A Game Design Method, Part 2

September 2, 2019

With XDS fresh on our minds, we in the Gaming Studio were so pleased to see our own Patricio Spallati onstage there. We heard about his experience in the past year co-producing (with EA) the latest versions of UFC. So many good insights. Keep an eye out for his post this week.

In light of the upcoming summit, I thought it’d be a good time to finish the game design post I started a few weeks ago. In a previous post, I started explaining the Core, Focus, Power methodology I use in designing games. There I focused on the first two aspects, Core and Focus. Here, I’ll pick up where I left off: Power. Hopefully it helps further your understanding of the complex decision-making involved in game design.

Giving it power

Robert Abbott is a programmer who, as a hobby, enjoys designing clever games with poker decks.

One of them, called Babel, involves each player getting ten poker cards and then inviting them to play two hands of five cards or a hand of ten. The hands are the same you’d find in poker (full house, straight, flush, etc). Depending on the hand they’ve got, they’ll get a higher or lower score. Once a player manages to play the necessary hands, they go up to the judge, who takes the cards, tallies the points and deals out new random cards. How do they get the cards they need? They bargain. There are no constraints, they just have to bargain with one another. You end up with a bunch of people running around, yelling at the top of their lungs for cards they’re missing and offering up those they don’t need anymore.

Robert Abbott designed this game after visiting Wall Street and watching the traders shouting and dealing at high speed and in the middle of the chaos. He thought it was rather a playful situation, and he aimed to recreate it by designing a game.

  • Babel’s Core = To recreate, through a board game, the feeling of being a part of Wall Street

Having defined the Core, he started designing, always keeping his ideas and his features Focused towards the Core. He designed a game for three to six players, with no set turns, where the main activity was trading, and with certain numeric rules that defined scoring, etc.

  • Focus = No turns, trading

But the game, even when it was alright from a theoretical point of view (a clear Core, a Focused design) didn’t manage to create the messy and chaotic experience that he had hoped for. It was then that Babel got the full treatment. He gave it Power: Robert designed a set of rules that allows the game to be played by as many people as possible. If you’ve got a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand people in a room, they can all play the game, turning it into an experience that’s massive, out of control, and powerful.

  • Power = Rules that allow it to become massive

That decision, taking the idea one step further, is what I call “Power.” Games and their makers featured at XDS really get this concept clearly. The two previous steps (defining the Core and Focusing on it) are there to make a solid and tangible experience. But, on top of that, this last step aims towards making this experience extraordinary, fresh and bold. A game that has successfully followed the first two steps but fails on this last one is the equivalent of a singer, a virtuoso, who expertly carries a melody, but cannot “perform” it with soul and feeling. It lacks that “je ne sais quoi.” Power is going that extra step with one of your game’s features. Deciding that it won’t do to just fit in—it has to stand out.

Other examples of Power…

Let’s look at a couple more instances of “Power” to solidify the concept.

  • Brothers A Tale of Two Sons and its disruptive controllers:
    • This game tells the story of two brothers that go down a path together. The characters grow as individuals but their relationship also flourishes, and that’s the Core. Even though this game can be enjoyed by two players at once, the developers figured out an interesting way for one player to make the most of it. They could have made it so that you could only control one character at a time, while the other one was operated by an artificial intelligence or just waited until you came back. However, both characters move at the same time, each of them controlled by a different stick on the same joystick. It’s no minor call, to decide that. It’s bold, it’s fresh, and it gives the game and it’s Core a Power that makes it unique.
  • Darkest Dungeon and its excessive randomness:
    • The Core of this game lies in the psychological troubles that plague our adventurers. The Focus is everywhere, but above all it’s in the randomness that determines a good portion of the game. Having a few elements left to chance is fairly common, but we see the Power here in how excessively it relies on random values. With this decision, letting chance take center stage, the Core becomes evident, and the gameplay becomes something new. Chancy, of course, but new all the same.

It’s worth mentioning that, even if Power means “going an extra step,” it should always be heading towards the Core. Power should not be askew. It involves understanding the Core and making a novel yet risky decision without losing your trajectory.

Summing things up

Core, Focus, Power is not a revolutionary method. It’s a cross of several other techniques, a formalization of best practices that have been echoing in different shapes along the creative industries for a long time. It’s the result of my experience absorbing ideas and methods I’ve discussed with other colleagues, and fitting them to my day-to-day needs. One of the main reasons this came into existence was in order to put my thoughts to paper, mending the opinions of different teams I’ve been a part of, and justifying some decisions without harming sensibilities. In that sense, I have no doubt that sharing a North would greatly help a team when it comes to getting along. For more on the game design process, Patricio explainined the shared experience of designing a game at the expert level at XDS. His remarks from the event will be the update to this blog.

So, here’s the takeaway. Every time you design a game, keep in mind these three steps:

  • Define the Core.
  • Every time an idea comes up for debate, ask yourselves: this feature we’re discussing…is it Focused on the Core?
  • If the answer is yes, then there’s a follow-up: can we take this feature one step beyond and create a Powerful experience?

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