What can architecture teach us about game design?

In this article, I’ll look at architecture to see what elements can be incorporated into game design.  Architecture is a large field, and as a part of design there is already a lot of overlap with game design, so I’m going to focus on a style of architecture known as organic architecture.  This article of course can only scratch the surface of either organic architecture or architecture as a field, but will hopefully give a taste that will inspire further exploration.

Frank Lloyd Wright coined the term and was famous for his houses like Fallingwater.  The idea behind organic architecture was the notion that a house or building should be fully integrated into its natural environment so that it fits seamlessly with its surroundings.

So how can this be applied to game design?  I think what’s most appealing about organic architecture is the integration that can be found between the building and its surrounding environment.  While nature might not be a part of game design, organic game design could be seen as a seamless integration between the mechanics and the flavor (images, characters, and world) of the game.

Magic : The Gathering is a great example of a game that is trying to grapple with this issue right now.  For a long time the cards were only representations of the stories, characters, and worlds that the current set was acting as.  But, starting with Zendikar and especially with Scars of Mirrodin and Innistrad, they have tried to create strategic gameplay that echoes the same aesthetic as the art and the story.

For most RPGs this is a moot point because the connection between the actions and the flavor have to make sense.  But, for more strategic and puzzle games, I think there are conflicting decisions that can go into choosing to develop a game organically.

Developing a game organically has heavy costs.  There must be constant tug and pull between the requirements of the design and the elements of the story.  Each must respond to one another and neither can be pasted on at the end.  Organic game design is a choice, and games that aren’t organic (like Tetris and Bejeweled, or tabletop games like 7 wonders and Settlers of Catan) can still be extremely fun without a direct relationship between two different aesthetics in the game.

Below I will analyze four games to compare organic and inorganic design qualities.  All four are games that I consider excellent example of game design.

1. a. Yomi by David Sirlin

The visual aesthetic of the game is street fighting.  The mechanical aesthetic is (effectively) rock, paper, scissors.  These two aesthetics are expertly integrated by the way that the game is played.  Each turn both players select a move to play and then simultaneously flip them over to “fight.”  Each type of play the player can make corresponds with a specific type of fighting move (i.e. Block, Attack, Throw, or Dodge).  The core game mechanic is laying down and flipping over cards.  On top of that, there are combos, hit points, and characters that change the decisions a player wants to make.  It carries over the feel of Streetfighter through the mechanics, story, and visuals of the game.  This all ties together to create a powerful experience that combines both aesthetic and mechanical immersion.

1. b. Puzzle Strike by David Sirlin

Puzzle Strike, on the other hand, is not an organic game.  The game is effectively a Dominion variant that tries to increase interaction between players  The core mechanic is the playing of actions which is fueled by buying chips to play them later in the game.   Sirlin keeps the same characters from Yomi, to reinforce the visual aesthetic of fighting.  The core of the game is still a fighting mechanic, but unlike Yomi, there is no single game decision which reinforces the idea of fighting.  There are crashes and countercrashes where players attack each other to try to win, but then there are also attack and defense chips that are have similar interaction between players but do not have the same direct consequences (i.e. They are not directly related to winning or losing the game.)  Moreover, the other half of the game, the buying portion has a very weak mechanical relationship to the fighting theme of the game.  Mechanically the game feels much more like an interactive Dominion than a duel between fighters.

2. a. Portal 1 by Valve

Portal 1 is the perfect example of a tight relationship between the game loop and the structure of the game.   The primary game loop in the game is the shooting of the portal gun.  The structure of the game centers around learning how to use such a strange tool.  The game feels like a tutorial, walking the player through all of the different ways that a portal gun can be used.  It plays on themes of scientific testing as well as making fun of the nature of games by manipulating the central game loop.  The twist plays directly off this relationship because the player is subjected to a new paradigm only after having a “complete” understanding of the portal gun.

2. b. Portal 2 by Valve

Portal 2, on the other hand, is an example of a game that goes the opposite direction in its production.  Rather than building outward, the game builds inward.  The story and environment take precedent over the mechanic, which becomes a way of interacting with the new environment and mechanics in interesting ways.  These interesting ways move the story along.  An interesting game, but interesting for different reasons and in different ways.

The goal of the article was to show  that organic game design (drawing from organic architecture) is about the relationship between the game’s mechanics and themes.  Organic game development is a type of game design whose process creates a product where the mechanic and the theme are highly integrated with one another.

I hope you enjoyed my first article!