Sunday, January 15, 2006

Creating a system of game play notation

It occurred to me the other day, “What does the world of music have to offer to game designers?”

On my first dive into the topic, I latched onto the use of musical notation to express complex melodies. After pounding on buttons in my last session of Mario and Luigi: Partners in Time, there was an eerie parallel with the rhythm of rewards in a typical game. The bloops and bleeps of the various attacks and power ups seemed remarkably close to a strange form of music. What would they look like if we were able to write them down like music?

This essay describes a game play notation system that can be used to record and analyze any game. It turns out that games can benefit greatly from the use of a symbolic notational system that describes the rhythm and flow of a game play experience.

This is not an idle exercise. Our current design methodologies are broken and I’m searching for a replacement. We’ve explored design tomes in an attempt to learn from software development. No one reads them. We’ve recently explored the land of movies with the creation of ‘game scripts.’ The result is bloated cinematic epics based on movie-like scripts that somehow manage to avoid describing the ‘fun’ in any meaningful fashion. It should be no shock that design tools influence the final results. Design a game using a script and you’ll get a script-like game.

If you really want to change how games are made, you have to change the design methodology at its very core. This article is a step towards providing a new set of pragmatic tools for practicing game designers. When implemented as part of your design methodology, it will change how you design and ultimately what you design.

Notational systems in music

Music notation as an information technology
For thousands of years, early musicians composed new music using their instincts. Music was learned by rote memorization of previously composed tunes and limited innovation happened mostly during individual performances. The business of music was in the performance of old favorites with original works few and far between.

Eventually early Catholic monks began using a rough notation that helped codify and record sacred songs. Early musical notation was crude, but provided crucial information for understanding the songs. Over time, a pleasant fellow named Guido of Arezzo added a staff for recording pitch and timing information was recorded with more accuracy.

In our world of silicon wafers and mechanical gizmockery, we don’t typically think of such innovations as a technological advance. For the time, however, the introduction of musical notation was a major advance in information technology. It reduced the cost and increased the speed of music composition. The benefits of musical were two fold.

  • Rapidly understand and communicate complex structures: Instead of dedicating dozens of hours memorizing a particular song, you could learn the basics of a song by spending a few minutes glancing at a sheet of music.
  • Provide a framework for analysis and modification of failing compositions: Instead of getting together a group of musicians to learn and play a song in order to understand its flaws, you could quickly identify issues on the sheet of music and with a few pen strokes make major changes.
Impact on music composition
As the process of describing music became codified, the act of creating original works became more prevalent. This was driven by two factors. First, the growing existence of a large worldly audience with a taste for new works provided a strong business incentive for composers to write new songs. Second the existence of a well-defined system of notation provided a comprehensive set of tools that facilitated and accelerated the creative process. The combination of both business need and process / technology maturity led to an explosion in the development of new music.

The songs of the times before the creation of advanced musical notation tended to be quite simple compared to the great symphonies of later generations. The human mind can build and modify complex systems much more easily if it has a way of simplifying them into an easy-to-manipulate notational format. Without musical notation, it is questionable if we would have the great symphonies and arias that grace music halls across the nation. Even ‘original’ pop music, with its heavy use of modern electronic notation systems, is unlikely to exist.

Imagine instead, a thousand years of dancing to Auld Lang Syne at every single event. Let us praise the advent of music notation as a potent and world changing enabling technology.

The primitive state of game design notation
Game designers are still in the early prehistory where they seek to create addictive gaming experiences by tweaking old designs. They are much like the minstrels of ages past. They apprentice themselves to the designs of past masters in order to learn and continue our mysterious and sacred trade. They may innovate mildly in each performance, but never much more. That is the way of it has been and how many imagine it will always be.

The lack of a well defined language of game design is crippling. New ideas emerge from a game designer as vague emotional statements that dissipate quickly. They have no tools to record them in a coherent manner. How would you create a symphony is written music did not exist? Game design exists in a similar state.

The state of the art is the game script, stolen almost directly from the movie industry. The most a modern designer can manage is stringing together a fluffy narrative that reads like a movie script. Is it any surprise the many modern games feel like recycled game systems linked together with an innumerable series of plot snippets? We simply do not have the symbolic language to create anything greater without risking deadly design ambiguity.

We lack the basic informational technology to do more than this. We lack the terminology and we lack the system for describing important systematic interactions.

In the world of music composition, Guido of Arezzo sat down and said “Pitch is a critical factor in music and we should represent this factor symbolically.” He created a powerful design tool that unlocked the creative potential of millions.

We need to do the same for games.
  • We need to understand the basic mechanical elements that describe the game play experience.
  • We need create a notational language for expressing, analyzing and manipulating these key elements of game design.
The challenge
Creating a complete and robust notational system is a Herculean task. There are so many aspects to even a simple game that it seems impossible to capture them all without building a monster theoretical diagram that no one understands, maintains or cares about.

In these situations, I love to simplify the problem down to one that we can solve. Often the results give us 80% of what we are looking for with 10% of the pain.

Here’s the basic premise: If we can measure and transcribe existing game experiences in a robust symbolic fashion, we can reuse the same system to improve new games. Just like the Catholic monks of yore, we are figuring out how to record our medium in a meaningful fashion.

The game play model
The first issue to solve in any recording problem is answering the question “What information should we record?” We’ll start with a simple, yet comprehensive game play model that I’ve been working with for some time. It deals with two aspects of game play,
  • The mechanical structure of the game
  • The psychological experience of the player.
Elements of a game’s mechanical structure
The mechanical structure of the game defines the basic elements of a game and how they interact. These elements have no value associated with them, they simply form an interactive machine that clicks and burps when it is poked.
  • Verbs: Discreet actions that can be performed by tokens on other tokens. The act of jumping in a platform game is an example of a verb.
  • Tokens: Any object in the game that is manipulated. The player’s avatar or an enemy is an example of a token.
  • Rules: The basic rules of interaction between tokens and verbs. The logic that an avatar jumping on an enemy kills it is an example of a rule.
Elements of a player’s psychological experience
The psychological experience describes how the player reacts to the mechanical structure of the game.
  • Actions: An action is the goal oriented series of executed verbs that is necessary to activate reward. “Save the princess (in order to win the game)” is an example of an action.
  • Rewards: An indicator that the player has done something meaningful in the context of the game. The general goal of a reward is to make the player feel good. The fireworks when you save the princess are a good example of a reward.
  • Risks: An indicator that the player is executing their actions in an unsuccessful manner. The general goal of a risk is to provide feedback that points a way forward. The simplest version of this feedback is “Don’t do that again.” The death animation when you die is a good example of a risk.
In the past I’ve argued that a simple model of fun is based off a series of layered psychological reward schedules. As the player is rewarded with a series of overlapping rewards, they build up a complex and mildly addictive buzz.

