Ten Things Every Game Needs, Part 2

Posted in Making Magic on November 7, 2011

By Mark Rosewater

Working in R&D since '95, Mark became Magic head designer in '03. His hobbies: spending time with family, writing about Magic in all mediums, and creating short bios.
    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.

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