Component Development

Welcome to Part 5 of a 6 part series on how to design collectible games. You can find the other parts here:

Part 1: Overview
Part 2: Engine Design
Part 3: Engine Development
Part 4: Component Design

Component Development is where the rubber hits the road. Each piece must fit together in a way that doesn’t tip the scales too far one way or another.
During component development, attention shifts from the big picture to the small details. One additional point of power or recruit cost matters now. Leading up to this phase, those issues could (and should) be overlooked in favor of focus on the bigger vision of the design. Now, its time to get into the weeds.

Design vs Development

 

My first job in the gaming industry was as a game developer for the Vs. System trading card game.  I was recruited because of my success on the Magic: the Gathering Pro Tour, during which my primary focus was to find degenerate strategies and exploit them. This skill set is incredibly valuable, but is very different from the skills of a designer.  Let’s define the skills of both roles:

A great designer understands the player’s emotional experience and can create rules and components that evoke desired emotions and experiences.

A great developer understands the strategic implications of different rules and components and is able to balance them to support the design’s emotional intent.

Both roles must support each other to create a great game.

If the designer doesn’t create fun and powerful emotional experiences, the best development cannot make a good game.

If the developer completely misses the mark, then the vision of the designer will be eclipsed by degenerate strategies.

We’ve talked a lot about the great elements of design, so today we will break down how to think about developing your game.

4 Key Strategies for Game Development

1. Balance

Fundamentally, development is about balance. A balanced game is one such that no single strategy is so dominant that another strategy cannot defeat it.

balancing

Balance Does Not Mean Equal!

Your goal in development is not to make all components, cards, or strategies equally strong, only to make sure that no one is completely dominant.  Part of the fun of playing collectible games is finding the more powerful strategies and components- if none are more powerful, you rob the player of the joy of discovery.  Don’t try to make everything equal, just make sure the most powerful thing isn’t so powerful that the joy of discovery is lost once that thing is found.

Use Development Knobs to find Balance

Your core engine will dictate how easy it is to balance your game.  Do your creatures all have one power number or two? Are there different types of costs or only one? I call these development “knobs” because each one can be turned like knobs on a tuning board to help you find a balance point. In general, the more knobs you have, the easier it is to balance your game.  

You can see more about how game engine level systems can help development in my article on Depth.

2. Support Different Player Archetypes

When creating initial components, it helps to group them into general player strategy archetypes. The basic archetypes are:

Defensive– The player tries to survive long enough to set up an insurmountable late game advantage
Offensive– The player tries to win quickly, before other players can execute their strategy
Stealth– the player tries to obfuscate their position and uses misinformation to gain an edge
Combo– the player tries to combine two or more resources in a way that disproportionately gives them an edge

These are VERY loose definitions and most player strategies will involve a combination of all the above, but it can be helpful to simplify for purposes of your initial creation process. When developing collectible components, try to make sure each player archetype has some powerful ways to support their preferred strategy.   

3. Establish Silver Bullets

One key tool to help ensure diversity of strategies in your game is to include Silver Bullets. Silver bullets are components that aren’t necessarily good on their own, but are devastatingly effective against some strategies.

A classic example from Magic are the circles of protection.

mtgcom_daily_mr97_pic1_en

Each circle could stop all damage from a single color. If your opponent didn’t play that color, it was useless. If they played ONLY that color, that one card could win you the game.

If one strategy becomes too dominant, then players can use silver bullets to defeat it. This isn’t a panacea to solve all development mistakes, but it can help prevent the worst case scenario of one strategy being unbeatable.  Be careful not to make your silver bullet components too powerful lest they themselves become the dominant strategy.

4. Emphasize the Fun

Face-grin.svg
The unfortunate truth about component development is that you will never get it 100% right.  I’ve worked with some of the most brilliant game developers in the world and spent months developing a single game release. Even with all those resources, we still made mistakes.

Huge companies that spend millions of dollars and years developing their games still make development mistakes. I can guarantee that you too will make development mistakes. The question is how do you handle it when you do?

The first rule is, when in doubt, push the fun. Pay attention to which play patterns are most enjoyable and which ones make players want to quit. Its OK if giant dragons win a lot of games, but not OK if counterspells prevent one player from ever playing a card.

