I always get excited whenever there’s a lively discussion about mechanics vs. theme – which is more important, which reigns superior, which makes a game a game. I’m even more excited when people come together and discuss how they’re equally important – that games are at their best when theme and mechanics co-exist peacefully, one informing the other in a glorious symbiotic relationship.
I’m a firm believer in this, and I will argue this point of view every time.
So, as a game designer, the question is – how do you form that symbiosis between theme and mechanics?
For me, game design is a somewhat fluid process, but there are certain distinct “phases” that I can analyze for how theme and mechanics inject themselves. Take this all with a heavy dose of salt, because this is just my process, and when I say “process,” it’s not an exact science.
Phase 1: Conception – sometimes, I refer to this step as “the spark” because it’s the initial, “Aha! Now that’s a game idea!” moment. It’s the act of creating something out of nothing. At this point, the game isn’t really a game – it’s just single idea. It could be anything. Maybe re-watching Starship Troopers gives me the idea to do a tongue-in-cheek space combat game. Or maybe a question at pub trivia about plant biology gives me the idea to do a biopunk farming game. Or maybe—as was the case with Osprey Adrift—having a conversation about The Essex gives me the idea to do a game about cannibals lost at sea. Whatever the inspiration, I would say that almost every single time, the conception starts with a theme. What can I say? I’m a storyteller at heart.
Phase 2: Partner Up – Now that I have a theme in mind, it’s time to turn it into a game. Otherwise, it’s just a nebulous idea. “Cannibals! And pirates!” isn’t much of a game. What I do at this point is think of all the core mechanics that could possible lend themselves to the theme. This is where I start to think about how players will experience the theme that I came up with. Now, there’s no real formal process to this. Sometimes, I’ll literally write down a list of mechanics and run through it, writing down ideas about how each one could interact with theme. While other times, I’ll just take a walk or go to the gym and let mechanics bounce around in my head. For example, with Osprey Adrift, I had the “cannibals and pirates” thing figured out, and I actually sat down and listed out mechanics that I could envision going along with that. Looking back at my scribbled notes, what I had was:
- Press your luck – draw cards/roll dice to find food, turn ends when human flesh is uncovered? Trying to collect coins for VP? Can sell players additional food for coins?
- Tower defense – co-op? pirates trying to stave off hungry cannibals? Set traps – rigging, cannons, etc. Miniatures? Cards?
- Worker placement – scavenging about the ship? Trying to earn points to secure a rescue while eating to stay alive? Lose points for eating human flesh?
- Social deduction – pirates vs. cannibals? Pirates can switch teams? Eliminations – eating/walking the plank?
Needless to say, I settled on the last idea, because, well, I got all kinds of tingles thinking about accusing my friends of being cannibals!
Phase 3: Innovate – Now that I’ve sold myself on a theme and a complementary core mechanic, I do some research. Is this theme/mechanic combination played out? Is it a cliché? If it is, I either go back to the drawing board or I think of how I can make it unique. Luckily, with Osprey Adrift, I’m not aware of any other social deduction games that involve pirates and cannibals. However, social deduction games are fairly common, so I needed to make sure I differentiated Osprey Adrift enough to make it special. During the “innovate” phase, the idea is still just a baby. The goal here is to turn the concept into something that people would look at and say, “Huh. That’s cool” even if it’s similar to a game that already exists. The theme and mechanics need to be combined in a way that’s unique and interesting. Like I said, social deduction games are all over the place. With Osprey Adrift, I made the concept unique by giving it the pirate/cannibal theme, and because of that theme – it made sense to include a resource-based elimination mechanic (No food? You’re out!) and a team-switching mechanic (Eat human flesh? You’re a cannibal now…) At this point, I can already see the theme and the mechanics working together.
Phase 4: Rattling Around – Now that I have a theme and a core mechanic, and I’m confident that it’s a fresh and intriguing combination, I get to work on the actual game design. At this point, I’ve only spent anywhere from a couple days to a couple weeks to get here. This “rattling around” phase is where the bulk of the work is actually done. This is the proving grounds to see if my idea has the legs to stand on as a game that’s actually playable. Basically, I’m tinkering around with the game—starting with the core mechanic—and adding things that improve the overall game experience. I think this is an important piece to note—and again, something specific to my personal experience—I’ll always have a ton of ideas of things I want to include in the game. I don’t let my theme get out of control and make me feel like I have to include every little idea by tacking on more mechanics. I approach game design in the same way that I approach writing: I start with the core idea and build up from there, being measured and deliberate with the elements I’m choosing to add. The alternative method is a more subtractive way of creating: throwing in every idea (plus the kitchen sink) and then slowly paring away bits and pieces that don’t fit and only serve to muddy up the game. It’s an urge I have to resist because my natural inclination is to fall in love with every idea that flies into my brain. But deep down, I know that it’s far easier to build up a game than it is to edit one down.
