Sunday, April 3, 2005

A practical definition of innovation in game design

Making a great game with limited resources is all about focus. There are a wide variety of areas that you can put resources into ranging from core gameplay to level design to story. The problem facing most new game developers is that they attempt to have the best of all worlds. That, my friends, is a recipe for failure.

This little post describes the concept of game design layers and gives you some very simple analytical tools for understanding where you are investing and what the consequences can be. In the end we'll:

  • Arrive at a practical definition of innovation.
  • Describe major strategies of product differentiation.
  • Show how pursuing innovation can affect your team structure.
(And if you ever hear an indie game developer talking about level design, either shoot them in the head now to help them avoid their future misery, or direct them towards this essay.)

The layers of a game
A game is built like an onion. Each layer of the game polishes an aspect of the previous structure and makes it slightly more appealing. Areas near the inner core give you the most bang for your buck. Areas near the outer edges of the game design are easier to change without unbalancing the system, but don't make as big of an impact.

  1. Core game mechanics
  2. Meta game mechanics
  3. Base setting
  4. Contextualized Tokens (Graphics, Sound, etc.)
  5. Contextualized Scenarios (Levels and Scripted events)
  6. Overall story

1. Core game mechanics:
The basic risk and reward schedules that the player partakes in form the fundamental basis of the gameplay. In general, the gamer will spend 80% or more of their time performing simple, repetitive core game mechanics. In Doom, this might include running around and shooting enemies. In a RTS, it might involve building up units and attacking other units. Core mechanics borrow from the world of board game design and can typically be abstractly defined in the following terms:

  • Object-oriented tokens.
  • Properties on tokens.
  • The interactions between tokens and the player as defined in an explicit set of rules.
2. Meta game mechanics
Meta game mechanics are a set of game mechanics that tie together core game mechanics. The most classic example is an RPG. The first RPGs had a simple exploration mode that gave a way of linking multiple tactical battles together. Meta game mechanics also include simple initial starting conditions and end of game rules.

3. Base Setting
The base setting is simple background information that gives context to the actions performed within the game. From a marketing perspective, setting acts as an initial hook that gets the player involved and interested in the game in the period of time before the addictive quality of the core game mechanics sets in. An example setting would be labeling a game as a 'fantasy game' or 'golf game'.

4. Contextualized Tokens (Graphics, Sound, etc.)
Graphics and sound extend the base setting and provide additional visual context for the abstract game mechanics. By providing a richer, more intuitive set of symbolic stimuli to the player, the game designer can shorten the learning curve of the core mechanics. A blocky red 'alien' from Space Invaders is difficult to recognize as 'hostile'. An enemy from the latest Doom game is much more immediately understandable as a token that must be avoided.

5. Contextualized Scenarios (Levels, Scripted Events etc)
Core game mechanics often focus on the interactions between various pre-defined game tokens. Levels and pre-scripted events exist to put the player in an emotionally interesting arrangement of tokens that support both the base setting and the contextualized tokens.

6. Overall Story
The range of emotions that core gameplay can evoke is relatively limited. The context provided by levels and scripted events allows an additional level of emotional involvement. Story brings a narrative element to that game that provides an additional wrapper of context for the actions that the player performs. This lets the designer evoke additional responses beyond what the core mechanics allow.

The hierarchy of layers
Each of these six layers build upon one another. You must have the lower layers in order to attempt the higher layers.

The metagame, for example, is impossible to create without first defining core game mechanics. The story is impossible to tell without having the ability to construct pre-defined scenarios.

Most commercial games have all six layers, but historically this has not typically been the standard. Let's briefly look at the game of chess:
  • Core gameplay: Very well defined
  • Metagame mechanics: Limited to governing the beginning and end of the game
  • Base setting: Limited to an abstract conflict between to medieval forces.
  • Contextualized tokens: Limited to rough descriptions of pawns, knights, queens, etc. In reality, the names exist primarily to support the base setting and give little, if any intuitive understanding of how the pieces operate.
  • Contextualized Scenarios: None. You could make a very tenuous argument that the two lines of tokens evoke armies facing one another, but why bother?
  • Story: None.
So you can build a very successful game without investing anything in the last two layers and paying mere lip service to the concept of contextualized tokens. In a game like Tetris, the designer really only worried about core gameplay and metagame mechanics.

