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Design Truth 1

January 13, 2011

Focus on second-to-second play first. Nail it. Move on to minute-to-minute, then session-to-session, then day-to-day, then month-to-month (and so on). If your second-to-second play doesn’t work, nothing else matters. Along these lines, if your day-to-day fails, no one will care about month-to-month, either. 

11 Comments leave one →
  1. January 14, 2011 8:48 am

    Couldn’t agree more. Whenever I’m making an action game now I spend a LOT of time tuning the basic movement and camera stuff before I move on to game systems. Whenever I put in a new system, I go back and do a fresh pass on the movement/camera. It’s a recursive process, and exhausting, but it shows up in the final quality of what gets created.

  2. January 14, 2011 7:50 pm


    I came across a fascinating and obscure interview recently, with a programmer on Mario 64:

    The most interesting part was that it sounds like Miyamoto essentially started the project by working on the moment-to-moment mechanics of running and jumping Mario around an environment, and essentially never stopped tweaking and improving those things throughout the game’s entire development. Quote: “…his main job is to sit down with the programmers and play with controls and camera and shape the way that the way the game *feels*. That is fundamental to the entire game.”

    Great piece of practical design advice Brenda – I hope you’ll be sharing many more!

  3. Jason Pineo permalink
    January 16, 2011 10:49 pm

    That sounds solid, but I foresee difficulty applying it to turn-based situations with low numbers of high-importance decisions (as in Chess). Does the entire time spent weighing a decision count as one long user-enthralling beat or does it count as a bunch of empty time culminating in a short beat of fun when you make your move?

  4. Mark M permalink
    January 18, 2011 4:10 am

    100% agree but I feel this only applies after pre-production or when you can start prototyping. I have had to try and turn around multiple games now where the designer has started by focusing on one cool gameplay element and never moved on or considered the rest of the game or developed the ultimate vision for the game.

    If you start designing your game by focusing purely on the second to second gameplay then sometimes designers can get tunnel vision and never think about where the game is going, how the mechanics your working on could grow or what it should be doing to send the strongest possible message. This tunnel vision too early in the design process can lead to real problems later on.

  5. January 19, 2011 6:44 pm

    Amen. Considering the kinetics and pleasure of simple participation before even settling on a high-concept or surface metaphor may not sound particularly practical, especially from a business point of view, but it’s pretty much essential to making good games.

    Developing mechanics first also aids in designing the surface metaphor, since a solid system informs the complexity of its supporting fiction. By developing mechanics first, you can design the narrative space, characters — everything! — to map onto and reinforce your mechanics. Otherwise, you risk a discrepancy between the experience implied by the fiction and the actual play experience.

    Case in point: the new Harry Potter game, quite unaffectionately dubbed Gears of Wand. Or take a PC gaming sacred cow, Shogo. There’s nothing in the game’s mechanics that implies the weight and inertia of a 30 foot tall bipedal battle tank.

    Question is, does this philosophy apply to games with no embodied avatar? Do the designers at Firaxis consider whether clicking through menus is pleasurable in itself when designing the UI for Civilization? Can information presentation and symbolic manipulation in a mouse-driven interface benefit from tactility and metaphor, or is clarity and efficiency the most pertinent goal?

    I can’t help but think that I’d smile a little if gold actually poured into my coffers every turn instead of a counter just ticking up. As your empire grows rich, the gold coins are supplemented by gemstones, as your technology grows more sophisticated, parchment drawings of ballistas are replaced by aircraft CAD models. Your computer geek Sim could have a digital clock aesthetic to his need readouts, while the artistically inclined Sim could have a paint palette.

    Smells like a blog post.

  6. January 25, 2011 4:49 am

    How do I apply this to a point-and-click adventures or turn-based strategy games (as mentioned above)?

  7. March 1, 2011 9:07 pm

    If the second to second play of playing a turn based game isn’t working, you’re doing it wrong.

    The second to second game play is of course figuring out what you’re going to do next…

  8. August 24, 2011 1:22 pm

    I agree that this seems like self-evident, when it fact it isn’t even wrong.

    Many of the most successful games are terrible at the short-term gameplay. Take original WoW, or chess. What makes them fun in the long-term perspective. In fact, the presumed long-term fun is what makes the short-term gameplay fun, not the other way round.

    I wrote a post on the topic.


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