A 3-D View of Game Design

One of my favorite stories from childhood was the ancient Indian parable, Blind Men and the Elephant. As I remember it, four blind men who had no knowledge of what an elephant is were introduced to one. The first man touched only the trunk and thought an elephant was akin to a python. The second man touched the elephant’s ear and thought it was a tent. The third touched the side and thought the elephant was a wall. And the last man touched the tail and asserted that the elephant was a whip.

The moral of the story is that one perspective is insufficient.  Looking at an object from diverse angles is the best way, maybe even the only way, to fully understand it.  And that moral is as true today as it was then.

This diverse thinking is also necessary when we play games. For example, we assert that there is one way to play and if you don’t follow that path then you’re playing it wrong. It doesn’t matter if you are still within the rules; if your strategy is perceived to be flawed, then you are wrong.

I had to stop partnering with my uncle when we played Euchre because my unorthodox choices would instantly upset him. Euchre is a trick-taking card game where the team who calls trump (specifying the most powerful suit for the hand) must win at least three out of five tricks to score a point. The standard way is to lead with your best trump cards as early as possible to not only ensure that you win the trick, but also to bleed trump out of your opponents’ hands.

Much to my uncle’s aggravation, that’s not how I play.

Even if I called trump, I usually threw an off-suit card first to allow my partner to take the first trick. I wouldn’t have called trump if I didn’t have at least two or three tricks guaranteed in my hand, so there’s no need to bleed both the opposing team and my partner at the same time. I figure this will give us the best chance to win all five tricks and score a bonus point for the hand.  Does this strategy sometimes backfire? Sure, no strategy is bulletproof, but it doesn’t fail so often to warrant his instantly aggravated response.

Euchre isn’t the only game I play… uniquely.  For example, if I think I’m being too obvious with my strategy when I play chess, I will move a random piece and privately rejoice when my opponent mutters, “Now why in the heck did you move that…”.  It’s a less effective strategy than how I play Euchre, but messing with my opponent’s brain sure is fun.

Unlike puzzles which usually have one predetermined solution, games have winning conditions and how you get there is entirely up to you. As long as you play within the rules, the experience is wide open to interpretation.  So is game design.

Much like each of the blind men taking turns to experience one specific aspect of the elephant, Jesse Schell’s masterwork The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses asks the designer to view their game through one lens at a time.

For example, Lens #6 is the “Lens of Problem Solving”. In this exercise the designer is asked to think about the problems the game presents to the players. Are these problems hidden and arise at the right time to effectively challenge (but not overly frustrate) the player? And does the game generate new problems to foster replay?

Another Lens is #18, “The Lens of Flow”. This lens deals with the game’s goals, challenges, and player development. Are they in sync? Does the player know where they need to go without too many distractions? Can the player overcome the challenges without getting permanently stuck? Are the player’s skills rising to the level of the new challenges in balance and at a complimentary pace?

Like Lenses #6 and #18 above, some of the 100 lenses are variations on a similar theme, yet unique enough to warrant their own consideration.

For example, Lens #46: “The Lens of Economy”, is completely different from any other lens.  Lens #46 examines what is valuable in the design.  Does the game use money? Then how do the players earn it? What do they spend it on? And can they afford the next level items at a pace that best serves the game?

My favorite Lens in the book also happens to be the first. Lens #1: “The Lens of Essential Experience”. Games, especially simulators, not only entertain, but also can give the player a memorable experience. What experience do you want to give them?  Does your design successfully give it to them? How can the design better complete this goal?

Over the last decade I designed several iterations of a Steel production game. My father was a steelworker for 40 years and I wanted to create a game that honored his life’s work.  Each of the game’s iterations were slightly different, but each one worked. You bought the raw materials, created steel, sold steel, and used the profits to pay your labor and purchase more and better equipment.  Each was a complete vision of an industrial resource game.  And if I had Schell’s book before I started, I would have realized that it was a concept that was going to be a very tough sell.

All I needed to do was look through lens #1 and realize I was asking players to experience running a steel mill. Even the actual people who did it throughout history will tell you that it may have been an important job, but it was never a sexy one.  No kid ever daydreamed in class about turning coke, iron, and limestone into railroad ties. It was something the actual workers did for a living, but it wasn’t something they necessarily wanted to do for fun.  Kids, and frankly many adults, daydream about adventure! Slaying dragons! Flying starships! Living the good life! Saving the world!  It’s no surprise that our game shelves reflect those dreams. It’s the games they publish because it’s the fantasy we want to experience.

I never like being told that I’m wrong – whether playing a game or designing it. I want to do it my way. Most of us do. To his credit, throughout The Art of Game Design, Jesse Schell never asserts that you or your concept is wrong. He simply asks you to keep an open mind and take several long, in-depth, specific looks at your work. Is your design really what you think it is? Are you honestly considering your work from every angle? You may be and that’s great! Or you may not be, and like those blind men, you may need to provide additional information for a more complete experience.

Come to think of it, if any of those blind men had read Schell’s book, they would not have stopped until they had a complete idea of what an elephant looked like. Ironically, while his book helps to make great games, it would have also cost the world a great parable.

© 2016 Robert S. Moyer, All Rights Reserved