Analogy And The Process Of Design
In my article on analogy, I hinted that designers design abstract mechanics and then apply analogy to make the system most accessible to players. That is not a representation of how most people design video games today, it was merely a set-up for talking about analogy without diving too deeply into the properties of the abstract systems that underlie games.
In reality, strategy game design often starts with analogy and relies on it as a way of making design decisons throughout the development process. Designers pick what kind of a game they want to make through reference to genre convention and personal experience with other games, history, and fantasy. Most design decisions are informed by analogy, not by a rigorous understanding of abstract systems of rules and the dynamics they create. Decisions are made based on what mirrors or captures a part of some interesting interaction in the real world that the designer wants to model and harness. Designers also take–often very direct–inspiration from interesting interactions in other games; existing, working systems provide a stable starting point that designer aims to elaborate or improve on.
We just don’t have significant institutional knowledge in the game design field of how to work directly in the abstract–the design practices I’ve seen and read about always make extensive reference to source material from the real world or other games. These guiding analogies provide a skeleton which is then given flesh and adjusted in its particulars by the designer. The designer takes educated, though often wild, guesses at the flesh of the game based on primarily her intuition, then uses iterated playtesting to figure just what muscles need to be stronger or weaker to make the skeleton stand up. Just as players use a game’s analogies to relate to and mentally synthesize the game’s abstractions, the designer relies on analogy as progenitor and proxy for abstract systems to have any hope at grasping the logical relationships that should exist between game elements. The analogy is driving the process more often than not.
Analogy is not reliable when used as the primary tool for designing games, though. There are numerous analogical justifications for just about any game rule, even quite bizarre ones, and the rules suggested by analogy are often manifestly bad rules. For example, we have to build these analogically-awkward systems of multiple avatar lives in many gamse in order to allow the player to engage in a natural process of learning through repetition and experimentation. Failure means (analogical) death, so the player’s avatar must go through multiple lives. But let’s take analogy as our guide here: if the player is represented as a human avatar and that avatar dies, the game ends just like life does–eternally. That’s ridiculous, of course, but I hope its ridiculousness shows that analogy is no crucible for design decisions.
The designer can use analogy in the mode of post-hoc rationalization for any design decision, since people will pick up even tenuous relationships or make up their own where some of lacking. Bugs in the design or programming of Dwarf Fotress dwarf behavior lead to whacky stories created by the player filling in the blanks between one dwarf action and its absurd consequence. If a game has enough analogical connective tissue, the player can fill in the rest, sometimes with more memorable results than if everything were fleshed out by the designer in the first place. It’s a bizarre reward for designers who fail to achieve their aim. Town Management games are in a unique area of design where the designer has to work very hard to just make the behavior of the townspeople inoccuous. Here, in practice, the analogy works against the designer, and the designer gets a false reward when he fails in certain ways. This is a particularly perverse result of analogy-driven design.
On the other side of analogy’s role in design are games where analogy serves as a thin veneer over an abstractly-developed set of rules. This is often seen in Euro-style designer board games like Dominion where analogy plays almost no role except providing some nice art and names to make card concepts like “+2 Draw, +2 Buy” slightly less obtuse. In this process, the designer makes rules that work systemically, then comes up with a reason why the game world would act like that, or fabricates a game world out of whole cloth that may act like that. At its worst, this style of design simply puts arbitrary labels on game elements. In these abstraction-first games, analogy is a powerful tool left unused. Notice that games in this mode typically have very simple rules compared to analogy-driven games. Without the semiotic machinery that a guiding analogy provides, the designer is left to use his brute intellect directly in his grappling with the rules in an effort to get them into a desirable shape.
If only we had better tools to comprehend and intentionally manipulate game systems in the abstract, designers would not have to rely on analogy so heavily to design more complex games. But that’s an enormous problem that I will make attempts to address later. There are plenty of ways we can improve on the modern process of game design incrementally, both through attaining a better understanding of game rules in the abstract, and also through using analogy more expertly and carefully given our knowledge of its limitations, but great power, as a design tool.
Today I’d like to introduce a design tactic which I think leverages the power of analogy while allowing systemic concerns their due consideration. Start a design from the typical ground: pick a game or real life situation that you think is interesting and lay out the skeleton of the game. Let’s say our skeleton is Final Fantasy Tactics. Through playing FFT we’ve noticed that permadeath is present but significantly limited because the designers recognized it’s highly problematic. So let’s start from there: How do we design a tactical RPG where characters don’t die on the battlefield when their HP is reduced to 0? It seems silly at first blush because it so strongly bucks the analogy of 0 HP meaning no life left. We could, and many games do, just return all cahracters to full health between missions without comment, but the design tactic I suggest embraces the analogical difficulty of these inter-mission rules. Let’s come up with an analogical justification for characters being rescued and healed to full. Perhaps Gods, angels, and demons save the characters that gain their favor and whisk them back to home base, healing them along the way. A simple justification, but if we water this flower it will soon bloom: with the analogy established we’ve indirectly suggested more mechanics! Angels and demons are aligned with good and evil, and we can give characters alignments too. Then if they’re faithful to their alignment in their actions in battle, they’ll pay less of a cost for the between-battle healing. Now we have a new property of characters that we can tie into all kinds of other game systems, like character skills, relationships, and missions selection.
Follow the spiral outward from a small improvement, alternating mechanically-necessary change with analogical justification with further elaborating mechanics and you can quickly establish a rich set of properties for the elements and many interactions between them. One small change can precipitate a landslide of systemic alterations to a stale formula. All you need is a skeleton to start with and some imagination. To find the little mechanical tweaks you can make to improve a game, you’ll have to use your intuition for now, but soon you’ll also have a bunch of concepts that I use, as well.