The Invisible Hand of Game Design

Or a really pretentious way of saying “does your game work?” This is something that is important to me on a design level: is the game fun and does it do its job? Which in this case is be fun. To find out what is fun and what isn’t for my games I try the game out, watch others try it out, tweak rules, play again, play games like my game, and repeat. Playtesting is a never-ending cycle of assessment in ludology.

To me, playtesting is an invisible hand (like the figure of speech in economics). It guides us–sometimes kicking and screaming–to a better way of expressing the mechanics of play. Well designed games should be in homeostasis between engagement, understanding, and entertainment. The only way to reach this is to allow for changes to your concept.

Developing my dungeon crawling game started as a pen-and-paper RPG. I wanted a simple system that could be modified. So instead of hundreds of manuals, I wanted a small rulebook with equations. Then players could create their own rules for what they wanted. After that, I could add settings and campaign guides that included rules, spells, tech, and whatever else for people who would be pre-made.

I got the idea from running a GURPS game. Out of all the games, I have ever played, GURPS is my favorite RPG because it is so freeing. With one rule set, you can play a dungeon crawler, a cyberpunk dystopia, a space opera, or even a silver age superhero story. The freedom it gave my players engaged them heavily in their characters. The game became personal to them. They did things I never expected making the story fresh and exciting.

I wanted to bottle that but there was one problem–balance.

GURPS is great in that you can have lots of settings, however, I had one player who would always find a way to game the mechanics until the game broke. In a steampunk setting, he took a single level of earth-shaping magic. I said “Are you sure? You can save those character points,” he said, “It could come in handy.” As in every single game session, he completely broke the game to skip hours of play. Entire sessions were gone.

In the first scenario, there was a long corridor they had to cross with a sniper post at the end. They didn’t have a way to take out the sniper so they would need to sneak the whole way or run really fast. Instead, the earth wizard simply made a bridge over the rushing river in the middle of town and walked unharmed to the end boss. Another game he made another land bridge to place himself neatly on the boss’s airship instead of fighting his way across four heavily defended ships.

Simply, his single spell broke the game. It was allowed under the rules but it was killing my missions. I got better at making things harder for him to skip missions. I also re-skinned skipped missions for later use, but I knew my system would need to tweak that.

So in my RPG system, I’m creating rules for spells and skills. To create a land bridge he would need to figure out the distance he was casting at, if he was in contact with the area he was casting on, how good the spell was, and how long it would last. This meant a lot more work for casting but it means that just taking a single level of a spell class wouldn’t allow the player as much game breaking as before–while offering more freedom than ever.

Now players can learn enough fire magic to make a handy torch-light or a flamethrower with the same spell. If they can dream it they can create it but there is more cost involved potentially. So now those earth bridges may have broken, or washed out, or not been long enough. Maybe they wouldn’t know till they tried.

The second part of that tweak in my system was just learning how to better tell stories that my players were creating. The earth bridge escapades made much better stories than I had written. Now I would actively encourage that kind of thought. Which ties back into the assessment of your game. I had a problem I knew I needed to change with the power of the spells but I liked the engagement those spells created for my players. It was fun so it wasn’t totally broken I guess, just overpowered. Tweaking the issue from several directions gave me a better overall game experience for my players and thus a better game.

Using play philosophy like this to make a better experience is what game design is all about at the mechanical level. Sure; story, setting, and art play roles in how that design is received by the players but it is the design elements of the play that actually create the game itself.

I have a lot more thoughts on game design and ludology but for now, I’ll just leave you with some homework. Go play Monkey Island (or Sam & Max, or Back to the Future, or really any Telltale game) and think about how the game mechanics of the design work with the story, setting, and art. How do you think the way a player interacts with the game changes because of the design?


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