Saturday, December 13, 2003

The Y-model

Following on from Designers Without Rules, it occurred to me that any sort of game design that was based on actually conveying the playing experience (as opposed to the production aspects) would need to be direct and involving. A friend of mine suggested that he thought some of the best models for design formats would be things like Prima Strategy Guides.

A Prima guide is essentially a bare-as-bones description of an actual game, and no messing about with long-windedness. They contain full maps, locations of secrets, cheats, strategies for play, and so on. As such, they contain all the relevant detail that a game is from the player's point of view. Wouldn't this be the kind of thing that a game design could be?

I think that there's one big thing missing from the Prima suggestion, and that's the lack of personal involvement. Strategy guides are entirely neutral in their perspective, focusing more objectively on the game and not so much interested in conveying why you want to play. In the Strategy guide view, much like a well-written FAQ, the game is an object to be decoded, and so it rarely (if ever) would get into the possible flavour or fantasy of the game.

Current game designs are also very neutral, mostly because they are essentially based on business plans. In the current design model, everything is theory and statements of intent, essentially. They address the production of the game rather than the game itself, and so are much worse than a strategy guide for design purposes. The current 'design' documents are in fact the same thing as what the film industry calls 'production notes'. I.e. not a design. Let's call that the X-model, because they treat the design of the game almost like a set of equations than a creation. Also, the letter X is linguistically associated with masculinity, which is appropriate.

X-model designs usually refer to player and game in terms such as "Once the player gets to point X, he or she might do this" or "The player is capable of motion in several dimensions through the thumbstick controls and with toggling L and R shoulder buttons" or "Combat between each of the seven available units is worked out as a function of Attack score, Shield score, Cover, Protection, Range and Damage, using a formula as follows:". This is called indirect writing, and it is highly useful for the disciplines of science and engineering, and probably even programming, but it is very dry.

This kind of writing does not involve your audience, and in the case of the game designer, that is a critical failing. The audience for a game design consists of many people, most of them artists, animators, producers, marketeers and coders. If you write in the X-model style, none of the above people will be interested. The only people that are likely to be interested are other game designers. In which case you have failed at your primary task (i.e. design) and wasted a lot of your (and their) time.

In a screenplay, the writing talks directly to the viewer. There is no time that a screenwriter writes "The audience sees..." (unless there is an audience on-screen of course). In a sense, the screenwriter conveys the essential experience of the film to the reader, and he understands it as though he was seeing it. Notation is kept to the absolutely essential. The text describes the essence of each scene without going into windy camera placement descriptions, or marketing explanations. The best screenplays are great READS.

Similar lessons can be drawn from all the forms of writing. It is why a play has stage exits and entrance notations. It's why novels are written the way that they are, spending much time conveying thought as well as action. Poems are nothing if not big bags of literary tricks design to trick the mind into the irrational.

The point is, in each form, writing is used as a means of drawing the reader in and making him live in a writer's imagination. That is its essential focus. Part of that can be perspective, part of it is narrative tricks. But in all cases, it is essential that the writing is focussed on the direct, as opposed to the indirect. Game designs should also be great READS.

With a game design, the focus should not be about we, it, the player, he or she. It should be about You. We should not write "the player can choose to pick up the BFG". We should write "Do you want to pick up the BFG?". The You-perspective (or second person perspective, to get technical) is what gives me my starting point for a new model of game design. I've called it the Y-model, for many loaded reasons, not the least being it sounds good.

So what is the Y-model?

The first part of it is the writing of choice, or the Play-Through. The designer works using the idea of writing a design that actually models choice. Sid Meier once called gameplay "a series of interesting choices", and the Y-model is exactly that. Rather than writing a dry business document, or an informative but neutral strategy guide, the game designer writes a Y-model document as a piece of present-tense second-perspective fiction that offers many choices. The bulk of the document is essentially a tree structure that your reader then uses to actually "play" the game directly.

Or, to put it another way, have you ever heard of Choose Your Own Adventure books?
Or Fighting Fantasy, Lone Wolf, Way of the Tiger and so on?

Choose Your Own Adventure (or gamebooks, as they're called) are models of interactive writing. They talk directly to a reader in the second person, and they involve him in sweeping interactive narratives. Some of them also involve combat in the form of simple dice mechanics, and even some entirely interesting challenges like puzzle solving, item collection, acquiring skills and so on. They even got into the area of wargaming, for example Warbringer.

