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As game designers we often find ourselves having to make decisions quickly. Complex design decisions. How should we face such and such system? Are all these mechanics and features really necessary? What needs to be developed first? Do all these interesting-sounding ideas actually fit together?
When we get to a fork in the road and both options sound good, how do we choose one over the other?
Having to face these situations often, not being able to provide a concise and clever solution can (and usually does) lead to two types of consequences:
Poor design: making design decisions with no solid fundament or clear criteria, guided only by instinct or contextless taste usually leads to a design that’s limp, with games that end up suffering from “feature creep” (a heap of features, stacked on top of one another).
Suffering team: a good portion of the teamwork stands on the decisions made by the creative team, meaning that if you can’t explain those decisions through clear and logical reason the entire crew will feel as if their work is headed towards random whims and/or chance. That’s no good.
On the other hand, industry folk (no matter their role) usually show a creative restlessness that drives them to put forward ideas, yearning to have some input. In that context, if we as designers can’t justify why someone’s idea is or is not relevant, you can end up on a stage of discomfort and ailment.
Now, there are tools that help us make choices, to stay true and not reinvent the wheel over and over. A few of those could be: common sense, an understanding of the technical and production aspects, examples of how such problems were solved during other games, and lastly the pure study of game design as an expressive and communicational medium.
Common sense: I believe that the craft of game design is largely an exercise in applying common sense. Basic concepts such as “trade-off” in order to balance experiences, or the difficulty curve in order to create an experience that isn’t frustrating, etc, all tools that were not discovered through mathematical formulas. That is why so many players might feel that they “could certainly design a better game” than the one they’re playing, since practically anyone can notice what’s necessary for an experience to be more or less enjoyable.
An understanding of the technical and production aspect: videogames as products are extremely hard to create. You’ve got completely unrelated disciplines that are working together, with all the problems that this scenario implies. There’s constraints and conditions everywhere: time, resources, what technology to use, what platform it’ll be released on, the team’s knowledge and ability, priorities, objectives, etc. And game designers, not exempt from this reality, have to work in this context. You could draw the conclusion that so many constraints end up being disadvantageous for the design, and maybe they are in the long run, but they are at least useful (they’re practically an extra tool) when it comes to everyday decision making. In a small team and with a short development cycle, it’s rather easy to decide if the game will have five characters or a hundred. There’s no way you can do a hundred, so that’s done, the design will have to compromise, and that decision is made thanks to the constraints. It doesn’t take us even five seconds to reach that conclusion and we’re all in agreement.
Benchmark: studying how other games solved this or that design issue is one of the most basic tools we’ve got when it comes to tackling complex problems in our own games. Playing an assorted collection of games (and plenty of them) is without a doubt a source of useful knowledge when it comes to understanding the medium, with the good and the bad. “You don’t need to reinvent the wheel”, a graphic design teacher used to say, and it’s a phrase you can easily apply to any creative space, including game design.
The study of games as a medium: books such as “Aesthetic of Play”, “Uncertainty in Games”, “Rules of Play”, “Game Feel”, “On the Way to Fun”, “A Book of Lenses”, and a long etc. can provide tools towards understanding the medium, to grasp the anatomy of games in general and thus being able to design better experiences. They are useful when you’re looking to design at a macro level and when it comes to making decisions at a micro. It’s important to understand the quirks, strengths and weaknesses of the medium where we’re trying to express ourselves in order to create solid experiences and to nourish many of the design decisions that we must make everyday during development.
However, given these tools at hand (that I’ve managed to acquire along the way through experience) I still believe there’s something missing. Some solution or way of understanding design that allows us to create solid experiences. So solid that there can be no doubt how they should be designed (what I call “auto-designed” experiences). Products with such a clear vision, such a strong pivot that decisions leave almost no room for discussion, and you can focus your creative efforts towards creating rather than arguing.
This is how I came upon a methodology I nowadays call “Core, Focus and Power”, which fills this void, can be applied to mostly any development and delivers the expected results (solid experiences and an enjoyable development)
That’s what I call this methodology, which is simple:
First you define the core.
Core is the objective, the intent behind the design, the North that we’ll keep through the design.
This is defined only once, preferably before you even begin making a prototype.
You then Focus on that Core.
Focus means that EVERYTHING in our game should be pointing toward the Core, focusing on it, and if something isn’t then it should be for a good reason and it should be on purpose.
This step is taken every time a new feature is brought forward, or every time a design decision needs to be made.
You take every focused feature and you seek to give it Power.
Power means that at least one of the game’s features should go the extra mile, take the product to a non comfort zone, with a fresh and bold outlook.
