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Worlds of Design: Game Design Rules of Thumb - Part 1

There are plenty of rules for game designers and even more for role-playing games. Listed here are principles, extreme likelihoods, and observations of behavior, including some "laws."

There are plenty of rules for game designers and even more for role-playing games. Listed here are principles, extreme likelihoods, and observations of behavior, including some "laws."

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.
Obey the principles without being bound by them.”- Bruce Lee
I’m not trying to dictate these observations to anyone, they are what I’ve known to work and be relevant. These are not presented in any order of importance: to me, they’re all important.

Murphy's Law​

"Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.”
We can't really leave out Murphy's Law, but it's pretty extreme. The point for game developers is, don't assume that things are going well, rather monitor what's happening to be sure it's going well, or if it isn’t you can do something about it.

Law of Realism​

"You’re most unlikely to get rich designing games.”
In fact, if you want to get filthy rich, you're better off playing the lottery. Phenomena like Minecraft and Clash of Clans and Terraforming Mars are much less common than enormous lottery wins. It’s hard enough even to make a living as a game designer, let alone get rich. See Owen K. C. Stephens’ tweets about the life of a professional RPG maker.

Learn to Love Constraints​

Constraints encourage creativity, complete freedom discourages creativity. ”
Contemporaries have been taught to dislike constraints, but games are inherently an artificial set of constraints intended to result in interesting play. These constraints have been demonstrated in many arts such as music and painting. When you design a game, set limits for yourself to work within and you'll be a lot better off.

Laws of Game Creativity

Games are 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration."
Most of game design is a form of science and engineering. Furthermore, “you can't wait for creativity to come by and knock you on the head.” It's often an active, not passive endeavor, and while you don't want to discount creativity, problem-solving (the science/engineering part of game design) matters much more.

Nielsen's First Law of Usability

Your design will be tested by users. Your only choice is whether to run the test yourself before launch so that you can fix the inevitable problems while it's cheap, instead of playing expensive catch-up later.”
It's actually a law for website development, but applies equally to game design.

Law of Inevitability

If there's a way to play the game that's within the rules, somebody will play it that way.”
In other words, don't rely on sportsmanship, players being gentlemanly, or any other vague notion to prevent someone from playing within the rules. Instead, design the game so that what you don't like is either impossible or impractical because it doesn't lead to success. Fortunately, we have GMs to sort this out in (most of) RPGland, but it’s better not to have to rely heavily on the GM. This is not about loopholes in the rules. Of course these are undesirable, something you don’t want. No, I’m talking about rules being followed as intended, yet the result ends up with a line of play that you as designer don’t like. You can’t say “but that’s not the way I intended it to be played.” Often, the reason people play in what you might think are undesirable ways, is because they found a strategy that works. Camping in video games (turtling in board games) is the obvious example. If the game rules make camping a successful strategy, some people are going to do it, but you can design a game so that camping is not going to be successful; then there will still be some people trying to camp but it won't bother the other players because they know it won’t be successful, consequently rarely played.

Sturgeon's Law

90% (or 99%) of everything is $#!+.”
This law derives from a statement made by a science fiction author long ago. This applies more to academic debate and research than most of life, but in the era where we've lost trust in many institutions, perhaps it’s becoming more apparent how much of life is stuff you should ignore or stuff not worth bothering with. And in game design, most of the ideas and solutions you come up with will be crud; you have to keep searching to find one that’s right.

Law of Varied Preferences

What you think makes a game good, may make a game bad for many others.”
Beyond debunking myths, the most important thing for learning game design is this law. The corollary is “you are not your target audience” and another corollary is “design games for your target audience not for yourself.” This doesn't mean it never happens that people design games for themselves that become very popular. The video game Doom is an example. It worked for them very well, but you can't rely on that if you want a commercial success.

I'll add more rules of thumb in a future article, but for now...

Your Turn: What game design rules of thumb would you add to this list?
 

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Thomas Shey

Legend
Oh, for sure. What I was getting at is not to focus on less gameable content. Some supplements and rule books have page after dry page of history and cosmology and I find it neither interesting nor useful. Cosmology for example, can also be useful gameable content if you dig into church factions, motivations, connections to characters or whatever - you know, the parts that actually make events in the game work tick along and get complicated.

There are also games where a PC can actually get, well, its hands on cosmology (in the sense that they can influence things to some extent at that scale) so it becomes more relevant, but they're the exception.
 

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Thomas Shey

Legend
While not responding to anything in particular, I also want to concur with Clearstream above; one of the big problems I've seen with RPGs across my time in the hobby is that they're chronically underplaytested, to the degree of often getting no apparent blindtesting at all. I suppose that's fine if you literally only want to write for yourself and your own gaming group, but for any attempt to reach beyond that at all its extremely likely to produce one or another degree of failure states.
 

practicalm

Explorer
Provide meaningful choices for your players
So many options end up being traps for players that do not look at the effectiveness of the choices available to them.
If there are multiple options make sure that each of the options are attractive in some way that is broadly equal. This can avoid having some options be required thus eliminating player choice.
If 90% of players make the same choices, the other options are probably not good enough.
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
Provide meaningful choices for your players
So many options end up being traps for players that do not look at the effectiveness of the choices available to them.
If there are multiple options make sure that each of the options are attractive in some way that is broadly equal. This can avoid having some options be required thus eliminating player choice.
If 90% of players make the same choices, the other options are probably not good enough.
Another facet of that is Maximise the Number of Valid Strategies, with the similar implication that - as you say - each of the options should be attractive in some way that is broadly equal.
 

