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Deconstructing vs. Constructing: Hint Guides as a Route to Design

March 3, 2008

At GDC, I had a conversation with a regular blog reader about the using hint guides as a route into design. The nutshell is this – he writes strategy guides for a living, so might that translate well if the process were turned 180 degrees and he became the constructor rather than the deconstructor? Could he use this process as a route to design?

Short answer: yes and no.


Hint guides (or strategy guides – for me the terms are interchangeable) are incredibly useful tools for aspiring game designers and practicing game designers, alike. In many of them, the systems are pretty much laid bare. Want to know the exact percentage increase of X when Y happens? You’ll probably find it. In fact, I have a regular habit of reading hint guides to solidify my understanding of games that I’ve played. Sometimes, the hint guides don’t add much, but other times, there is a lot to be gained.

I’m also writing a strategy guide right now for a favorite game series of mine. The process exposes the game to me so that I can, in fact, see a lot of the decisions and changes that you would not normally see as a gamer.

Imagine taking an engine apart and putting it back together. That’s a challenge. That’s sort of what it’s like to write a strategy guide. Sort of.


Now, imagine building that engine from scratch and being told that it has to be unique and innovative. Imagine you have to pick the tools and the type of car (or truck or boat or airplane) to fit a specific purpose and audience. You need to figure out the ways it will interact with people.

There is a lot that goes into game design that you don’t find in a hint guide:

  • Defining the core – what is the one thing this game is about and what features will you select that make that core happen and make it stronger?
  • Features – how will those features work, precisely?
  • The basic decisions – real time vs. turn based, isometric vs first person, genre. All of these things dramatically affect the play experience, and knowing which one to select for a given topic and desired dynamic is a critical decision.
  • Interface – how will the player interact with the game? Make or break.
  • Information – how does the game receive and return feedback?
  • Learning curve – Valve model tends to be my favorite.
  • Missions – what makes a good mission?
  • Narrative – what’s a good story arc? Will Aristotle, of all people, think you’ve got it right?
  • Reward structure – load it up or play it light?
  • Strategy – I could (and probably will) write many posts on the creation of strategy in a game. For the guide I’m writing, the strategy’s already in the game there. How that was created from scratch by a designer is a work of art (at least in this case). I’ve seen works of crap, too.
  • Balance – Creating a balanced system is simultaneously the most fun thing a designer can do and sometimes a mind-numbing tedious nightmare. Usually both. How do you set up that system in the first place so that it’s balance friendly?

So that’s a waffle-ish maybe, but more on the no side

The only thing that can teach you to design and to make those decisions correctly is actual design. Then, you have to get people to play it, and you have to fix it again and again until it’s good. So, if this is you, try it a few times. Get your feet wet. Go get one of the free build-your-own game engines and see how you do. Make board games and card games and any kind of games. Try designing.

I think experience with strategy guides ultimately gives you a lot of practice in seeing how the designer broke the systems and the game up. It also gives you a good idea for what feels right and wrong, similarly to the way a writer feels when he or she reads Steinbeck.

It doesn’t replace the actual process of design, though.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 4, 2008 2:30 am

    One of my prized possessions when I was a teenager was a strategy guide for Resident Evil 2. Another prized possession was a copy of D&D 2nd edition. I like to think both had an influence on me as an aspiring game designer as they laid bare some of the inner workings of what a game really is. (and gave me a different perspective of the types of bases around some games)

    *note: Other games I found really great for learning the inner workings were the Armoured Core series (PS, PS2, etc.), Carnage Heart (PS), sim games and definitely a lot of board games. Just to name and classify a few.

    I found it strange that when in college one of our game design assignments that wasn’t there was the process of breaking current games down into documents outlining the design elements. I thought this would be a great way to get some practice and quantify game design. After all, a designer is the sum of all influences, inspiration and knowledge of working parts, just as a mechanic needs to know how an engine works by deconstructing an already working.

    I don’t know if it’s just a designer/hardcore gamer trait, but I like to see numbers. But I don’t always need to see the numbers to work out the values behind game elements.

  2. March 4, 2008 12:27 pm

    Woah, great post. I haven’t bought a strategy guide in years, now I may actually order one just to test this idea out.

    Any guide in particular to recommand as an example of systems being fleshed out and laid bare? I would think ‘tactics’ games like Jeanne D’Arc or FF Tactics game would be good candidates.

  3. March 4, 2008 1:28 pm

    The Wizardry series hit books were pretty revealing, as are the hint books for the Sims. Those two immediately come to mind.

    D&D books are a great suggestion.

  4. March 4, 2008 5:55 pm

    I’d love to see strategy guides which double as development journals. Alongside walkthrough information, provide insight into the game’s development process. When detailing a particularly tricky aspect of a game, include a quote or two from the lead designer explaining the making of that sequence.

    Just a pipe dream to think about.

  5. March 4, 2008 7:07 pm

    Hmm. You could use the same logic to answer the question: “I play a lot of games, does that qualify me to design them?”

    Perhaps a better answer is: no, it doesn’t, but if you want to be a designer you’d better be playing games (and reading strategy guides) as a necessary (but not exclusive) part of your study.

  6. March 5, 2008 11:17 pm

    @Scott – I really like that idea, actually. It might actually provide some good reason to go for the strategy guides vs. the online FAQs.

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