Sunday, 18 October 2009

The Rules of Game Design:The Golden rule

In Towards a Moral Code for Game Designers, I sketched out some brief rules of game design, and made the promise I'll expand on them - which I'm doing in this series. I'll keep the rules punchy, short and easy to remember - the ideas are usually not mine, and I'll attempt to credit them appropriately. Feel free to respond in the comments, buttress my arguments or undermine them. Remember, I'm trying to be a force for good to Ernest Adams' evil.

'The Golden rule:' The most valuable resource in your game is the player's time and attention.

Named after: Gold, particularly gold in World of Warcraft.

Why is it important: It should be self explanatory that the player's attention is the most important resource in the game - far more important that anything else that the developers can deliver - but many people design and play games as if this as not the case. Consider the following:

1. The majority of people never reach the end of a video game. Their attention gets exhausted before the game content does.
2. The best players in Starcraft are often measured by their actions per minute - the total number of actions that they can execute effectively in parallel. In the best players, this is over 200 per minute or more than 3 meaningful clicks per second. This resource is usually more strategically important than perfecting a build queue, or the population cap, or the decision to rush, boom or turtle.
3. The number one killer of characters in Angband is tiredness, followed by boredom. The best strategy to winning the game is to attempt this in as short a time as possible - a counter intuitive approach in a game which is effectively infinitely grindable.
4. No matter how you design a game, you cannot prevent a player from choosing not to play it. In fact, trading of characters and in-game currency in MMORPGs make it possible to put economic value on skipping playing parts of the game. Some people are clearly willing to spend much more than they did on the purchase of the game, to avoid playing it.

Consequences: Design your game so that playing better is more important than playing longer. Allow good players to short cut the process of playing by opening up non-linear progression options, and skipping over any unnecessary content. Leave it up to the player to decide what content is unnecessary, rather than lock them into cut scenes and out of in-game content.

Further reading:
Half-Life 2 completion stats: Episode 1, Episode 2.
Starcraft explanation of actions per minute. UC Berkley Starcraft class, week 1.

Further viewing:

Speed runs for Metroid, Half-Life, Morrowind, Angband.

Any other recommendations?


Anonymous said...

I wish very much Blizzard had obeyed this rule when they designed WoW. When you play it for a while it becomes very clear that most of its core mechanics are squarely aimed at taking you a lot of time even when you know exactly what you're doing. This is true both for low- and high-end game.
I often wonder why it's still king of MMORPGs despite of all this tediousness ...

nihilocrat said...

@Dirk : Blizzard is tapping into a large pool of people who don't want to actually be challenged in games. Whether it is intentional or not, it seems like a lot of people get a lot of enjoyment out of gradually improving their characters (or guild or whatever) without actually having to improve their game-playing skills. I know a lot of people get pissed when a newcomer out-does old veterans simply because the newcomer has natural talent; Blizzard is providing a game where this probably doesn't happen much because everyone is going to need to spend X amount of time in the game to get to the same level as a veteran.

Someone better-versed in psychology than I am could probably point out parallels between WoW and other situations where people enjoy getting small, predictable rewards for vast amounts of adequate performance.