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.