A new game designer should be aware of the various layers and most importantly know that you can still make a great game without investing substancial effort in all six areas. This lesson alone can save many projects from feature creep and burnout.

The cost of investing in each layer
Each game design makes an explicit decision to invest in the various layers of the final game. When you invest human resources, you are ultimately investing money. With money comes financial risk and payoff. If the game is a success, you'll receive more money back based on your investment. If the game is a failure, you made a poor investment in the various layers of the game.

Not all game design investments are equal. In general, investments in lower layers early in the game's development have the greatest impact on the addictive qualities of your game. Investment in the higher layers have smaller impact.

However, this is not the complete story. With each change, there is always a risk of unbalancing the game's psychological risk and reward schedules. Unbalancing ruins the addictive qualities of your game and increases the chance of the game's failure. Changes to lower layers have a greater risk of unbalancing a game design, while changes to higher layers have a lesser risk of unbalancing the game design.

All of this pose some fascinating resource allocation decisions for game designers and publishers. Two extreme strategies immediately become apparent. On one hand the designer may focus on early layers and get a lot of bang for their buck. However, they dramatically increase the chances of the game being a failure since any change along the way can hurt the addictive qualities of the game. On the other hand, the designer can start with a proven addictive core game mechanic and focus their efforts on later layers. This is much more expensive, but ensures the team has a good chance of producing an addictive game that is 'better than proceeding generations'.

A method of classifying games
This is all interesting, but ends up being overly abstract for most people. Let's make it practical by showing you how you can apply these concepts to your game.

  • Take a game design and break it up into the tasks necessary to complete the project.
  • Assign each task to one of the 6 layers.
  • Put a cost (either in time or dollars, depending on your project) on each task.
  • Add up the cost of all the tasks in each category and divide them by the total project cost to get the percentage of resources you are spending in each layer.
You should end up with a distribution graph that looks something like this:

The Innovation Scale
You can also calculate a general 'innovation' scale to classify your game title by taking the weighted average of all six categories. For example, you might have something that looks like this:

Chess innovation score = (60% x 1) + (20% x 2) + (10% x 3) + (10% x 4) + (0% x 5) + (0% x 6) = 1.7 out of 6

Now we have defined a scale from 1 to 6. At one end of the scale are highly innovative titles and at the other end of the scale are highly polished titles.

Uses of the innovation scale
It should be very clear that the innovation scale relates primarily to the game developer's investment and not to the market's perception of innovation. This is intended to be a tool used by game developers who have intimate understanding of their development costs. Without development costs, it is difficult to gain an objective innovation rating across multiple titles. The layer classification scheme gives developers a 'balanced' score card management tool that lets them quickly and easily understand where they are investing their valuable resources.

This is also of use to publishers when they are balancing their portfolios. The 'genre' method of balancing portfolios is limited and punishes innovative games. The layer-based classification system takes into account risk and cost of production without culling titles because they fail to fit into an established category.

Innovation and the life cycle of genres
Genres have life cycles. They start out with the majority of titles investing heavily in lower layers of the game design. These high risk titles have lots of innovation, but very little polish. As they mature, titles invest more in the higher layers of the game design. This results in less innovation, but lower risk. These are self evident results, but it is always good to throw something obvious at a new framework.

Innovation and Indie game developers
To put it simply, independent game developers generally cannot afford to invest in the higher layers of game development. With limited resources, you can't be innovative and polished at the same time.

In my opinion, the ideal indie team is a small agile group composed primarily of programmers with only 20 to 30% artists. Such a team can compete with the best teams that EA has to offer in terms of core game mechanics. They have the luxury of being able to inexpensively and rapidly change the game design, iterating through dozens of rulesets in order to find one that offers a uniquely addictive experience.