The second rule is to be humble. Be prepared to admit mistakes and keep an eye out for what is changing. Collectible games are living organisms that change both in response to new content and player behavior trends.

Collectible games are so compelling because the players get to craft their own game experience from the tools you give them. Learn from your players and be ready to adapt to the game you all have created together.  Tune in next time where we take all the hard work and iterations of design and prepare it for its final step- polish.

Come Back Mechanics

In order to keep engagement in a game, there should always be an opportunity for players remaining in the game to win.  There are few things more frustrating than knowing with certainty you have no chance to win a game, but being forced to continue playing.  Having mechanics in your game that allow players to remain competitive will help maintain the excitement level throughout play. The longer your typical game length, the more important it is to have good come back mechanics.  Here are some considerations when adding come back mechanics to your game:

Early vs. Late Game Decisions

One key tradeoff when evaluating come back mechanics is the importance of early game decisions vs. late game decisions.  By magnifying the significance of late game decisions (e.g. offering more points in later rounds of a game), you can help players feel like they can still overcome an early game deficit.

It is important to balance the strength of come back mechanics against the feeling that early game decisions are still impactful.  It can be helpful to think of each phase of your game as its own mini-game (e.g. beginning, middle, end).  The prize of each mini-game is an advantage to the winner in the next phase of the game.  Focus on each phase independently and make sure it is engaging and impactful on its own.

Randomness

Randomness  is another valuable tool to give players a feeling of engagement late in the game.  Introducing even very small probabilities for outrageous outcomes (e.g. the player in last taking the lead late in the game due to a “hot” run of dice rolls), can greatly increase excitement.

One form of randomness particularly effective in keeping engagement high is to make the timing of the endgame uncertain.  In Reiner Knizia’s boardgame Ra, the game ends whenever a certain number of Ra tiles are pulled.  As more Ra tiles get pulled the tension rises, but a lucky run of tiles can extend the game out, giving trailing players a chance to catch up to the leader.  If you never know exactly when the game will end, you never know if you still have time to catch up.

Hiding Information

Hiding information about the final score can also be a useful tool for keeping engagement high.  Even when the information is “in theory” not hidden, making it harder for players to track exactly who is winning can keep the excitement level alive even if the outcome is already predetermined.  In my deckbuilding game, Ascension, for example, cards included in each player’s deck are worth points at the end of the game.  Since players acquire so many cards throughout the game, it is almost impossible to keep track of all the points in each player’s deck.  We could just as easily have made it so players get point tokens whenever they acquire a card, leaving all points in plain view, but this would have significantly reduced excitement as the outcome would be much more easily predicted before the game end.

Negative Feedback Loops and Explicit Mechanics

You can create explicit mechanics in your game to combat against the advantage of the leader.  The racing game Mariokart uses these tools very effectively.  Players in last place are more likely to pick up valuable power ups, including the Blue Shell which always attacks the player in first place. Explicitly creating mechanics that disadvantage the leader can be a turn-off for competitive players if they are not integrated well.  Many videogames will increase your stats behind the scenes when you are low on health, increasing the likelihood that you will have a “come back” victory when it looks like you are near death.

In Boardgames, a common negative feedback loop is player self-regulation.  When one player is clearly winning in a game of Settlers of Catan, other players can choose not to trade with her, making it harder for her to score more points.  Similarly, in a multi-player game of Magic: the Gathering, players can gang up on a leader to help keep their advantage in check.  Player self-regulation has its own challenges, however, as “politicking” (aka whinning) becomes a signficant part of game play (“I’m not winning, she is.” “Why does everyone always pick on me?” etc.).  To incorporate self-regulation, simply give players the opportunity to disproportionately benefit (e.g. trade with) or harm (e.g. attack) players of their choosing. Other negative feedback loops in boardgames include making the leader pay more for resources (e.g. Paying increased upkeep for workers in Through the Ages) and giving players in last place “first pick” of future resources.

