The Seven Constants Of Game Design, Part Two

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.

Last week I discussed how video games are both unbounded and bounded by “creative constants”, by which I mean inescapable factors that simultaneously limit and empower the game designer. I discussed the first three – Fascination, Imperfection and Urgency – and promised more to follow. So let’s continue:

4. Naturalism

The rules of soccer are few. The goal of the game is to trade a ball token for points by placing it in an opponent’s net, with the primary restriction being that you can’t handle the ball. You can kick, head, chest and so on (except for the limited circumstance of the goalkeeper), must keep the ball in-bounds and in-time, and there are a variety of fouls. The result is a marvelous game, the most popular sport in the world.

Many game designers look at soccer or other simple games like Chess or Tetris and think them neat but with room for improvement. To make a video game of Mega-Super-Soccer (for example) they might add many elements like super-kicks and powerups, bringing more elements onto the pitch (mines, laser beams), changing the scoring conditions away from simple trading maybe to something more exotic like having multiple kinds of goal, or two balls. Maybe the changes would make Mega-Super-Soccer a very cool game, but it would run the risk of devolving into a big mess. There could easily be too much happening on screen, too much craziness, and for the player who likes soccer the overall game might just be too weird.

Weird can be exciting and cool, but weird can also be incomprehensible and opaque. That’s not so good. Games that become opaque lose the player. So this constant sounds like it’s advocating for elegance, but it’s not that easy. Complex games can be opaque, but so can simple games. In addition many complex games (such as massive multiplayer games) can work really well even though they are heavy. The real difference is less about how elegant a game is and more about how natural it is.

By “natural” I mean that the actions and and rules of your game need to be physically and naturally relate-able to the player, something that they can intrinsically understand. They have to be able to understand the basics of what they’re supposed to do and what to expect for results, otherwise they simply feel lost.

Designers who understand naturalism tend to work from the starting position of fingers and thumbs because those are the root appendages that most players use to play. Ultimately it is from that starting point that the entire of the game is subsequently defined. So the control designs that lean into easy presses of fingers that players naturally use in circumstances that feel right (example: pull a trigger to shoot) tend to require less abstract learning from them. They just get it and can subsequently store that skill and focus on play rather than interface.

So naturalism implies a need for predictability. If I hit X intending to hit something and suddenly my character starts spouting dialogue instead, that gets pretty confusing. If a game includes different actions resulting from the same input that’s unnatural design. Conversely if a game includes multiple compound inputs for basic actions that’s generally pretty bad too because it then becomes gesturally abstract rather than intuitive. Furthermore if a complex game’s controls don’t seem to follow a natural logic (such as placing all building options within one menu) then it becomes weird.

You can’t break the naturalism constant but that doesn’t mean you can’t play with it. Sometimes it’s good to be weird. To play the web game Frog Fractions, for example, is to be lost in a wondrously weird space where nothing makes anything like what the regular player might consider “sense”. But it runs with its weirdness and is amazing as a result. For many more cultured players (folks who play indie games, for example) the sensation of the weird is a large part of why they like to play games at all, so if that’s your crowd by all means play into them.

Lastly, please don’t confuse naturalism with conservatism. None of the constants are in any way about the content, tone or culture of video games, nor trying to say that your game should conform to certain cultural norms. I mean naturalism solely in terms of biology and cognition and process. If you want to make games that transgress norms, do so (please do, many of us are bored with white-dude video games). Just understand that if you want to bring players along for the ride, it’s important to ensure they can naturally understand what’s going on.

5. Time

All games are designed in loops. The player does something, something happens and the state of the game updates such that she can do something else, and around and around it goes. There are essentially four kinds of loop, defined by dependence and presence. By “dependence” I mean whether the actions of the player require input from other players or not (Dependent: yes. Independent: no.), and by “presence” I mean whether the game requires players to simultaneously be in the same space (Present: yes. Absent: no.). Both are related to time.

I occasionally get into trouble in game design circles for saying that the greatest invention of the video game era was – and continues to be – “single-play”. Most games (board games, sports, etc.) prior to video games were multiplayer. Nowadays you can play all by yourself against the computer, and that fact is why the industry basically exists. Without single-play the games industry would be about 1/100th of its modern size. But why? The answer is that single player loops (and by extrapolation, the games based on them) are independent and absent. Other, more plainly, the player can play on her own time.

If single-play is the combination of independence and absence, “multi-play” is the opposite. Multi-play needs players to all be on the same pitch, in the same room, seated at the poker table or logged onto deathmatch arena. Whether co-operative or competitive, multi-play doesn’t work well unless all are present so that the dependent mechanics it uses (pass a ball, shoot a dude) work. This makes multiplayer video games most sensitive to the vagaries of time. Players disconnecting, players in different time zones, players with laggy network connections and more all affect multi-play more severely than any other kind of game, and these can be very heavy design constraints. And, interestingly, a side effect of multi-play’s problems is that multiplayer games tend to be the ones most likely to attract “hardcore” cultures.

However there are two other types of loop. There’s the loop that requires dependence but not presence. This is “serial-play”, the loop of the turn-based game that you can play for long periods of time against opponents all around the world, but take your turn as you like. In an older form serial-play was the root of the play-by-mail game and in modern times it updated a little with email. However in the last few years, especially since smartphones and cellular-enabled tablets have emerged, serial-play has become much more usable. Words With Friends, for example, is an enjoyable serial game that works because everyone’s got a mobile phone. Serial-play was also a common feature of social games. All those friend requests asking for you to act to unlock your friend’s next level? Serial loops each and every one.

Then the other kind is the loop that requires presence but not dependence, otherwise known as “parallel-play”. Massive multiplayer games are mostly parallel, for example. All players are on the same server(s) and experiencing a shared game state. They may interact with one another, whether socially or through gameplay. They may co-operate to try and take down a dungeon or overthrow a rival corporation (at this point probably verging more into multi-play). The game needs them to be there in order to fill out the world and make it fun for everyone, but players can just carry along as they like. The same is true of games like Journey, of pervasive games like Foursquare or Geocaching and of most transmedia games and gamification that uses player comparison to drive play.

Time is often a natural barrier to game design. Multiplayer games tend to favor players with lots of spare time like teenagers and students, for example, but creating a multi-play based game for suburban moms is would probably be a non-starter because they wouldn’t have the time to get into it. On the other hand time can be a very powerful mechanic. Remember all those stories your Facebook friends used to tell about waking up at 4am to harvest their FarmVille corn? That’s an example of a game that leaned into the idea of the long-time loop, creating an “appointment” mechanic that could be used for good or evil purposes.

(I initially said this would be a two-part series, but it’s looking like it’ll work better in three parts. See you next week!)