Friday, April 11, 2014

Game Design Philosophy: The Controlling Idea

This is a series of articles on the philosophy of board game design, thinking about how to think about game design.

We all want to create good games. No-one goes into designing a game saying they want to create a poor game. A good game is defined as other people wanting to play, numerous times. Following that, we have to ask ourselves the following two questions.
What makes a good game? And how do I make a game good?

To answer that first question, I have spent the last several articles looking at classic games that are good. The elements called out in these articles are what I believe to be elements of good game design. Player choices with strategic impact, players interacting with each other in meaningful and unique ways, and allowing the players to play the game, opposed to the game playing the players. The elements may be simple but this question is more difficult because many times, for the payer the answer is simply, "if it's fun."

The second question is a lot more complicated because the act of creation can travel an infinite number of paths. We know the process of making a game. Build it, play test it, tweak it, then repeat until it is unable to be tweaked. This series of articles focuses on the process of creation that comes before the 'build it' phase of a game. What designers can do to make that first build of the game require fewer subsequent tweaks, and much closer to their vision then jumping right into the building phase.

The first element, the major element, around any board game is the controlling idea. This concept is taken from other forms of experiential mediums (books, movies, plays, video-games, ect). Each medium has it's own emphasis revolving around the controlling idea. For example, in a book there is a central thought that permeates throughout the book. In a piece of art, the artist is conveying something specific to the audience. A board game’s controlling idea is the experience that the designer wishes to impart onto the player.

When I think up a controlling idea, I think about an experience that would be fun if I could participate.  I distill what about that situation I find most enjoyable and work to impart onto the players this experience during gameplay.  This experience is the controlling idea I keep in mind while creating the game because that experience is the nub of my design.  I will repeatedly return to it during the creative process to shape the rest of the game.

When I look for inspiration for a board game, I look at the world around me and find that things that people do not normally get to do, but would be fun if they could. For example, during the Winter Olympics I watched the finals of an event called Snowboard Cross. Six snowboards race a course of jumps and obstacles against each other trying to be in the top three to move onto the next round, and eventually the podium. It's dynamic, fast,  and it has twisted turns of fate where first place can fall to last. Where people get too aggressive and wipeout taking others with them. You have to be good to win, but need to have some luck to come out on top.

Over the rest of this series I'll go into how I take that controlling idea of a Snowboard Cross experience, and move it into a prototype. Next time, the Yin and Yang of Theme and Mechanics.

1 comment:

  1. Nat Levan of Oak Leaf games reflects is his post "What's the Big Idea?" on how he would modify the Controlling Idea.