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clarity of purpose in system design

J.E. Sawyer


One of the most important attributes of a good designer is the ability to apply critical thinking to any aspect of a game. At a convention recently, a bunch of game developers kept repeating how important critical thinking was. An audience member asked, "Well, what is that really?"


There's this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_Thinking but that doesn't necessarily give anyone a good idea of how that is applied to game development. One thing we often ask applicants at Obsidian is what their favorite or least favorite games are and why. The "and why" is the most important part of the answer. Anyone can spit out a list of titles to show a wide range of tastes, but that doesn't give us any idea of what he or she found of value in those games. Understanding why -- really why -- you enjoy or dislike games helps you understand what other people may find appealing or distasteful in games.


Lately, I have been trying to take this further. I believe that it is a sign of truly elegant design when you are able to observe a game and determine the goals of the designer of any given system -- and all systems together. Often, you are able to recognize these elements because the game's design leads the player how to figure out when the use of any given tool is appropriate.


I think Pikmin is a good example of a game with elegant design. Practically speaking, the player only has three tools to work with: red, blue, and yellow Pikmin. Reds resist fire and are strong fighters. Blues can swim (and save other Pikmin from drowning). Yellow Pikmin can be thrown higher than other Pikmin and (in the first game) can carry bombs. There are many cases in the game where the player is confronted with a field of hazards and it is up to him or her to determine how to best apply Pikmin to the situation. Often, there is only one "right" way to navigate to the goal, but the player does still have to figure it out. And because the solution can be deduced logically, players typically feel smart -- not dumb -- when they do so. Additionally, the game requires enough moment-to-moment skill in managing Pikmin that player talent is also very rewarding.


Another (very harsh) example of elegant game design can be found in one of my favorite games: Ninja Gaiden for the Xbox. Though not every element of Ninja Gaiden is elegant, many aspects of the combat system are. Ninja Gaiden teaches you through experience that blocking is required in the game. On the first level of the game, the player essentially survives because of blocking. Excepting the boss, no enemy on the level will ever break Ryu out of block. Additionally, enemies attack with relatively low frequency. The player grows to understand that there is a pattern to enemy attacks, typically one, three, or four hits long. When the chain ends, the player can immediately respond (and respond easily, as block hit reactions turn Ryu to face the source of the attack) with his or her own attacks.


This changes when encountering sorcerers on a subsequent level. The sorcerers' fireballs, which are telegraphed by a distinctive sound, will always knock Ryu out of his block if they hit him. The player learns to listen for the sound and instinctively roll at the right time to avoid the attack. Later, the player encounters groups of ninjas that attack with great speed and frequency but (at least in the core game) still do not grapple Ryu. Around the same time, Ryu finds a scroll that teaches the player about counter-attacking out of block hit reactions. The player eventually figures out that counter-attacking is by far the safest way to deal with such enemies. Similar "revelations" occur throughout the game with different weapons, types of attacks, etc.


Think about the games you love and hate and try to figure out why -- then try to figure out what the designers were attempting to accomplish by making the game as they did. It can lead to some amazing discoveries.

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Just off the Cuff here...


I read with interest your post about critical thinking and there is much merit to the concept of actually using it. My personal experience has been that many people can apply critical thinking to problems when confronted with them in a slower, less than in your face way (which games can generally present to you without actual life or death being involved...) and that this experience can lead to being a better solutions oriented type of mentality when things occur that are more in-your-face in the moment.


AS applied to gaming, I think it's possible to spot not just elegant design (depending on whether you consider elegant as extremely efficient use of design principles, materials (including core code) or if that design appeals to the psyche of your audience) it can also show you concepts and principles of thought that go into a design.


In other words, the way someone designs a game (and as you posited with your Pikmin example) also gives insight into the way they think the game can be "won" or in the case of RPG or more open ended formats, managed along the way. The Pikmin and Ninja Gaiden games each show you examples of the designer giving the player a chance to experience events in an ordered approach.


This ordered approach is a method that allows a designer to introduce new concepts of play or puzzle solving or what have you, to the player so that there is less liklihood of hitting the wall. Meaning that, as long as you don't introduce too many new play concepts at once, the player has a better idea of what to learn to expect. In this manner, you are essentially presenting the player with a low order challenge (and this does not imply something easily solved) whereby you reduce the number of variables a player has to consider in the moment to overcome said challenge.


