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The Chemistry Of Game Design

July 19, 2007 Article Start Page 1 of 7 Next
 

1. Moving Beyond Alchemy

“…it was clear to the alchemists that "something" was generally being conserved in chemical processes, even in the most dramatic changes of physical state and appearance; that is, that substances contained some "principles" that could be hidden under many outer forms, and revealed by proper manipulation.”

I recently happened across a description of alchemy, that delightful pseudo-science of the last millennium that evolved into modern chemistry. For a moment I thought that the authors were instead describing the current state of the art in game design.

Every time I sit down with a finely crafted title such as Tetris or Super Mario Brothers, I catch hints of a concise and clearly defined structure behind the gameplay. It is my belief that a highly mechanical and predictable heart, built on the foundation of basic human psychology, beats at the core of every single successful game.

What would happen if we codified those systems and turned them into a practical technique for designing games?

In A Time Before Science

“Throughout the history of the discipline, alchemists struggled to understand the nature of these principles, and find some order and sense in the results of their chemical experiments—which were often undermined by impure or poorly characterized reagents, the lack of quantitative measurements, and confusing and inconsistent nomenclature.”

Historically, the process of understanding games has been limited by numerous factors ranging from messy experimental practices, spiritual reliance on untested theories of play, and confused terminology. We are still alchemists of our trade, mixing two parts impure story with one part polluted game play with three parts market voodoo.

As an industry, we need to beyond the mystical hand waving that defines modern game design. It is now possible to craft, test and refine practical models of game design built from observable patterns of play. We can describe what the player does and how the game reacts. Recently, we’ve begun to crack open why players react to certain stimuli and are able to create models that predict pleasure and frustration.

This essay will describe into one such model.

Fundamental Science Forms The Future

Diagram 2: Condensation polymerization of Nylon,
(a substance not available to alchemists)

The bigger hope is to move our alchemical craft towards the founding of a science of game design. We currently build games through habit, guesswork and slavish devotion to pre-existing form. Building a testable model of game mechanics opens up new opportunities for game balancing, original game design and the broader application of game design to other fields.

The advent of basic chemistry gave us tools to build a new world of technologies far beyond that imagined by our alchemist forefathers. Plastics, engines, fabrics, power sources revolutionized our lives. It is a worthy effort to crack the fundamental scientific principles behind the creation of games.


Article Start Page 1 of 7 Next

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Comments


Stephen Dinehart
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I found this thanks to a link from Stéphane Bura's July 29th article "Emotion Engineering", and I have to say your analysis using the skill chain and atom model is very compelling! I know utilizing similar approaches will help better my own game designs, and in collaborating and communicating with team members. Thank you.

Ivica Aracic
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A very interesting framework, which moves game design from the realm of myths and legends one step further towards being a true science.

One question: are stories really "useless"? One could see them as the motivator for practicing the skills and avoiding burnouts. Recently I played "Waking Mars". At a very late stage of the game I experienced kind of "burnout" on planting the seeds and manipulating the environment, BUT: I continued playing, because I wanted to know how the story ends.

Sergiy Shumakov
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Excellent article, hope it will help to design my first game.

Regarding plot in games - for me it is entertaining but not always. I've played Mafia II game and story was very interesting for me and kept me interested in this game.


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