Art forms can be more or less characterized by periods of stasis and evolution. A particular period of art reaches a level of equilibrium, then a new movement begins to emerge that upends the previously established state. This could be the discovery of a new artistic principle such as point perspective, or it could be a shift in societal ideals that causes artists to view something differently.

This holds true for nearly any form of art. In music a small movement can splinter off and create a new genre, or new technology such as synthesizers or sampling can expand what is possible and lead to a new explosion of creativity. Or take architecture – new materials or principles of design can lead to a radical shift in architectural styles, creating new possibilities. Why build a Romanesque church when you now have the technology to build a Gothic cathedral?

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Why build Gothic when you have literal magic?

The same idea holds true in game design. Game designs do not come from nowhere – they are built piece by piece off of previous ideas. Once a new idea appears, other designers are encouraged to explore this new area of design space that has been opened up. Take, for example, the “deck-building” category of tabletop games. This genre is incredibly popular today among both players and designers, but as a category it is relatively recent. Dominion is credited as being the first deck-building game, and it was only released 10 years ago in 2008.

Since Dominion’s release, countless other designers have taken up the job of trying to explore the design space in deck building games. Some combined deck building with other mechanics, moving it from being the primary focus of the game to simply being another tool in the toolbox. Others expanded on the idea of a deckbuilder by having players build other types of collections – “bag builders” such as “Automobiles” allow players to build a bag of items that they then pull from, whereas dice builders either allow players to build a collection of dice to roll, or actually allow players to modify custom dice over time to better suit their needs.

There are countless examples of this phenomena – an individual or small group create some new idea,  which is then copied, modified, and eventually just becomes part of the common knowledge of the field. Perspective drawing may have been a massive technical innovation when it was first discovered, but now it is a mundane idea that is taught in even elementary level art classes. Perhaps in a few years “collection building” as a mechanism will seem as mundane in game design as simply rolling a die.

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Another bag builder, how exciting….

Where do these medium-defining ideas come from? In some cases necessity truly is the mother of invention. In this case, designer Donald Vaccarino was attempting to find a mechanic that would allow new cards to be introduced over time, and due to a tight playtesting deadline decided to go with an early version of the deck building mechanic.

In other cases, however, these ideas come from designers intentionally pushing beyond the established boundaries of their medium. While there are numerous examples of this in music and the visual arts, one recent game design example would be the creation of the legacy game genre. This genre was first created by designer Rob Daviau in 2011, and was the result of Daviau intentionally experimenting with the idea of a game that lasted beyond any individual play session.

This idea intentionally breaks one of the unspoken rules of game design – the rule that every play session is self-contained and doesn’t have any bearing on past or future sessions. It is much easier to design a game that starts over every time it is played,  and people have been designing that way for thousands of years, most of them likely never even consciously choosing to do so – they just never considered that it could be any other way. It is only by examining games critically and thinking outside of the box that a clever designer can notice this pattern and choose to design against it.

I wrote an article a while back about what defines a game. That article was difficult to write, because for almost any criteria you try to place on this definition there is a counterexample that contradicts that example, while still being considered a game by many. That article was fun to write because it forced me to examine just how few rules there are that actually define what a game is. Even for the few rules I chose as part of my definition there are other people who would argue against their inclusion, or add additional criteria that I chose to ignore.

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If it doesn’t use meeples does it really count?

In a similar vein, I recently wrote an article about what defines the RPG genre, and much of that article was actually spent figuring out what does NOT define the genre. RPGs do not necessarily have to have a leveling system, or a class system, or experience points, or even traditional stats. It is possible to remove any or even all of these things, and it doesn’t necessarily change the genre of the game.

There is nothing wrong with designing a game that fit firmly inside the established boundaries of design. Most games are like this, and it is a rare game that does anything truly new with the medium. Many of the unspoken rules of game design are there for a reason, and perhaps shouldn’t be broken. However, it is only by breaking away from some of the established norms that new design space can be uncovered

There are several areas of game design that I believe could be explored further. One type of game that I think should be explored further is what I call “experiential games” – relatively short games that put players into situations and experiences that they wouldn’t normally be able to experience. These games would not be played for competition or even for fun, but to help expand the player’s worldview.

