Another Half-Baked Design Principle

It started with a comment from “Brian” on Grand Text Auto. When dealing with players who intentionally misbehave — swearing, flirting excessively, attempting to torture — while interacting with virtual characters, Brian stated this design maxim: “The user is always right.”
Next, Walter on Ludonauts mentioned The God Concept, a design principle advocated by Scott Miller at Game Matters. The God Concept (a rather inappropriate name) is for people who dislike the effects of chance and luck.
I would like to propose my own design principle. I’ll call it Brandon’s Half-Baked Law of Game Design Principles: “People who make up game design principles secretly hate games.”

I consider Raph Koster to be the godfather of game design laws. I was forced to endure his Laws of Online World Design many times when I was a member of the MUD-Dev mailing list. Now, Raph has gone on to become a minor game design celebrity (in spite of missing a letter from his first name) with his work on one of those massively multiplayer online games. But I’ll let you in on a big secret: Raph Koster hates games.
Now I think having a rule of thumb can be handy at times. In many ways, rules attempt to embody past experience into an easy-to-remember form, so that you won’t make the same mistake again, or keep making the same mistake. But those kinds of rules are suggestions, they are reminders of what is expected to happen if the present situation is congruent to some past situation.
Laws and principles, on the other hand, suggest at inviolability; they are rigorously determined axioms that guarantee failure should they be broken. Never do this. Always do that.
But when I look at the justification for these laws and principles, all I find are prejudice and ego-driven sagacity. “I don’t like games of chance, so no one should be allowed to make them.” “This concept never worked for me, therefore it is useless.”
It seems that there is a general trend in game design, as there is in many creative endeavors: if you don’t like something, try to force your opinion onto other people. If you’re a cynic, you will agree that people like to follow laws and principles. And so if you hate something, like certain games, tell other people how they should be made.

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11 Responses to “Another Half-Baked Design Principle”
  1. Walter says:

    Just for the record, when *I* advocate a principle of some kind, it really is just a ’suggestion’. It’s an aesthetic counter to unprincipled, lazy, haphazard design. Breaking principles is fine by me, just as long as you’re actually doing it for a good/interesting reason.
    For instance, one design principle would be: don’t break the player’s suspension of disbelief. But of course, MGS2 does this all the time. Doesn’t mean I don’t like it: in fact, I like it all the more because it *does* break that principle, but it does it for an interesting reason.

  2. keitaro ragmana says:

    A rule about not having rules? And then writing a post about it, and trying to shove it down other people’s throats (since the post itself claims that posting is a means of shoving a thought down the throats of others)? And the principle of the post is based on persoanl preferences about principles, which states that personal preferences are a blameworthy means of generating principles? I’m all for self-criticism, but a criticism criticizing itself smells a bit…half-baked.
    Rules lead to better games, because awareness of the principles behind the rules artists who don’t suck ALL break the rules, but they break them in relevant, form-follows-function type ways. The rules themselves exist to correct bad habits, and once corrected they can be re-instigated towards a particular purpose. Knowledge of these rules is one means for people to become better artists–by establish a greater awareness of technique/effect/meaning relationships.
    For example, join me in my assumption that Hemmingway is a great writer. The conventions of writing, the rules, state that simple sentence structured, ad infinitum, are bad because they are boring, and that simple terminology only exascerbates this effect. Yet Hemmingway, the undisputed king of simple sentence structures, failed to be boring because his style stemmed from a distaste for political language that was flowery and decietful. He abhored trickery, and thus he refuses to use commas (an exaggeration) or any word to specify what kind of “good” a “good” thing was.
    Now, your average middle school writer is terrible because they use simple sentence structure for lack of a better option, for lack of skill, and thus aimlessly. This is really boring to read, so it makes sense to make a rule that sentnece complexity must be varied, so that students practice it, master it, and are then free to apply the skill that was formed by rule application however their creativity and ingenuity allow. Rules are mearly a means to expand the writer’s toolkit.
    Where do these rules come from? Essentially subjective evaluations of a body or genre or other collection/category of work (i.e., simple sentences are generally repetitive and prevent the structure from conveying added meaning, thus they are boring). Games are no different in this respect. If Joe Programmer sticks to luck as a game mechanism becuse he knows no other options, then his application of luck as a game mechanism will be haphazard and dull or aggrivating. But, if Joe is forced to write the kind of games or game designs Walter describes, even if only as a means to practice and develop design skill, then Joe will be more keenly aware of how luck and hinting operate as different game mechanisms, and he will be able to apply each in a way that emphasizes whatever it is Joe wants to emphasize. Since there is a GENERAL tendancy to construct simple sentences and luck based games, and in some contexts there are better alternatives that even the designer themselves would do if they knew better, both should have rules against them. That way, the designers will know better.
    Actually, there is an abundance of no-luck (or only luck of beginners and of who goes first) strategy games–chess, checkers, go, othello, the German drinking boot game, etc. I think designers-in-training should create design concepts that add elements of luck to those games, just to witness the effects and alterations the game mechanic “random” makes.
    Here’s my first proposed rule for weblog posts: No self-reflexive criticisms. It’s sloppy, and it hurts the author’s ethos. (I can already envision one good exception: self-reflexive criticism could be applied satirically in a way neither sloppy nor credibility-killing.)

