Oh man is today ever a great day to read a blog post. Now this is a long one, and it’s dedicated entirely to game design, but I swear to you, this post is a gold mine for you designers out there.
Today I’m going to show you a complete system of game development, so that you can take your game, whatever it is, and work it through what I’m describing below so you can see where your holes and gaps are…and then fill them.
Before we get started, we have to go over the three rules I’ll be referencing.
Rule 1: Writing is the act of making decisions
Rule 2: Be easy on yourself
Rule 3: You always have options, there is always a way out, you’re never trapped.
Critical here are Rule #1 and Rule #3. Rule #2 is there to remind you that you’re not a failure or bad or stupid or wrong for not being perfect the first time, every time.
(Side note: You’re also amazing, if you didn’t know)
Before we get into the meat of this system, I have a little questionnaire for you, to help sort out the finer points of your game. Answers to these questions will be USPs (Unique Selling Points) that you can immediately use in your pitches. If you can’t answer the question, or if your answer isn’t one of the options listed, that’s okay, it just means that your game is a little more niche and/or atypical.
Yes, absolutely, you should be writing the answers to these questions down, perhaps on a legal pad or in your ‘Game Development Notebook’ or wherever you store your ideas.
Question 1: Is this game about Character or about Plot? (Are you creating a linear game where people go from one place to another and do a single task to ‘win’, or is this a game where you create a character and they’re pretty free to do whatever, within the confines of the world, and this game is their biography?)
Question 2: Is this game a single serving or can this be a long-term game? (Is this a game I can get into for a few hours on a rainy evening with a few friends, or is this game something that I can play over the course of many weeks and months?)
Question 3: Does this game get easier/better/more enjoyable by using previous knowledge or can anyone pick this up? (Is this a game where I have to know about something else going in, or can someone whose never seen a particular show, read a certain book or had a certain game experience still get the same level of enjoyment as someone who is better read/experienced?)
Question 4: Do the characters matter in this world? (If players eliminate or disempower a major quest-giver or chain of events, do their actions resonate ‘locally’ or’globally’ or not at all? Or are the characters fighting a Sisyphean battle, with huge odds stacked against them?)
Question 5: Is this game about the experience or about winning and losing? (Does this game have specific ‘winning conditions’ or is this game to be played just to play and enjoy the company of your friends and have a specific experience along the way?)
Got your answers? Lets go meet the driving force of this design system.
Previously, I talked a little about “Beats”, the moments and particular scenes that act as signposts from your project’s Point A to wherever you end up at Point B or Q or F or whatever. Now, some types of beat-layout and even some beats are optional, but in game design, there are three unavoidable beats, and they act as large umbrellas for sections of the game.
The End Game
The Opening introduces the players to their characters and the world, as well as gives them a baseline of mechanics to operate within the world. Near the end of the Opening, you introduce them to the plot, as you’ll see and play intensifies from there.
The Mid-Game (or mid-Session, if your game is a long-play) develops and expands on what the players and
characters already know. They discover and use more mechanics, they receive more information about plot, and they advance themselves experientially. Near the end of the mid-game/session, they propel forward into end-game/session which is generally a moment of significance for them.
The End Game/Session is where the experience and development accomplished so far pays off. Armed with
material and knowledge, the characters and players are able to take significant actions and headway for or
against the plot, resolving it in some cases (situationally) and either concluding their development, or launching them forward toward another cycle of the same beats.
Now under those three big umbrellas sit a host of other smaller beats. Let’s break them down, one umbrella at a time. I should point out that although I’m expressing these beats numerically, your game doesn’t have to. You can adjust the order of these beats within these umbrellas as you like or need to. Further, you may omit
or relocate a beat to serve your purposes.
I. The Introduction of Characters – Sometimes this includes character creation, sometimes this doesn’t (and
therefore considers that creation to be separate from play), but this beat commences the minute the first character does something in-character in-game. In older games, this is the ‘you all meet in a tavern’ moment, where suddenly and randomly a fighter, a healer, a thief and a wizard just happen to sit together at their local
restaurant. In plot-driven games, the reason this is done is because the plot gets explained here. “You’re sitting at the tavern, having answered the summons for adventurers…” In more open-ended plot games, possible plots are teased here, by way of what characters see (this is where flavor text helps develop and enrich the world, by showing the players what’s possible).