Personal Objectives and “Little Wins”

You don’t always have to give everyone a chance to win to make people feel like winners.  Small victories and personal mini-goals can reduce the need for each player to feel like they can “win” the entire game.  In a match of counterstrike, even if my team is doomed to lose, I can still try to get a personal high score or number of kills.  My mentality shifts to my personal objective, which removes the sting of losing the game at large and keeps me engaged.  Give players other stats or goals to track to help them build their own games within the game.

You can also build your mechanics so that each player makes progress towards personal strategic goals. Deckbuilding games are great at giving people “little wins” because each player’s deck will get better continuously throughout the game independent of how other players are doing.  The feeling that I can execute my strategy successfully and have a few good turns can make a game satisfying even if I don’t “win” the game overall.  Think about what mini-strategic objectives your players can accomplish within the broader arch of your game.

As with all things game design, the key is to focus on how players feel.  Come back mechanics aim to keep players engaged and interested until the very last move.  This feeds into the most important feeling- the desire to come back and play again!  

Come back next week for a lesson in how to get your game published and an exciting giveaway!

Depth

The human brain loves looking for ways to optimize. One of the joys of playing games is exploring the decision space and finding ways to improve your strategy. Once an optimal strategy is found, however, the brain will stop being stimulated by a problem and become bored. The ideal target for game depth is a steady progression of learning throughout the play experience, so that strategy and optimization are revealed constantly as a player explores, stimulating both the novice and expert brain alike. This article will look at tools to increase game depth and how you can apply them to your own designs.

Opposing Player Psychology

psychology

 

The greatest and most common source of depth is opposing player psychology. The human mind is a wonderfully complex object of study. Evolution has programmed us to be intensely interested in learning how other people think. Thus, putting human psychology at the core of your game is a great way to ensure depth. How do you do this?

1. Counterstrategies- Every strategy in your game should have a counterstrategy that can defeat it. Look at a game as simple as rock, paper scissors. The game rules are trivially easy- each player simultaneously chooses rock, paper, or scissors. Scissors beats paper, Paper beats rock, and Rock beats scissors. Despite this simplicity, there are annual rock paper scissors championships and highly competitive players who play the game for years. The entirety of the game rests in deducing the precise psychological state of your opponent and staying *exactly* one step ahead of them. Whenever I design a game, I always try to incorporate a rock papers scissors element into the high end strategy to ensure long-term depth.  For any strategy you want to enable in your game, make sure there is another that is dominant against it.

2. Hidden, Asymmetrical Information- By selectively giving information out to some players and not others, players will be driven to “read” the information known to their opponents based on their actions. Perhaps the greatest use of hidden information to develop game depth is found in Poker. The mathematical probabilities of a game of poker are relatively straightforward, but the true skill comes in being able to discern what cards each other player holds while concealing your own. This mechanic taps into our deep seated need to learn and predict the behavior of others. Deviating from the mathematically “best” strategy in order to deceive opponents about your game position greatly increases the variety of possible strategies, greatly increasing game depth. Give players access to exclusive information and give them opportunities to make a series of public decisions based on that information to best utilize this tactic.

3. Personal Revelation / Discovery- Games can acquire depth by forcing people to make connections and reveal personal details about themselves and their lives. Unlike the two strategies above, personal revelation taps into a more social (rather than strategic) side of psychology. Party games like Apples to Apples, What Were You Thinking, and Taboo all take advantage of this mechanic. In Apples to Apples (as well as its more profane counterpart Cards against Humanity), one player each round is listed as the “judge” and reveals an attribute card (e.g. Happy). Other players must play noun cards (e.g. Bill Clinton, Rollercoaster, etc.) that they think the judge will most associate with the attribute card. The judge picks the winner and then play rotates to the next player as the judge. Forcing players to get into the head of fellow players triggers this same need to understand others but in a more friendly and social context. Personal Revelation / Discovery mechanics can be added to a game by either
A. Restricting communication channels (e.g. Taboo, Pictionary )
B. Setting goals that hinge on other player preferences/background (e.g. What were you thinking, Apples to Apples)

Time Restricted Decisions

Time-is-running-out

Even relatively simple decisions become deep when they are made under time constraint. Learning a basic attack move in God of War is easy, but applying it successfully to dozens or hundreds of enemies simultaneously is a more engaging challenge. In the pattern matching card game SET, each player must identify sets of 3 cards that do not have any two traits in common. As soon as a player sees a pattern, they yell “Set” and grab the cards off the table, denying others the chance to grab it.

