I have no words and i must design (excerpts)

Greg Costikyan


Co-founder of Manifesto Games, he has designed more than 30 commercially published board, roleplaying, computer, online and mobile games, including 5 Origins Award Winners

This article was originally published in Interactive Fantasy #2, 1994There’s a lotta different kinds of games out there. But do they have anything at all in common?What is a game? And how can you tell a good one from a bad one? We need a way to analyze games, to understand what works and what makes them interesting. We also need a critical language. And since this is basically a new form, despite its tremendous growth and staggering diversity, we need to invent one.What is a game, anyhow?It’s not a puzzlePuzzles are static; they present the “player” with a logic structure to be solved with the assistance of clues. “Games,” by contrast, are not static, but change with the player’s actions – although almost every game has some degree of puzzle- solving. There is no opposition, there is no roleplaying, and there are no resources to manage; victory is solely a consequence of puzzle solving.A puzzle is static. A game is interactive.A game is not a toyA ball is a toy. You can bounce it, twirl it, throw it, dribble it. And, if you wish, you may use it in a game. But the game is not intrinsic in the toy; it is a set of player- defined objectives overlaid on the toy.A toy is interactive. But a game has goals.A game is not a stoyStories are inherently linear. Games are inherently non-linear. They depend on decision making. Decisions have to pose real, plausible alternatives, or they aren’t real decisions. To the degree that you make a game more like a story – more linear, fewer real options – you make it less like a game.The notion of increasing narrative tension is a useful one for any game that comes to a definite conclusion. But to try to hew too closely to a storyline is to limit players’ freedom of action and their ability to make meaningful decisions.Stories are linear. Games are not.A game demands participationIn a traditional art form, the audience is passive. The artist painted. You see his painting.But surely we need forms in spirit with the times; forms which permit the common man to create his own artistic experience.Enter the game. Games provide a set of rules; but the players use them to create their own consequences. The designer provides the theme, the players the music. It’s a democratic art form for a democratic age.Traditional art forms play to a passive audience. Games require active participation.So what is a game?A game is a form of art in which participants, termed players, make decisions in order to manage resources through game tokens in the pursuit of a goal.Decision makingThe future, we are told, will be interactive. You might as well say, “The future will be fnurglewitz.” It would be about as enlightening.A light switch is interactive. You flick it up, the light turns on. You flick it down, the light turns off. That’s interaction. But it’s not a lot of fun.All games are interactive: The game state changes with the players’ actions. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be a game: It would be a puzzle.But interaction has no value in itself. Interaction must have purpose.The thing that makes a game a game is the need to make decisions. What does a player do in any game? In some games, he rolls dice. In some games, he chats with his friends. In some games, he whacks at a keyboard. But in every game, he makes decisions.GoalsIf you have no goal, your decisions are meaningless. Choice A is as good as Choice B; pick a card, any card. Who cares? What does it matter?For it to matter, for the game to be meaningful, you need something to strive toward. You need goals.What are the players’ goals? Can the game support a variety of different goals? What facilities exist to allow players to strive toward their various goals?OppositionIn a two-player, head-to-head game, your opponent is the opposition; the game is direct competition. And this is a first-rate way of providing opposition. But direct competition isn’t the only way to do it. Whatever goals you set your players, you must make the players work to achieve them. And even when a player has an opponent, putting other obstacles in the game can increase its richness and emotional appeal.What provides opposition? What makes the game a struggle?Managing resourcesTrivial decisions aren’t any fun.The way to make choices meaningful is to give players resources to manage. “Resources” can be anything: Cards. Experience points. Knowledge of spells. The love of a good woman.If the game has more than one “resource,” decisions suddenly become more complex. Interesting decisions make for interesting games.Game tokensWhat is the difference between “resources” and “tokens”?Resources are things you must manage efficiently to achieve your goals; tokens are your means of managing them. In a board wargame, combat strength is a resource; your counters are tokens.To give a player a sense that he controls his destiny, you need game tokens.InformationThe interface must provide the player with relevant information. And he must have enough information to be able to make a sensible decision.That isn’t to say a player must know everything; hiding information can be very useful, but the player must have some idea of the range of possibilities.Does the game provide the information as and when needed? Will reasonable players be able to figure out what information they need, and how to find it?Other Things that Strengthen GamesDiplomacyAchieving a goal is meaningless if it comes without work; but that doesn’t mean all decisions must be zero-sum. Whenever multiple players are involved, games are strengthened if they permit and encourage diplomacy.Games permit diplomacy if players can assist each other –perhaps directly, perhaps by combining against a mutual foe.How can players help or hinder each other? What incentives do they have to do so?ColorMonopoly is a game about real estate development. Right? Wrong. Monopoly isn’t really about anything. But it has the color of a real estate game: named properties, little plastic houses and hotels, play money. And that’s a big part of its appeal.How does the game evoke the ethos and atmosphere and pageantry of its setting? What can you do to make it more colorful?SimulationColor adds to a game’s appeal. And simulation is a way of providing color.And it has other value, too. For one, it improves character identification. And it can allow insight into a situation that mere narrative cannot.How can elements of simulation strengthen the game?Variety of EncounterRandomness can be useful. It’s one way of providing variety of encounter.Players like to encounter the unexpected. This means that the game has to allow lots of different things to happen.What things do the players encounter in this game? Are there enough things for them to explore and discover? How can we increase the variety of encounter?Position identificationCharacter identification lends emotional power to a story. To the degree you encourage players to identify with their position in the game, you increase the game’s emotional impact.What can you do to make the player care about his position? What is the overall emotional appeal of the position, and what can be done to strengthen that appeal?RoleplayingRoleplaying is a powerful technique. It improves position identification; it improves the game’s color because the players become partly responsible for maintaining the willing suspense of disbelief. And it is an excellent method of socialization.How can players be induced to roleplay? What sorts of roles does the system permit or encourage?SocializingHistorically, games have mainly been used as a way to socialize.When designing any game, it is worthwhile to think about the game’s social uses, and how the system encourages or discourages socialization.How can the game better encourage socialization?Narrative TensionTension makes for fun games.deally, a game should be tense all the way through, but especially so at the end. The toughest problems, the greatest obstacles, should be saved for last. One of the most common game failures is anticlimax. The period of maximum tension is not the resolution, but somewhere mid-way through the game. In most cases, this is because the designer never considered the need for narrative tension.What can be done to make the game tense?They’re All Alike Under The Dice. Or Phosphors. Or What Have YouWe’re now equipped to answer the questions I posed at the beginning of this article. Do all the myriad forms of gaming have anything in common?Most assuredly. All involve decision making, and managing resources in pursuit of a goal. But how can you tell a good game from a bad one?The test is still in the playing; but we now have some terms to use to analyze a game’s appeal.If we are to produce works worthy to be termed “art,” we must start to think about what it takes to do so, to set ourselves goals beyond the merely commercial. For we are embarked on a voyage of revolutionary import: the democrative transformation of the arts. Properly addressed, the voyage will lend granduer to our civilization; improperly, it will create merely another mediocrity of the TV age.The author wishes to acknowledge the contributions of Chris Crawford, Will Wright, Eric Goldberg, Ken Rolston, Doug Kaufman, Jim Dunnigan, Tappan King, Sandy Peterson, and Walt Freitag, whose ideas he has liberally stolen.