The “rattling around” phase can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. It’s the cumulative effort of many, many Sunday afternoons and late weeknights of me sitting at my dining room table, rubbing my hands over my face and cursing while I play every side of a “game” that barely feels like a game. I won’t get into explaining the nuts and bolts of this part of the creative process, but if you’ve ever designed a game, written a novel, built a piece of software, etc. etc., then you’ll be able to agree with me on one thing: index cards are your best friend.
Phase 5: Unit Testing & Incremental Improvement – Once I have the game to the point where it feels like a game, I write down a basic procedure (not quite “rules” yet) and whip up a cheap prototype. Now I run the game (playing all sides) and take detailed notes about how the game went, what needs to be cut, what could be added, and what just needs minor tweaks. With Osprey Adrift, I used handwritten index cards for the game’s cards and ran maybe 80 tests or so, making new cards and procedures with each test. What happens in this phase is each successive test yields progressively more revelations about how the game can be improved. During this process, I keep myself very open to the fact that the game is still just a baby and will need a lot of tender loving care. I don’t let myself get beat up if the game doesn’t feel quite right. I remove things that don’t make sense, add things that improve the game experience, and tweak what’s there until it’s just right; but I never lose sight of my core concept. I always allow the theme to inform the mechanics and the mechanics to improve the experience the theme is trying to simulate. If I lose sight of that, I take a step back and remember what excited me about the concept in the first place.
Phase 7: Closed Beta Testing – Once I get to the point where I can definitively say, “now this is the game,” I stretch my graphic design skills to the limit and order a print-n-play prototype from The Game Crafter. (There’s plenty of other services, but I really like The Game Crafter’s easy interface and the quality of the components you get.) This is the first actual money I drop on the game, and note I’m now moving into Phase 7. There’s a lesson here, and that lesson is: “I don’t spend money developing a game until I’ve put a lot of work into it and I’m fairly confident that it’s a publishable game.” I’d say about 95% of the games I design never make it to this point, or they bounce around between “Rattling Around” and “Unit Testing & Incremental Improvement” for a very, very long time.
Once I have the fancy prototype, I run more tests on the game. However, unlike with unit testing, now I’m playing the game with actual people. Luckily, by now, all the major kinks should be worked out and the mechanics should be running more-or-less correctly. Also, I limit the playtesting group to people I can trust—both in terms of taking the project seriously, and in terms of providing solid, honest feedback. I try to run as many tests with as many different groups of people as I can, but the thing I keep in mind during closed beta testing is this: I pay careful attention to how people are experiencing the game. Until this point, I’ve had a very limited perspective on the game because I’ve experienced it as I was creating it. Once I throw it to the wolves, they’ll likely have a totally different take on things. This is good. This is what I want. I get their feedback on how the game felt. Are they experiencing the theme I’m trying to simulate? Is the theme too watered down? Are the mechanics lending themselves to the experience? Are the mechanics too clunky? Getting in the way? I take credence in the feedback I get and think carefully about how I can steer the game to meet the playtesters’ expectations while still staying true to the core of my concept.
Phase 8: Blind Testing – This is a phase that I think is especially important to talk about, but it is unfortunately one that many game designers leave out. Essentially, “blind testing” is giving a copy of the game to a group of players and telling them, “here, play this game and tell me what you think” without explaining the rules to them first. It’s important for two main reasons: 1) it puts the rules to the test. Are they easy to follow? Are there holes in them? And 2) it allows for people to catch anything I might have missed in the game’s design. It’s my final opportunity to put out the absolute best product I can before it’s too late. This is my last chance to ensure the game has that je ne sais quoi – the perfect marriage of theme and mechanics.
And that’s my process in a nutshell. If you’re a game designer, what about you? How do you balance the game’s theme and mechanics throughout your process?