Game Design Sensibilities

I’ve been playing a fair number of board games lately. It’s interesting because the design of those games I feel are a whole different world compared to modern video game designs. In a way, I feel board games are a ‘purer’ game design in some aspects. You’re not tied down in presentation, cut-scenes, and other spectacle, and all you have to work with is a few widgets and a compelling rule set. If that rule set is boring, your players will never play again. Meanwhile, I feel I’ve played video games that hang purely on presentation, cut-scenes and spectacle in order to keep the player going. Arguments for whether this is a good or bad thing can wait for a later post.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of board games are multiplayer, so it might be seen as a bit easier to come up with really interesting rule sets because of the human element. In a single player game, where your AI is extremely limited, trying to force ‘interesting choices’ is a bit more of a dark art, but not unheard of (see Pandemic, Arkham Horror, etc). A lot of modern video games seem to have this arbitrary requirement that they must work with a single player, and as a result it seems the design tends to limit itself to what is possible in that context. Granted, this is the reality of the known market, so single player demand won’t go away. Although deep down I feel the multiplayer/social market is far wider, deeper, and more diverse than what we’re currently aiming for. The sorry excuse for games people tend to call ‘social games’ I think is only scratching the surface of what’s possible in the digital realm. Also I think the idea of having to segment out a whole area of games as ‘social games’ is amusing in my mind considering that I can’t remember a time when games weren’t social. The sad part is it’s starting to get a negative connotation, but I digress.

One interesting thing that has come to mind as of late is how board game design is becoming informed by player sensibilities. Video game developers and designers struggle for weeks and months trying to perfect the UI, tutorial, and imagery to make it easier for the player to manipulate the game and rule set. They do this in hopes that they’ll grab a larger audience, bring in new people to the fold, etc. This all works to an extent, and is sometimes all that is needed to bring a game from ‘obscurity’ to mainstream acceptance.

Yet, sometimes the rule sets themselves don’t allow for certain players to play and enjoy the game no matter how approachable the graphics are, how intuitive the UI is, or how easy to follow the tutorial is. It sounds so obvious when spoken, but I was never conscious of it while playing video games (multiplayer or single player). But when I started playing more board games I noticed how the social dynamics and temperaments of people deeply influenced the overall enjoyment of the game for the group.

The more popular games in my circle have been cooperative games or team games. Games that allowed players to work together tended to be the favorites, even among the ‘gamer’ friends. Some games have mechanics that allow the momentum of a game to swing favorably to one player and unfavorably to another. Sometimes the outcome is even unclear to both players involved, but the intent was always seen as a ‘mean’ thing. For example, having a player pluck a card from another player’s hand at random was hardly ever a happy moment for both. Other mechanics where players draw ‘action’ cards that do unfavorable things to the group or a particular player (what I like to usually call ‘bullshit’ cards) tended to be met with general hostility. If you take the analogous of this in video games you see this kind of design come up all the time. A player hits a power up and another player is arbitrarily punished (ie blue shell in mario kart), another player ‘unlocks’ an ability that leads them onto a slippery slope of dominance against sometimes an entire opposing team (see kill-streak awards in Call of Duty).

Now, is this a good or bad thing? In certain groups the competitiveness and ‘bully-mechanics’ can be seen as fun and hilarious at times, but I’ve heard comments from a few that don’t like the idea of “pillaging a player’s deck of cards” if that target player is their 6 year old son, or wife :). Given that the husband/wife and family demographic is a huge one, it seems there is a ripe opportunity there to take the lessons learned from  board game designers about player interactions and sensibilities and apply that to our own video games.

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