Aug 23, 2009

Economy of Design

The Economist had an article a couple of weeks back on design trends in consumer electronics. It discussed the Flip Mino and the Asus Eee PC. It did not find them notable for their features, but for their success despite the lack thereof.
What impressed him about the design was not simply the gadget’s diminutive proportions and low price, but the way the developers had so ruthlessly resisted all the marketing pressure to add further features—and had single-mindedly maintained the design’s clarity of purpose.

I call attention to this article because it highlights something that has always bothered me. In the race to differentiate their product from the competition, designers pile on feature after feature; it reaches the point where the features far exceed anything the consumer can mentally process.

What does this have to do with game design?

Whenever I compare my prototypes, later versions invariably have one glaring difference from their predecessors: simplicity. I have realized that I tend to pile on mechanics (features) in my initial designs. It is only through testing that I (painfully) whittle away rules, choices, and mechanics from a prototype in an effort to make it both comprehensible and playable by my target audience.

In Pioneer, I used to have two in-game reverse auction points. This was important for two reasons.

First, it fit in with the flavor of the game. It made sense for pioneers to reach a "last outpost" at which to restock for the rest of their journey.

Second, it helped with gameplay. The auction point at the start of the game would take too long if players had to buy twice as many goods to last the entire length of the trail.

However, because of the nature of how goods were priced in this reverse auction, it represented a major speed bump in gameplay. It required far too many cards to be on the table at the same time, resulting in information overload.

I eventually eliminated this auction point and substituted a simple mechanic where players could buy cards from the top of the deck. Flavor-wise, it makes no sense. Gameplay-wise, it introduces the randomness I dread. However, I think it was the right move. The game is just more . . . fun, even if I feel the design is less interesting.

So which method of design is superior? Should a designer go my route, starting with an overwhelmingly complex jungle of features and cutting the vines away until a clear gameplay path emerges? Or should a designer follow the example of consumer electronics companies, beginning with a simple game and adding features until it becomes "superior" to existing games?

What do you think? Let me know in the comments.


  1. Great question!

    First, I need to knock out a quick point that a friend of mine made about complexity vs. complication. He was talking about computer systems, but he used a game analogy.

    Chess is complex. You can fit all the rules on one side of notebook page, but you won't live long enough to fully master the game.

    Mousetrap is complicated. It has many moving parts, but the engine behind it is a straight line with little variation. It's half a step above Chutes and Ladders.

    Complex systems, and games, are wonderful. Complicated systems, and games, might be entertaining, but they cannot deliver long term.

    Anyway, I was thinking the other day about chess. I pondered - what would chess be like if it had been developed today, in Germany.

    * It would have just shy of 700 pieces.
    * You would have to buy or trade something before you could move a piece.
    * It would have to allow 2 - 5 players.
    * Some of the best pieces would only be available in certain countries.
    * Once check was declared, the threatened player would be allowed to negotiate himself out of the situation.

    I dunno. It's a half-baked idea. I don't mean to knock Eurogames. It's just that once in a while I have to sit back and say "Holy carp - that has a LOT of stuff going on there."

    I love Carcassonne and a few others. I'd rather play Tsuro or cribbage than Settlers of Catan or Dominion. I'm not saying that the latter games are only complicated (from my earlier point), but I will say that the kind of strategic "ah ha!" reward they provide is not my cup of tea.

    Similarly, I used to have just about every Munchkin product known to man - but I had only played the game once or twice many years ago. Last year, I sat down and actually played a few of them for several hours. After a few games, the giggles faded and the frustration came in. I put the lot on eBay the next week. It's a fun diversion, but it's all theme and very little game. Like Mousetrap.

  2. I like the thought experiment of what chess would be like if made as a eurogame. My guess:

    *Players would have a set number of movement points to spend each turn, which they could divide up between pieces.
    *A player can move either color's pieces, but to move a piece, you need to spend a card matching that piece from hand
    *Each piece you capture is worth a certain number of victory points
    *The game ends when one color advances a pawn to the last rank or loses all of its pawns
    *Since colors don't belong to players, up to 5 players can play

  3. I had a design for a two-player card game that I recently canned because I think I over-simplified it. The theme was a series of Cold War submarine duels, Soviet vs. NATO. I kept coming down to a very simple decision set - get as close as you dare, then shoot without getting shot. Unfortunately, I had pretty much boiled away all the nuance and interesting decision elements. They were really just trappings, not helpful to the game, but when I removed them, what was left was something just a little more boring than Black Jack.

    So I guess what I learned is that a game has to have an interesting underlying structure before you can really carve away all the unnecessary complications and end up with something substantial.