Progress in Game Design

June 30, 2009

(Whoops. It’s been more than 8 months since my first post, but I’m really going to start blogging now, I promise.)

As technology has progressed, new tools have been created to aid game development and previous limits on game design have disappeared. Back before computers and the information age, people played on average simpler games that usually required physical parts like dice, cards, game boards, etc. Games that required many calculations were impractical because they all had to be done by hand.

But not anymore, because the invention and continued improvement of the computer has greatly expanded the possibilities for a game designer. A round of combat in an RPG can now involve stats for strength, defense, agility, wisdom, etc, plus weapon and armor stats,  and a virtual dice roll which will all be computed nearly instantaneously. More than ever, the main limit on game design has become our ability to comprehend the systems and rules, not on how to represent and simulate them. Designers are free to develop more intricate systems than ever before.

You might also think that designing a commercial game is more challenging than it has  been since there are far more factors to consider in any one game. I think there is some truth in that, however, while the relative complexity of games has doubled and tripled, the difficulty of designing a game hasn’t increased nearly as much. The reason for this is that technology hasn’t been the only thing to evolve: game design has grown and changed as well.

As I tend to point out on many subjects, evolution is intimately involved. Game designers “naturally select” better game mechanics to add into their games, thereby reproducing the more successful ideas. For example, the compelling RPG levels system has spread far and wide because designers find it is a useful system to help their games survive in the wild. Boring, unfun games die off quickly so that only traits of successful games are reused. A common mistake among game designers is to assume that if a game failed, then, therefore, no idea is worth copying from it. This is not true at all, because a game could fail because one particular part of the game is completely flawed, but that does not necessarily mean that every innovative feature included is also bad. Being able to take apart a game and analyze what went well with it and what didn’t is one of the most important skills for a game designer to have. Because, really, games aren’t evolving slowly based on random mutations. Rather, they are evolving at a break-neck pace based on intelligent design! Since a game designer can intelligently pick out the successful pieces of previous games and combine them in new innovative ways they can do what random mutation would take years to do.

Going back to why games are not as hard to design given their increased complexity: it’s simply because we can copy (yeah, that‘s right, copy) other ideas and build off them adding intelligent variations all the time. I suspect that games have gotten a great deal more addictive (or compelling as Psychochild would say) because game design has had years to evolve. Take a look at some of the top MMORPGs and you’ll see what I mean. Never before in the history of humanity have so many people spent some much of their time playing a game so remote from reality (I‘m looking at you World of Warcrack!).

All this is a testament to how far games have come and the power game designers have now. The future will only strengthen their role in society as the workforce is slowly replaced by robots, and the only thing that will be left to do is… well, play a game (or design one).