Forcing players to temporally compete against other players, automated obstacles, or a set timer can transform basic mechanics into deep learning experiences as players constantly try to improve on their reaction time and expertise with a skill. When using time restriction to increase depth, be very careful about keeping the decisions themselves relatively simple or you risk players becoming overwhelmed.

Complex Decision Space

webhomes-complex-to-simple

The more options there are, the harder it is to figure out the final game resolution. This is the type of complexity that is measured by computer processing power. Increasing the total number of permutations available to players will increase game depth. This can be done easily by increasing the number of rules and mechanics within a game. This, tactic, however, will greatly reduce the elegance of your game, so I do not recommend it. Some other tools to increase decision space include:

1. Probabilistic Outcomes- If every time you reach a certain spot in a video game level, a monster jumps out and attacks, players will quickly learn to avoid that spot. If the monster only probabilistically attacks, it will take far longer for players to realize the strategy. Similarly, games involving dice, a shuffled deck of cards, etc. force players to consider a wide range of possible outcomes when determining the correct strategy.   I cover other strategies for how to manage probability in games here.

2. Exponential Decision Trees- The game of Go has some of the most elegant rules in the history of game design, yet it has more possible game states than chess.  By allowing for a large variety of possible moves on any given turn, planning for future moves becomes more and more difficult, increasing game depth. This can be a dangerous tool as well, however. If moves become too obscure, players will have difficulty connecting their early game decisions to an overarching strategy for victory. This can cause players to lose interest in the game and quit. Thus, with exponential decision trees it becomes even more important to have interim goals and guidelines to give people a feeling of making progress and to help direct players.

Game Depth is often presented as opposing game elegance and simplicity. Clever utilization of the above tools, however, can help ease this dichotomy. Remember that more depth is not always better.  You need to custom tailor the depth of your game to the audience you are trying to reach. Making a deeper version of Chutes and Ladders misses the point of the game.  The best games are “easy to learn, difficult to master” for their target audience.  Know your audience and experiment with your core mechanic to find that critical balance.

Novelty

SincerityandNovelty

Novelty is a challenging concept to address in game design.  There is one sense in which novelty is critically important for games and another in which it is merely nice to have.  Lets take a look at both meanings and their relevance in game design.

Novelty as a concept – nice to have

When beginning any creative endeavor, we all want to create something original.   Originality is overrated.  Take the best ideas you find and incorporate them into your work.  There is nothing wrong with this, so long as you are making a sincere effort to create something new. 

Borrowing from successful ideas makes your game more accessible. If you try to create something that is too original, you will have trouble getting people to understand and adopt your game.  Humans are incremental learners, so they do best when presented with only one or two new concepts at a time.

Stand on the shoulders of giants. Borrow liberally and combine ideas from multiple sources. Take old ideas and present them in new contexts.  As you create and iterate on your games, you will inevitably place your own personal stamp on the design.  The game you create will be in the end a thing only you could have created.  Give credit to your inspirations, and be proud to be a part of the continuing evolution of game design.   The greatest compliment to a game designer is to see their ideas spawn new games that they then can enjoy.

pablo

Novelty in play experience- critically important

While novelty of concept is not critical to making great games, novelty in play experience is.  When the novelty of play experience runs out in your game, you can expect it to quickly be put aside for newer experiences that are more exciting.

We play games in large part because they provide us with novel challenges that we can engage with and learn from.  Without novelty of play, learning ceases and play becomes far less interesting.  To illustrate this point, look at a game like Tic-Tac-Toe.  Most children enjoy the game until they eventually figure out all of the permutations to force a draw.  Once the game-space is explored, Tic Tac Toe becomes boring and is left behind for other games that provide more novelty and challenge.  At a certain point, almost every game is doomed to reach this plateau of boredom.  Players gain joy from a game by gaining “ah-ha” moments where they understand a new concept.  As more and more concepts become ingrained, it becomes harder and harder for a game to continue to provide novelty.

