The “Core” of a Game
Listen to a group of game players talking about a game they’d like to make. You’ll hear one feature after another mentioned. “And you could do this!” says one. “And this would be cool, too,” says another. Cool as those individual features might be, without any kind of connection to a greater whole – a core – these features are unlikely to result in great gameplay.
As designers, we start with a core – the one thing our game is about. Another way of putting it, the core of a game is its statement of purpose. Ratchet & Clank is a classic race-to-the-end platformer where the players blow things up in humorous ways. The core of Battlefield 2 is surviving a war-time encounter. The core of every RPG is character development (aka survival). The core of Rock Band, not surprisingly, is about making great music with friends.
Equally important to the core is this: every single feature and system in the game must make the core stronger or be necessary for it to exist in the first place. Should a feature fail to do this, it should be cut or redesigned to strengthen the core. Consider the RPG core again. Every single feature in that game is designed to further the progression of that character, from combat to guilds to better armor and weapons to monsters (which you kill to get experience) to quests to NPCs. Everything makes that core stronger.
All great designers follow this principle without exception. Individually, they may have their blunders and games they wish they’d not made, but behind every great game, one finds this principle. Always. There are games with multiple cores, but they tend to suffer under that weight. It’s hard to be great at two or three or four things.
Automobiles provide a great example of how a shifting core shifts the features of a game. Consider how changing the core changes the design of the car and the features we would add:
- A car striving to break a land-speed record.
- A car designed for comfort
- A street-legal car designed for speed
- A car designed for prestige
- A classic car hoping to win an award at a car show
- A luxury car for $30,000
- A luxury car for $60,000
- An off-road vehicle
- A military vehicle
- A car designed to offer protection
The different cores or statements of purpose cause us as designers to think about the overall design of the car differently in every single case. It’s exactly that way with game designers. The core of the video game Forza: Motorsports Racing was “owning a racing car.” Unlike traditional racing games, this game allowed you to really get the experience of being a race car owner, from detailing the car to posing and photographing it. Of course, racing was a big part of that experience.
You can identify the core of any game if you look, and you can radically change the design of any game by changing its core. For instance, consider my old favorite Guitar Hero. Its core is about becoming a guitar-playing rockstar, and everything in the game supports that, from the magazine covers to the glorification of the real guitar player videos that people can unlock through play. If the game were about playing a guitar well or teaching people how to play guitar, it would be much different. The whole narrative could be – and should be – changed to facilitate this new core.
Next up… making a feature set from a core (and then I’ll get to the menu document thing I promised yesterdary…)