Warning: my next example is a bit dark

An example of this type of game would be putting the player in the shoes of a Jewish citizen in Nazi Germany. Not a badass soldier taking revenge on the Nazis by mowing down dozens of them with a machine gun, but an average person who is forced from their homes to hide with their families, eventually found and taken by the Nazis, doing everything they can but being helpless to change their fate.

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If comics can do it, why can’t we?

This game would clearly not be fun to play – on the contrary, it would be extremely uncomfortable and likely disturbing. However, it would also do something that not even the best-made Hollywood film could do – make the player feel like THEY are experiencing this tragedy, not just watching it happen to a character on the screen.

Generalizing from the previous two paragraphs, I think that one area games need to explore more is the emotional range that they are able to create. Games can be fun, some games are scary, and some can even make players cry at times, but there is a much wider emotional spectrum that is still waiting to be fully explored in this medium.

Another design space that I think needs more explanation is the relationship between the player and the character. In pretty much every game the relationship between the two is very simple – player presses button, and character does something. However, I think there is a lot more that could be done with this.

One idea that has been bouncing around in my head for a while is the idea of giving a video game character more of a sense of agency. Perhaps they consider your button presses more of a suggestion – they will do what you ask them to, but they will also consider their own needs as well.

Perhaps the character has a survival instinct, and runs away from monsters that are too high of a level instead of engaging them? Or perhaps they are just a pacifist that refuses to harm other creatures? Or maybe the character has it’s own (possibly hidden) set of health stats – hunger, exhaustion, etc., and if the player doesn’t keep the levels high they go off on their own to look for food instead?

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I don’t feel like it – why don’t you ask me later?

I think that allowing the character to have a little bit of agency for themselves could completely change the dynamic between player and character. The character is no longer simply an extension of the player, but its own being. Instead of controlling the character, you must work WITH the character towards a common goal.

Moving beyond this basic idea, I think there are ways to extend this even further. Perhaps in different parts of the game you must work with various different characters, each of which has their own personality traits and require you to interact with them differently? Or perhaps the characters have a hidden “trust” value which can go up or down based on how well you work with them, and the more they trust you the more likely they are to follow your commands?

Another area of design that I think could be explored is the division between tabletop games and video games. This division has been blurred somewhat – tabletop games have app versions now, and many games include electronic components. However, in many people’s minds there is still a very firm line that separates the world of tabletop games from video games.

While I think there are many ways to explore the boundaries between these two categories, one option would be to create a game that alternates between a tabletop and digital component. Each of these components has strengths and weaknesses, and by using both parts in a single game I think you could create something really interesting. The tabletop portion could allow for more complex interactions between the players – voting, planning, cooperation, deal-making, etc. Then the digital part of the game could handle more memory and space intensive actions (combat, trading / inventory management, resources, etc) that can become messy in a tabletop space.

These are only a few examples of design space that I think has yet to be fully explored. There are many others, most of which I’m sure I am completely unaware of. Perhaps some of these areas are unexplored for a reason, while others may open up a whole new world of possibilities. I hope that this article got you thinking about some of the new areas of design space that you would like to explore!

Until Next Time!

That is all I have for this week! I hope you enjoyed this article! If you did, check out the rest of the blog and subscribe on Facebook, Twitter, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t, let me know what I can do better in the comments down below. Also, if you have suggestions for future game designers that you believe deserve their own spotlight in a future entry, please let me know on Twitter! And join me next week for another game design article!

Posted by:Caleb Compton

I am the Head Designer of Rempton Games, and primary writer for the Rempton games blog. I am currently a graduate student in computer science at Kansas State University, and work on game designs every spare moment that I can.

2 replies on “Breaking the Boundaries of Game Design

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