What Chefs Can Teach Us About Game Design

Since the emergence of the celebrity chef concept, we all have a high level of exposure to many of these ideas.  Names like Anthony Bourdain, Alton Brown, Emeril Lagasse and Gordon Ramsay invoke associations in the masses in a way they never did before.

Because I grew up up in the Cajun food Mecca of southern Louisiana, relocated to the fusion Mecca of Houston, it was inevitable that I’d be a foodie.  Its aromas, texture, flavor, science and preparation all intrigue me.

Watching a program on chefs recently led me to wondering how food science could inform game design science.  The concerns of chefs and game designers align in three major areas–Spicing, Coursing, and Presentation.

(A) Control Your Spices

Spices are meant to enhance, not overpower.  Spices stimulate the palette.  Spices make a meal memorable.  Master chefs control and balance each flavor.  They know that overspicing leads to a confused palette and a poor experience for the diner.

We must be the chefs of our games.  Dice, cards, bags of chits, cubes, our own mechanisms–there are so many elements at your fingertips that the urge to add all of them can be almost irresistible.  Remember always that overspicing leads to a poor experience.  Control and balance each element.  Add twists, turns and variation only where variation is needed.  Add exotic mechanisms only where they lift the game experience and stimulate play.  Keep the other elements simple and familiar for your players.

(B)  Plan Your Course

Is your game an appetizer?  Or is it a dessert?  Or should it serve as a main course?

Appetizers should be light and spicy.  They should build anticipation.  In other words, appetizer games will tend to be lighter, shorter, and feature prominent random elements.  A list of appetizers would easily include Easy Come, Easy Go, Can’t Stop, Cthulhu Dice, or TransAmerica.

Main courses can be spicy–featuring multiple new mechanisms–or mild–focusing on the perfection of classic mechanisms–but they must be solid and filling.  They are the center of the day’s gaming and they should be memorable.  Main courses can be longer. They can heavier rules.  They can have deep gameplay.  My list of main course favorites would feature Tichu, Ingenious , and Power Grid.

Desserts should be tranquil and pleasant.  They bring the meal to a close and provide opportunity to reflect.  they feature little, if any, spice.  Dessert games should feature familiar mechanisms and play.  The best ones often include a strong social element as well.  Carcassonne, Say Anything, and 6 Nimmt! are all good dessert games.

(C) Presentation

“You taste with your eyes first” is a common adage among chefs and they are absolutely right.  This means that the dish should visually announce what the diner will experience.  This is why modern American chefs layer ingredients on the plate; to foreshadow the layers of flavor to come.

Our games can similarly announce their flavor.  When elements like the timing track, scoring chart, turn order, or placement effects are prominently labeled on the game components, our players will have a good idea of the game to come well before the first rule is taught.

Eurogames have been particularly good at this kind of foreshadowing. Because language-independent components have remained as a major design objective throughout the last 20 years, their designers and graphic artists are extremely skilled at offering game components which strongly imply their function.
Designers interested in good component design should take a look at Eine Gegen Eine, Ticket To Ride and A Castle for All Seasons.

What do you think of the analogy between chefs and game designers?  What analogy might you have chosen instead?  Why?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

Gaming Meets Media in Sword Art Online

How would you behave if the game you were playing was for keeps?

Most of us enjoy the power of games to create remarkable experiences.  Few of us get the chance to manage a town, to terraform a planet, to put out an inferno, to battle zombies.  Games provide these experiences and more. They give us the proverbial mile in another person’s shoes.

Most of us also enjoy games for a sense of power fulfillment. Games make us the masters of our destinies, offering control over a far wider range of factors than our mundane lives.

Gamers combine the desire to have remarkable experiences with a yen for power fulfillment.  It’s unsurprising then that many of us demonstrate in-game behavior which is naughty at its mildest and antisocial at its most extreme. The bonds of society would dissolve if we treated each other so callously. Gamers routinely drive their laborers in Carcassonne, lynch suspects in Werewolf, employ gunboat diplomacy in Risk, parch our neighbors’ crops in Santiago.

I’m not knocking this behavior; a natural extension of exploration in games is exploring the darker parts of our own souls.  Plus it’s fun to exert power over other players (or at least those little bits of wood, cardboard, and plastic that stand in for them during the game).  And since we clash in a virtual world of totems and avatars, we can do it all while understanding that there truly was no harm done, no foul called.

Sword Art OnlineI’m not much of an anime fan but discovered Sword Art Online while Netflix spelunking.  It seemed interesting enough to watch the pilot.  Now I’m about halfway through the first season now and finding that SAO offers an interesting question for game enthusiasts–the one I posed at the beginning of this column.

Shortly after the launch of the eponymous Sword Art Online MMORPG, players begin discovering that they are unable to log out.  The game’s designer announces that he’s trapped them all AND if they die in game, an em pulse emitter hidden in the control helmets will kill them in real life AND that em emitter will also kill them if if anyone in real life tries to remove their helmets. For its players, SAO has literally become a game of life and death.

And now every one of the ten thousand inhabitants of this virtual world must answer that question.

Some strive to be the ideal hero.  They work to train and protect the Newbs. they fight on “the front lines,” working to reach the end of the game and thereby free everyone.  They became babysitters for the children trapped in the game.  SOA’s hero Kazuto “Kirito” Kirigaya becomes so much the embodiment of the hero that he even refuses to kill digital NPCs.

Some strive to be at peace with this world.  They become merchants.  They become blacksmiths.  They become cooks. The become fishermen.

Some strive to be the ideal villain.  They mislead players.  They lead players into ambushes.  They trap them.  They assassinate them.  They kill them in their sleep.

How about you?

Have you watched Sword Art Online?  What do you think of the questions it poses?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.