Hi, I am Simon de Rivaz of Aartform Games and for the past year and a half I have been working on a new strategy game called Spice Road. This article shares a few highlights of the design process I have used to find a new space between existing genres. For me the process begins with happy memories of old games and the aspiration to find new areas of gameplay.
THE EMOTIONAL BASIS OF GAMES
What makes a game? Beyond the graphics and gameplay mechanics of a play session I find the emotions and motivations within the player leave the most lasting memories, and the deepest feelings of satisfaction. Feelings of wonder when I first step out into a new game world, and eventual feelings of competence and mastery as I dominate the endgame.
Designing a new game I hold as inspiration the way old games made me feel. The feelings of creating a successful economy, exploration and conquest. Games like Deuteros, Utopia and Civilisation remind me of the feel of building a complex empire over a long time, and the more immediate shocks and surprises of conflict. Even though the gameplay and graphics may be completely different in my own game these provide a good idea to aim at.
What makes a strategy game fun? Without the adrenaline of action games or the Pavlovian reward based addiction of an MMO, what makes the hours of detailed attention to a complex strategy game fun? For me it is the feeling of Flow. Named by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow is the feeling of complete and energized focus in an activity, with a high level of enjoyment and fulfillment.
In practice I feel this in a game when I am constantly thinking, planning, observing, and making new actions about every six seconds. The high level of attention seems to take over my mind and I lose sense of time. I knew I had something good going in Spice Road when I launched it to test a small feature – then suddenly realized I’d just spent a hour growing and nurturing a town.
So I begin knowing how I want my game to feel – but how to recreate those feelings in a new game? The starting point is to understand old games well.
I find it useful to understand games in terms of different game mechanics and how long the player spends working with each mechanic. This seems to cut through the cover-story and gloss and give a clear description of the game. For some games the majority of time is spend moving or waiting, with only a small fraction on making meaningful decisions. For a strategy game the big choice I found was how much micro-management to place on the player – how much time would be spent making interesting decisions as opposed to time spend implementing or maintaining those decisions.
I tried making simple charts of games splitting different aspects of their gameplay into parts and showing which parts depended on each other. This forced me to think abstractly about different game mechanics but was not very helpful when designing new games. The main thing this taught me is that most games are quite focused on one or two most important game activities, and the rest of the gameplay is supportive to those core aspects.
Indeed when I first mapped out the gameplay in Spice Road I found I had about 12 distinct and equally balanced gameplay mechanics. After several failed prototypes I decided to focus on a single mechanic (Building) and let all the other aspects radiate from there – providing reasons to build, and rewards from building.
The most interesting way I found to analyze old games was to try and follow their design choices while writing a mini-game prototype in their style. Much like imitating the old-masters in art and literature, imitation forces you to understand how a system really works.
The difficulties start once you move from imitation to innovation and it soon becomes apparent that just picking a list of ‘features’ and writing a game design does not work. The reason for this is somewhat down to complexity and chaos.
Chaos Theory shows that a small number of rules can result in wildly complex and unpredictable results over time. A game composed of many rules has a similar outcome – it is very hard to predict how well two mechanics will work together or the result of changing a single rule without either having seen that exact result before or implementing the changes and trying it out live to see what happens.
I began work with lots of paper designs and outlines of how mechanics would work. Eventually those designs got turned into playable prototype games on the computer. Usually this translation would show the design in a very new light – I would get a very different feel from really playing the design to just imagining it. The interaction of different systems – such as combat and trading, town design and diplomacy – would now become tools for the player to work with rather than ideas on paper. Very soon a lot of the paper design turns out to be a trivial starting point to the real work of prototype iteration.
Another consequence of system dynamics is that I cannot be sure how a given mechanic will work in the game – so I cannot play favorites with my ideas. It is usually safer to have several alternative plans for a feature and try out a couple in games to see what works best in context. In practice this is often the trade-off between more or less complexity, automation or micro-management, chance or certainty, and finally how much of the player’s attention and time should be spent interacting with that feature.
Just as a paper design is a poor reflection of a final game, so too are early prototypes that have not been played by fresh players.
USER FRIENDLY POLISH
Game designs have been described as a local maxima in ideaspace. This draws on the thought that you pick a starting point (perhaps between a couple of existing genres) the then use all your tools of game design, imagination and improvement to move from that initial point towards the best possible game you can make. Each improvement takes you to higher levels of fun until you run out of time or hit a peak from which there is no improvement without making a large leap away towards a different type of game.
Once the game is working well for me as the designer – I have to consider how a new player will see the game and get some to test it to see their needs. A large chunk of work on modern games is priming the game with tutorials, tips and guides to ease the player into the game gently before ramping up the complexity and the difficulty. This final stage can lift a good but obscure game into being accessible and perhaps even popular.
Some helpful testing tools are watching a new player for 10 minutes over the shoulder, and running open beta-tests.
My design process is labor intensive, messy, wasteful and rather risky, but I think it is a good way handle the innate complexity of design and create innovative thoughtful games.