Both the mechanical and psychological structures I’ve described are present in all games, ranging from Tetris to World of Warcraft’s leveling system to Dance Dance Revolution. In my experience, any game can be described in a complete and robust fashion using these six simple elements, so it should be a very useful starting place for our notational system.

Notational devices
In the upcoming sections, I’m going to describe five important notational devices derived from our game play model.

  • Buzz notes
  • Reward Channels
  • Verbs
  • Master Buzz Meter
  • Statistics
Buzz note: The basic notes of a game
In music, you get a burst of emotional value when you hear a note. In a game you gain a burst of emotional value when you receive a reward.

Rewards act as the core building block of our notation system. We are starting simple and ignoring verbs, tokens, rules, actions, and risks. These elements matter, but we’ll add them as we need them. One big benefit to starting with rewards is that most built-in rewards are relatively easy to measure. They are typically events that are triggered by the game in response to a player action.

If you collect a star in Mario 64, a cute little award animation plays and a resource counter increments. If you complete a line in Tetris, your points increase. Ultimately, someone has to program the basic feedback systems in any game title. Given a set of game mechanics, it is trivial to classify and tag the reward events.

Psychologically, rewards create a little blurp of pleasure in the user that rapidly degrades over time. We represent this psychological response as a symbol in our notational system. This pulse is represented by a “buzz note.”

A buzz note is an exponential curve with the following characteristics
  • Start time: The time at which the reward occurs.
  • Strength: The magnitude of the reward.
  • Fall off period: How long the pleasure takes to dissipate.
For now I’ve displayed the buzz notes in a rather literal manner as curves. In the future, as we identify different classes of buzz curves we can start using more symbolic representation.

Reward Channels: The instruments of the game
Imagine that your rewards are instruments. As a designer, you set up systems that the player triggers that result in a cascade of buzz curves along a number of discrete reward types.

Visually we can give each reward its own channel and then simply record the buzz notes when they occur. The visual metaphor is inspired by many of the old tracking programs used to create MOD files.

It turns out that many games, even seemingly complex RPGs, have no more than several dozen reward channels. This works out well since you end up with a set of channels that you can rapidly scan on a single screen. The ability to make complex game data ‘glance-able’ is a critical factor in the creation of a useful notational system. Remember, we are attempting to take a complex emotional experience and compress it down to an easy to manipulate symbolic experience. A successful notational system needs to fit in a person’s head without genius level comprehension skills required.

Introducing verbs into the mix
We run into an interesting divergence from the musical metaphor. Rewards alone are not enough to produce a meaningful notation of the game experience. You clearly see what the player experiences, but it is difficult to understand what happened in order to cause the cascade of rewards. If we don’t represent the player’s interaction, our game notation is meaningless.

Ideally, we could record the actions that the player performs. However, it turns out that this is quite difficult. Imagine in a game of chess that you capture a pawn. There were countless moves that lead up to the capture of that pawn, some of which involved the player’s intent and other’s the opponent’s intent. You can describe a conceptual strategy that defines the action of capturing a pawn, but identifying the exact sequence of events that go into an action is difficult.

The solution to this dilemma is to record all the verbs that the player performs and list them them according to time across the top of our chart. The game designer can quickly scan through what the player is doing and see rewards are occurring simultaneously. Sometimes there will be a direct correlation. Other times there will be an indirect correlation.

When you record an actual game play session, the result is quite fascinating. You can see on a single scrolling screen the entire history of how the player experienced the game. Down the side are the reward channels and sprinkled across the channels are the timed reward events.

In more advanced implementations, you can add a playback head that scrubs through the log file and shows the actual recorded game play in either a video window or the actual game engine. This provides a very clear understanding of what happens at various points in time.

The Master Buzz Meter: The volume graph of the game
All this detailed data is very useful for digging into specific problem areas, but too much data is useless. When a dozen testers generate reams of data, you simply don’t have time to look at it.

If you sum up the buzz curves across all the reward channels, you get a single graph that shows player buzz over time.

You can use this to quickly identify periods of low reward activity.

  • First by glancing at the chart you can learn to ‘read’ problem areas quickly.
  • Second by setting thresholds, the system can automatically mark areas of low reward activity and call them out with color.
Statistical snapshots
Even using the Master Buzz Meter, our notational system can generate far too much data to process in a reasonable amount of time. Games are interactive and every game session results in a static snapshot of a single player’s experience. A dozen players playing a dozen sessions and you are in the hundreds of data files to analyze.

Here we turn to statistics to give as an overall view of game play. From each of our elements, we can determine a variety of key statistical factors that help us understand various systems at a glance.

Master Buzz Meter Information

  • Average buzz per session: By sorting sessions by average buzz, you can identify low buzz scenarios and examine them in more detail.
  • Average buzz across all sessions: This allows you to track progress on various versions of the game. As you make improvements, you should see the average buzz score improve with each subsequent prototype.
  • Variation per session: What is the standard deviation for the master buzz meter? This tells you if certain sessions are providing highly variable experiences.
  • Variation across all sessions: This tells you if players are having dramatically different experiences.
  • Gameplay time: Very short sessions are often worth looking into.
Reward Channel Information
  • Average time between rewards per session
  • Average time between rewards across all session: This helps determine the reward frequency. In the standard display, reward channels sorted by reward frequency since it gives you a real world grasp on what activities are core game mechanics and which ones are additional layers on top. In general, you should focus the majority of your polish efforts on the high frequency action – reward cycles.
The major point of all these statistics is to be able to quickly select from potentially hundreds of log files a ‘typical’ game play scenario and one or two outlying game play scenarios. The designer can then dig into these in more detail, identify problem areas with prototypes and start building a list of solutions.

Essential Technology: Logging Systems
As might be apparent, a critical aspect of using our notational system is a robust logging system. This should be built into your game engine and the data should be recorded religiously from the first prototype onward. If you aren’t logging, you are prototyping blind.

