Design Diary #5 Subtractive Design
You may not know it just by reading the title of this month’s Design Diary, but this is a VERY exciting time. The Exorcism is now in the home stretch of its design process (which still leaves development but that’s another story). How do I know that? Well the subtractive design process follows a sort of unwritten process timeline.
Here let me explain. Game design essential exists in 4 steps. It all starts with concept, then additive design, tuning, and finally subtractive design. Not every game designer may look at it this way. Or even call the steps the things I do. But from my conversations with other designers, I feel like we are all generally on the same page.
The best way to update you on where this places The Exorcism in terms of its “doneness” is to explain this timeline a little bit more. So, let me take you through the steps.
Design Diary #5 Subtractive Design
Awhile back I was listening to the D6 Generation Podcast a few years ago. I can’t remember who the guest was, but he had one of the best quotes on the design process I had ever heard. Now I am paraphrasing the original quote but, “It takes 1d20 (one twenty sided die) minutes to come up with a concept, 1d4 years to finish the design, and 1d10 months to develop it. Now, part way through year 2 on my design of the Exorcism, the quote has become closer to my heart. It is also an important thing for new designers to learn. Creating a game takes a lot more time and work then the first time you get an idea hanging out with your gaming buddies.
When you are designing a concept it really can take a matter of minutes. Designers can come up with a concept just by playing other games. It can be that moment playing Settlers of Catan when suddenly the idea hits you to do a variation of the game. Like, “Oh hey wouldn’t it be cool if there was a game like Settlers of Catan except each player had their own board and could attack each other?”. And there you go. Just like that you have your concept.
Other times it can be a bit longer of a process. Some designers like to experiment with mechanics or design tropes. Manipulating mechanics to create something new. I imagine this is how Dominion was made and spawned the entire deck building genre.
The concept phase in design is a lot like a period of brainstorming. It’s getting an idea (for anywhere) and crafting it in your head until you have something actionable you can start working on. The actionable part is likely this most important. I can’t tell you the number of times I was working on a concept to realize, a bit into the work, that the concept wouldn’t work at all.
You know the classic saying about the kitchen sink? Well, this is when you take it and everything around it and shove it into your game. Seriously.
At this point you have a game concept, you have an actionable path, and now you are trying to figure out what parts you need to make it work. That means you are going to be doing a TON of play testing. This is all about trial and error. My favorite saying for this part of the design process is, “fail fast and fail often”. This way you are getting to try out all of the different ideas you had. The whole point to this phase of design is to throw mechanics at your concept and see how they work.
I find this phase of design to probably be the most fun. It’s an experimental period of time. You learn a lot about your game and a lot about yourself. Oftentimes your concept will go through some significant changes as you begin to hit walls. There was a great story about the video game design studio Bungie when they were working on the original Halo. Halo had started off as an RTS(real-time strategy) game. It was drawn up, pitched, and started development as an RTS. But during the development they were programming a function to make a more responsive cursor when using a console controller. And they realized they had just developed a tool that could revolutionize first person shooters. Which up until Halo only functioned well on computers.
So they switched gears. Built what they now call “aim assist” into Halo and completely changed the first person shooter genre.
So you see how in development things can change. Challenges can become inspiration that push you into developing new and revolutionary products.
Your concept is rock solid, you’ve got every mechanic you can think of in your game, and you are playtesting on a weekly basis. Now if only the game didn’t fall apart when player X has 10 or more points you would be set.
Tuning your game involves the most brain power out of all of the phases. This is when you essentially deconstructing your game to see how each individual piece fits together. It is akin to mechanical engineering. Or at least what I think mechanical engineering is like.
Maybe we can start calling this mechanical game engineering? I kind of like the sound of that. Okay, back on track.
Now that you are more familiar with your game, you can understand this small interactions. Look at the why of every mechanic, tweak and test them so that they fit better. Essentially you are trying to turn your old jalopy into a finely tuned race car. You are balancing cards, figuring out scoring, and removing dead end or broken game states. This is when your experiment becomes a game.
This is the phase The Exorcism is in right now. I have a solid working game. All of the pieces are working to a goal and the game has eliminated nearly all of it hang-ups or broken game states. The only problem is there’s still a little bit of jank in the gears.
With The Exorcism it is primarily in the end game phase of the game. The difficulty ramps of smoothly throughout the game, but there is so much going on by then end that players get lost. It is always a hard thing to do, but you need to take another big picture look at each individual part and consider why it is in the game. Just like in Tuning. You need to justify each mechanical piece.
I like to think of it as like an interrogation. You corner each mechanic in a hot room with a spot light and yell questions at it. Like “Why do you exist?” and “How does you interaction with mechanic Y make the game more immersive?”. The saddest part of this phase is that you will cut a lot of pieces. Some of these pieces will be mechanics you were worked really hard on. Others are mechanics you really loved and felt connected to. But when it comes down to subtractive design you have to make these cuts for the greater good of the game. No player is going to love your game for that one mechanic, if it makes the game as a whole worse.
So that is where I am. Leaning over the game table with a scalpel making the deep cuts. Sometimes it’s bittersweet. But it means that the game is getting closer, and will ultimately be better for it.
Thanks for reading, and just f-ing play games!