Outside of the depth of the core mechanic (which I will cover in a different article), there are several tools that designers may use to help increase the novelty of play in their games.

  • Randomness – By adding random elements into a game, you can greatly increase the total possible game outcomes and thus the number of novel experiences possible within a game.  A shuffled deck of cards, a roll of the dice, or a random monster generator can all exponentially increase the novel experiences possible in your game.  Even unbelievably simple games like Left-Center-Right where players make no decisions can be engaging for audiences just because of the permutations of a dice roll
  • Hidden Information / Bluffing– Trying to understand the mind of another person is an endlessly fascinating learning experience.  Add hidden information into your game that one player knows but the other doesn’t to enhance novelty.  These mechanics are at their best when limited amounts of information are exchanged during each game turn.  Poker is the classic example of this kind of depth. Players reveal information via bets, trying to discern their opponent’s hand while concealing their own.
  • Balance- Ensuring that there is no one dominant strategy in your game can increase novel play by forcing players to adapt to whatever strategy is adopted by their opponent (or by the game itself).  The classic game utilizing this strategy is Rock-Paper-Scissors. Try to ensure each strategy in your game has a reasonable counter-strategy available.
  • Increased difficulty levels- Provide simple options that increase the difficulty level of a game to encourage players to retry the experience and maintain a challenge.  Many video games have “hard” or “impossible” modes to increase replay of the same content.
  • Time delay / Grind- Finding the right balance of learning new skills vs. spending time utilizing those skills is never easy.  Many games extend out the novelty of their content by tactically increasing the amount of time in between new skill adoption.  World of Warcraft is a classic example of a game that uses grinding to extend play.  Often, a player will have to complete several repetitive missions (e.g. kill 20 boars, collect 10 Gems, etc.) before “leveling up” and gaining new skills to learn and master.  Adding too much grind is dangerous, however, as players may get bored and give up before reaching the novel experience at the end of the grind.  Tabletop games can also use this strategy by tactically introducing new concepts through expansions.

Understanding what your expected novelty/boredom curve will be is very helpful for understanding how you should market and sell your game.  There is nothing wrong with creating a fun but short-lived experience, whose novel gamespace will be explored in a few hours.  It would be unwise, however, to try to sell such a game in a monthly subscription fee model.  Understand where your game falls on the spectrum and, if needed, utilize the tools above to gain more mileage out of your core mechanic.

Excitement

A bead of sweat forms on your brow. Your breath quickens. You’ve been playing solid poker for hours. You have a good hand and have been raising while others just called. Suddenly, the chip leader sitting to your right raises all in. You think you have them beat, but are you willing to risk it all to see if you are right?

I don’t know about you, but my heart rate goes up just imagining this situation. I can feel the tension and am intensely focused on what will happen next. These feelings are some of the most important for making your games engaging and memorable. 1

This feeling, is excitement:

 

This is how you want your players to feel

There are two powerful tools you can add to your game to increase excitement- if you use them correctly. Those tools are Randomness and Big Moments.

Randomness

 

The simplest way to add excitement and uncertainty is to introduce randomness into a game. Randomness is any uncertain occurrence in a game that is not fully under player control. A shuffled deck, rolled die, and a critical hit chance are all tried and true tools to create space for dramatic outcomes and exciting results. Randomness can also greatly increase the novelty of play available in your game as the number of unique situations a player encounters increases. Here are some considerations when adding randomness to your game:

Perception of Skill

 

When introducing randomness, it is important to be conscious of the trade-off with perception of skill. Games can be anywhere on the spectrum from pure skill (e.g. chess, go) to pure randomness (e.g. chutes and ladders, left center right). In most games, it will be important to keep at least the perception of player skill relatively high, even if there is a lot of randomness in outcome.

In order to keep perception of player skill high, give players meaningful choices that give them a feeling of control over the randomness. Classically, you should allow players to opt for a choice between a safer play with lower upside, or a riskier play with higher rewards. Players opting into a risk (e.g. choosing to stay in a poker hand on the hope of drawing a needed card rather than fold), will feel more in control of the outcome.