This step is taken after having designed a feature or an element that focuses on the Core, and is achieved by asking: how can I take this beyond, or hopefully to the extreme?
The Core is the central piece in our game. It’s what we want to deliver. It’s the message.
The Core could be a word, a feeling, an emotion, a mechanic, a character.
It could be a business objective, a platform (for example making use of the Switch’s capabilities).
I like to sum this up by saying that the Core is: “the design’s intent”.
Practically anything could be the Core. For example, all along this essay I’ll use a game I’ve developed as reference. It’s called Mages & Taverns, and it’s a board game. In this case the Core is something as quirky as: “generating an interaction between players”.
Other examples of Core can be:
Ico: the relationship between two characters
The Core will be the cornerstone with which we’ll be designing the whole experience. It’ll become the objective, and thus the North.
When it comes to design it fulfills two functions:
Being the sieve that separates what’s good from what’s not: every idea will go through this sieve. This feature, this artstyle, this name for the game, does it point towards our Core? Is it aligned with it? (Passive usefulness)
Releasing relevant ideas: having a well-defined Core will surely bring ideas that would not have come up otherwise (Active usefulness)
What other advantages does it provide?
It leads to reprioritization: our game should now be much better fused. The ideas should all be circling around a clear objective. We shouldn’t have to suffer through the disease that we mentioned above, the “feature creep”.
It provides a unified vision for the team: of course, having a common North will prove undoubtedly helpful. That way, whoever holds the creative responsibility is merely the keeper of concepts that have been previously accepted, and not a dictator that handles other people’s efforts without a clear course. Decisions can be justified in terms everyone understands and accepts, and even team feedback and new ideas will be far more accurate.
My game, Mages & Taverns, started as a cross between a typical game from Argentina, the Truco (a simple game, built on bluffing), with Magic: The Gathering. This turned into a simplification of Magic, with three players, where they each took upon the role of a wizard that arrives at an inn with only one last beer left, and they all decide they should play this ancient magic card game too see who gets to drink it.
That was the original design intent, but after having made a prototype and noticing how much the game forced players to interact, I decided that my game’s Core should be precisely that: generating an interaction between players.
From that modification on, I introduced a very important card: “Fire”
This card has a strong effect:
Destroy one gem. Getting three gems is the winning condition, meaning that this becomes certainly impactful.
The point of the card is that if another player (remember this involves a minimum of three) pays a basic resource (an orb, this game’s currency) then this card becomes stronger and destroys two gems, which can become devastating.
I took this new version to a meetup at @Tembac ‘s house (a place known for hosting game development parties with characters such as Ron Gilbert, Jonathan Blow, Dino Patti, etc) where a match took place, lasting approximately thirty minutes. The first twenty minutes of it were completely silent, where no player was interacting with anyone. The experience was turning out to be a failure. Up until the last few minutes when somebody used a “Fuego”, another player paid up an orb (to give the card a power-up) and chaos ensued. The argument this move created lasted about five minutes, and it made me sigh with relief: the Core, the intent of the design, had shaped that experience and I had achieved my goal.
(The most quiet match of the evening, until “Fire” came up)
How new is this “Core” concept?
Some companies such as Ubisoft or EA work with a similar concept, and they call it “fantasy”. It calls upon an ambition the user assumes from the moment they interact with any communication piece of the product. And the game must make that experience come to life, fulfilling those expectations. In order to do that, all the design and development has this “fantasy” as its center. It becomes the pivot. An example of “Fantasy” could very well be Dragon Age Inquisition: “Become the Inquisitor”. With that simple premise, the user understands what their role will be, what setting to expect, etc. But that’s not only good as a marketing tagline, it has to also work as a North and a guideline of the development itself.
Other people use the concept of “design pillars”.
Defining the Core sooner or later.
I recommend defining the Core BEFORE you start designing anything else. But I also understand that there might be cases where something gets to the design table without a clear objective, and when you’ve already got something that’s alive, you have to stop, catch yourself, look at the game and understand what its Core is.
A example can be found doing a prototype for a Jam, where maybe something gets done without thinking about it too much and then, realizing that however interesting it may be it already brings up several design uncertainties, you must slow down and comprehend the game, figuring out what its Core is and designing with that in mind from that moment on.
Focusing is an exercise and a mindset that involves applying a filter that’ll only keep those elements that are aligned with our Core. Focusing is asking ourselves every time that something is about to be implemented: does this feature point towards the Core of our game?
Even if it most of this might seem obvious, what’s not is that the whole package of features and elements must have a clear intent that’s aimed towards the Core.