The way that these books work is that a player reads a numbered paragraph, and then is given a choice "Do you want to use this? Turn to 45" They would then move on to paragraph 45. Every choice becomes part of a series of choices, essentially, sometimes looping back in on itself, sometimes leading on to another branch on the tree. With the addition of basic game mechanics like collection, there is a whole other order of emergent complexity attached. One classic example, from the Way of the Tiger books, was the way that your ninja character could specialise in three of the ten Ninja arts. At certain points in the adventure, you would be offered choices only if you had that skill. "If you have learned Kwon's Flail and want to use it, turn to 182". Otherwise, you would be left with the other choices.

Leaving aside all the roleplaying convention histrionics that the books themselves contain, the actual raw model of the gamebook is a powerful tool because what they do is involve the reader as a character and completely leave the direction of the story in her hands, from the ground up. Just like a good videogame. The story often moves toward one conclusion. Just like many videogames. It contains plenty of game challenges and narrative intertwined. Just like a good videogame.

Some of you are now saying to yourselves, "But it can't possibly cover all the choices that the player makes in a game!". Of course not. But as Sid Meier said, gameplay is all about interesting choices, not all choices. A gamebook format is also about interesting choices. When a screenwriter writes a script, an actor and director (and crew) can choose to shoot the film a hundred different ways, of course, so the screenplay represents a yardstick goal, an inspiration source and a guide. That's what a Play-Throughshould do. It should convey the gameplay, depict the world, and interest the readers by making them players. And they are the people who will be the people actually making it, so you'd better make them interested.

Aside from the gamebook structure, there are probably a few extra items in the Play-Through that would be necessary. Location tags, for example, at the top of each numbered paragraph, so that the artists and animators can evaluate at a glance what locations there are and what changes they'll need. Capitalisation or bolding of names, NPC types, and so on will be tremendously useful as well. Perhaps it would even work best to write a Play-Through as a series of HTML pages, and use standard colours for such significant text, or even links.

The Play-Through would also work better with a strong visual component, to show what the game will look like and what the player will look like in the game. In my earlier piece (Designers Without Rules?), I talked about the need for game design documents to show what the player will see, hear and directly interact with (or 'do', in otherwords), and visual components really help in that regard. Get an artist involved.

Realistically, the Play-Through works better for some types of games than others. It is best suited to any adventure game model, which could mean anything from Splinter Cell to Halo, Zelda to Broken Sword. In otherwords, games that don't require the player to understand rules before proceeding. For more formal roleplaying games, especially of the party-variety, the Play-Through would also be perfectly useful, though more complex. For MMORPGs, Play-Throughs could be used for quest designs and sample playthroughs.

With strategy games, the Play-Through document still works, in a sense, but the designer would have to think in terms of some formal rules that would be included at the end. As for puzzle games, it very much depends on the scope of your interesting choices.

This leads us into the second part of the Y-model: The Gameworld.

With a strategy, puzzle or arcade style game, the Play-Through is going to be less important, for obvious reasons, although still seriously useful for capturing the aesthetics of your game. The second, and highly essential part is The Gameworld. The Gameworld is a very flexible term, used to describe any sort of playing area. A strategy Gameworld might consist of a physical board and pieces for example, which roughly approximate the physical game. A roleplaying Gameworld, on the other hand, would be a series of maps, with a rudimentary rule system that allows players to analog-play the game and figure out what your intentions are.

With a dancing game, you might even take the unusual step of having the Gameworld as a music CD and a timer, a series of mock controls, and so on.

The whole reason for Gameworlds is that they cover "visible" rules, again as part of what players see, hear and do. The guiding light in this regard is whether the player has to learn the rule or not to play. If designing Shogun: Total War, for example, there need to be rules that explain formations, troop advantages and disadvantages, and rules that explain the boardgame section. But there don't need to be detailed rules of ranges and movement speeds for all units, nor the mechanics of how the combat actually works. A statement of intent and possible factors would be enough.

The number crunching part comes later in technical production, and will be done by developers rather than designers.

Between the Play-Through and the Gameworld, the Y-model is essentially an experience-driven design, and this is what professionals in the industry need in order to make the games you have envisioned. There's no point in writing a big theory document that leaves you constantly explaining yourself to fifty different people (all gathering different messages from your explanation). By explaining the design in a detailed way that involves them as players, through a combination of document and world, readers come to understand and appreciate what the game is, and what it is not. Which is far more than with a stuffy-old X-model set of production notes and technical data could. This applies to technical readers, artistic readers, producers, executive producers, and all sorts of business people.

The Y-model also opens the game up to proper analysis and evaluation, as people can give proper feedback and tell you where they think your design is going wrong, which bits are boring, which are too fast, and a sort of editorial feedback that is all-too-often missing from today's games.

Speaking of which, feel free to comment.

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