As I mentioned in my previous post, Grant Rodiek is one of the designers whose blog I read on a regular basis. He recently wrote an intriguing post on the idea of purposefully designing joy into games. It got me thinking about my own approach to design — how I go about it, what I focus on, and why I put things together the way I do.
It made me realize that when I’m designing a game, I focus mainly on creating problems for the players to solve, providing them some limited tools to solve the problems, and then forcing some tough decisions on when and how to use the tools available. Usually, those tough decisions work around the player choosing to give something up in order to gain some advantage. This means that while I usually start with a theme and then form mechanics within it, I’m really a mechanics-first designer … since the mechanics play a more important role for me.
This does a few things: It means that I usually am able to get the elements of a design to work together mechanically very quickly, making it easier to test things at a mathematical/physics level. But, more critically, it means that I’m relying quite a bit on the players to convert the theme and what I think may be a nifty combination of mechanics into the “aha” moments of joy that Grant wrote about. And, even more critically, it clarifies for me what causes some players of my games to respond with phrases like “missing that magic spark” or “dry” or (more painfully) “soulless.” I’m not sure what this means for my on-going designs yet, but I think it it will cause me to take a wider view of the design, and focus more on the overall player experience. (I just don’t really know what that means yet … but willing to learn.)
So, as an exercise, I thought I’d walk through some of my more-or-less completed designs and comment on a piece or two that I really like about each of them. Quite likely, these will be related to the game’s mechanics (due to what I wrote above). The first two games I’ll cover are a couple of my earliest — Castle Danger and Keeps & Moats Chess.