As soon as you bring complex level design and story to the design, you lose flexibility. You lose the ability to innovate. Companies that focus on polished games have artist heavy teams and rigidly defined production cycles. This results in a huge investment in human capital and a corresponding high cost of failure. Remember, each layer builds on the preceding layers. The moment you start making changes to the core game mechanics, you send a ripple of changes all the way through the rest of the game. Content needs to be tossed or reworked.

In a innovation-oriented team, an interesting change to core game mechanics might result in a few weeks lost. In a polish oriented team, changes to core mechanics late in the development of a game can result in dozens of man years lost. Polish-oriented teams are inherently anti-innovation.

Larger teams try to balance both low layer activities and high layer activities by splitting the development into a 'prototyping' stage and a 'production' stage. The result is incremental innovation cut off short by the looming end of the prototyping stage and constrained the intense logistical demands of the production team.

The innovation-focused game team
What would happen if instead you doubled the resources spent on the traditional 'prototyping' period, worked in tight interative cycles and then shipped it the product directly to testers? Instead of levels, you use procedural content. Instead of plot, you focus on interesting reusable game objects that introduce delightful meta-game mechanics into the title. After every iteration, you have a playable game.

  • The development team follows agile development processes with rapid iterations and considerable playtesting
  • The majority of development effort is put into core mechanics and meta-game mechanics.
  • Graphics and sounds are abstract tokens only loosely connected to a base setting.
  • No level design is allowed since it is a waste of time.
  • No plot is allowed since it is a distraction.
  • Statistical metrics of player addiction are used to judge success. (How long did they play, how often did they play, were they willing to play again)
This is game design refactored. The result is an agile object-oriented system that responds swiftly to change, and does not inherently resist it like current team structures. Innovation-focused teams build radically different types of game that are guaranteed to be less expensive and shockingly more original that those produced by the current game development model.

The basic concept of 'innovation' has been discussed in vague terms for far too long. The concept of game design layers provides a framework for classifying the game developer's investment in innovation and polish oriented activities.

With hard numbers in-hand, developers can make more informed strategic business decisions regarding the balance of innovation, risk, and team structure. I believe that there is a huge opportunity in the game industry to create smaller, agile 'innovation-focused' teams. Smart game designs that are based on a deep understanding of balancing resource investment in the various game design layers have a greater probability of producing original, genre-busting game designs.

take care


  1. Oh poor, poor, poor misguided Danc... Don't you know that Game Story is all that really matters in a game!? Sheesh...


  2. Yeah give Ray some credit!
    And you know there is this large indie scene making old school graphical adventurs. They'd use a very different model... for all others it is pretty good advise though!

  3. At one end of the scale are highly innovative titles and at the other end of the scale are highly polished titles. this scale you cant have a game that is both innovative and polished? Surely the available money and time define these and they should remain on a different scale?

  4. Since the scale is based on percentages, it is really about the focus of the your efforts. A low score would classify your game as heavy on innovation relative to the total amount of resources put into the game.

    A game with a high score would classify your game as heavy on 'dressing' relative to the total amount of resources put into the game.

    Tools like this are primarily useful as an internal tool that helps game developers understand where they are putting their money. It is a poor tool for comparing across titles since resources will vary dramatically from project to project.

    So you could absolutely have a title that is both polished and innovative. Most teams however deal with some form of fixed budget and must make hard choices about where to focus their efforts.


  5. So let me see if I understand this: is Half-Life's 'story' so memorable because it is in fact it's metagame?

  6. More crazy oniony jabberings over here...

    slightly different idea, but you gotta love the onion metaphor!

  7. Interesting site! The 'vocel' concept is very similar to the 'verb' concept that has been put forth by Chris Crawford (It's been ages since I've read his stuff, so forgive me if I got the attribution wrong)

    As for Half-Life 2, to understand it's addictive appeal, you need to see 'story' as a reward element, not a shining gem that stands alone. (Because quite honestly, if you stripped out the story and played it as a movie, it doesn't stand on its own.)

