The AVA Paradigm
My method of understanding and designing strategy games starts off with a triad of critical concepts which I call the AVA paradigm–a somewhat memorable acronym combining the first letters of Agency, Variety, and Analogy. The interaction of these three concepts lies at the core of strategy game design. They each represent certain values which one must balance when designing any strategy game, and their substance is what attracts players and keeps them playing.
I’ll be posting more detailed discussions of each concept. Each one could have volumes written about it. But these brief discussions at least give us a place to start in our journey towards better strategy game design.
Without the player’s actions having some meaning within the game, it’s not worth playing the game. It’s self-evident in strategy game design that the player’s actions must matter.
Without the outside world to provide substantial meaning to the abstractions of a game, the game seems trivial. Through the power of referential game components, players (and designers!) can more quickly make sense of complex ideas and systems in games.
Without enough to try and to do within a game, players quickly grow bored and move on. Variety takes many forms, both profound and insignificant, in games’ designs, and getting a grasp of how a design idea can admit variation without harming its own stability and life-expectancy is a topic of extreme importance to strategy game design.
Often games will pay for better expression of one of these concepts by sacrificing another. Historical strategy games eternally struggle with the fact they model historical events and thus must counteract the influence of the player in some way–sacrificing agency at the altar of analogy. Abstract strategy games present situations which find no match in lived experience, and revel in the freedom this grants them–they sacrifice analogy on the altar of variation and often agency. In roguelikes, the player is often at the mercy of elaborate procedural generation systems hosting thousands of items and monsters; the player thus is likely to run into randomly spawned obastacles which he cannot surpass, but, as Tarn Adams says, “losing is fun”–especially when you sacrifice agency at the altar of variety.
In this world of sacrifice and trade-offs, though, I entertain the hope that we can squeeze as much out of all three of these concepts without necessarily sacrificing one for another. It is not a product of good design that the designer picks one of these at the cost of the others–it is a product of great design that the designer takes as little penalty and as great reward from each in spite of and because of the tensions between them. I hope in my explorations on this blog to get us closer to mastering this triad of critical concepts so we can design better games.