Series Info...#39: Ah, Sweet Simplicity of Life!

by Shannon Appelcline

July 12, 2001 - Folks, welcome back. I apologize for the month-line hiatus, but life took some unexpected turns over the last four weeks which temporarily left me unable to write. I am now officially returned, though I've decided to drop this column back to biweekly to give myself more time for other important things in life – most importantly honing my skills at writing fiction.

This week I want to address another simple topic that's at the core of game design, and thus I expect my discussion to once more be fairly brief. The topic? Simplicity itself.

Feeping Creaturism

In designing any game (in designing anything!) you have to be wary of the spectre of creeping featurism – adding more and more systems to your game because (1) they're cool, (2) they'll appeal to a larger group of players, or (3) someone else keeps writing the damned ideas into your design notebook.

If you're not careful, you can end up with a mess, where you have so many systems that you don't really understand any of them, and where none of them have gotten the design and playtest time they deserve.

So, start simple. When you're designing a game, try and center on just one or two systems, and make sure those systems can carry the whole game. Design those few systems so that players using them will be kept occupied constantly, every day. And then develop those systems in a careful and thoughtful way, so that you're aware of all the possible uses and abuses of the system – so that you're aware of what behaviors they'll cause in the players (as discussed in "The Game is What the Game Is").

Pretty abstract? Yeah. I've got two concrete examples.

Example the First: Marrach

Back in the early days of Skotos Tech, we had this dream of an awesome all-encompassing online game called Alvatia. It was going to be a truly innovative game that combined roleplaying, socialization, storytelling, exploration, achievement, politics, and world simulations into one cohesive whole.

Very, very exciting, but really not practical for a first game. In trying to implement all of those systems at the same time we would have ended up with a mess (and, for that matter, we still wouldn't have a game out).

As this became obvious, we decided to instead build a simpler game that could be used as a stepping stone to that eventual Alvatia design. Thus was born Castle Marrach. Our goal in Castle Marrach was to make just one system work well – socialization – and to try and build the entire game from there.

And, we did. There were numerous subsystems within socialization: consent, prox, evocation, and gesture among them. But, they were all sufficiently tied together that we could approach them as a cohesive whole and make sure that they could carry a game.

Example the Second: Succession

As you've probably noted, Galactic Emperor: Succession is now back online. And, if you've checked it out, you may have noticed that the game design is very different from the one we released a month ago. What happened? We simplified.

The first beta of the game that we released was pretty complex. It involved voting, the Vl'Hurgh invasion, constantly changing asset values, Unrest ratings, artifacts, numerous councils, other governmental offices, family members, pirates, saboteurs, and lots of other stuff that I've since forgotten.

There were tons of cool ideas within, no doubt about it, but no system ever rose to the forefront. The game as a whole was somewhat confusing, and we were never convinced that there was any individual system that could carry the entire game.

Enter the revamp. This time around we've concentrated on voting, only extending that out a little bit to systems that either influence voting or are influenced by it, namely trade and the good 'ole Vl'Hurgh invasion. If we're done our job well, we can tune the voting system until it's perfect, and then we'll have a strong core for the game.

"But, But... "

I can see many game designers protesting that a game with a single focus doesn't interest them at all, that they really do want to implement the complex games they've designed. That's fine, just take it one step at a time. Implement the most major system (or two), tune it, and make sure it carries the game. Then repeat. Lather. Rinse.

This is exactly what we did with Castle Marrach. We implemented the social systems and tested and debugged them, and found they were indeed enough to carry the game for some players (as evidenced by the fact that some current players first logged on in September of 2000). Afterward we implemented the dueling system – a nice supplement, though not a game in itself. Most recently we've introduced the combined alteration/teaching system, and this one was a truly big deal. We tweaked it a lot during the first weeks, and at this point I believe it's a system that could carry the entire game too.

And that's what you want to do when designing. Implement a small set of systems that will carry the whole game. And then implement another with the same criteria. And another. You'll eventually end up with an intricate and complex game, but every system will be well-thought out and tested – by the fact that it had its own release, and because every one can carry the game on its own... you'll have whole worlds of possibility.

In closing I should note that StoryBuilders here at Skotos Tech will have things slightly easier because they'll be able to plug in the systems that we've already developed. Marrach's social system is fully a part of Galactic Emperor: Succession, for example. Some variant of Marrach's alteration system may carry over to Lovecraft Country. And, the combat system that we're developing for the Bane will soon be available to all of our developers. But, even in this case, you'll need to be careful as you select systems – and build your own – to make sure you understand how they all inter-relate.

Let me end by repeating my simple rule this time around: Simplicity. That's it! I'll see you in 14.

your opinion...