Behind The Joy #3: Designing Games Using Player Experience…In Practice
Last time we laid out our theory of designing a game around player experience. We talked about how designers use their toolkit (components, mechanics, and theme) to craft a player experience made of decisions, interactions, emotions, and tension. If you haven’t read last week’s post, go do so now! This time, we will talk about actually using the model. Specifically, we want to share how our theory helped us design our company’s first game, Commissioned.
Step 1: Create Your Target
To get started, you need to outline your desired player experience. For Commissioned, we wanted a game that plays in 1 hour, is fun, recreates the faith, fear, and wonder experienced by early Apostles, and appeals to both Christians and non-Christians. As you can see, the player experience target is about engagement not details. It is the beating heart of the game. Knowing this up front helps you make design decisions, and communicate the central idea to play-testers.
Step 2: Get It Out Of Your Head
I once read a blog about failing faster. Your game idea is perfect. In fact, it is the best game ever made…until it actually exists. Once your idea meets reality, it is deeply flawed. People will destroy it. This is good. It makes the game better. You can’t make it better, however, while it is stuck between your ears. Make an ugly prototype (you will want to change it anyway), and try it out. Our first Commissioned prototype was a bubble map with circles, lines, and index cards. It looked bad and played worse, but it provided a start.
Step 3: Test, Center, Repeat
Game design is a highly iterative process. The goal is to make each play better than the last. How do you define better? Better is the game moving closer to the desired player experience. We work on Commissioned for 2 months (probably 50 plays). It was functional, but felt flat. We wanted the game to be fun, have an escalating sense of tension, and to be highly engaging. Instead it felt boring, flat, and had long stretches of player down time. Of our four elements, Commissioned didn’t offer meaningful decisions, provided no player interaction, felt emotionally flat, and did not challenge players. 0 for 4, however, does not mean 100% wrong. This is an important distinction. We had the raw materials, but needed to refine them.
This is when designers take out their theme/mechanics/component toolbox and make some adjustments. We call this “centering” because the goal is to move the game closer to the desired player experience at the center of the image below. At the center, each element of the toolkit works together in harmony to give players the experience you desired.
For Commissioned, our first big adjustment affected mechanics and components. We incorporated a deck-building system. This game-within-a-game provided meaningful player decisions, created interactions, and fostered more tension. In so doing, card and board components had to change to reflect the balance between the new systems. Later, we created different game scenarios to explore different challenges the mechanical system could offer players. These scenarios had to tie in to theme and components as well.
Throughout the “Test, Center, Repeat” process, you will overshoot your target many times. The goal, however, is to make each change increasingly smaller as you begin to settle out into your desired player experience. For example, you know you are making progress when you start to talk about the relative strengths of individual cards or actions instead of the relationships between the systems within the game. Commissioned hit this point after about 3-4 months of testing (75-100 plays). We call this game stability. Some people call this the transition from design to development. Things will still change, but the designer’s work transitions from major muscle movements to a test of fine-motor skills.
Step 4: Don’t Give Up
Expect to spend between 6 months and 2 years in this phase. The key here is simply perseverance. You have to play the game into the ground with lots of different kinds of people. You can’t stop until you understand every aspect of how players can break, misinterpret, or exploit the game. It is grueling, but absolutely necessary. Commissioned spent a full year in this phase. The result: the game is more fun, more engaging, more tense, and runs far smoother than it used to. Also, we can anticipate points of likely player confusion while writing the final rulebook. Finally, we had a better understanding of the best way to layout components so nothing interferes with a player’s immersion in the game.
Next time, we explore play-testing. You would think it is easy to get someone to tell you their opinion. It’s not. You might think play-testers can tell you exactly what they do and don’t like about your game. Most can’t. Get ready to read between the lines as you fight for feedback. As always, fire away with comments & questions!
Pat & Kat Lysaght