Random Reinforcement

 

When giving out rewards (e.g. loot drops on a monster) a classic psychological tool is to use a random reinforcement mechanism that rewards often early in the game, but with more spaced out higher level rewards as the game progresses. This type of variance reinforces the addictiveness of your game. Tools like this used responsibly can make your games far more compelling over the long term.  Never knowing exactly when a desired reward will arrive makes the reward more exciting than a predictable outcome.  I won’t get deep into the moral discussion of addictive systems here, but suffice to say if the only compelling thing about your game is an addictive reward system, you probably aren’t on the right track.

Size of the Swings

 

Make sure that the impact of randomness is proportionate to its probability. If every turn, the player’s positions are completely reset due to randomness, players will quickly feel little to no agency in the game and lose interest. Past progress (whether earned via skill or randomness) must be respected as a game draws to its conclusion. The possibility of huge swings (e.g. a player in last place moving to first place on the last turn of a game) is a great feature in a game, but only if it occurs rarely. This ties into the next major tool to generate excitement:

Big Moments

Every game tells a story. In the best games, as in the best stories, there is a feeling of rising tension until a climax, where there is a culmination of a series of events in an uncertain and exciting outcome. Creating a system to engineer these “Big Moments” is a fundamental skill of good game design.

“The Bomb”

 

“The Bomb” is a phrase describing a game mechanic or event that disproportionately affects the outcome of the game. The key features of a bomb are:

1. A single decision will have a hugely disproportionate impact on the outcome of a game
2. Players are not certain exactly which decision will have this impact.

Classic “Bomb” mechanics are “winner take all” majority control systems, character death in video games, randomly appearing enemies, and time limited power ups. Hidden information of some kind (e.g. opponent cards in hand, uncertain end game timing, an unknown enemy around the next corner etc.) is critical to setting up a proper “Bomb” and keeping tension in the game high.

Agonizing Choice

 

One of the most important and unique traits of games as an experience is their interaction with player choice. Some of the most exciting moments in games come from when a player must make a difficult decision that will have significant and long-term ramifications on how the game will play out.

The choice is agonizing because its outcome is uncertain. The player feels the pain of making the decision which sets up the joy of victory or agony of defeat which will follow. Sometimes, these are split-second decisions as when deciding to run from an enemy or stay and fight when health is low. Sometimes, these are carefully thought out moves as in a chess match.

In order for a choice to be agonizing, the outcome must be unclear. This can be accomplished by adding

  1. Hidden Information (e.g. cards in another player’s hand)
  2. Player Contingent Decisions (if I throw rock, will he throw paper?)
  3. Complex Decision Trees (If I move my Bishop, what permutations are possible?)

We play games in part to immerse ourselves in challenges that have emotional impact without serious real world consequences. The agonizing choice is paradoxically painful and joyful, but lies at the core of what makes games engaging.

The excitement and uncertainty of game play keeps us engaged and helps us to reach that state of “flow” where we are pushed at the edge of our ability and live fully in the present moment. This is a joyous experience and one of the best gifts that games as an art form can provide. Play around with the above tools and see if you can spice up your own designs.

Elegance

pablo2

The goal of a game designer is very similar to that of a sculptor- chip away at all the excess until only elegant beauty remains. Here are 5 simple rules to make your designs more elegant.

1. Have as few rules as possible.

 

The pleasure that comes from seeing a depth of strategy emerge from simple premises is at the heart of great game design.  Scrutinize each rule in your game closely. Cut away any excess  to let the core mechanic shine through.

Perhaps the greatest example of elegant design is the classic strategy game Go. Go rules are stunningly simple:

Black goes first.
Take turns placing stones.
Surround the most territory.

There are a few more rules to deal with special situations that arise, but there is hardly an easier game to explain. And yet, Go has far more depth and permutations than even complex games like chess.1  This depth of play is astonishing for a system of so few rules.

Digital games can accomplish this same goal. In the game Katamari Damacy, you roll a ball around, trying to absorb things smaller than you and avoid things bigger than you. You explore the game beginning at the size of a mouse, but eventually find yourself rolling up the whole world. This sense of relative growth and advancement creates an engaging experience almost by itself.