  3. ragmana keitaro says:

    And, yes, the spelling and sentence construction errors were errors at first (mostly because I tried to add sentence fragments in the middle of written paragraphs without actually completing and punctuating the fragment). And, no, I did not notice and keep all of them self-deflatingly/satirically–only the couple of ‘em I didn’t miss ;) Not-proofreading with a purpose! What a deus ex machina for intellectual credibility ;)

  4. Brandon says:

    This notion that you are only allowed to break the rules once you have fully understood them has been around for a long time. I think it is basically a conservative (status quo preserving) notion, and not necessarily one that serves the interests of creativity.
    Once you buy into the whole know-the-rules-before-you-break-them program, it is quite easy to become paralyzed by it. How do you know that you know all the rules? What about this thing here, is this a special case of rule 32? And when do I get to make up new rules?
    Meanwhile, all the fretting and fussing over rules has resulted in a decided lack of breakthrough games. Designers supporting the status quo. Such a waste that people are setting up game design schools and curriculums which are only teaching people how to write yet another First Person Shooter. (That’s a bit of a non sequitur — oh well.)

  5. Walter says:

    I don’t think it’s a stipulation that one has to know *all* the rules before one can even begin to design. It’s always just a learning process.
    Also, I’m not sure how a focus on the rules is resulting in a lack of breakthrough games. If anything, an ignorance of the rules has done so: for instance, an ignorance of various sorts of anti-linearity rules has resulted in a steady flow of suffocatingly linear RPGs, adventure games, etc.

  6. Brandon says:

    Well you seem to have hit upon a contradiction there: both the RPG and adventure genres are derived from games which were, so to speak, classically linear. If these games are now “suffocatingly linear”, that is because they are staying true to historic tradition. This isn’t an ignorance of the classic rules; it is, however, an ignorance of the “next generation” set of rules which say that linear structures are to be avoided.
    I think these “next generation” rules are interesting, because they attempt to operate as catalysts, yet they are rarely successful. But aren’t there also economic forces at work here, do game players really want breakthrough games, or do they just want clever marketing?

  7. Aubrey says:

    Where are these rules everyone is talking about? I’ve yet to find one remarkable or reliable font of knowledge on the subject. We talk about a hypothetica set of rules, but everyone I’ve talked to agrees that they’d be a hopeless and second hand way to understand how to design games.
    If we hypothetically learn these hypothetical rules of game design in order to hypothetically break them in hypothetically interesting ways, then isn’t our clever breaking of the rules a little pointless? Does anyone think that someone playing a intentionally broken game is really going to say “Wow, you identified the law that games should not kill people for no reason and without warning, and then you broke it… but the fact that you did it knowingly makes it okay!”. I don’t want to rule out the possibility of an arty game doing this. It just seems to me that the message would be too obvious to be worth saying (”Wow! Laws are there to be broken, but I can only do it in a stupid way!”), and playing it would be a trite acknowledgement of the design’s artistic self-depravation. Sure, games (especially games-as-art) don’t *have* to be fun, but could they at least not be retarded? Nah. Probably not. I digress.
    To paraphrase Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation, anyone pimping their “rule” as “the way” is going to attract desperate people.
    We don’t have any rule set we particularly want to respect as law, but what we DO have are conventions – not necessarily rules, but ways in which more than a few games have come to do something in a common way. In discussing these conventions (which many people may thoughtlessly treat as fixed rules due to laziness, ignorance, or outside pressure to conform) we find out their strengths and weaknesses. We can even figure out better ways to fix the problems they were created to solve.
    There is no approach but *the* approach that works for the particular game. The only way for a person to learn which approach works is to explore all the possibilities, and hypothesise new ones, and never, ever believe that they have found a wholistic solution.
    Basically, even if no-one is going to pay any heed to Noah’s 400, Walter’s Agonisticism, or Miller’s God Complex as serious design methodologies (and they really shouldn’t), it at least gets us talking and exploring possibilities, which is a good thing.

