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  • Twenty Essential Design Questions

    - Lewis Pulsipher
  • "It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers." James Thurber

    A while ago I discussed the nine fundamental structural sub-systems of any game. These elements are a good starting point for defining your game concept, but there's a lot more to be said.

    As a reminder, the structural elements are:

    1. Theme/History/Story/Emotion/Image.
    2. Player Interaction rules.
    3. Objective/victory conditions.
    4. "Data storage" (Information Management).
    5. Sequencing.
    6. Movement/Placement.
    7. Information availability.
    8. Conflict resolution/interaction of game entities.
    9. "Economy" (resource acquisition/conversion).

    The following are questions, or "decision points", for a designer to consider after he or she has established a framework. It should be most useful to people who are learning to design games. This list has grown as I've tried to come up with a set of questions that can be used to define and refine the nature of a game (whether non-electronic or electronic), once we have settled on the structural choices.

    What's the difference between the structural elements and these questions? A designer must choose something within each of the structural elements, or there is no game yet (not consciously choosing is itself a default choice). On the other hand, he or she can ignore any of the following questions, but other elements in the game will create some answer to each as the game is developed. Yet many of these questions are as important, in the long run, as those fundamental structures. As a designer, I'd prefer to answer the questions initially rather than stumble into an answer, but others may have a different point of view.

    Many of these questions are primarily of interest in non-race games with more than two sides. Races aren't unusual in video games (Mario Kart is a well-known recent race game), yet they are a very specialized version of multi-sided games because in most such games there is little you can do to hinder the opposition.

    Many board games and most card games are "multi"-sided (more than two sides). A trend in video gaming is toward multi-sided games, a way to have several people participate and compete directly, rather than indirectly via high scores or times, with one another. Over time, then, some of these questions will become very important for many video game makers.

    Here in summary are the twenty "questions" I've identified so far, followed after the question list by a brief discussion of each.

    "Distinct" Questions (Yes/no, or just a few possible answers) ("digital-style" questions)

    What is the genre of the game?
    Is it competitive or cooperative?
    Is it Symmetric or Asymmetric?
    Is it Zero-sum (ZS) or Non-zero-sum?
    How many (human) "sides" (generally, 1, 2, or many) and (human) players?
    Is this an "emergent"/rules-dominant game or a "role-assumption"/story-dominant game?

    Spectrum Questions (a wide range of possibilities along a spectrum, "analog-style" questions)

    How "big" and how long will the game be?
    How complex is the game?
    What is the level of action or "granularity"?
    What is the role of chance, how much does chance play a part in the game?
    How strongly will the decisions of the players influence the outcome of the game?
    Which kind of skill does a player need to use, adaptability, or planning?
    Which kind of skill does a player need, quick reactions (typical in shooters, for example), or careful deliberation?
    What is the level of Fluidity or Chaos?
    Is the game largely "mechanical" or "psychological"?

    Other Questions

    What is the outstanding mechanism involved?
    What are the dynamics of being ahead or behind in the game?
    What phases does the game naturally fall into?
    Is the game "serious" or "just for laughs"?
    Is the game "ruthless" or "nice" (a competition or an entertainment)

    "Distinct" Questions

    What is the genre of the game?

    This is related to theme/story, and is very important in electronic games, less so in non-electronic. Genres might be "sweep of history" game, "shooter", role-playing game, real-time strategy game, resource management game, etc. But a designer may not think about genre to begin with, and may end up with a game that defies standard genre-categorization.

     Is it competitive or cooperative?

    Most of the time the game will be competitive, but occasionally, all (or almost all) of the players will cooperate with each other. "Co-op", to an electronic gamer, means two or more players cooperating against the computer, say in a "shooter" game. On the non-electronic side we have Reiner Knizia's Lord of the Rings game, where all players cooperate, and Days of Wonder's Shadows Over Camelot, where there might be a traitor amongst the players; in both cases the game system provides the opposition.

    Is it Symmetric or Asymmetric?

    Symmetric -- similar starting positions/forces (typical of abstract games)

    Asymmetric -- different starting positions or forces, and sometimes different objectives, typical of historical simulations

    AAA electronic games are often symmetric from player to player, except that there may be asymmetry coming from different starting characters. StarCraft (as many other RTS games) is asymmetric because the three races are functionally different.


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