In our last column, we looked at several categories of core engagement. Now we begin examining how to apply these principles to streamlining your design process.
Case Study: duck! duck! GO!
Core engagement in duck! duck! GO! comes from mechanism and tactics. Players must plot their movement across the map. To do so, they must manage their hand of movement cards while also avoiding (or hampering) their opponents. They are forced to reassess their hand of cards after each round of play. Is someone in my way or do I have smooth sailing? Could I get in someone else’s way? How does the card I just drew fit into my plan?
Once the core engagement was clear, other design decisions came more easily.
ddG began its development as a race to a fixed finish line. Game designer Gil Hova tried a beta version and suggested that the game could be a circular race to certain way points. This change meant that players had more choices about where to start and more choices about their path! Gil’s suggestion was quickly adopted because it enhanced tactical decisions in the game.
When we added powerups, we kept only those that enhanced movement or allowed players to adjust their hand of movement cards. Every powerup had to influence tactical thinking or movement. Any powerup which failed to enhance these elements was cut.
Start spaces were meaningless once the race began. This is a waste of good real estate. When we decided to give start spaces a new effect, we again looked for ideas that could enhance the game’s core. What might give player new movement options? What might create new tactical opportunities? We tried several variants before homing in on its final form–a “jump to another start space” effect. This rule empowered players. Now they could plot paths across objectives and directly into start spaces for a free trip across the board. The rule had won its place in the game.
Notice how focusing on ddG’s core engagement simplified every decision in its development. Ideas which serve the core engagement are kept. Ideas which do not are cut. Enhancing core engagement was the target we constantly shot for…
…or that’s how I wish it happened. The reality of the game’s development was a messy affair. Although all the final design elements do indeed reinforce ddG’s core engagement, I did not yet have any firm concept of core engagement. The result of this ignorance was that I stumbled around quite a bit. I pushed game bits around and fiddled around with rule systems like most freshman designers do, hoping to “find the fun.” I took detailed notes at every playtest session, listening for those key phrases “I like ___ because ___,” and “I didn’t like ___ because ___,” then ran back to the workbench to add more of what the players liked, chip away what they didn’t.
This approach often ran into dead ends. Hours were spent looking at rules which should have been invested in experience.
It’s a natural growing pain for designers. I came through it and every aspiring designer reading this column can too. With any luck, this series has already enabled many readers to bypass some of that wasted effort. And we still have a great deal to talk about.
On Friday, we return to look the work of an aspiring designer from the Houston design group. He has generously agreed to share his experiences to further our understanding of design.