The type of data you collect is highly flexible. In the most basic situation, you are recording player verbs and reward events. Such information can be highly compressed and stored in a wide variety of media without too much slow down. In more advanced situations, you are creating a complete record of the game play. This is a lot more data, but may be worth the effort as you become more experienced with interpreting subtle notational symptoms.

Advanced features include:
  • Playback of log files in the game engine with full seek and scrub capabilities.
  • Capturing sections of the log file for reference in future discussion. Think of this as taking a snapshot of a problem area.
  • Zooming mechanisms similar to those in video timelines for looking at the big picture and then zooming in on the details of a particular area.
Expanding the Notational Model
What we’ve built so far is a very simple notational system. Here are some other factors worth taking into account when you build such a system for your games. Some are based on basic human psychology and others are issues worth keeping in mind.
  • Burn out
  • Expected and Unexpected Rewards
  • Suppression
  • Risks
  • Game Structure
  • Unusual events
When a reward repeated, it becomes less effective and the strength of the buzz curve is reduced. However, if the sequence of rewards is interrupted by other rewards, the reward recovers some of its former impact.

There is some interesting work to be done here to determine what patterns typically cause burnout.

Expected Rewards
Two common types of rewards are expected rewards and unexpected rewards.
  • An unexpected reward is a reward that the player doesn’t know is coming. The player experiences a small bit of delight when they happen upon a random bonus. It is represented by a standard buzz curve.
  • An expected reward is one that the player is told will happen. These two part buzz curves consist of an expectation curve and a standard buzz curve. The expectation curve is kicked off by a defined hint that promises a future reward. The player then experiences a mild buzz of expectation until the promised reward is delivered.
The classic expected reward is a hidden room in Zelda. The player is shown a room that they cannot get to. The expectation of reaching the room will give players enough of a buzz that they’ll keep playing the game even when there are few short term rewards. The buzz that comes from uncompleted tasks can be an extraordinarily powerful motivator for more hardcore player personalities.

In our notation system, an expected reward is recorded by tagging certain events in the game as ‘hints’ that are associated with a particular reward. Once the hint is given, a mild buzz curve is in existence until the promised reward is reached.

When a player experiences too many rewards at once they suppress the lower strength buzz curves and only focus on the easily discernable rewards.

Suppression in combination with Burnout tells us why we can’t make a game that is all rewards all the time. First, if we repeat rewards, players will learn to ignore them. If we pile too many rewards on at once, players will also ignore them. By building these concepts into the notation system, we ensure that designers are always aware of such concepts.

Identifiable risks should be treated just like Buzz notes and recorded in their own risk channel.

Some risks can be recorded and some cannot. Often the most powerful risks are opportunity costs as opposed to concrete punishments so be careful of thinking you have all the risks accounted for if you add risk notes to your system.

Game Structure
In music, songs often have distinct sections that form a structure. For example a chorus might be label A and the refrain might be labeled B. Several classic structures include Binary: AB, Ternary: ABA or Ronda ABACADA.

Most games possess substantial structure as well.
  • Binary: AB where A = The game is off, B = Actively Playing the Core Game. This might be your typical arcade game.
  • Ternary: ABCA, where A = Off, B = Playing the exploration portion of the game, C = Playing the combat portion of the game. This might be your typical console RPG.
All games will at least have a Binary structure. If your game has discrete sections, you should record and label them. Often each section has unique balancing issues that must be dealt with individually.

Unusual events
Part of using the notation system correctly is understanding what constitutes a meaningful event and logging it appropriately. Rewards, for example, are more than just power ups and coins. They also include many of the aspects of the game that historically have passionately been defended as important, but no one can tell you why.
  • Plot: Plot sequences are really just another reward. Press the right button and get a bit of plot. The wonderful thing about plot sequences is that they act as a nice reward, but they also tend to contain a clue that sets up another expected reward.
  • New graphics: You know those sexy new graphics the artist spends so much time slaving over? It turns out that they can be easily represented as a reward. Simply record the first time that the player sees a new monster or a new area as a reward. This helps you identify the rate at which you introduce new artwork and ultimately how much artwork you need. If you are balancing your other rewards appropriately, you can often maintain the player’s buzz without investing in heavy art resources.
  • Dying and death. Record these! They are the most basic form risk and often provide important insight.
  • Resetting or restarting. You need to look at the entire play experience and record it as part of your game structure.. This involves player who save and restart. It involves resetting or turning off the game in frustration. Ultimately the log file should contain the player’s entire experience with the game, not just small snippets of game play. Those hours they weren’t playing the game are just as important to your balancing efforts as they hours they are playing the game.
Other areas of further work
Here are some obvious holes in the current system that -- while not preventing its usefulness -- should be acknowledged.

  • It needs real world testing: This is a design for a notational system, not a case study. Real world testing will help polish the system.
  • Social Rewards and other player invented goals are not measured: Any reward or risk that is not explicitly called out in the game mechanics cannot be measured. The joy that a player gets from taunting another player or the fun they experience from randomly stacking crates is difficult to track at this time.
  • Long games are difficult to manage in an iterative manner: If a game takes 6 months to experience, it can be difficult to collect enough log files to gain a statistical understanding of player experiences. You still however can focus on sections of the games that occur on shorter time scales.
  • Rules, Actions, and Tokens are not well described: There are several other major elements to a game design that are not included. This means that the notational system is not a complete and cannot be used to design full games.
  • Buzz note values are not derived from real world data: We can make assumptions about how long a buzz note will last and which ones are stronger than others. However, until we hook someone’s head up to a pleasure sensing device, these are merely educated guesses.

Practical usage of a notational system for games
So once you’ve created your logging system and built out your pretty pictures, what next? What do we do with all this data?

Our notational system is a method of clarifying and providing conceptual feedback on psychological impact of existing game mechanics. Woot. That is indeed a mouthful so let’s dig into it in more detail.

  • “Existing game mechanics”: You need to have a working game in order to record game notation.
  • “Psychological impact”: By focusing on rewards, we are illustrating a crucial part of the player experience, but at the expense of the mechanical structure. You can’t design a full game using this form of game notation.
  • “Clarify and providing conceptual feedback”: What we do get is the ability to describe a game using well defined terminology. Instead of saying “This is boring”, you can point to a period of 5 second in buzz graph with no rewards and identify the events leading to that situation.
How to use it
Our notation system is best used in an iterative development process where play testing is readily available.

