Game design, as I understand itGame Scales

I’ve been thinking about some of the concepts behind game design, boiling them down to their most basic parts. The metaphor that keeps bubbling up is the image above, a scale. The game the image suggests is as simple as I can imagine a game to be: the point would be to use the square in order to bring the ball as close to the fulcrum as possible, and keep it there for as long as possible. In my mind, a game is essentially a balancing act, wrapped in art and presented as multiplanar choices where scales are stacked on top of scales.

Games, essentially, are systems the players influence in a set of prescribed ways with both inherent and arbitrary limitations. The game’s rules describe the ways players interact with the system, in the positive and negative sense. The space left between the boundaries of the negative rules on the plane described by the positive rules contains the legitimate actions a player could make. That space is explored by players, more often than not finding and using moves the game designers never anticipated – bumping pinball machines just short of triggering the “tilt” sensor is an example of player creativity that is later embraced as standard gameplay. As for stacking scales on top of scales, imagine the same scales in the image in the square, where control of the square itself is mediated by the scale within it.

Take a game like League of Legends: the breakdown of the system would be a two-deep stack of scales. The first level would be the players controlling their hero, using their skills to limit the amount of gametime and control their opponents have over their own heroes. This would be inside the square of the game that occurs around the players, in which the team that destroys the opposing team’s palace. There’s a question, in my mind, of the game that’s actually being played here. A team could win, potentially, without ever engaging the players from the opposing team. The same could be said for “conquest” mode in the Battlefield series; the point of the game isn’t to kill the opposing team, it’s to deplete their tickets by holding the capture points throughout the map.

These “scales within scales” games are stacked this way in order to encourage players to engage one another, and to make their engagements significant, while de-emphasizing the players’ skill. A brilliant player could dominate the opposing team whenever he or she comes in contact with them, but they wouldn’t win the whole game easily. The brilliant player can influence the larger-scale game, sure, but he won’t be the only factor. He’s only a fraction of the weight on that side of the scale.

The flip-side of this sort of stacking is that players’ actions are increasingly removed from the outcome of the game – making sure players feel like they have agency within the game, that how they control their square actually matters, is another balancing act, but that is a game the designers play.

I’m sure none of this is new to better-versed game theorists. It’s merely my perspective.

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