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Three perspectives on strategy game design

Three perspectives on strategy game design Exclusive

November 16, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander

November 16, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Smartphone/Tablet, Indie, Programming, Art, Design, Exclusive

The New York University's Game Center's annual design conference, PRACTICE, has cemented itself as an intimate, exciting meeting of renowned design minds holding forth enthusiastically on complex, even controversial topics.

In this session, three different experts -- Soren Johnson, Brad Muir and Keith Burgun discussed what they each find important in the design of strategy games, from transparency to decision-making and building player investment and attachment.

Soren Johnson: Transparency is Essential

Spore and Civilization IV's Soren Johnson, recent founder of Mohawk Games, defines strategy games by their limited options -- players need to make specific choices and leave others behind -- their random or unexpected events, and their disparate outcomes and breadth of victory conditions.

In static games, the outcomes of player choices are pre-determined by game designers. Strategy games are dynamic: "Unpredictable, rules-driven and challenging," says Johnson. "They're meant to be replayed [and] mastered. But it's very much a continuum -- it's very clear when you have games on one extreme or the other, but most games are somewhere in the middle."

Some static games use dynamic systems, while some dynamic games use static content; there's lots of room for debate on how to place a game on the supposed spectrum. In dynamic strategy games, the mechanics are primary, and therefore transparency becomes a key factor. The ongoing "digital board game" trend, which marries board game design concepts with video game, helps show the importance of transparency.

In other words, the most important thing for strategy games is what's going on inside the player's head, that they understand the rules and are able to think them through clearly, that they understand all their inputs and their outcomes.

Keith Burgun: Interesting Decisions

Designer and consultant Keith Burgun, best known for iPhone roguelike 100 Rogues, says interesting decisions are the primary producer of value in strategy games.

"My whole goal with game design is to deliver value as quickly and efficiently as possible to players," he says. "If they give you five minutes, that's a huge gift, and you owe it to them to make sure that gift is totally and completely rewarded."

On one hand, players can have all the information they need to make decisions ("light all four torches!"), and end up feeling strongly that there's no better answer. On the other end of the spectrum is simple guessing (guess whether you'll roll a hit!), where the outcome is uncertain. Neither extreme is an interesting deci sion, says Burgun.

Achieve elegance through determining your core mechanism, Burgun suggests, and minimize everything else. Find the supporting mechanisms, the player's goal, and the theme and metaphor that explains the core mechanism clearly.

"You're building a gameplay system that's coherent -- a lot of games aren't systems, they're actually a collection of semi-related half-systems. But when you create one big, tight gameplay system where everything is pointing to a central core mechanism, that's the way you can build interesting decisions."

With 100 Rogues, Burgun wanted to "boil stuff down," but wasn't sure how to go about it. So he began with the roguelike genre, and decided to add tactics to the genre's kit of design. "But really, you can't just 'add interesting decisions' to a system; interesting decisions are a property of a really strongly-built system."

"Also, roguelikes can't really be boiled down much more than this [without becoming a new thing]." For example, Michael Brough creates games that resemble roguelikes, but are essentially a new thing all their own.

Decisions are questions of "should I" (should I do this or that), not "can I," Burgun suggests. Systems are contests of decision-making, where players always have to be weighing what they "should" do in their circumstances. If you focus on giving players many things that they "can" do, you may just be obfuscating the lack of a cohesive system.

His emphasis on interesting decisions concurs with legendary Civilization designer Sid Meier, who presented on the subject at GDC 2012

Brad Muir: New ways of creating attachment

Double Fine's Brad Muir (Psychonauts, Brutal Legend, and currently tactical strategy game Massive Chalice) is influenced by strategy games that include elements of character progression. That's why he wants to build a high degree of "character attachment" through mechanics in Massive Chalice.

Players can become attached to characters in strategy games and develop personal stories for them independently of the game's narrative, and losing those characters feels like a meaningful risk. In Massive Chalice, characters grow older, get married, and die.

"With Massive Chalice, I really want to make sure, through this aging system.... [that] you're going to have to deal with these heroes growing old and dying," says Muir. "I wanted to make a game about people growing old and dying, and make people consider their own mortality," he says -- a generational component is intended to provoke self-reflection, in the game's original fantasy world.

His team plans to provide a "consolation prize" to the player for embracing the concept of permadeath; a deceased characte can leave behind a "relic" that will power up members of his family. "We really wanted to avoid the design space of Researched Equipment," he says. "Relics shouldn't be weapons -- and can we make them an avenue for Ancestor Attacks? ...We effectively refer to these as 'Ghost Dad' attacks."

This informs the team, too, "flavoring" the idea of generational weapons. When a character dies, if their weapon has gained enough XP, it becomes a relic, which can continue leveling up. Bound by blood it can be passed among children or siblings. "To try to make the decision a little more interesting, we want this relic to be bound to a character for its entire lifetime -- when you take a character off the battlefield, that relic goes with them."

"This idea might be fucking terrible," laughs Muir. "I don't know. But it's a way we can make people happy, have that flavor and not completely wreck the game design. I think making something just a little bit inelegant is okay... don't be too tied to the fact everything has to be super-streamlined in your design, because it can put you into some weird situations. Don't cut the heart out of your game in search of elegance."

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