I named it Focus precisely because it involves placing the Core in the center of the scene. Everything in our game should highlight the Core, front and center. Achieving that is Focusing.
What can point towards the Core? Anything.
Any and every tiny piece in a game is a chance for communication. Here, as an example, is a list of a few elements that can achieve Focus, so as to understand the range I find it to cover:
Mise en Scène
During some research, I found that the world of film already holds a similar concept they call “Mise en scène”
This concept claims that the way you communicate in film isn’t just through the script or the performances, but anything that takes part of a scene will have an effect on what’s being told. Elements such as lighting, framing, the surrounding, the colors, the wardrobe, etc. They’re all working together towards conveying something in particular.
We should be able to pause a movie during any frame and appreciate this concept in action.
For example, in this frame from American Beauty, which tries to place Kevin Spacey in a position of vulnerability, we can observe:
Composition: he’s placed below the medium line, making him to look small.
Wardrobe: his clothes are loose-fitting, which doesn’t make him look confident.
Lighting: softly lit, and even though the actor gets hit a bit by the light, it’s still soft and from the side. There’s nothing, not even the light, that’ll listen to what he yearns.
Acting: not an authoritarian pose.
Decor: the room has few elements, which are scattered and placed with no clear intention. They work as a reflection of the state the character is in.
This video explains in a very interesting fashion the concept of Mise en Scène and the detail involved in this scene from American Beauty:
Design by subtraction
A way of achieving Focus is asking if the features that we’re implementing really do point towards the Core, but it’s also a backwards exercise. Taking a moment every now and then so as to actually look at what we’re throwing in and asking once again if they’re Focused on the Core can be really important. In this video, Mark Brown explains the process other developers had to go through:
Going back to the board game example, after having found the mechanics that highlighted the Core (player interaction), I realized that perhaps not everything was aligned towards the same concept. That’s when I applied this notion of Focus, and, in order to improve the game design, I went through each of the game’s cards and rules, modifying a few of them, taking a few out and eventually adding a couple more into the deck.
Some of the measures I took when applying Focus were:
The cards that only allowed a player to defend their own gems now also allowed them to defend any player’s (allowing for spontaneous alliances)
A card called “Plagiarism” (which enables the copying of any effect that’s been put into play) used to feel overpowered so I was considering pulling it out, but when I noticed that it was the one that created the most interaction among the players, I went back and left it in.
I thought up cards that would feel annoying for particular types of players, making it so that they had to collaborate with others during the game in order to get the card out play, leading to more interactions. Hence, “Shield”.
The name, setting and logo of the game were shaped around this Core afterwards, keeping in mind that every piece of the game should Focus on it. The players get into the shoes of competitive characters in a sociable setting. After all, who doesn’t like fighting for a beer?
This second runthrough, now with a defined Core, in hindsight and with the benefit of Focus, turned the game into something far more tangible.
Mise en Scène
What I find most interesting about this example is that achieving a positive, good Mise en Scène, one that implicitly portrays the design or communication intent, you find the need for interdisciplinary teamwork (wardrobe, lighting, post-production, directing, actors, etc), quite similar to what happens in game development. In that sense, the Core is the message or the design intent, and the Mise en Scène is the Focus.
Robert Abbott is a programmer who, as a hobby, enjoys designing clever games with decks of poker cards.
One of them, called Babel, involves each player getting ten poker cards and then inviting them to play two hands of five cards or a hand of ten. The hands are the same you’d find in poker (full house, straight, flush, etc). Depending on the hand they’ve got, they’ll get a higher or lower score. Once a player manages to play the necessary hands, they go up to the judge, who takes the cards, tallies the points and deals out new random cards. How do they get the cards they need? They bargain. There are not constraints, they just have to bargain with one another. You end up with a bunch of people running around, yelling at the top of their lungs for cards they’re missing and offering up those they don’t need anymore.
(A game of Babel at its best)
Robert Abbott designed this game after visiting Wall Streets and watching the traders shouting and dealing at high speed and in the middle of the chaos. He thought it was rather a ludic situation, and he aimed to recreate it by designing a game.
Babel’s Core = To recreate, through a board game, the feeling of being a part of Wall Street
Having defined the Core, he started designing, always keeping his ideas and his features Focused towards the Core. He designed a game for three to six players, with no set turns, where the main activity was trading, and with certain numeric rules that defined scoring, etc.