II. The Introduction of Conflict – For the more structured (read: less flexible) gamer, this is the beat that answers, “Why are we doing this?” This beat comes most often as a box of prepared module-esque text that
somehow you’ve asked your GM to make interesting, without a lot of dice rolling or random inflection. Here the characters learn about the conflict they face within the world. It may be pretty straight forward (Mario, go rescue the princess) or it can be far more layered (resolve the conspiracy, defeat the terrorists, save the hostages).
Time and experience pass and the characters learn more about the conflict and themselves. There are a few simpler beats to hit in the Opening:
III. First Combat/Mechanical Trial – Thanks to a particular circumstance (bandits in the road, a locked
door, etc), the characters must make use of the mechanics to resolve problems. Key in this beat are the ‘ease of play’ (how straightforward the experience is) and ‘depth of play’ (how this trial and resolution feel…not so much in terms of accuracy, but in terms of enjoyment). In some games, this trial is expressed as a mini-game (game within a game) and other times as a series of contested rolls and expressed actions (you rolled a 15 against a 3, you hit).
IV. The Disbelief Point – Up until this moment, what the players have done is fairly elementary statistical exercise: roll some dice, record the numbers in little boxes on a sheet, tell a shared fairy tale. But there comes a point within the opening third of the game where the story and character(s) grabs them, and involves them. Going forward from this point, the player is immersed. Now, yes, every player has a different disbelief point, acting via free will to suspend their disbelief and engage their imagination at whatever point they like. Perhaps Player 3 got involved during combat when she totally shot that guy in the face, and perhaps player 8 really liked the way the setting was described when he sat down at the table. Every player has one, and while no game can specifically address every player, a game designer can put together the best components within the product and remember Rule #2.
The Opening Ends with…
V. Launch Into Mid-Game/Session – Here, the players have completed whatever basics need be done, and they have discovered some element(s) of the plot. They may be suitably armed (physically, mentally and otherwise) and they often are (thanks to flavor text) relocated from one place to another, a physical migration to start this movement (they leave the tavern, they board the train, they go somewhere else, etc). Further, the characters have a purpose, a mission to do and a reason to do it.
The Mid-Game is characterized by expansion. Everything gets bigger here, quantifiably more than qualitatively. Characters advance in level(s), gain more material and knowledge and the playing “field” (perhaps a board or the collaborative environment) is impacted by their growth and decisions (yes, Rule #1 is in effect even for players)
The Mid Beats all focus on moving things (people/places/plot) forward.
VI. Setback/Obstacle, Smaller – At some point, as the characters advance, the GM will want to add a wrinkle to the best laid plans. This is done through obstacles. Granted, some obstacles are opponents in combat, but Obstacles are not only combat constructs. Any impediment to some type of advancement (combat, social, plot, in-party) counts here.
Obstacles are designed to improve the character(s) involved without sidelining them too long from the actual
objective. The locked door, the puzzle in the room, the guard that needs to be persuaded, these are at best speed bumps on the road.
Now this isn’t to say the GM shouldn’t take delight in letting players overthink, but from a design level,
remember Rule #3 and plan for what they do after the obstacle. An obstacle is only as good as the action that follows it. It means less if it’s just a passing idea.
VII. Setback/Obstacle, Larger – These are the obstacles that will really teach two things: 1. Some character advancement or ability (in video games, these are the side quests that unlock new gear) 2. That the antagonists are bigger badasses than first realized. This is done because the larger setbacks run parallel and
concurrent to the main plot, without actually being the plot. Consider them practically sub-plots if you like, as
they can be involved and consume quite a lot of design/creation space.
A note about setbacks: They have to matter, and they have to provide knowledge. The bigger something is, the more steps involved and the more the pay-off should be.
Get out of the dungeon by picking a lock? Small success
Uncover the plot to smuggle a bomb in the fuel tanks of the plane before the peace treaty? Bigger success.
The bigger they are, the more open-ended they should be. If it’s a subplot, or something that adds context to the game world (an RP seed), then it doesn’t need anything more than a hook to snare players and a start of the path to head them on. Let the players resolve the issue in their own way, everyone will feel more rewarded.
VIII. Things In Danger – There comes a point in play where the characters are suitably powered and capable to defeat plenty of challenges, and the only way to up that scale is to raise the intensity of challenges. And while following a scalar model is a good thing in most games, sometimes you can’t race the players forward too quickly (often for the sake of plot). So what can you do?