In addition, if you can present this in a way that engages the player, either through inherent entertainment value of the challenge itself, or as part of a series of "quest-like" challenges that keeps the player moving forward, then even better. As each series of challenges becomes adapted to, you throw a new curve and a new challenge. All the old lessons still apply in their turns, only now you have to add on a new set of challenges with a different solution (perhaps using combinations of lessons already learned) that the player must now overcome.


I think a really good example of the structured approach to games like this, with critical thinking to design, are relatively few and far between. At the moment, one of the games that comes to mind for me, which was really hard to learn to play, was back in the 5.25" disk days. I think it was called Strike Fleet. Each gaming scenario was progressively harder to complete, with a rising order of commands that had to be carried out and increased level of threat to your ship (or ships.) Additionally, as the scenarios grew more complex, combatant craft became more abled. In other words, now, instead of just hitting motor patrol boats with Tomahawk missiles, you were fighting cruisers, then also aircraft, then also submarines, then defending against their cruise missiles as well, etc.


Another good example of critical thinking again (and this goes way back also) was the original Roger Wilco: Space Quest. Each series of events started off simply enough until you hit the Challenge. In this game, however, it taught you to think critically about your potential as the character and the limits of the game itself. In each case, it was rare that when the challenge first presented itself that you succeeded. Whereupon you died in any number of grisly, though thoroughly amusing ways.


IN this, Space Quest taught you that there were a number of ways to outthink the game and solve the challenge and when you failed (sometimes quite repeatedly) you were shown several amusing ways to meet your untimely fate. I think that this method provided a negative feedback with a positive enforcement (dying is a negative feedback in game, while the humorous death scenes made you laugh and come back for more) that was truly creative, induced a level of critical thinking on the part of the player, and showed an innate understanding (at least as far as I'm concerned) on the part of Two Guys From Romulan, of human nature.


I don't think I have seen that level or style of inventive and creative use of humor, sarcasm and mutliple game styles of play in a single game ever since.


There are other games that clearly show a total lack of this comprehension of what a player has to go through to arrive at playing while learning (or is it learning while playing?) The first iteration of SSI's Gold Box edition RPGs, the Pool of Radiance is an example of this to a degree. If you weren't already familiar with RPGs and at least willing to sit down and read the materials offered in the game box, you would never learn how to play it.


Of course, in the era that this game came out, I think we actually had a different level of computer player, even as a novice, as the machines these games ran on had to be pretty well understood just to get the games loaded onto the hard drives (if you were lucky and had a hard drive at all -- or like me, blessed with foresight and had a 20Meg HD) and then started to play. You had to pretty well know what you were doing just to get the computer to start a game. So then, most of the folks who played were probably going to be sitting there with the game manual and the adventurers manual right there.


It still didn't explain why when you moved away from an opponent you got struck with an attack (sometimes resulting in the dreaded "Your Party was destroyed, the Monsters Rejoice" message.) or why when you cast a fireball your characters were all hit for 6d6 HD of damage (again, usually with the monsters dancing over your virtual corpses.) You had to learn these things the hard way.


Now while I thoroughly enjoyed the game, I was a D&D enthusiast already and even so, I had to sit down sometimes with my Player's Handbook and go over damage rules, casting times, movement and attacks of opportunity to really get a grip on the workings of the game. Folks without access to this level of information probably ended up taking the game back. Again, though, we are talking about a wholly different generation of gamer. Those brought up on wargames, board games, and things like Chess, Go, Backgammon and Cribbage, where critical thinking on the part of the players is a necessary component of victory. And, you could take your time.


Now, with the advent of realtime or near realtime, the entire system of cues, challenges and requirements has changed. The necessity of critical thinking has not. If anything, critical thinking in design becomes ever more important. How do you bring new players into the game and not overwhelm them? How to keep a player challenged without just speeding everything up? How to present a puzzle that won't take forever, though still isn't something someone just goes, "Ah-hah! Easy peasy."(?) All these things have to be taken into account.


You have to look at the genre of game, the style of gameplay involved, the typical mentality of your game audience (and this includes targeting age appropriate challenges, education appropriate challenges and sometimes thematically appropriate challenges based on maturity levels) as well as the supposed nature of the game's plot, twists and basic interface considerations.


Not an easy task, I daresay.


Ahh, sorry to wax prosetic, there Josh. You hit a bulwark of thinking that I engage in frequently, yet do not have opportunity to discuss or expound to anyone I actually know.


best regards,


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