  1. Build a benchmark suite of successful games. Typically this can involve logging publicly available games such as Tetris or past games that you have worked on.
  2. Build a prototype with logging.
  3. Examine the initial log files in details. Compare and contrast them to your benchmark suite. Are there any glaring issues? Focus on the high frequency rewards first.
  4. Record these issues in terms of the results you want to see in the next set of logs. Create goals for future success in terms of buzz curves, reward channels, and statistics.
  5. Create a new prototype and repeat the process. See if you hit your goals. If not, try again.
You’ll need to have a group of dedicated testers. Try to get a good mix of first time testers (Kleenex testers) in addition to your more experienced testers. These will provide the log files that drive the process forward.

Benefit: Steerable design
This is a very different form of a development than many teams practice. The game industry is roughly five to ten years behind the rest of the software industry in terms of process management and methodology. They’ve historically focused heavily on a waterfall-like development methodology with long preproduction cycles and rigidly defined production milestones. The rigid methodology is one major factor that leads to risk averse, stagnant design.

By using the notation system as a critical part of development, you build into the team strong structures that encourage a more agile form of design.
  • Prototyping is essential. You can’t develop the next step without prototyping first.
  • Design goals are easily communicated and cover the immediate future. No more fuzzy ideas that introduce unacceptable design risk.
  • You steer the design using constant feedback instead of writing it down in a fit of artistic genius.
  • Ironically, all this lets you take more risks, not less. The feedback cycle provides a safety net that encourages innovation instead of punishing it.
By having clearly defined goals coupled with strong feedback, you’ll design better games with fewer expensive errors.

Benefit: All game content is on an equal playing ground
Art resources, physics systems and combat mechanics all are ultimately translated into the notational system in the form of the customer experience. Instead of optimizing each silo, you can focus on optimizing the overall game experience.

Benefit: Tightly targeted games
You’ll also likely make smaller games that serve customer in a more focused manner. By clearly understanding what works and what doesn’t work, you can invest in the right features instead of being throwing more features at the customer in the hope that a few will stick.

You may not make God of War, but you may make Nintendogs. In our world of ever increasing development costs and industry consolidation, being able to hit your market in a highly targeted manner means higher profitability with lower risk of failure.

That brings us to the end of our exploration of game play notation. We’ve covered a lot of heady concepts quite quickly, so here is a quick recap:

Key concepts

  • Notational systems are good! A notational system can increase the creation speed and final quality of a game design. It provides powerful information management tools that help mere mortals manage designs of staggering complexity in a reasonable fashion. It works for music and it can work for games.
  • We can display basic elements of the player experience in notational form: By focusing on the psychological rewards that a player receives, we can represent the player’s fun over time. By also recording the verbs that the player performs, we can link player behavior to they player’s psychological state.
  • Layered information display makes log files useful: Our systems ‘layers’ information at various conceptual levels of detail for ease of use. You can easily get quick overviews of the game and you can dig down in to find out the exact details of the game play.
  • The use of notation encourages rigorous design habits: Instead of being forced to rely on vague, often emotional hand waving, a designer can identify problem areas and describe them to the team with a high level of rigor and accuracy.
  • When used in conjunction with iterative prototyping, game play notation can enable a powerful agile design process: Logging prototype play sessions and recording them in a simple notational form provides the entire team with a clear feedback mechanism. You’ll make more focused games more efficiently.
The future
The industry needs to develop a solid set of information technology that describes how games play. If we can’t accurately describe what we are making, we cannot have an accurate discussion about how to improve our product. We should all be tired of muddled design documents that no one reads and bear only a limited resemblance to the finished product. Our current design practices are expensive and inefficient. They actively hurt the advancement of our art by promoting risk adverse behavior.

I encourage folks to explore game play notation systems as one path toward building modern, effective design tools. It certainly isn’t the only path, but it is more promising than the status quo and worth pursuing.

The notational system I’ve described is a first attempt. After all, there were several hundred years between the notation of the ancient Catholic monks and the development of our modern musical notation. However, if the technique is useful, others will innovate and improve on the basic concepts. If you implement such a system, drop me a line. I’d love to hear how it worked out for you.

take care



  1. This is a good idea, though it seems more suited to tweaking and perfecting game designs than creating new ones. For instance, I could see a large company like EA getting a game into an almost final state, and bringing in a test group of a wide variety of gamers (from casual to hardcore) in to test it. Sensors could track pulse, overall body temperature, and even brain activity (in a very realistic sense - not recording their thoughts, so much, but the amount of activity in which area of the brain) and then based on the data, the game developer could increase or decrease the amount of time between major plot developments in the game and even change fundamental gameplay mechanics to further get a favorable response. However, to say that game design can be boiled down to a notational system is unrealistic. Game design (or so I believe) is more abstract concepts than concrete structures. Therefore, this would be a very useful tool in game development, though not a means to completely design a game.
    First post ^_^

  2. Completely agreed with the last statement. One of the warnings (buried deep in this overly long essay) goes something like "This means that the notational system is not a complete and cannot be used to design full games."

    One issue with using a notation system at the end of development is that there is no time to make substancial changes. It ends up being used as a 'go / no go' gate instead of a method of steering the design.

    One nice thing about the process is that it can be highly automated. You don't have to rely on difficult to observe play tests. Instead, you get people to play the prototype and you get feedback instantly. So it really doesn't cost any more to add it to the prototype phase and it provides you with better information at a time when the most important design decisions are being made.

    take care

  3. Thanks for another insightful article Danc!

    What a great way to tune reward schedules from log files and keep players entertained longer. Usability labs should be trying this to collect data faster and produce compact reports for designers.

    What I don't like is the way it reduces the player to a rat. I get the feeling that this tool is demeaning to the end-user whereas I don't get that feeling from sheet music.

    Anyway, I'm going to go play some more Diablo 2.

  4. Regarding feeling like a rat, it's what all advertising and marketing amounts to. Which, by the by, is why I don't think the analogy to sheet music is the most appropriate.

    There actually IS something like this for music. Record companies can run songs through algorithms that can analyse a pop song's appeal, based on similar measures such as reward schedules and repeated patterns vs. new patterns vs. twists on repeated patterns. Appealing music is appealing music, and algoritmic analysis can recognize a Bach or an Alicia Keys.

