This excerpt from Richard Rouse III's Game Design: Theory & Practice, covers several key game design issues, which contribute to what Rouse calls "The Elements of Gameplay." The book covers all aspects of game design, from coming up with a solid idea to writing the design document, from implementing the gameplay to playtesting the final product.
"We ended up with a game that I didn't know how to win. I didn't know which were the best strategies or tactics, even though I designed all the game's systems. That is what makes a good strategy game."
—Julian Gollop, talking about his game X-Com: UFO Defense
the game design elements that make up a really good game? Of course, there
is no definitive answer to such a question. Nonetheless, as a game designer
you will be expected to intuitively know exactly what the answer is. Understanding
game design, as with any art form, is very much an internalized understanding,
a "gut" reaction, a "feeling" you might have. It may
be that you will not be able to form that answer into words, but you will
need to understand what aspects of a game are strong and which are weak,
and how the latter can be replaced with more of the former. Experience
plays a big part in understanding what makes a game fun, experience both
as a game designer and as a game player.
Over my years of playing and creating games, I have come up with my own answers for what makes a game great, and in this chapter I discuss some of those qualities. Some of these topics may seem fairly distinct from each other, yet to my mind they all play a crucial role in making a good game. Certainly, I cannot hope to list all of the knowledge I have, since, as I mentioned, much of my understanding is more akin to a "sixth sense" than anything I could hope to write down in a book. But the ideas contained in this chapter should help to give you a starting point.
For me, one of the most exciting moments of being a game designer is when I hear someone talking about playing one of my games, and they explain a successful tactic for a given situation that I had never considered. This could be a solution to a specific puzzle, a way to incapacitate challenging enemies, or a method for maneuvering a perilous canyon. I see the games I develop as creating situations in which game players can utilize their own creativity to succeed. When the player's creativity can lead them to solutions, which I had not envisioned, it shows me that my game is doing its job.
versus Complex Systems
Good designers will try to guess what players are going to attempt to do and make their game respond well to those actions. For instance, take an RPG that features a puzzle that involves placing weights on a series of pressure plates. (Having put such a puzzle in a game of my own, I would like to implore game designers to be a bit more creative than that, as pressure plates are surely one of the most overdone puzzle devices still in use. But I digress.) Suppose the designer leaves a conspicuous pile of rocks a few rooms over from the pressure plate puzzle. The obvious solution to the puzzle is to use those rocks on the pressure plates to achieve the desired results. But what if the player tries dropping his various weapons on the plates instead? This is a perfectly valid solution which should work equally well, provided the player has weaponry of the appropriate weights. What if the player has the Summon Minor Threat spell which allows him to summon a variety of different small monsters? If the player summons those monsters onto the pressure plates, they might do the trick too.
Now the designer, having thought through the puzzle fully, can have the programmer add in code where the game reacts correctly if either rocks, weapons, or monsters are on the plates. This is the anticipatory school of game design, where the designer thinks what the player might do and hardwires the game to work well with those actions. I agree that this tactic is surely better than allowing for just one solution. However, what if the player thinks of some other weight he can place on the pressure plates? What if the player uses his Berkshire Blizzard spell on the pressure plates, causing snow to fall on them? Enough snow could conceivably pile up on the plates to have a significant weight. However, if the game has been hardwired only for rocks, weapons, or monsters, the game will not react appropriately. The player will have thought of a perfectly reasonable solution and the game will fail to recognize it.
Instead of hardwiring, however, what if the designer had the programmer come up with a system where every object in the game had a weight associated with it? This would include rocks, weapons, monsters, weather effects, blood, and anything else found in the game-world. If the programmer then made the pressure plates simply get the weight of all of the objects on top of them, regardless of their type, then this one, global solution would work for all objects. If each object was set up with a reasonable weighting, it would not matter what object the player tried to place on the pressure plates, as they would all work automatically.
This latter method is less of an anticipatory system of game design; it is more holistic in its approach. It relies more on creating reliable, consistent systems with which your game will function. Then, for a puzzle such as the pressure plate one described above, the designer and programmer come up with a series of success conditions for that puzzle. Instead of "the puzzle is solved if the player uses rocks, weapons, or monsters to offset the plates," the rule is "the puzzle is solved when the plates are offset by the correct weight being placed on top of them." Certainly, the example of this puzzle is a simple one, but the same techniques can be applied to much more sophisticated and interesting systems which engender a wide variety of successful playing styles.