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Breaking the Rules in Games: Why You Need to Do It

January 14, 2009

I am reading Patterns in Gme Design by Bjork and Holopanien, and on page 16, there’s this incredibly sad sentence:

Computer games differ from most other games in that they can make it impossible to break the rules.

I may be the only one that hits like a ton of bricks. Rules need to be bent, broken and played with. They need to be changed to see how the dynamics differ with such a small, subtle tweak. For me, game design came through my fascination then and now with non-digital games. I loved changing the rules to see what would happen, both in the game and in the players. Changing dice from a d6 to a d10 changed the experience and the math. At my height of geekiness, I actually re-wrote Iron Crown’s Rolemaster system so it would behave the way I wanted it to behave. It wasn’t until 1982 when I got my hands on the Wizardry editor that I was able to experiment digitally, too. Still, it was only the level design that I was able to tweak. The monsters, the math, the “if this then that” were not in my realm of tweakage.

It was all of this awkward geekiness that lets me be a designer today.

I encourage enterprising designers to embrace the cardboard, the box, the games without any electricity at all. They are your first window into our world. Take a Knizia game and change just one thing, and you are literally working off the master.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. January 14, 2009 6:17 pm

    The problem isn’t that computer games can’t have the rules changed, but as you point out, it takes a certain level of technical ability to change the rules. The computer game equivalent of agreeing that all tax money goes into the center and the person that lands on “Free Parking” gets the money is a mod to the game. A mod is much harder to implement than coming up with a rule like that.

    This is not always the case, though. Some games allow and even encourage mods to be made. In my latest weekend design challenge, the author of the game I was looking at encouraged people to change the physics values after someone complained about the controls. Still, this is a bit harder than just agreeing to a rule between friends.

    This is one reason why I think board games are a great thing for game designers, because it lets you play around with mechanics easier than a computer version will. For those that want a bit more complex rules to tinker with, paper RPGs are also a great place to start tinkering and seeing how it affects the mechanics.

  2. January 14, 2009 8:53 pm

    I actually talked about this in class yesterday, how iterating on a paper design takes a few minutes while iterating on a similar computer implementation can sometimes take weeks or months.

    Even if students want to make computer games, being able to prototype them on paper to remove as much design risk as possible is something that can save their company tons of money in the long run. So it’s a good skill to have.

  3. January 14, 2009 8:54 pm

    And this is why I am glad you read my blog. 🙂 Yes, that is true and something I had considered. Once you get behind the proverbial lines, you can pretty much tweak what you like just for the hell of it. However, even in games which allow a lot of experimentation, there is still a game boundary which confines you in a way that you otherwise would not be confined.

  4. January 15, 2009 5:09 am

    Breaking (or at least changing) the rules in a game makes complete sense, almost at an epiphany level for me just now. The different rule sets in Braid were the icing on the cake. It would have been very different with only one of the five time mechanics and the same quality of puzzle design for every level.

  5. January 15, 2009 9:56 am

    It might generally be harder to change the “rules” in computer games, but in some ways it’s easier to test than with a board game. If you have a proper test harness built, the PC can test the new rules really exhaustively and really fast. Right?

  6. January 15, 2009 12:19 pm

    It’s funny you mention changing rules as necessary. As a gag gift I got a friend “Trouble” for Christmas, and we played it a few times, but quickly got bored. But then we decided that each of us would control two colours. Some of the mechanics took on a different meaning and the choices weren’t so linear. One minor tweak was all it took to make the game better to us.

  7. January 16, 2009 1:48 pm

    Breaking the rules could be built into video games much more than it is. Instead of difficulty levels it would be fairly easy to present players in a shooter, for example, some value that represents the standard accuracy or effect of their shooting, that they could change, another value for movement speed, that they could change, another value for how often “random monsters” are generated, and so forth, all as easy to change as the settings for volume and resolution.

    “Breaking the rules” can be institutionalized, as it is in collectible card games, but the manufacturer breaks the rules by introducing new cards, the players don’t make the changes. The CCG designers will tell you that if the same kind/style of deck is the most successful in tournaments two years running, they’ve failed to break the rules sufficiently. (Unfortunately this is all aimed at selling more cards.)

    I have been trying (with little success) to figure out how to make “user content” as easy to add to a non-electronic game, as it is in Spore or Little Big Planet. Most of the user content in those games is additions to the game rather than changes, but someday that may change.

  8. Tom Henderson permalink
    January 16, 2009 2:08 pm

    I find the original statement somewhat ambiguous. Do they mean players or designers? DO they mean the rules of the game or something else?

    As a game designer you have no rules. You operate in a amorphous cloud of constraints that are constantly shifting but there are no absolutes. Once the game is “done” ( a rather fanciful concept) The game does have a set of rules but they aren’t static. They can change due to option settings, player generated content, even hacking.

