Experience: the Heart of Game Design
Some time ago I had a chat with a fellow game designer, who was questioning a game he had almost completed, but with which he wasn’t fully happy. For its author, the game was lacking a “hook”, something making the game more engaging and appealing.
I looked into the drafted rule-book and samples of this untitled game about writing and publishing, in hope to be able to give some feedback to my peer. Looking at the theme and mechanics, the design process my contact had gone through was clear from the end result, even though I hadn’t followed its development: the theme and mechanics had been designed separately from one another.
This is why the game lacked the “hook”. The heart of the game, which should be giving it life, was missing: Experience.
The game is an aesthetic and interactive object, and it is meant to be an experience first and foremost. As a designer, it’s really easy to get lost in a theme or in mechanics and forget about the experience.
What is experience exactly? It’s what the designer wants the player to feel when playing the game. This feeling comes from sensory input (theme), and psychological input (mechanics). The sensory input made up of the physical elements, illustrations, and writing or audio of the game. The psychological input is the result of the mechanical constraints, forcing the player to interact within certain constraints with the game or other players.
Experience is central to the success of the game and dependent on both thematic and mechanical dimensions, so to be able to exist coherently, both these dimensions cannot be dissonant, and serve the purpose of evoking the experience.
When I designed Makiavelia, I had a clear experience I wanted to evoke and which I reverted to, each time the game development went astray. This strategy was crucial to the success of the design process. I would like to describe a key moment in this development, and to make it more clear I need to explain the intended experience of Makiavelia.
The game was inspired from imperial history, and to some extent novels of political intrigue. Most Empire-themed games, of which classics like Risk, Axis and Allies, and Diplomacy, focus mostly on the outward expansion of empires. Usually these games use area control, and as the empire expands, so does its power increase.
Imperial history literature however reveals that the outward expansion goes hand in hand with strong inward leadership, where the central ruler finds means to gain support from local leaders, while remaining on top of the power pyramid. Whenever the empire stretches too thin or inner ties are too weak, the empire implodes and power goes to the next strongest leaders within.
Similarly, the core experience I wanted for the game was for players to compete for power with others, while depending on them to ascend to victory. Players had to experience both internal and external tensions at once.
In earlier versions of Makiavelia, there used to be a map, and area control. Players who controlled areas would received some amount of victory points. The mechanics worked, but something was off and I was not certain as to what I had to do. So I reverted to the initial intent to produce that experience. That’s when I realized I had erred into the wrong direction.
If players had multiple sources of victory points, why then would they go through the effort of diplomacy or internal politics with coalitions? So I removed the map altogether and introduced a single source of victory points. It seemed empty in theory, but in practice it delivered precisely the intended experience! Players now had not choice but to combine their power with other players in order to get their hands on the victory points and also share them among themselves.
To finally create a coherent experience, the theme had to be adjusted to this newly introduced mechanic. In the case of Makiavelia it wasn’t too difficult, as it was fitting already. This new single source of victory points, a finite set of random coins, became the revenue and the player groups became the regimes or coalitions.
In sum, the point this article is trying to make is that experience should be central to game design, and mechanics and themes should be tools shaping that experience. If these these are used without a plan and aim, they create a game without a hook. However, if the game has a compelling experience, players will be immersed in fun and ask for seconds.