When I was younger, I used to like to draw. I’m not very good at it now, being little more than having a minor and unharvested bit of natural talent, and I rarely draw anymore except when doodling for my daughter, but I really used to get a kick out of it. I used to collect drawing books, all of which had advice for the artist like, “Hold your drawing up to a mirror and you’ll see a place where you might have twisted off.” Being the uncultivated minor natural talent that I was, I didn’t ever want to do any of this because it might have led to improvement, but there’s something to the idea of stepping back from something, looking at it from a different perspective, and seeing what’s actually there.
This is a practice that can work very well for game design, as well. In working on the WoD MMO, I’ve observed a big shift in how I do my systems design. When working on tabletop RPGs, I always built the narrative first, then I built the system, then I retooled the narrative to fit the system. In working on MMO design, the narrative becomes “How will the player use this?” Without a live GM to adjudicate special cases, a game system is inflexible, and the narrative derives from the actual function, not from how a pair of players can collaboratively, mutually craft a dramatic outcome. Systems design in a video game creates immediate results, whereas systems design in a tabletop game creates a situation in which two or more players arrive at a conclusion.
When designing systems, I use bullet points. This lets me focus on the concise function of the systems, and it fits well into tasking and time management software. Using nested bullet points, or visually “diagramming” systems design lets me look critically at each piece of a design, and it also lets me see each component of the design. This, in turn, shows me what the system actually does, rather than what I think it does — it shows me where the design has “twisted off” from the intended result.
Here’s an example. This is just thrown together for the topic at hand, this isn’t a design from the WoD MMO, so put those knives away.
Now, what we see here is a variety of things.
We’re dealing with a power that has a narrative theme of shadow. “Shadow” could be anything — lightning, cosmic dust, slime molds. It’s set dressing, not part of the system design.
The power is front-loaded for combat. It has a higher damage rating than defense rating.
However, the power is also built for the long play, defensively. The damage rating is higher, but the armor lasts longer and I can’t fumble it.
That informs my other systems design. If I’m designing another offensive power, I will either need it to inflict more damage or cost less resources to implement. If it’s otherwise the same as this power, why would I ever choose another, when this one does all that the other does and then some?
Being able to choose what I want on the spot is part of the power’s, well, power. The above two uses mean that the power is flexible. In some cases, you might want to use it for offense, while in other cases, you might employ it defensively. This means that other powers probably do more damage or offer more protection, but don’t offer the choice that this power does.
Creating the environmental object adds even more versatility, and is a little more open ended. Are we in a side-scroller or platforming type game? Then I’ll probably be using this a lot to overcome challenges posed by level design. It may offer me access to power-ups that people without the power can’t access. Is this a tactical game? I’ll probably use this object creation to impede my enemy’s movement, or to grant myself some kind of cover. Is it an action game? I might use this to trap a foe in a “shadow cage.”
This additional dimension of the power is included with the offensive and defensive capabaility. There’s probably another power that lets me create more “shadow platforms,” does it quicker, or costs less. Again, pairing this ability with the offense and defense potential makes this flexible, and thus either more expensive or weaker than the core object-creation power (otherwise, I’d just take this one and always be prepared for multiple eventualities, rather than the less-versatile, same-cost power that only built environmental objects).
So, in diagramming the power, we see not only what it does, but how it relates to the other systems in the game. As well, this makes it easier for us to change individual components of the design instead of having to scrap the whole thing and start over.
When you pick up a game book, it’s full of paragraphs. When you fire up a video game, the systems are logics, inherent to the play. The rules themselves, though, are concise, distinct, and often dependent statements.