    I think analysis like you mention, Danc, will become more prevelent among the top-budget games that need to be mass-market to recoup.

    Lastly, regarding the idea of Suppression, I just read a NewScientist article by Richard Fisher (sorry, subscription only) about advertising overload and how new research is starting to indicate that often less can be more, based on how the brain filters incoming stimuli.

    Once again, great article.

    - Jeb

  5. This reminds me of P.G. Wodehouse's method for writing. He would tape each page of his draft around his writing room, along the floor. As he reworked the drafts of each page he would move the page towards the ceiling. When all the pages hit the top, the book was done. It seems that the point of either method is to get a macro view emphasizes the problem areas, so a deeper, focused analysis can be made. It also helps makes overall structure more apparent. Half-Life used a functionally similar method with excellent results.

    That said, I wonder how useful the notation system would really be. How well are the abstracted layers of detail actually going to represent the characteristics of particular mechanics? Are designers (and suits) really going to understand what elements are lost and how that limits generalized score comparisons? (will there be a

    Anyway, good essay. Thanks for giving me something to think about.

  6. Hi Danc,

    It was an interesting read. The thing that appealed to me the most was the vocabulary used to record and describe gameplay elements (the notes and chords) along with their uses (trills, counter-point etc.) to ultimately reveal patterns.

    The model used for defining what is ‘fun’ or ‘boring’ about a game might be something that game reviewers could adopt and use in their analyses; currently, the explanations of why a game is good or bad yield little constructive feedback.

    I’m speaking more about the commercial review sites and publications, but imagine if there were a dedicated community of game design reviewers with their own publications (widely known and acknowledged), then a system of notation like the one you described would really help their analyses of game design elements and patterns. It would also help give their readers a quick reference point (This game is a ‘Sonata’ (the pattern) themed around speaker smashing).

    Perhaps some game design patterns could become motifs; representing both a proven player experience as well as an understood symbolic representation (i.e. consider a series of descending notes and scales in a Tchaikovsky piece can represent a falling or decent). I guess the idea that games are a valid art medium would gain a little more support then ;)


  7. A very nice read.

    I have to say that I agree with you on the fact that games have no real structure, no mold to follow. Films, Music and other artforms have alot of molds, that they can use or break. Games are really lacking, and therefor it's pretty hard to define what IS good, and what IS bad. Much like game journalism is more about listing features, rather than giving the reader insight. I've yet to see a review touch hard on story, rather then the games mechanics. And yet to see a Preview not listing how many weapons you can vield.

    Games should stop tying themselves down in features, flash and smoke. Maybe focus on "normal" things (shenmue tried >_<)?

    Thanks for a good read, keep it up,

  8. Thought provoking piece as always.

    I'm slightly troubled by the concept of attempting to quantify necessarily subjective emotional experiences with "buzz notes." Yes, record companies have their analysis software, but the very little experience I have with things like the Music Genome Project has been uninspiring. There are too many factors left unexplored, and often only the most superficial similarities exist between music I identify as liking and music the system suggests I would also like. A similar parallel exists with's system of "suggested items" based on past purchases. I rarely find those to be valuable, perhaps because their system has incomplete information about me, perhaps because their algorithm can't properly analyze the various factors that make an item appealing, perhaps for some other reason.

    As always, I may be entirely missing the point. I'm quite good at that, it turns out.

    PS: I wouldn't label in-game death strictly as a "risk." How many times have we played a game simply to find creative ways to kill the main character, simply because the mechanics for doing so were so interesting, or the death animations were cool?

  9. Thanks for the great article.

    It seems this would be a great way to measure the effectiveness of your meta-game (to use your terms which I find to be very useful) but I have difficulty seeing how these type of measurement could help define a core gameplay mechanic.

  10. As I said over on my blog:

    "Interesting. I am guessing that DanC hasn't seen my own Grammar of Gameplay" stuff.

    "There's a group out there (they're operating kinda quietly, so I don't want to say who or where) that has elaborated the grammar-and-syntax idea to the point where they say they can actually spec out games with it. I am supposed to hear more sometime soon. :)"

  11. Re: palpatim -

    Creating a notation system would be a good way for game designers to talk clearly about making games, but the system itself won't lead to good games, just like having an algorithm for a hit single doesn't really pan out. I think the danger here lies in assuming that once you have a notational system, your game will automatically be good.

    However, I think it'd be safe to say a functioning notational system would increase the quality of every game that used it, if just by a little bit.

  12. Very interesting, Raph. I had not read your Grammar of Gameplay...though there are minor differences in terminology, many of the same concepts are considered. Yours certainly goes a little deeper into the theory and how topography and rules affect the notation. (Last GDC I was mostly acting as a booth babe. I was less educated, but very sexy)

    In this notation, I was mostly working towards creating a useful tool that gave meaningful feedback to an iterative prototyping-based dev process. I intentionally steered away from the concept of 'completeness' and ask 'what would be useful?'. If there can be a clear visual picture of the gameplay that an intuitive person can 'grok' and manipulate in their head, we can gain a much better understanding of how the game is working.

    Naturally, I'm very curious to see game. specs written in a completed grammar-syntax system. :-)

    take care

  13. I wholeheartedly agree on the need for a game design notation, and the use of verbs, tokens, rules, actions, risks and rewards to describe a game design.
    But what Danc introduces here is not a notation or a design tool.
    It *is* a mechanism to easily evaluate a design's performance in terms of the fun it provides. A tool to find problem areas in any design. As such is very useful, interesting, and worthy to incorporate in game development processes and I congratulate Danc for this stroke of genius.
    Yet, it is quite far from presenting the design on a concise, glimpse-able manner. It is not a "game notation" that describes a game in nearly the same way the "music notation" describes a music piece.

  14. I believe the evaluative aspect is already in use at places like MS, where I hear of amazingly complete user testing labs...

    Danc, I am eagerly awaiting that too. Ideally, if the notation can be amde clean and easy enough, a "game processor" would allow people to quickly sketch out game ideas given enough familiarity with the notation. if said notation allowed detecting degenerate strategies, imbalances, and so on, that would be a huge win.

    As I said, there's a well-funded group that started where GofG left off, and apparently got something to a fairly complete state. They're under confidentiality, though. :(

  15. Danc,
    Off topic, but how do you get your blogger template to use "Read more!" on your main/archive pages? I'm assuming you do it manually, but if there is a tool or blogger setting I'm missing, please let me know.

