Design Theory: A Game Play Notation System

Danc (of Lost Garden) has written a fascinating article describing a new notational system, modeled after sheet music, which can be used to guide and analyze video game design. The basic idea: by mapping and comparing key game design elements such as reward, action, etc, over a continuum, you will be able to develop a better understanding of what makes a game “good”, and be able to spot weak points in any given game’s design. A very interesting (and, I think, elegant) attempt to bring some science into the design process. My summary doesn’t really do it justice; check it out for yourself.

Having given all that praise, I do want to share a few concerns. For one: Danc’s choice of analogy. After all, musical notation has value in part because we can use it to repeatedly replay a song in the same (or similar) manner. Game developers clearly don’t need help duplicating and refining existing ideas… in fact, they’re constantly accused of doing little else. Ironically, I think a game design notational system could actually stifle innovation by encoding inflexible conventions into the development process and/or encouraging rigid adherence to “proven” patterns of design.

Let me explain my argument by digging into Danc’s post. He lists “rewards” as one of the five important notational devices in his proposed system. No arguments here; rewards are definitely a huge part of what makes most video games fun. But, as part of his definition, Danc writes: “The general goal of a reward is to make the player feel good.” This assumption becomes encoded into Danc’s mapping system by necessity. But is “feeling good” truly the only reward a game can deliver? Some games (and movies, and books) make you feel terrible, and the sadness (or terror, or disgust) is the highlight of the experience. These sensations can’t be measured and interpreted in the same way. And various forms of reward complement and negate each other in complex ways over time. These variables: type of reward, strength of reward, and proximity to other rewards, interrelate in such complex ways that mapping and analysis becomes exponentially more complicated. I suspect that a truly nuanced RPG would completely wreck a basic mapping system, and a more complex system might become too complicated for regular (or any) use.

Designing a game is like starting a new business. Any decent b-school will teach you useful frameworks for evaluating a startup venture. These frameworks have a tremendous amount of history and intelligence encoded into them. They help you to avoid common mistakes and facilitate strategic thinking. But at the end of the day, you learn that frameworks were made to be broken. The greatest businesses in the world have often turned conventional strategy on its head. Put another way: it would be literally impossible to start a business (much less succeed) if you held yourself religiously to all the best frameworks — there are simply too many rules encoded within them. And, of course, it’s no surprise that many of the world’s greatest businesses were started by people who never learned any of this. 😉 All my long-winded way of saying: Danc’s notational system is really great, but I’m inclined to treat it as one of many useful tools, not as a system of paramount importance.

PS. Speaking of design tools; if you’re interested in this topic, you might find Doug Church’s historically-significant article on the subject to be of particular interest.

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