Andrew Rollings and Earnest Adams on Game Design

[Readings] (03.30.09, 11:12 pm)

I want to look at this book in two respects. The first is as the book was intended, for application to the design of my lofty Pride and Prejudice game idea. In this sense, I will take the authors advice as it was intended to be received. The second dimension is as a critical view of game design as viewed from the industry. This is not a theoretical text, but a trade text, intended to be applied to the practice of game design. As a work that examines the practice of making games, it deserves critical attention.

The first thing I am really interested in that the authors describe is the relationship between game design and art. While the big name designers tend to be considered artists, the actual practice of making games and doing game design is about craftsmanship. Artistry is about expression, and it is true that games do involve expression (as does nearly any real craft), but the bulk of the work and focus is on the actual craft itself. I think that there is a spectrum between artistry and craftsmanship, between expression and technique, but but the craft side is much more important than generally is acknowledged to be. The idea of crafting also suggests that game design is a process, a skill that may be evaluated and judged, and one that must be improved and developed by practice.

As has been the case recently, my notes stop a little short. The reason for this is that after the chapter on storytelling, the book discusses characters (the discussion of which is better handled in Isbister), and then gets into technical and gritty issues regarding gameplay. There is a brief discussion on moral challenges which is interesting, but my attitudes on moral systems in games have been firmly established. The part following this is a detailed discussion of existing game genres.

What Is Game Design?

The authors present game design as depending on three main supports: core mechanics, storytelling, and interactivity. The core mechanics are the science of the game, the mathematical dimension that form the absolute bedrock upon which the game must stand. Core mechanics are so integral to a game that they often become invisible, pervasive to the point at which their absence becomes notable. As such, core mechanics tend to be the least questioned or developed dimensions of games, to much detriment.

Storytelling as described by the authors is primarily used as a means to create a dramatic arc, which keeps attention and modulates the flow of the experience. As such, the narrative is not the end of a game, it is instead instrumental, the means to producing an experience. I do not think I agree with this approach to narrative, as there is certainly more to narrative than drama.

Interactivity is used to apply to everything that the player can perceive and affect. The interactivity thus lives in visual representations, audio, cues and feedback, as well as the buttons and interface that structure the player’s means of affecting the world. Interactivity is posed as separate from the core mechanics, because the core mechanics govern the math that is internal, while the interactivity governs the user engagement. I think this separation is a little arbitrary, but it can make sense if we view the three pillars as subject to different degrees of intersection. For example, interactivity in Wario Ware games might be considered to overlap significantly with the mechanics.

Game Concepts

Focusing on practice and production, the authors look at some of the basic formal elements necessary in games. These are the setting in which the game takes place, the model of interaction, and the perspective the player has. These qualities lend themselves quickly to generic classifications. Looking further, these can reveal the modes of interaction and behavior, and the levels of realism. The ultimate goal of making games is entertainment. Successful entertainment requires working between audience expectations and the formal game elements. The ultimate and deciding factors for success in this case is economical, how many people buy the game. However, there is also a tradeoff: the idea is to find an audience and entertain it really well.

The authors describe the genres of games (and in fact spend the entire second part of the book exploring them). Genres are stable and used because of what they have in common in terms of their formal qualities, and with the types of audiences who play them, and their reasons for doing so. I find the discussion of genres somewhat stiffling, but their placement makes sense within this volume, as genres exist due to the reasons of marketing, audience recognition, reviews, and retail. Despite the capacity for games to extend beyond the narrow spaces of genres (and they do, especially in independent titles), it is remarkable how ingrained genres are.

Game Settings and Worlds

One of the core reasons behind creating coherent game worlds is to establish a sense of harmony. This is harmony between the world, mechanics, and player. The effect of achieving this is something like suspension of disbelief or immersion, but does not fall within the trappings of having belief of sense of presence. The essence of harmony is an emotional resonance. Examples of games with good harmony are Myst, Half-Life, and Tetris. Games with good harmony tend to be very long lived.

I tend to think of harmony as arising out of a consistency between the in-game world and the fictional world that is being represented by the game. Looking at parts of game worlds, the authors examine the very technical essences required for constructing games. This means the dimension of the game space, how it is perceived and navigated, how objects are represented and distinguished, what the boundaries are and how to deal with them, how time works for the different elements of gameplay, and so on. The authors continue and discuss aesthetic, emotional, and moral dimensions of game worlds, which all emerge from how the model of the game responds to the player activity, and how the player responds to the behavior of the model.

Storytelling and Narrative

The authors turn in this chapter to Campbell’s monomyth, and then to Christopher Vogler’s “A Practical Guide to the Hero’s Journey.” The monomyth is used as foundation for all game plots. The authors defend the model in that it is meant to be a form, not a fomula, and that the term “hero” can be applied to female as well as male characters. This is somewhat upsetting since Campbell’s monomyth is expressly aimed at male stories. Female narratives are inherently excluded from this model (whether or not the heroes of the stories may in fact be heroines). While the structure is not meant to be a formula, the fact that it is presented as form suggests that while not all games that use the monomythic structure may be successful, it suggests that all successful games must employ the monomyth.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorRollings, Andrew and Adams, Ernest
TitleOn Game Design
Tagsspecials, games
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.