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GDC: Rules Worth Breaking

March 23, 2006

Noah Falstein

The 400 Project began when Hal Barwood and Noah Falstein hosted a conference session on the subject five years ago at the 2001 Game Developers Conference. The 400 Project aims to gather 400 rules for game designers to consult when creating their titles. Now, having collected more than 100 rules (about 112, according to Falstein), the pair reflect on the rules they've charted so far and have begun to see patterns emerging, with single rules starting to naturally group together with others to form rule families.

Thursday at GDC 2006, Barwood and Falstein (of Finite Arts and The Inspiracy, respectively) presented a talk called “Rules Worth Breaking,” an overview of some rules they've collected that, as Barwood says, “are so good, they're worth breaking.”

The idea behind breaking rules, according to Falstein, is to remember that rules are not strict maxims to begin with. Rather, they are guidelines that can inform a game designer's progress, but don't have to. The takeaway idea of the “Rules Worth Breaking” talk, says Barwood, is to give GDC attendees the “mental equipment [game designers] need to get up to speed on [their] own design efforts.”

Though many professions embrace rules, game designers aren't perceived by the industry as having a rigid code to work by. On the other hand, because of technical needs and limitations, game development on some levels seems to in fact require rules.

Hal Barwood

As Barwood notes, all people, but especially game designers, are bounded by their own psychological preferences. Additionally, people (especially game designers) are bounded by what materials are available to them. Games are a constrained medium, and what rules do is allow designers to assess the elements that bound them, figuring out reusable strategies for making those limitations work in favor of their design, not against it.

“There are four good reasons to use rules,” says Barwood. First, rules guide designers through vast choices they must make. Second, rules help designers avoid trouble. Third, they encourage designers to enlist the wisdom of others, and finally, rules force designers to conceptualize problems that cannot be easily articulated.

Drawing on other jobs fields and hobbies, such as carpentry, journalism, art, and improvisational theater, Barwood uses real world parallels to show how some rules function. For example, in carpentry, he says, the rule is measure three times, cut once -- a rule that also applies to psychology. The rule is in place due to the “human mind's inability to pay attention to detail,” says Barwood. Another parallel rule comes from film: “If you can't solve it, dissolve it,” meaning, despite the pain, what can't be fixed must be cut.

Barwood also cites a “wisdom rule” whose application in games sounds almost anti-utopian: “All problems don't have solutions.”

Unlike Barwood's top-down look at rules, Falstein focuses first on the more specific, new rules that have been added to The 400 Project and slowly pans out to find commonalities between them. Rules with a common meta purpose he calls “clusters,” such as cluster rules in the “fairness” family or “maximize player enjoyment” group.

“What's part of the fun of it all, although frustrating at times, is how these rules interact,” Falstein says, who adds that he's still “tinkering” with his rule set, looking for ways to improve them. “Particularly these rules have what Hal has coined ‘trumping information,'” or clauses within the rule that stipulate what other rules are likely to override it. Designers often have to bend or break a rule when considering the trumping information, the purpose of the rule in application, and how the player might react to the rule.

“These are not meant to shackle you. They are tools, and like any tool, they can be dangerous if you misuse them,” says Falstein. “It's not one size fits all.”

“We have a lot of rules, and I know that it can feel like we're trying to straightjacket you,” says Barwood. “Rules aren't perfect. They conflict and override each other.

They have inner contradictions, though, which prove they are not fundamental laws that must be obyed.”

Many of the rules collected so far have appeared in Falstein's Game Developer column, Game Shui. A complete list is available on and



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