Join him, won’t you… in his ongoing struggle to pass Go.
When I talk about games, at least when I’m speaking professionally or professorially, I like to point out the essential similarities among games of all sorts. Mechanically speaking, roller derby has a great deal in common with chess, and if we want to understand games, we need to understand exactly what sorts of underpinnings are common to all our endeavors.
Or, in less high-falutin’ terms, we need to understand how games are all alike…
This is where I’m going to get a little academic. (But not much! Because if you wanted to read some abstruse technical document, you’d head some place that hosts that sort of thing!)
Now, I mentioned way back the field of ludology, or the study of games. The granddaddy of the field is Johan Huizinga’s 1938 book Homo Ludens, or “The Playing Man,” in which he identified the characteristics of play and its purpose, pointing out that even animals play.
The field has diverged a bit since then, so I’ve had to pick an interpretation that seems suitably encompassing and specific enough to fit my own needs. Still, why should I bother?
After all, you can make great music without knowing the specifics of music theory by simply playing music. Likewise, you can make great games without knowing the theory behind them by simply making them. I’m fairly certain the progenitors of our hobby didn’t spend long hours reading academic dissertations; they simply played lots of games, and then wrote the games they wanted to play. This is a good and valid approach.
At the same time, I want to defend the idea that as designers, we should know the elements of games, the pieces that make these disparate activities similar, and we should develop a common language for game design. This allows us to design our games more thoughtfully and with greater precision. With a fuller comprehension of the foundations of our hobby, we won’t spend all our time designing our way around fundamental engineering problems or answering questions that have already been answered. Instead, we can focus on the ultimate goal of gaming: fun.
So I looked at a few different theories, and I’ve settled on a model I modified slightly from the original by USC professor Tracy Fullerton. Without any further preamble, these are the formal elements I consider essential for all games, the things any game must have to be considered a game:
- Uncertain Outcome
Some of these are fairly obvious. Of course, a game needs players, right? But how would we define players in the first place? What differentiates players from spectators? It turns out that the idea of Players contains some implicit assumptions we need to unpack to understand their role. Players are first and foremost people who are playing the game, but to play the game, they must satisfy a couple of important conditions: they must agree to play the game (or “accept the invitation to play”), and they must agree to abide by the rules of the game.
If someone says they’ll play Axis & Allies and then insists on playing it like Risk, they’re not playing A&A. If they ignore the rules, they’re cheating, unless everyone agrees to operate under these assumptions.
Okay, so we’ve got our players. What are Boundaries? They are what Huizinga calls the Magic Circle, the space in which the game is played. The game boundary could be the tabletop itself, but it’s not confined to the physical. You can stand up from the table and head to the kitchen for some Cheetos and Mountain Dew and still be involved in gameplay. Boundaries are a mindset that encompass the physical, the mental (if you believe you’re playing and others in the game believe you are, you are), and the temporal. That is to say, if your game has a time limit, it has a temporal boundary.
The Rules of the game are the physical laws of the game universe. They tell us what is and is not possible in the game. By permitting certain actions, they necessarily restrict others. They outline all the elements, defining what differentiates this game from others and how the players interact with the game world and each other.
Procedures are how players actually play the game. If rules provide the broad outline of the actions available, procedures define what and how the players perform those actions. Procedures tell us when players take their turns, what actions they can take on their turns, and how, for instance, they can rebuild their health when they’ve taken damage. If you want to overrun an opponent, the rules define the effect. Your part is to announce your intention, to ensure you have the capability to do so, position yourself in such a way to do so, and then roll the dice.
That is, procedures tell us the who, how, where, and when we can take action in a game. The why is up to you.
To complete these actions, and to improve our chances of winning, we have Resources. Resources can be the ultimate goal of our games, but more often than not, they are the means to the end. They can be as concrete and obvious as gold pieces or factories, or they can be as abstruse as hit points. Resources must have both value and scarcity. In general, none of us cares much about dirt or air, but when we’re gardening, we want good quality dirt, and if we’re drowning, we long for a place where the air is non-scarce.
Resources in games might include powers, lives, money, units to command, and more. What’s better, the scarcity of resources gives us an immediate leverage into conflict, which is at the core of gaming. From a design standpoint, resources allow us a quick and easy way to modify the game without changing the rules dramatically.
Objectives are targeted rewards to keeps the player involved in the game. A game without objectives quickly becomes pointless, and while we can generate our own objectives in games, it is not nearly as satisfying to do so as it is to overcome the objectives built into the game. We can have miniature objectives or nesting objectives—that is, objectives that take us closer to our goals as a piece of a larger objective—but we need to feel a sense of progress toward some ultimate goal, or else the game may feel repetitive or worthless. For instance: “The princess isn’t in this castle!”
Conflict arises from the interaction between players, rules, resources, and the game system itself. You might even argue that most game systems encourage a particular type of conflict and the rules of the system implicitly and explicitly establish the types of conflict the system creates.
There are three essential types of conflict: obstacles (whether a maze, a wall, or a puzzle), opponents (that is, other players), and decisions (which enemy should I attack? Where should I allocate my resources? What feats should I choose?).
All of this leads to the Uncertain Outcome, the reason why we play games. If we knew the outcome of a game before we went in, would we bother playing? If we didn’t get that rush of turning the odds in our favor or overcoming obstacles that seemed insurmountable, would we have the same joy in play? If we knew whether we were predestined to win or lose, the game would not hold the same attraction.
We can define the outcome in several ways such as most points, most lives, most kills, or any combination of these in a certain amount of time or on reaching a threshold. Maybe, as in blackjack, our uncertain outcome is how much money you have when you choose to stop playing.
We use these formal elements to create dynamic systems of complex and interrelated parts. Modifying these elements allows us a great measure of control over the play experience, and doing so mindfully gives us a tremendous insight into the potential results of our actions.
Next column: Now that we’ve talked about how games are all the same, we’re going to discuss why they’re all different. In the meantime: What sorts of elements do you think games need? Did I miss any?