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?
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.
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.