    Players in multi-player games often spontaneously generate their own rules. For example in Crackdown the player base came up with a lot of their own gametypes that just used the basic game as a base (similar to a board gamer using the map and pieces to make his own game).

    One example was a game sedt in a quarry full of discarded warheads. One player would load up a truck with the warheads and attempt to get it to the top of the circular quarry road and the other would attempt to blow him up. This game was completely unimagined by the original designers.

    On the other hand I don’t see paper games as inherently more mutable (with the obvious exception of PRPGs which are arguably not games at all). When you play a paper game you aren’t changing the rules all the time.

    I just don’t see that great a divide.

  9. January 16, 2009 9:34 pm

    @Christopher: Depends on what you mean by “test”. Yes, an automated test suite will help you find bugs in a piece of software, but I think this article is mostly about playtesting, which is something is more subjective and can’t easily be automated. (Oh, if only an automated test script would log a bug saying that at a particular point it wasn’t having enough fun 🙂

    @Lewis: That’s true, and in fact I remember seeing someone (Sid Meier?) advise that designers should build in “knobs” that they can turn while they’re in the middle of balancing. On one development team I worked on, we kept pretty much every meaningful numeric value in an XML file somewhere, and the designers could tweak them at will without even having to wait for a new build.

    Of course, it’s still easier if you have a deck of cards, to just cross out a value and write a new one in with a pencil 🙂

    Your point about CCGs is the primary reason why they’re so hard to program. A game that breaks its own rules makes it really hard to code the rules. (Or rather, it requires a certain kind of programming approach where one must be extra careful not to hardcode any rules into the system.)

    If you’re looking for “user-created content” in a non-digital game, it’s been around for ages — blank cards! Chessex sold blank cards for Wiz-War ages ago, Looney Labs sells blank Fluxx cards, etc.
    (Actually sharing your creations with others still requires the internet, though… which I suppose is one advantage of online games in this respect.)

    @Tom: What do you mean, designers have no rules? Of course we do. “Rule” is just a synonym for “constraint”, and we have plenty… budget, time, and dev team are common ones. My interpretation of the original blog post is that game designers need to change rules and playtest on the fly, and we need to go through as many iterations as possible, which means tightening the design-build-play-evaluate feedback loop. And that it’s much MUCH faster to do this on paper than when you have to ask a programmer to rewrite some code.

    So, the typical rule for game designers is “you only get to change the rules X times before we run out of time and have to ship”…

  10. January 17, 2009 2:41 pm

    Basically true. However, it’s heartening to see an increasing number of games (e.g., Civ IV and Europa Universalis III) where virtually everything about the game is in readily moddable XML files. While much of the system is still set in stone (or code), this does allow you to build something very different from the original game.

  11. Mike H. permalink
    January 20, 2009 4:41 am

    From a slightly different perspective: In some games, breaking the rules is not desired, for example, “Rail Baron”, where the trips across the map pay, but a bunch of poor dice rolls kills you. It’s part of the randomness of the game, both on the board & computer versions. And, aircraft simulators really should not let you fly underground, since that part of the basic theme of flying.

    I’ve done some computer “Rail Baron” tweaks of my own, but that was to add new destinations, or railroads to use. The makers of the computer version also made an editor. It allowed me the ability to do things that would take MUCH long to test on the board version; Electronic vs. manual dice rolling and moving. But, I also know that in some games, changes would be easier to test in a board
    version that an electronic one.

    Now, the PC game “Dark Forces” led to a bunch of third party add on levels after it’s release that were even more eye pleasing, varied, and more challenging. Yet, the makers never released any kind of official editor, or even detailed guidance on how to make levels! Yes, there was the down side, like Hall of Mirrors or lock ups, but most of them went well. Some surprises about the capabilities of the game’s engine were found out along the way, ones that were not used by in the final versions of the original levels. I suspect it wasn’t an oversight, but something the developers could not do much to take advantage of due to “constraints”. Some knobs were definitely there.

    Ian: There’s a board game about the English War of the Roses, with would be Heirs to the Throne trying to influence regions & Noble families , but with things like Plague outbreaks thrown in. My friend added a couple of cards that he titled “Royal Death”, where someone sneaks in and kills one of the pretenders. It added a new twist that could really happen.

    You also need to look at the need to break some of the “Rules”, and by how much. Say your adventure game has Ivan the Dungeoncrawler come upon a Phoot he wants to kill. So, Ivan whips out his Edited In antimatter sword, and puts 10,000 hp of damage on the Phoot that only has 8 hp to begin with! What’s the use? Maybe if you want a real short battle as a beta tester/developer, or player, but most players get bored of overkill.

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