Layers of Depth, Layers of Fun

Next week I’m going to teach a course on Game Prototyping at a university in Salzburg. It will be a practical introduction of all things you can prototype when making a game – from user interaction to social features, from rulesets to art. I am a huge fan of prototyping out of two reasons. Firstly, I’m responsible for the production timeline and to a certain degree also for the production budget here at Broken Rules. Prototyping takes the edge off a lot of tasks and generally makes production cheaper simply by making mistakes cheaper. Secondly, I’ve been teaching various kinds of designMDA Framework. The authors of the paper list eight kinds of aesthetics that create the player experience of a game:

  1. Sensation: Game as sense-pleasure
  2. Fantasy: Game as make-believe
  3. Narrative: Game as drama
  4. Challenge: Game as obstacle course
  5. Fellowship: Game as social framework
  6. Discovery: Game as uncharted territory
  7. Expression: Game as self-discovery
  8. Submission: Game as pastime

While prototyping can not be used to directly test for one of these, and neither they are suited as generators for good game design, a game designer might still be able to probe for a specific aesthetic by creating a prototype. Our game is strong at challenge and discovery. Most of our prototypes so far have focussed on the challenge aspect of the game because we did not have the assets to support discovery. The single player campaign will lean heavily towards exploration and thus we need to build prototypes focus on the narrow space of risk/reward systems in spatial movement. We need to build environments that feature spatial challenges and rewards. If you read discovery less literal, exploring the main character’s capabilities is an act of discovery and can be prototyped by focussing on skill-based prototypes.

I think Hunicke’s list needs an update. The paper even states that the list is incomplete. Limiting social elements of games to fellowship and challenge is complicated in the age of FarmVille and Demon’s Souls. At the same time, social factors are a strong reason for submitting to a game. Nowadays – or maybe it was always the case – compulsion is the most important kind of “fun” in games, and the one most talked about. At the same time, the demise of music games can be read as a games-as-expression bubble. If players want to express themselves they fire up Twitter or Facebook. Most games are ill-suited to help you discovering anything about yourself but some physical abilities. Shadow of the Colossus stands as the exception to this rule. Narrative as story (the game’s story) builds on make-believe. Narrative as experience (telling other players about your personal journey) is in the discovery/expression corner. Thus I propose a new list of layers of depth in game design:

  1. Sensation: Game as sense-pleasure
  2. Challenge: Game as test
  3. Competition: Game as rivalry
  4. Fellowship: Game as event of social connection and alignment to a cultural circle
  5. Exploration: Game as uncharted territory
  6. Drama: Game as make-believe and drama
  7. History: Game as an experience worth telling stories about**
  8. Compulsion: Game as force that pulls you in
  9. Metaphor: Game as learning something about you and the world around you

Our own starting points for level design – story, metaphor, skill and setting – can be integrated into this broader set of aesthetics. Skill becomes challenge, story becomes drama, and the setting is what allows for exploration. Only metaphor stays as it is. Now it is up to us to effectively start implementing mechanics that foster dynamics that trigger aesthetics. And if we design for enough depth on all these axes, we will be able to pull off the game we set out to make. Do the same. Make a good game.

* The late Steve Jobs served this marvelous quote about his definition of design: “Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service”

** I’m not happy with that choice of word