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Variants: The Challenge of Changeable Design
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Variants: The Challenge of Changeable Design

June 12, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

If achievements should be abandoned because they're counter to good design practices, what should take their place? Variants, Keith Burgun argues, and in this article he explains what they are and are not.

At the end of my previous article, An Alternative to Achievements, I suggested that a good replacement for achievements, should we begin to turn away from them, would be variants. What I didn't do was go into great detail about variants, and exactly how we might -- or should -- go about employing them.

What Is a Variant?

First, I should establish clearly what I consider a "variant." People have been making variations of games for as long as there have been games to make variations of, and the line between "what is a variant" and "what is actually a completely new game" can be very blurry. If I turn off the items in Super Smash Bros., is that " Super Smash Bros.: No Items Variant"? How about if I turn off the music in Street Fighter?

While I'm aware that colloquially, neither of those things would likely be considered a variant, for the purposes of this article, I am considering anything that changes the game rules a "variant". So that means that Smash Brothers: No Items is a Smash Brothers variant, but Street Fighter With No Music wouldn't be. I do, in general, believe that by changing a single rule, you are in fact creating a new game. After all, as anyone who has ever tried to balance a game knows, changing just one rule will usually have ripple-effects throughout a game system, often dramatically changing its character.

So a variant is any set of game rules as played, whether those rules manifested in a mod, in a changed setting, in house rules or otherwise. So, for now, imagine if you will that each version of a game where the rules have been changed even a little bit -- each variant -- is its own shiny, brand-new game.

Here are two major points or questions to consider as we move on:

  • Consider visibility of your variants versus your "real game", and what that phrase even means.
  • During a game, it is paramount that the objectives and other rules are clear to the players. We should never allow the existence of variants to confuse them.

Obviously, it's not fair if the player can change what his objectives are on-the-fly during play. This needs to be agreed upon before play begins in order to be fair. 

One last thing to mention before I proceed is that this article is written for designers, not players. So, even though house rules certainly qualify as a method of creating variants, there won't be much talk of them.

Part 1: Official Variants

Often times, the developer of a given game will come up with a couple of different ways that their system can be used. We can refer to these as "official" variants. In the very early days of digital games, it was almost assumed that a game would be packaged with a number of different ways to play. The super-successful Atari 2600 had a physical switch, right on the face of the console, dedicated entirely to changing "game modes", as shown below.

This would sometimes change minor features, but sometimes switch you to a completely different game altogether, as in the case of the deathmatch shooter game Combat, wherein switching the switch would take you from "tanks that shoot bouncy bullets at each other in a maze" to "dogfighting with a cluster of ships versus a single large ship."

Earlier NES games also often had a similarly vague "mode-selection" mechanism on the title screen, details of which were included only in the game's manual.

Modern games still often come with various modes of play that are accessible from the title screen, whether they be some kind of puzzle-mode, a multiplayer mode, etc. My own 100 Rogues has a number of such modes, partially because we thought they were good ideas, but also maybe a bit because we felt we "should" have a lot of modes. For a long time, the thinking has been, "the more options and ways to play, the better!" While it's easy to understand why this would be thought to be true, there are a couple of real dangers to this sort of "spray and pray" approach.

The first problem is the question of "which is the real game?" That might sound like a silly question with an answer that can only be arbitrary and meaningless, but it's not. What I mean by "real game" is, which is the game that the most intense effort in game design has been put towards?

If the answer is "all of them equally", then that itself is a problem. A great game, as we'll all happily agree, I'm sure, is a rare thing, whereas mediocre or even bad games are extremely common and easy to design. The process of designing a game is a careful one that takes months or years, after which you're still not guaranteed to have a great game idea.

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