The Seven Constants Of Game Design, Part One

Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly writes a regular column about all things video game for TechCrunch. He is a games industry consultant, freelance designer and the creator of leading design blog What Games Are. You can follow him on Twitter here.

There are infinite paintings, but also a more finite sense of what is a great painting versus not. Similarly there are infinite games, but also a sense of what works and what doesn’t. The boundless space of video games is bounded and their limitless possibilities have limits. There are, it seems, rules to game design.

“Creative constant” is a term that I use to describe those rules. They are the foundational, shape-describing pragmatic realities that we designers run into. I call them constants rather than limits because limits sound like arbitrary rules meant to be broken. Don’t get me wrong: there certainly are many arbitrary rules around video games waiting to be smashed into atoms, especially the conventions of genre. However constants are different.

A constant is an always-present factor, a boundary in some respects but also a pillar. The maximum speed of light (c) is a constant, for example, whose affects are felt throughout the universe. c seems to imply that travel to other stars is going to be more difficult than simply building a faster spaceship, but it also plays a role in the translation of mass into energy, relativistic interactions and whatnot. Our knowledge of c has helped in the development of most modern technology.

Constants exist outside our ability to directly affect them, so it’s up to us makers to figure out how to use them. In the gaming sphere it may seem that the first and most obvious constant is “platform”. Platform constraints are often overriding considerations in the development of any game (from the control paradigm through to the supported business models and demographics of users) but they are also mutable. What holds us back today does not do so tomorrow (and vice versa) and so platforms are always moving targets. Therefore they’re not constant.

Similarly it’s tempting to identify “the player” as a constant, because of course games are always played and therefore we must always think of the player. This is true, but not specific. Most game design constants are to do with the psychology of play, how players think and see, but they need to be separated out to be discussed meaningfully. Ditto ideas to do with “the audience”, “the market” or “rules”. These are all part of the landscape of making games, but fall into being too mutable or general.

Having mulled on it a while, I think there are seven constants of game design that can’t be escaped, but can be toyed with to create powerful play.

1. Fascination

In an older version of this idea I used to say that “fun” was the first constant, but fun is a fuzzy word for many people to parse, and for new wave game designers it’s a dumb limit. To play a game like dys4ia is not to have fun as such, but it still has a certain something. I later realized that what I really meant was “fascination”.

I often encounter game designers who want to avoid systems. Dice rolls, rules and numbers all seem so dull, so mechanical and math-y when what the designer wants to create is emotion, story and meaning. So she charges off and makes experience-driven games full of interaction without system or light on interaction (such as not-doing games) and receives a cold reception. “It’s all well and good to walk around,” the gamers say, “but where’s the gameplay?”

The gamers have a point. The lack of interesting logic, gears and levers, numbers, operations and mechanics gives games a short half life. They might be interesting to play around with for an hour or two, but they don’t sustain. Within the critical community that might not necessarily be a deal-breaker (it’s often looking at games as part of an arts conversation) but outside that group it quickly runs into difficulty.

A game needs to be fascinating. It needs active and economic mechanics that bounce off one another to create the illusion of a dynamic problem. Whether that means a massively complex simulation as you would find in Sim City 5, the elegant rules of a sport or the rudimentary lock-key puzzle solving of adventure games, fascinating systems are one of the key vectors that pulls players in and keep them engaged. Then when you have them engaged you can bring the emotion. But it doesn’t survive well on its own.

2. Imperfection

The difference between a perfect and an imperfect game is the quality of information that players know. Chess, for example, is a perfect game because all of its pieces are out on the board, players know all of the rules, and therefore all possible moves. Poker, on the other hand, is an imperfect game. Players know the rules but they do not know who has what cards at any given moment. They have to guess.

All video games are imperfect, even the ones that appear otherwise (such as computerized versions of Chess). This is because in all cases the player is toying with a black box of code whose exact rules and operations are unknowable. The game enforces rules according to its own hidden structure, usually without telling the player how it works. So the player is as much playing the game to find out what it does as to master the doing, while the game is asking the player for trust. This has many curious side effects.

One is that players become very sensitive to fair play. In sports issues of fairness often arise between players (such as the low-level cheating in soccer that’s considered a legitimate part of the game), but in video games players often have a gripe with the system itself. They believe that a game is being unfair to them, for example, when the developers know that it’s not. They perceive imagined slights where none exist and even consider balance-breaking corrections in favor of them (such as increasing loot dropping rates) as fixing “broken” gameplay.

Another is the sense of a world behind the game. Part of why video games feel so compelling as story-ish experiences to some people is the sense that it has hidden layers. Players often ascribe character and personality to non-player characters (and sometimes even objects) that are not actually in the game because of their interpretations of imperfect information. They come to believe that the world of Hyrule is bigger than they think and urban myths spread about ways to unlock their hidden secrets. They see the scrawl of “The Cake Is A Lie” on the wall in Portal and imagine a whole story behind it independent of what the game designers intended.

Imperfect information is a wonderful constant. Video games can play with trust, they can be scary, wondrous or magical precisely because we never know what’s really going on under their surface. As a designer you always have the power to blow players’ minds because of this.

3. Urgency

Every day we humans deal with tens of thousands of sensory inputs, from the sound of the traffic outside our windows to the music in the movies we watch, the conversations we have with our colleagues or the flavor of the beer we enjoy. Within all that information there are threats to our survival, degrees of urgency and attention, lower order information that doesn’t need to be remembered and other data that is of high importance.

As such one of the crucial skills that we develop is aggressive filtering of inputs so that we can focus on the most urgent. To use a computer analogy, your multi-core brain may be working on problems, thinking about relationships or idly dreaming, but at least one of your cores is always acting as your filter. You don’t get killed at crosswalks because your filter is paying attention to oncoming traffic and interrupts your other thoughts to say “Hey, watch out!”. Even though we don’t like the sensation of distraction that urgency brings, it saves our lives.

Games are unique among media in that they engage us actively. We interact with and are fascinated by them. We also often play them with a sense of stake. We can lose lives, fail, face daunting challenges and be unable to overcome, all of which are survival situations. Whether in the frantic pell mell of Destiny, the need to complete tasks to progress an adventure forward or the one-coin-left moment playing a slots machine, games have a powerful relationship with urgency.

We expect, and even need, it. Games without some sense of urgency feel oddly flat, whereas those that deploy it are often most engaging and most emotional at the same time. But one of the side effects of urgency is that the more urgent the game becomes, the less we have attention for subtleties. We evaluate purely on the criteria of utility than significance, and that can be problematic for games with creative ambitions. Chekhov’s Gun may work in a dramatic context, but in Doom a gun is just a tool.

Urgency is the main reason why cinematic storytelling doesn’t work as well as it seems it should in the video game context. Either the player is too busy to pay attention, or is too engaged with playing to be interrupted by sections of narrative. So story finds itself in a dissonant relationship with the player. On the other hand games that can play into that sense of urgency and use it to convey situation without resorting to cinema often succeed. Whether in the slow-boil form of Papers Please or the rough-and-tumble of Left 4 Dead, often the key to great storytelling in games is to lose the “telling”, and instead to hint, intuit, lay seeds and let the player discover for herself.

(Next week, Part Two…)