  16. Buzzes and addiction. How positively vulgar.

  17. Great post! A good starting point for a very useful analysis tool. The fact is that test runs of games are required to convert the near-infinite gameplay-space into a linear experience. Music is already linear, but until we can describe (and understand!) gameplay-space as a whole, we have to convert it into a linear experience to transcribe and analyze it with ease.

  18. I never thought 7th grade General Music would come back to haunt me. Love your essays Dan-C, you are a true teacher (as apposed to a false prophet?).

    Raph, your site for Grammar of Gameplay is blowing my mind, looks very intriguing - and not just the design (though I've never seen like it in that regard either). I need a moment to decongest before I move forward.

    Tally ho!

  19. There's the big problem with this system.

    The system of musical notation is a pattern system used for recording items of exact definition and dimension. Music notation records notes and their lengths in a clear and simple way.

    However, Danc's system essentially requires the recording of emotive buzzes and rewards etc in a similar scale, but there is one thing that's he's missing. Which is (of course) that no two people's emotional reactions are the same. They're not objectively measurable, and so this is another system that falls on the spikes of the Rather Obvious Missing Link.

    I have seen quite a few of these schemes to attempt to formalise the language and rules of game design, but none of them work because they are always - such as in this case - too far reaching.

    The best advantages of a notation system lie in objective simplicity. Music notation does not note the emotive impacts or whatever of a piece of music. It simply denotes Do-Ray-Mee. Screenplay notation doesn't over-complicate itself with intentions of feeling. It's as simple as INT, CUT, (beat) and FADE.

    The real problem that the game industry has is not its notation. No, the real problem is that there is no one sense of what 'game' means, so Danc is trying to notate the indefinable. Music is music, immediate and understandable. Film is film, likewise. But games? What possible correlations do Animal Crossing and Tetris really have? None.

    Games are almost all set-piece things that function well under their own internal consistency, which is why they have to be learned. One has to know how to play a game to enjoy a game, but one does not have to know how to watch a film or hear a piece of music. One has to know how to read language to understand books, but once the language is learned, one understands all books.

    The same is not true for games. They are always stuck in the starting gate because the heart of the medium is continual re-innovation of its basic precepts. That's why there is no such thing as 'game design' as an ur-subject. Strategy game design is a different thing to Action game design, is a different thing to MMOG design, is a different thing to virtual toy design, is a different thing to interactive art-pieces design and so on.

    It's not a question of two different types of musician trying to teach each other. A rock musician and a classical composer are still working in the same framework. NO, it's a question of wholly different practitioners trying to talk to each other, like a screenwriter and a potter trying to come to some common language.

    What's wrong is the pre-supposition that all things interactive entertainment are 'games'. What's wrong is that specific linguistic joining of several wholly different fields. Somebody has to come up with a bunch of better names for those and figure out the rules and precepts of each of them before getting anywhere near a notation or charts of emotional impact or theories of fun or whatever.

    Tadhg Kelly's particleblog produced a very interesting article on this subject not too long ago:
    In it he presupposes that there are several core types of interactive entertainment that are fundamentally different (he calls them Game 1.0, Game 2.0 etc), and which basically defy any sort of group classification because the core interest and motivation and type of play underneath them is just not the same.

    I recommend reading it.

  20. Hmm. If Danc goes too far to one extreme, then Samuel might go to the other.

    What do Tetris and Animal Crossing have in common? About as much as Classical music and Gangsta Rap, or Fantasia and Terminator 2. The basic medium is the same, but the execution is wholly different. (In fact, I'd assume traditional musical notation would be rather useless when notating Rap :)

    Perhaps it would be better if, instead of attempting to predict the emotions of the player, you simply said that you were tracking the game's risks and rewards... and then it's up to the individual player which risks and rewards are met with the largest emotional bursts. Same thing you're doing really, but with different names.

  21. Hi Samuel. You raise some very good points well worth discussing.

    The comparison with music is apt in a way. You have to imagine a time when musical notation was not exactly comparable to music (it still isn't, but we've been brainwashed to treat it as such) Back when the monks were recording nuemes on parchment, they were not able to discribe music in its entirity either. Much of what they were describing could also be considered 'indescribable' Show me a scientific measure of pitch from that time period. It didn't exist.

    Instead, you had folks that 'percieved' there to be a critical element of the things they were creating called 'pitch'. Human perception is great initial scientific instrument, despite its many foibles.

    Practitioners of game design can also tell you that there is a distinct perception of emotional response when we give the player key stimuli in the game in response to an action that they perform. I can sense it. Most players can sense it.

    We don't yet have the 'pitch gauge' for understanding the magnitude and strength of rewards. Eventually, we will. Brain scans are getting quite good these days. :-) Some of the work happening with advertising is particularly inciteful.

    My assumption is that, yes, we can use human perception to assign base values for rewards and it will still tell us something useful. It is an assumption, but it certainly isn't one based off rocket science or voodoo.

    It is worth noting that Rock musicians and classical composers operate in the same framework because someone built that framework. Musical notation evolved from a method of recording a few little bits of music into the full blown description of music that could be used for aiding authoring. Doing the same for games is a worthy undertaking that is quite reachable.

    All games operate on the same basic learning systems of the brain. Some may hit broader areas, but in order for a game to be successful it must have a foundation of action / reward feedback cycles. The player must manipulate tokens using verbs and gain some psychological benefit (typically through mastery of the problem space). We can take advantage of these similarities across genres. We can measure them and act up on the insights our analysis provides. In fact we'd be silly not to.

    take care

  22. @Ian

    >> "What do Tetris and Animal Crossing have in common? About as much as Classical music and Gangsta Rap, or Fantasia and Terminator 2. The basic medium is the same, but the execution is wholly different." <<

    No, that's just it. The basic medium is not the same.

    It appears to be the same because both consist of objects on a computer screen that are manipulated via a joypad, but there the similarity ends. The basic goals and motivations of each are vastly different, so the basic sense of risk/reward is also going to be vastly different.

    It's entirely unlike - and yet analogous to - the difference between poetry and novel writing. Both can appear the same on the surface, but poetry and novel writing are two completely different media for much the same reason. There is no all-encompassing theory of the written word for much the same reason as there cannot be an all-encompassing theory of 'game' creation. With 'games', we're talking about a meta-medium, not one single medium.