Emerikol

Adventurer

Law of Varied Preferences


Beyond debunking myths, the most important thing for learning game design is this law. The corollary is “you are not your target audience” and another corollary is “design games for your target audience not for yourself.” This doesn't mean it never happens that people design games for themselves that become very popular. The video game Doom is an example. It worked for them very well, but you can't rely on that if you want a commercial success.

I'll add more rules of thumb in a future article, but for now...

Your Turn: What game design rules of thumb would you add to this list?

I would say this depends. Sure if you are Wizards of the Coast, you need to be thoughtful. We have many cautionary tales to go on in that regard.

The problem for a small designer is that doing that research is likely costly and in the end probably won't work anyway. I would say at minimum design a game you love. Unless you are completely out of the ordinary, that means you've included at least a few others. The real trick in my view is asking yourself the question "Would I really love this game if someone else had written it?" You can't love a game because it's your child. You have to love it because to you it is a great game and if someone else had written it you would have been very happy to pay for it. For small game designers, I believe that would be enough.

It kind of goes back to the concept of "To thine own self be true". I on occasion have thought of writing a novel. The book never measures up. I never think to myself - I would love reading this book. So I throw it in the garbage and try again later. I won't produce crap by my standards even if someone out there might like it. I honestly feel if I ever write something I really love then others will love it. But honest to oneself is key.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
I'll still note that its all very fine to "write what you love" but even in the modern period of PDF games, there's usually some costs involved in a decent looking document, so if you're going to ignore finding out if there's actually a market, make sure to keep those costs well down.
 

Joe Pilkus

Explorer
"No rules survive first contact with players"

This is my take on Helmut Von Moltke the Elder's military axiom. In essence, playtest your game, but you must also know when enough is enough and get it out the door. Even after hundreds of playtests, they are no match for the thousand playthroughs your title will receive when it's published and on Gaming Tables.
 

aramis erak

Legend
Agreed that it's possible to take it to far. It's best in moderation - do it to streamline, stop before you oversimplify.
Conflation of written for a lower reading level with simpler rules is incoassuming a strong correlation

Good example: the rules for Axis and Allies are written to 6th grade reading level, but the processes aren't exactly simple. The complexity of the combat and research rules doesn't require them to be explained in 9th grade level text... and while a college reading level version might save 2 pages, those 2 pages were better used for the wordier but more accessibly written version, as it hit the space under a LOT more christmass trees that way!
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
"No rules survive first contact with players"

This is my take on Helmut Von Moltke the Elder's military axiom. In essence, playtest your game, but you must also know when enough is enough and get it out the door. Even after hundreds of playtests, they are no match for the thousand playthroughs your title will receive when it's published and on Gaming Tables.
There are several ways playtests benefit game design, and not all of those are to do with surviving first contact with players. One way, which I think that framing speaks to, is playtesting for clarity and balance: proving that the game system is both accessible and reasonable.

On another axis - unrelated to surviving contact with players - there is the opportunity to investigate (develop a feel for or understanding of) variations. Say for example one has a game entity (like a character class) possessing a half-dozen traits, with ideas for a few score options for those. One assays instantiations - i.e. plays each so far as necessary to understand them - and then carries forward what is proving good.

Because of combinatorial effects (in this example, permutations of sets of 6 members with 40 options for each member, no repeats) a game designer uses their judgement to choose interesting sets, and then benefits from each playtest cycle that tests a permutation. They are limited to testing only part of the space - so each test is like a light cast into a black box: it illuminates some of the volume.

I think many game designers end up publishing a game with still further options that they would have liked to have tried out, but did not have time to do so. In the end, one has to go live with a robust version - last minute inclusions are often a mistake. I guess what I am saying is that - yes - there is a way in which it is right not to expect playtesting to solve balance prior to putting your game in the ingenious hands of players* - and there is a degree to which that incompletely describes the purpose of playtesting.

*You can possibly see how this speaks further to playtesting, for instance how contemporary game designers are taking advantage of findings from community testing.
 
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Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
Conflation of written for a lower reading level with simpler rules is incoassuming a strong correlation

Good example: the rules for Axis and Allies are written to 6th grade reading level, but the processes aren't exactly simple. The complexity of the combat and research rules doesn't require them to be explained in 9th grade level text... and while a college reading level version might save 2 pages, those 2 pages were better used for the wordier but more accessibly written version, as it hit the space under a LOT more christmass trees that way!
I didn't talk about lower reading level, so I don't think you are responding to me.
 

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