As they say you don't get a second chance to make a first impression. Remember that your hook doesn't have to explain much. Its role is not to educate but to tease. Its job is to make the potential player interested in learning more.
This is another criterion that Magic excels at, and the biggest reason is the nature of a trading card. Any single card has a strong flavor identity complete with a large illustration. It teases the larger game with text that might not make sense in a vacuum but clearly communicates there's more going on than the observer can catch at first glance. The challenge for Magic designers is that while the game has a strong hook, we have to keep coming up with different hooks for each expansion.
- Class Is in Session
The speech went over very well. I started by asking the kids to name their favorite games. For each point I used those games, as opposed to Magic as I did for these articles, to demonstrate my points. About six weeks later, the class held a Game Night where the students and their families could try out all the games the students had designed.
Rachel decided to base her game on the game Taboo.
The goal of the game, for those unfamiliar, is to get your teammates to name the noun in question without using any of the five taboo words or phrases. Seem easy? Here's a sample card:
All the cards had to do with the American Revolution so it proved to be a little harder (especially for the parents) than normal Taboo. Rachel ended up getting an A (well, they didn't have letter grades, but the equivalent of a high mark) on her game.
The Game Night was also a lot of fun as I got a chance to see all the different games the kids made. I was touched how many of the kids took my speech to heart and tried to incorporate the ten criteria into their game.
That's all the time I have for today. I hope you enjoyed this two-part look at the core of game design. When I went back to get Mr. Nichols's picture for this article, he asked if I would be willing to come and give the talk again to this year's fifth grade class. I said yes.
Join me next week when we see dead people.
Until then, may you know the joy of sharing what you love.