Just before you launch them forward towards the end-game, give them one more reason or reminder to help galvanize them towards resolution (because it’s likely at this point they’ve spent a lot of time away from the reason that brought them this far).
Challenging the safety of something they care about shows the extent the antagonists/opposition will go, as well as remind the players that what they’re doing matters.
IX. Reconfirmation – This beat can be as short as a shared group look and nod, or as long as a Normandy
invasion planning session. Here, the players apply what they’ve learned to date, with what they hope to
experience to create their strategy for the endgame. The benefit here is that they’re not actually IN the endgame yet, and the GM is free to raid their ideas as well as ideas provided in the design to work with and against (a good measure of each) the players in the actual endgame.
Good design hinges on this beat by offering a lot of options that all converge towards resolution, in sort of
a “no matter how you got here, this is where things stand” moment.
From here we launch into the third act…End Game!
X. The Big Huge Setup and Execution – Carrying forward from the previous beat, here’s where the planning of Act 2 goes forward and begins to be resolved. If there’s a fight to be had, this is getting all the pieces in place before the fight begins. This is also the last chance for the game to make offerings outside the plot for a while, as what follows will be more strictly tied to the plot than at any other time in the game’s progression.
XI. The Loss is a Gain – As things ramp up towards the Big Battle, along the way there can and should be casualties. It’s difficult to avoid telegraphing this, but a good game can obfuscate it by creating options (which can be reinforced as being likely or unlikely in Act 2 with subplots). The goal here is to take away a key asset from the players but not deprive them of whatever knowledge or power it offered (Before you fight the guy in the black suit, your vaunted British actor has to get chopped in half by the lightsaber).
In one regard, the asset was just a tangible item or person, but as a teaching tool, RP element, magical device or wisdom, the asset can flourish to deeper levels (the wise teacher killed in Season 1 had a warehouse of material for Season 2….) and at this point, it’s time you remove any and all crutches you’ve given the players to date.
Of course, removing too many crutches too quickly does not have the impact of a systematic and deliberately tense extinction of resources, but it does have the benefit of strongly marking lines between pro- and antagonists.
XII. The Big Huge Battle (Climax!) – So, at some point, the players have done all they can and the only bridge to advancement is battle. (We can look at this in a micro level as a battle on an immediate scale or in the macro as part of the overall campaign/game design)
Here, the players should have to risk everything to gain the largest rewards available at the moment. And likewise, the opposition should be as strong or even a hair stronger for the fight to feel satisfying to everyone involved.
When it’s over, there should be quantifiable consequences and results.
XIV. Consequences! – If the climax was large enough, and the battle ferocious enough, and the danger great enough, the players should have really pushed themselves, the mechanics and their abilities to the limit here. But they’re not off the hook just for defeating the opponent – now there are ramifications for what happened. Did they just blow up a building? Look at the victims. Did they just crash a ship into a spaceport? Won’t someone go after them? Did one just use godlike powers to unmake something? I’m not sure a god would be pleased about that….
The point here is that in order to keep the players grounded, you have to provide consequences with tangible results that counterbalance the size and scale of the climax. Big tense climax? Big intense consequence. Don’t judge this solely by the specifical literal action, do consider the impact on the created world. Since the characters don’t live and operate in a vacuum, consequences should lead to a change in action, which springs us forward further…
XV. What’s Next? – Following the consequences, players should have more questions than answers. Yes, they should have answers for what they asked initially (did the badguy kidnap the girl, did the supervillain almost blow up Time?) but there should be other questions being asked. You can plant these seeds as early as Act 2 subplots if you want, or more traditionally lace them into the framework leading up to and throughout Act 3.
This is a cycle, don’t forget. Even at its most linear, this is a parabolic curve, arcing slightly towards more questions, more buildups and more payoffs.
In this system, even if the book ends, play and potential play shouldn’t. At worst the book is a self-contained experience, at best, it is a launching point for further cycles of development and character expression.
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Now what I want you to do is take your game, and lay it out over this template. Adjust both until you get a snug fit (move some beats around, fatten up your game as needed, etc) and then tell me about it. Leave a comment below, send me an email…but let’s talk about your game. Nothing fancy, nothing forcibly professional, just some conversation.
You can do this, you’re awesome, and I most definitely wish you,