    >> "(In fact, I'd assume traditional musical notation would be rather useless when notating Rap :)"<<

    Not at all. It's still notes and lyrics.

    >>"Perhaps it would be better if, instead of attempting to predict the emotions of the player, you simply said that you were tracking the game's risks and rewards... and then it's up to the individual player which risks and rewards are met with the largest emotional bursts. Same thing you're doing really, but with different names.<<

    Again, no.

    The concept of risk is largely absent from Animal Crossing in any tangible abstract form. The risks are all social, dependent on the creativity and persevrance of the player. Therefore they're entirely dependent on the player's sense of whether he cares socially for the creatures and trees etc.

    Whereas the concept of risk in Tetris is tangible. You can die if the bricks reach the top. Game over. That's a risk that involves pressure and time and skill. Play or don't play. Animal Crossing and Tetris have no common ground other than the fact that they both have graphics and use game controllers. They're in different media, but we haven't caught up with this idea linguistically. We still think 'game'. Thought follows language for most people, which means we see the sorry sight of repsectable enough industry and academia people trying to derive explanations of, say, gameplay, that include everything.

    They can't do it. They've been trying for years, but all the theories that manifest are so full of airholes as a result that they are largely useless. The debate never moves on, nor will it until some basic fundamentals are separated out, starting with 'games'.

  23. Samuel, I disagree with you quite strongly (and, I guess, with Tadhg as well).

    There most certainly ARE unified theories of the written word underlying both prose and poetry. I say so speaking as someone who holds an MFA in creative writing, with training in both.

    While Animal Crossing and Tetris are certainly vastly different in terms of how they may affect people, they do in fact share certain common underlying elements. I'm not talking about the screen, either. I am talking about things like a topology of space, mathematical models for tokens that can be manipulated, etc. Those are the "notes" of game design.

    An example I frequently use is that Quake III and that stupid "pop the bubble wrap" Flash game are sharing some important fundamental verbs, even though Quke is a much much more elaborate design.

    I also think that saying that "game" is ill-defined is inaccurate. There's quite a lot of scholarship on the subject, and multiple definitions available. There's surprising commonality among these descriptions, and most of the disagreements are in details.

    I DO strongly agree with you that the fundamental problem with the sort of assessment that Danc is suggesting is that stimuli provoke different reactions in different people. Usually, this gets solved by addressing target psychographics, or by having diverse test groups. So it's not insurmountable.

  24. >>"There most certainly ARE unified theories of the written word underlying both prose and poetry. I say so speaking as someone who holds an MFA in creative writing, with training in both."<<

    I have a literature BA and there are lots of critical theories for analysing literature, yes. There aren't any 'notation'-style schemes that describe the elements of writing, however, which actually work.

    Not Marx, not 'Hero's Journey' Campbell, not Barthes, none of them. The critical theories of literature are analysis techniques and they are applicable across media in general (such as the game meta-medium) though.

    >>"While Animal Crossing and Tetris are certainly vastly different in terms of how they may affect people, they do in fact share certain common underlying elements. I'm not talking about the screen, either. I am talking about things like a topology of space, mathematical models for tokens that can be manipulated, etc. Those are the "notes" of game design."<<

    No, those are equivalent to the fact that novels and poems are both printed on paper and feature in books and use the same sorts of punctuation etc. What constitutes a medium is not just the tools that it employs.

    >>"An example I frequently use is that Quake III and that stupid "pop the bubble wrap" Flash game are sharing some important fundamental verbs, even though Quke is a much much more elaborate design."<<

    See, I wouldn't say those are far apart at all. They're both competitor-style games so they feature the same broad processes at work. Graphical execution and complexity does not separate them ("The Waste Land" and a bawdy limerick are both poems in the same sense) from both being exercises in abstract competition.

    Whereas the core difference between Pop the Bubble Wrap and Second Life are huge. Worse, trying to shoehorn them together means essentially railroading the concepts of one in ever-increasing layers of absurd convolutions to the other. Ludology is a classic example of people trying to do exactly this in a medium, with entirely predictable results. Narratology is another.

    The problem is that y'all are talking about multiple media here, not one medium.

    >>"I also think that saying that "game" is ill-defined is inaccurate. There's quite a lot of scholarship on the subject, and multiple definitions available. There's surprising commonality among these descriptions, and most of the disagreements are in details."<<

    There's also a lot of bitter disagreement. Gameplay remains a stubbornly undefinable term (or at least undefinable in that everyone has their own sense of it). It remains useless and oblique. About the best and least applicable defintion of it to date that I've seen is "What You Do". Where do you go from that?

    >>"I DO strongly agree with you that the fundamental problem with the sort of assessment that Danc is suggesting is that stimuli provoke different reactions in different people. Usually, this gets solved by addressing target psychographics, or by having diverse test groups. So it's not insurmountable."<<

    Science doesn't solve everything boys. Especially woolly science such as is used in marketing departments the world over. Guaranteed to generate bloodless, soulless, balless creations.

    Here's a question for Danc (and anyone really). How would you notate the following 5 'games' under the one system:

    The Sims
    Second Life

    BTW: The instant you say 'well I wouldn't count XYZ as a game as such' is the instant that my point is proved.

  25. Tetris: Easy. I've got the basic listed in my diagram.

    Chess: Easy

    The Sims: This was one of the first games that made me sit up and realize how universal these elements are. The verbs and rewards are basically exposed on the interface in perhaps that most blatant manner possible. Very possible

    Nintendogs: Very easy. I wrote an essay on this earlier. This one is pretty blatant as well. The nice thing about effective feedback systems is they tend to be pretty clear cut.

    Second Life: Possible, but not easily recordable using current techniques. Most of the rewards fit into the category of 'user created rewards' so they can't be measured by recording events from the mechanical systems of the game. Right now we can record these in the grossest manner possible. (Are two people having a conversation? Have they talked before. Okay, there is some exchange of value there.)

    The fundementals still apply, but there are always things that we can't measure. The same goes for music...what makes a greatly emotional performance versus a weak performance. Both can follow the same musical notation, but the musical notation does not capture all the subtlies. That doesn't deminish the usefulness of the notation, it just says there are limits.

    But then again, I'm a fan of product design...limits in the name of usability are what good design is all about. :-)

    take care

    Re: Art and science. Souless people create souless things. Science has been fundemental in almost every work of great beauty that mankind has built. Don't diss it.