  8. JP says:

    Interesting. Most of what I wanted to say here has already been said, but allow me to expand a bit on Aubrey’s statement: “anyone pimping their “rule” as “the way” is going to attract desperate people.”
    Rules and principles are, in the hands of a designer who is competent and has a broad enough base of knowledge and experience to know when to indulge in them and when NOT to, harmless – rules of thumb, as you say. In the minds of the incompetent or lazy or desperate, however, rules and principles become easy answers – substitutes for actually thinking through a problem and making a real choice. Falstein’s 400 and Miller’s God Complex (heh, nice jab) incur my ire, even though I see sense in some of the points they make, because they were constructed as just such Easy Answers. As if the creative process of game design is drudgery, and these rules are handy expedients that can be quickly implemented so we can get on with the real work of writing code and producing artwork. That is obviously a fucked attitude to take, and for evidence of its prevalence I point only to the massive hordes of poorly designed games out there.
    Desperate isn’t so ungainly a word to use in such a case, either – Miller & company are desperate men when it comes to game design. Marketing and content creation are much closer to exact sciences now, it’s game design that is the under-understood, murky field of subjectives. They create the kind of delays that has made Duke Nukem Forever (despite all indications that it is just another high-production-value FPS) the most spectacularly mismanaged project in gaming history. Easy answers offer a means to claw your way out of that pit and start making money. Yet another lovely effect of games being a big business these days.

  9. keitaro ragmana says:

    Sorry to confuse “rules” and “conventions” as terms. When I use them, I use them interchangably, as in “rules are one form of convention,” and I sometimes forget that this isn’t the norm. In light of that, Aubrey’s depiction or JP’s “rule of thumb” seem accurate representations of “rules” per se. I will stick with the term “rules” for the time being, unless it really seems to confuse the issue.
    Brandon, it really bothers me when someone tries to make a straw man out of my writing. You seem (by the posts in this blog overall) to be an intelligent person, and I would kindly appreciate if you took the time to attack my ideas instead of fabricating a little voodoo-man in their likeness and attacking that. Or at least have the decency to say that my arguments are not even worth attempting refutation, rather than pretending to discuss them and phrasing that “brushing off” in the form of an argument.
    This notion that you are only allowed to break the rules once you have fully understood them has been around for a long time. I think it is basically a conservative (status quo preserving) notion, and not necessarily one that serves the interests of creativity.
    1) Preserving the status quo? Are you having an arguemnt with me, or are you rehashing your resolution to an old argument you had with a high school or university writing teacher. Rules in art usually serve to break the stagnation of the status quo by encouraging flexibility, or at lest that is how they have historically operated. (There ARE exceptions, of course–the German regulations of “degenerate art” come to mind. I think we cal all agree that this is not what Walter is advocating.) Re-read the bit on rule formation: after all, rules don’t exactly descend from the heavens, ne pas? They appear when an individual detects stagnation and its sickening effects on artistic work. The rule they form and advocate is the opposite of that stagnant formula. At this point, we have two options: we can fight over the rule, and let the lazy bad artists alone while they work for money over creativity, OR we can group behind the rule, apply it selectively (i.e., only to those developers who are abusing the cliched approach as a crutch or an “only-option”), guilting them into experiemntation and hopefully innovative concepts and approaches. Some will come to fully comprehend the old point A, the rule in point B, and the points in-between which are then encompassed by the tradition on one end, and the rule on the other. It is a very subjective process, yet one which best serves each subject involved (thus raising it to nearly the same value tier as an objective proscription). So it runs directly against the status quo. And “guilting” is an entirely seperate mechanism from draconian enforcement, because it relies on the artist actually knowing better, and acting on their own rather than being externally forced. Enforcing the rule on others is unreasonable, and a waste of time since they are not worth the effort on that particular issue anyway.
    2) It may appear that the “learn rules to break them” rule is status quo preserving because the phrase is old and cliched. Cliches form for a reason, ans sometimes for good reason, but in becomeing cliches they are oversimplified and thus misunderstood. There are two essential points that you need to know to attack my actual position rather than a straw man. FIRST, the rule is not “learn rules to break them” but rather “understand rules, and in understanding the concepts they relate to you gain a new means of adjusting your own style to meet your ends.” You sidestep the whole “rule” bit in application, even though you adhere to it somtimes as a form of practice or experiemntation. So, an artist should try using (or avoiding) a particular technique in sketching, rote practice, as experiments, etc. Then, if they want, they can practice it the other way around. In the actual development of the final artwork (if there is such a thing–otherwise the practice is incorporated into the development), the rules are tossed aside and the mind honed and expanded by rule-practice takes over–explicit rules are forgotten for the time being.
    Another reason why “learn rules to break them” is a misconception of the dictum is that if this is all you are doing then there may as well not have been a rule at all. It assumes that you fall bakc on bad habits. Rather, you learn the rule to adhere to it when best, and reject it when best. This is all part and parcel to the creative process, which has no inherent and literal “12-step program.”
    SECOND, you need to know that the rule is obviously self-referencing (as distinct from self-criticizing–if a self-referencing rule is self-criticizing, then it is either a bad rule or a bad rule in that it is a misconception of the original rule and/or the nature of a “rule” to begin with). There are obvious cases where an artist does not need the rule literally spelled out to them because they already understand the intellectual content encompassed by the rule.
    I’ve a good example from my own high school experiences (since I’ve fabricated and mocked yours–here’s a real one of mine to mock.) In a crative writing class, one rule was that we turn in a rough draft with our writings. Unfortunately for me, that rule was not applicable because my writing process subsumed drafting into the production of the final work. (I would re-type a sentence about thirty times until it fit my overall structure and concept best, then it was done.) So, while I already drafted extensively, I never produced ‘drafts’, properly speaking. I explained my process, and the teacher thought I was bluffing to be lazy and tole me to adhere to the rule. For the next writing assignment, she got a fairly hefty stack of paper from me–I had kept a record of every third or so sentence revisions. Seeing this, she wanted to actually see me use this process, so in the next computer lab writing session she kept watching me write to see how I did it (probably again for soem hint or sign that I was faking). Anyway, she realized that I really was drafting, and so I never had to turn in a first draft again. The drafting rule was obviously a good one, as it prevented lazy writers from writing a first draft without forethought and then thinking the work was done. But there are exceptions when the concept that informs the rule is already well-understood and applied otherwise. (What she did not think of, and I have later learned, is that my sentence-level drafting skills were well-practiced, but often my structure-level writing was flawed. I needed to draft outlines. Now, for real papers, I draft outlines and then add sentences to the outline, drafting the sentences as I go, and then re-drafting paragraphs, and THEN re-drafting entire papers. And no, I obviously don’t do structure-level, or even more than 1-8 tries on a given sentence sentence. [<-- a joke.])
    3) It seems to me that we are all interested in innovation and creativity in games, and at the core we are also interested in games that are fun to each of us. This seems to be the main motivating thrust of each of our positions: Lazy is bad! Creative is good! That position assumes, then, that to be creative is hard work–the opposite of lazy–and thus that it is more than mere randomness. We’re all on the same plane there, right Urza? My position is then that we discover and promote means of encouraging creative work over lazy regurgitation, and historically this has been done through a series of rule formations. (Representative art: Rule = make it look like a still image, detailed to the fullest. Impressionism: Rule = don’t rely on details that we don’t actually see in our experience as observers–try to capture motion and change, the moment as we see it, not as it “is”. Etc.)

  10. Walter says:

    Just want to make a clarification: my ‘agonisticism’ is not at all some kind of totalizing design principle (it’s actually not a design principle at all! it’s a clarification of a vague element of games and its relationship to game structure/reception), even while the God Concept I cite is, which I think is relevant to the extent that most developers will actually want to follow it. Everything about my discussion on preserving agonistic integrity is always taken from the designer’s perspective regarding what he wants to DO. It’s actually built into the definition of agonistic integrity: “the quality of a situation

  11. Raph Koster says:

    I hate games? Really? Since when?
    Crap, I probably need to sell my collection. :(
    FWIW, the first Law on the page of Laws says “Any general law about virtual worlds should be read as a challenge rather than as a guideline. You’ll learn more from attacking it than from accepting it.”