Focus = No turns, trading
But the game, even when it was alright from a theoretical point of view (a clear Core, a Focused design) didn’t manage to create the messy and chaotic experience that he had hoped for. It was then that Babel got the full treatment and when he gave it Power:
Robert designed a set of rules that allows the game to be played by as many people as there are available. If you’ve got a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand people in a room, they can all play the game, turning it into an experience that’s massive, out of control and powerful.
Power = Rules that allow it to become massive
That decision, going beyond, is what I define as “Power”.
The two previous steps (defining the Core and Focusing on it) are there to make a solid and tangible experience. But this last step aims towards also making this experience extraordinary, fresh and bold.
A game that’s successfully followed the first two steps but fails on this last one in the equivalent of a virtuous singer that expertly portray a melody, but cannot “perform” it with soul and feeling. It lacks that “je ne sais quoi”.
Power is going that extra step with one of your game’s features. Deciding that it won’t do to just fit, it has to stand out.
Other examples of Power could be:
Brothers A Tale of Two Sons and its disruptive controllers:
This game tells the story of two brothers that go down a path together. The characters grow as individuals but their relationship also flourishes, and that’s the Core. Even though this game can be enjoyed by two players at once, the developers figured out an interesting way for one player to make the most of it. They could have made it so that you could only control one character at a time, while the other one was operated by an artificial intelligence o just waited until you came back. However, both characters move at the same time, each of them controlled by a different stick on the same joystick. It’s no minor call, to decide that. It’s bold, it’s fresh, and it gives the game and it’s Core a Power that makes it unique.
Darkest Dungeon and its excessive randomness:
The Core of this game lies on the psychological troubles that plague our adventurers. The Focus is everywhere, but above all it’s in the randomness that determines a good portion of the game. Having a few elements left to chance is fairly common, but the Power here shows in how excessively it relies on random values. With this decision, letting chance rule the day on the center stage, the Core becomes evident, and the gameplay becomes something new. Chancy, of course, but new all the same.
This is the hardest element, but its fruit is the juiciest and the most rewarding if we manage to reach it.
In my experience, you need two things in order to give it Power more easily:
Whatever the Core, it’s sure to be hiding something interesting that won’t be discovered unless researched. If the Core is “depression”, a thorough investigation of what it really means, what diseases are linked to it, what historical figures were associated with it, how it can be dealt with, etc. will sure take us to a more interesting and powerful attainment of the concept.
Thoroughness (thorough implementation):
Go all in. It’s a mindset. It involves being willing to analyze the opportunities provided by powerful ideas. The Babel example is interesting in that department, since deciding to make the game massive also makes it a difficult experience to replicate (since you’d need several cards, people, a way to keep track, someone willing to play the judge, etc.). But, without that decision, the game would have remained a sort of compelling experience, nothing more.
It's worth mentioning that, even if Power means “going an extra step”, it should always be heading towards the Core. Power doesn’t mean it should be askew. It involves understanding the Core and making a novel yet risky decision without losing your heading.
It's not a revolutionary method. It’s a cross of several other techniques, a formalization of best practices that been echoing in different shapes along the creative industries for a long time. It’s the result of my experience absorbing ideas and methods I’ve discussed with other colleagues, and fitting them to my day to day needs.
One of the main reasons this came to existence was in order to put my thoughts to paper, mending the opinions of different teams I’ve been a part of, and justifying some decisions without harming sensibilities. In that sense, I have no doubt that sharing a North would greatly help a team when it comes to getting along.
In closing, every time you design a game you should remember the three steps:
Define the Core
Every time an idea comes up or is debated about a feature, ask yourselves: this thing we’re discussing, is it Focused on the Core?
If the answer is yes, then there’s a follow-up: can we take this feature one step beyond and create a Powerful experience?
Some loose ends:
A good way to practice is through prototypes.
Decide what the Core of the game’s gonna be, and do a prototype of the bare minimum. Keep it to essentials in order to try and see if it works, but keep it Focused. Every piece of the prototype should point towards the Core.
It's a good time to investigate similar games, science, history or anything that’ll help you provide more Power and depth to the design.
It’s a concept that’s not only helpful for doing, but also for analyzing other games and offering feedback. Now, when I’m presented with a game and asked for my opinion, the first thing I do is try to deduce what the developer’s Core is. From then on, I work on my feedback: does this Focus on your Core? Why doesn’t this? What do you think of this feature that does Focus on your Core?
Offering feedback is always tough, because you never have the context for the design intent or the capacity of the team. But through this method I often found myself handing out truly helpful and relevant feedback.
Are you a developer and do you consider that you’d found this through your own intuition? Want to share an example of how this applied to your game?
You can DM on Twitter @adriannovell and we can talk about it, I’m currently writing about on the subject.