    When people play HL2, the elements that many gush over are Gravity Gun, the robot dog, and the interesting physical puzzles. These are all core gameplay elements.

    The ingenious thing that HL did was shorten the reward cycle. Instead of playing for 20 minutes and then getting a cutscene as a reward, you can play for anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 minutes and 'happen upon' a little snippet of plot.

    So if you wanted to look at the succesful metagame innovation in HL (and HL2) it would look something like this.

    Typical FPS: Fight, Explore, Fight,[Repeat 40 times] Fight Boss, Plot Reward!!

    HL: Fight, Explore, Plot Reward!

    My feeling is that if you have money to burn, plot has it's benefits. However, there are more efficient ways of getting similar results. The lesson I get from HL is not that 'Plot makes a great game'. Instead I see that 'The FPS genre becomes more addictive if you add in an intermediate risk/reward cycle between picking up powerups and the traditional cutscene at the end'

    take care

  8. It seems like this applies more to games in general and isnt useful to indie developers working on a project they have clearly defined in their head and amongst their team. What if the main details are already fleshed out?

    Lets say that you already know that you want to make an RTS. You setup a basic story or simple motivation for play like "Earth was evacuated and now humans are on a desolate planet, fighting to survive." The project isnt trying to break the mold or win awards - they just want their idea to be made.

    How does this article apply to them? I would say this suits alot of projects in the pre-concept stage but once a team has its eyes clearly set on the goal its pretty hard to argue. Some people WANT to make "just another shooter" etc. For alot of indie developers, simply completing a project (whether its a good one or not) is the reward and is used as a learning experience. Many indie game companies create "just another game" but when it catches on they are allowed to innovate later.

    DOOM (or better yet Unreal) was just another shooter. You could say that it was a clone of Wolfenstein 3D. But people loved it because of the story and visuals. Later on id was allowed to innovate because DOOM was a success. In the end, most of what determines a games success are the fans. Can you give them what they want? All the "core game development" in the world wont make fans who sew stuffed plush versions of your game characters and certainly wont get a feature film of your game made.

    What Im saying is, I think the real issue is when developers think theyve discovered the "secret." The real secret is that there is no formula and thinking you have found it (and if applied to any game will make a success) is really a fatal mistake. The trick is to always think of yourself as a person playing the game you are making. Thinking of yourself as a businessman or an industry expert puts you in a place where you cannot see important cues as to whether the game you are making is even worth it.

  9. I understand what the last poster is saying about a game's art or story as the root of its fame; but I totally understand what Danc is saying, that a game needs to be mechanically solid, so it's just as fun while you're playing it as when you're watching the cutscenes. I fully agree! As much as I liked the story of ____ rpg, I hated the countless hours of repeatedly whacking rats. Essentially, the story can make the game famous, but the story is the story, and we're talking about products which are games above all, and thus should work as games.

    So, I'm still a bit hazy on what is meant by meta-game mechanics... meta means outer? You say that world exploration in an rpg is meta-game, while battles are core game? Is this still true when exploring isn't really a game (risk/reward) as much as it's interacting with the system? Could you give me some examples of meta-game mechanics in games of different genres? Do all games have meta-games?

    - In Magic cards, would the battle be the core mechanic, and pregame deckbuilding the meta mechanic?
    - In Neopets, would the various arcade games be the core mechanic, and caring for your pet the meta mechanic?
    - In Mario, would the levels be the core, and moving around the map meta?

    Thank you for your enlightening articles!

  10. This post is really good ( even 3 years after being written )
    Thx for sharing...

  11. zeflasher: still good after 4 years

    Adamn Hunter Peck: IMO, Magic cards you have it spot on, Neopets I wouldn't know and in Mario the jumping, avoiding and killing enemies is the core mechanic while the rooms with lots of coins and no enemies and the search for shortcuts could be examples of meta gaming.

  12. This lection seems useful, so I put a link to it in an article I recently wrote:

    I hope you do not mind ?