Similarly, in the game Portal, the player has one basic innovative tool that allows you to create portals from one area to another by shooting first one location, then the second location. Portal succeeds as an elegant game because it takes its one core mechanic and presents it in a variety of contexts. Through a creative exploration of the various uses of that device (moving objects, using gravity to generate velocity and change directions, trapping potential threats, etc.) the game creates a series of fascinating puzzles for the player to solve. This illustrates one of the key tricks to making elegant games- look closely at the core mechanic you have for ways to “context shift” and get more value out of the same mechanic. What properties does your core mechanic have that can be utilized in other ways?

pablo1

2. Have as few components as necessary

 

Have you ever opened up a boxed game and dumped out dozens of pieces, tokens, tiles, etc. that then had to be organized and sorted before play could begin? Not fun. Similarly, in a digital game, a screen presenting an overwhelming number of units and options can immediately turn off a player and prevent them from being able to meaningfully engage with the game. For each additional piece, button, or board, ask yourself whether this needs to exist. Is there a way to do more with less?

You can use the same strategy of “context shifting” to help use your game pieces to their greatest effectiveness. For example, the Star Wars Customizable Card Game  uses cards for a variety of purposes beyond shuffling and drawing.  Cards in the deck are used to represent a resource you can spend to play other cards2, as a victory condition, 3 and a as combat randomization mechanic. 4  Similarly, the card game for Eve Online uses card orientation to indicate the “build time” for a ship. 5 Compress more play into less things.

3. Have an uncluttered and intuitive User Interface

 

The core goals that every good User Interface (UI) must accomplish are:

– Make it obvious what options a user has
– Make it easy to find the option a user wants
– Make a user want to interact with it

Building a simple and intuitive user interface is a complex and time consuming design task, requiring its own Core Design Loop. Take the time to iterate and learn what works and what doesn’t.

To help develop your intuition for good UI, pay attention to interactions you have throughout your life- not just in digital and physical games, but also interfaces in your kitchen, car, work, etc. Notice how some things seem obvious and direct, but others require learning and training before they become clear. Some interfaces draw you to them while others subtly repel you. Ask yourself why things are designed the way they are to help train your instincts for making your own beautiful and intuitive interfaces.

4. Find ways to “chunk” information

 

Often, very complex concepts can be combined or “chunked” in ways that make them feel like a cohesive whole. This serves the purpose of making your game more elegant, more intuitive, and easier to learn. If you have a desire to make complex games with lots of mechanics, chunking information needs to be your go to strategy to maintain elegance. The key is to understand what the player is already likely to believe and use that to your advantage.

Often in games, the theme or story is one of the best tools to help chunk information. For example, calling a character in a game a Wizard will automatically create associations for the player that can help them. A player may expect this character to cast spells, have a mana resource, have little to no armor, etc. You can use these preconceived notions to your advantage to make a variety of mechanics feel like a unified whole.

Beyond story and theme, information can be chunked based on how it is presented. In most first person shooter games, players understand that they can get a variety of weapons and each one will have slight variations. All of them, however, will typically have range, damage, ammunition, etc. And are usually controlled by the same button. Thus, when I encounter new information (a new gun) I can understand it more easily in the context of the information I already have. Similarly, if I see this disk icon:

I likely already assume that if I push that button, I can save the game. 6

Think carefully about the associations your players already have to make complex systems elegant.

5. Teach information in steps

 

The human brain is capable of incredible things, but if you throw too much at it at once, it will become overwhelmed and shut down. The best games have a smooth ramp up where new skills and information are slowly acquired and mastered.

Compare the following World of Warcraft level 1 player screen:

To a typical top level player screen:

WoWScrnShot_011610_162942

 

If you began the game with all the options of a top level player, the game would quickly become overwhelming. But because each skill is gained one or two at a time, a new player is able to process a relatively complex set of information. Great game tutorials are crucial for more complex games.  Often, removing pieces of your game until later stages can help with the learning process and increase perceived elegance.

pablo3

Elegance comes down to a simple principle: Do more with less. Think of your games like a well crafted poem. Calibrate every word choice, every rule, and every component for maximum impact and mercilessly remove anything unnecessary to let your core vision shine.