Scope is a tricky thing in game design.
When I design a game, I want it long and deep enough to be interesting, but not so long and deep that it tires players. I want it accessible, but not infantile. I want it to be easy to learn and fun to play on a superficial level and/or by inexperienced players, but have enough complexity and intricacy that mastering it takes effort and feels rewarding. I want enough features to justify making the game in the first place, rather than a tech demo. I want to explore the implications of design choices without making busywork for the players. There is a sweet spot to hit where I have enough in the game to satisfy those admittedly vague goals, and doing too little or too much design detracts from the play experience.
Might I recommend a few references on the subject?
- Moorgard’s recommendation of Lum’s article on MMO scope
- Mr. Juster and Mr. Albor (and guest stars) fired up a podcast on game design and Laborious Longevity
- Chris Hecker’s Nightmare (less about scope, but tangentially relevant as his concerns directly relate to game padding)
- And perhaps most to the point, Mark Rosewater’s pair of articles on The Top Ten Principles for Good Design, especially part two and Mr. Rams’ final point on design:
“Good design is as little design as possible.”
I cannot recommend Mr. Rosewater’s articles enough. His archive is a treasure trove of game design considerations. Yes, he writes about designing a card game, but as he asserts in the Top Ten Principles articles, Good Design is Good Design, and some principles are universal across mediums. I agree, and it’s nice to see someone articulate it as well as Mr. Rosewater does, and as well as Mr. Rams does.
This is why, here at my workplace in a small game dev studio, we occasionally have game nights, where we play board or card games. Understanding why offline games work (with a side order of game theory, explicit or not) is valuable information when we get around to designing our video games. We have to understand the tools of our trade, and how design works.
One of the hardest things to learn is restraint. If I may, since art is the medium I’m most familiar with, a few thoughts on this notion as it’s found in the art world:
Art design ranges from minimalist to overwrought hyperdetail. Brushwork might be exceedingly sparse in some of these lovely Chinese bamboo paintings…
…which contrasts starkly with the laborious process that produced something like this.
(Never mind that once you get to that level, we’re talking about a bizarre devotion to the craft of “doing it because I can” instead of just taking a photograph. It’s sort of like the artist equivalent of a No Sphere Grid Final Fantasy X game, or climbing Mount Everest carrying a grumpy rabid wombat in your pocket.)
Each can work nicely as a piece of Art, but they tend to evoke different responses. Some of that is strongly based in how much of the experience is left to the consumer, something that game designers should be intimately familiar with, seeing as how our medium is interactive by nature. (Which doesn’t invalidate it as an art medium, by the way.)
There comes a point in art where enough really is enough. One more brushstroke, one more visual element, and the composition changes, especially when working in sparse formats like the bamboo paintings. Sometimes that change is for the better, taking the piece in new directions, but many times, going just a wee bit too far makes the piece weaker. Sometimes it can even totally break the mood and aim of the piece. I’ve tossed away many of my sketches that I overworked.
This is part of why I enjoy sketching with ballpoint pens, and why I encourage other artists to do so as well. When you have to account for every move you make, as there is no erasing, you learn to carefully gauge what you do, and either make the right choice the first time, or learn to roll with mistakes and incorporate them into your work. These are valuable tools in an artist’s toolbox.
You could also work digitally, and use the almighty Undo command and History panel, and work with layers, which give you incredible control over your artworks if used properly. Many artists wind up working both digitally and traditionally, since both offer distinct advantages. I often sketch in pen, then scan it into the computer for the coloring with Painter or Photoshop.
Back to games, then, I’ve often seen Portal lauded as being a great game, even as it’s noted as being a short game. It’s just long enough to give players the chance to experiment with the implications of Portal mechanics and the various puzzle elements, and it’s not padded out with excessive repetition for the sake of making the game seem somehow meatier via time sinks (which are really just bloated fat, not real gaming meat). It hits a sweet spot of playability and proper exploration of game mechanics. It’s flat out, concentrated fun, even though it’s not a mega-epic sixty hour post-apocalyptic snark opera.
On the other hand, we have Final Fantasy XIII, known for its somewhat extensive tutorial. To be fair, they are different games with different ends, but the time spent differs by an order of magnitude. A significant difference like that needs to be something done by design and for a good reason, not just to pad out playtime. Whether FFXIII succeeds in that regard is arguable, but the argument is more vociferous than a similar argument about Portal’s scope and focus.
Portal tends to leave players itching for more, while FFXIII has some players crying to just get on with the game! MMOs can be even worse.
Oh, and scope might be one reason why we don’t have a Magic the Gathering MMO, while we’re talking MTG, MMOs and game design. The game is intricately and beautifully designed as it is, and trying to shoehorn that into an MMO makes for uncomfortable compromises. It’s possible to bend the MTG themes, lore and other assorted IP into an MMO, perhaps, and such crossgenre game design is possible… but doing so would mean effectively building a totally different game from the ground up, just with an existing IP. That doesn’t always work out. It means a different scope, a different focus, and ultimately, a different feel because it really is a different game. That can alienate fans of the existing lore, even as the existing lore already limits the audience if there are strong feelings about it among gamers or nongamers the product is trying to entice.
It might also be worth noting that stories are easier to tell when the storytelling format is a bit more focused than a series of grinds with cutscenes in between. At least, if story is important. It’s also worth noting that stories can have a fair amount of cruft and bloat in them as well, and one of the hardest parts of learning to write well is learning when to shut up, similar to how the best skill conversationalists learn is how to listen.
It’s a lesson I’m still learning, obviously, in writing and game design… but it’s one worth learning.