  26. It is an interesting system, but I don't really see how its equivalent to sheet music.Its an interesting method to figure out how good a game might be and where and how to fix flaws, but it doesn't describe the actual game in any detail.

    The equivalent to sheet music for a game would be the game rules. In a board game, card game or sport this would be written or spoken rules. In a video game it could be a very detailed design document, but the best representation of the games rules is source code. Sheet music tells you the exact steps needed to play a song. It says nothing about the quality of the song. Game rules tell you the exact steps needed to play the game. Nothing wrong with your article, you might just want to pick a better analogy.

  27. I'm with Samuel.

    And as I was trying to imply earlier, reducing the point of game design to creating a "buzz", giving rewards and making players addicted is pure BS. It's rampant capitalism controlling the theory of design. You're assuming that what games most commonly do is what they always ought to do.

    This is wrong.

  28. Ahhh, so this is where you've run off to Danc. :P Your writing style is transparent and enjoyable, thanks for sharing this theory with us.

    This anonymous chucklehead above me made me laugh, "rampant capitalism controlling the theory of design" should be the new title of your blog. The more I think about it, it's probably you just trolling. hahaha.

    I'm pretty motivated to implement a system like this for the games I've been building but there are other more pressing matters at this moment. Ill get to it eventually, that is unless you devise an even more pressing scheme in the meantime.

    Take care homie,

  29. "The honest goal of any analytical approach is to destroy the subject it studies. This has been the case through out all history and the end result of all scientific and technological endevours.

    Now the same evil forces of reason and comprehension are attacking video games, the holy bastion of artistic integrity. Oh, my." troll skills are rusty. :-)

    PS: A lot of this comes down to a philosophy of how to design and spec software. I'm a fond fan of iteration and evolving a product through mistakes and flaws. There is no Platonic ideal that can be used to define games and that is not what is being attempted here.

    Instead, we are building tools that help make a better finished product. Specifically, we are building tools that help out with grueling, labor intensive, iterative game development.

    A sheet of music can be used as such an informational tool that helps produce performances. It even helps you write music. You play a ditty on the piano, write it down, ponder it, move some things around and play it again. Has anyone written music? It doesn't exactly spring forth whole and perfect onto the staff.

    The goal is similar here. Tool + Code and Assets + Team who knows how to wield it all for a greater purpose = Finished Game. Tool <> Finished Game. Down with Plato. He is *such* a jerk.

    PPS: Hi Harold!

  30. Hey folks, I heard I was being talked about, so I came on over.

    The thing with creative enterprise is that it's an unconscious endeavour. This is something that game developers still have to learn. In much the same way as any creative endeavour, there is no system or rules of the road or methodology that can replace the creative because that's trying to bring conscious methods to an unconscious activity. It's as simple as that.

    Danc, you've got a lot of good ideas on this blog and I'm a big fan of much of your writing, but some pieces like this co-opt the methods of the advertising and marketing industries into game design, and neglect to realise one thing.

    Which is that 99% of advertising is rubbish, and 98% of product design-method based products are rubbish.

    98% of all creative-produced material is rubbish too, so there's no real appreciable difference between the methods of just sitting down and being creative versus dressing it up in the bells and whistles of a 'system', brain scans and psycho-graphic whatchemacallits. The only thing that you're doing there is substituting actual risk with the illusion of less risk, and losing any sense of direction in the process.

    I think that there's every reason to support coming up with better systems of design. Of course there are. But those systems should really be functional. Trying to collate and categorise 'buzzes' and such is just an exercise in wilful self-distraction, taking the designer further away from his creativity rather than embracing it.

    There are no rules in creativity, and that's why it always surprises us. That's it's very function in society. It's not a field of knowns and analyses, it's all about instinct and flow and that sort of thing. This is something that the games industry has forgotten in all the fright over money. How to just get on with it, stop with the endless introspection, and sort out many of the real problems in the industry.

    So I like that you had the idea of music notation, but my feeling is that it's a non-starter. Keep plugging away at your ideas though!


  31. There aren't any 'notation'-style schemes that describe the elements of writing, however, which actually work.

    Prosody? The entire concept of grammar? Fluffier stuff such as the terms metonymy and metaphor, tricks and techniques such as zeugma and onomatopoeia?

    These are the basic building blocks of writing, and they most certainly DO give us a craftsman's window into the process. You seem to be concerned with things at a purely experiential level, and as any practitioner will tell you, experience is driven by both the intangibles you describe AND by craft.

    Making steps on craft is hardly worthless. And yes, much of craft is going to seem terribly instrumental, driven perhaps by "marketing considerations" (which in my opinion is just another way to say "driven by a desire to get people to actually try the thing out").

  32. Oh, and Danc covered most everything else I was going to say. My (admittedly rough) notion of game grammar handles all those games without much problem. I am a firm believer in the fact that there is strong craft (call it "science" if you like) underlying all creative expression, because I've trained in it, so I know for a fact that it's there.

  33. Prosody? The entire concept of grammar? Fluffier stuff such as the terms metonymy and metaphor, tricks and techniques such as zeugma and onomatopoeia?

    Hey Raph

    Now that's what I call you're trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

    The notation system for music is what encompasses all the functional elements required for the performance of same. Now one may argue that such tools as prosody serve a similar function in telling the poet how to read the poem aloud, but they are not the mechanical notation of the writing in the same sense that musical notes are for music.

    Onomatopeia, metaphor and the rest are tools of the writing trade too, but none of them consistutes the simple pattern that music repetition is. Every one of the few musical notes is an objective and specific thing, a very simple tonal language, and that is part of the reason of why they can be notated in the first place. Musical notation is a simple language.

    What you're guilty of doing here is conflating the superficially similar to make a point while glossing over the deeper difference. Musical notation is not a catalog of tricks and it's not a record of emotion. It's a communication system that says 'play this note then this note then this note faster'. And that's all it is.

    Writing, by virtue of having thousands and thousands of such notes in infinitely more varied combinations, is as such non-notable. There is no simple eight-level scale and meter notation of writing.

    But why am I arguing this? It's as plain as punch that this is the case.

    Or is it?

    These are the basic building blocks of writing, and they most certainly DO give us a craftsman's window into the process.

    Maybe not. Um, Raph, the basic building blocks of writing are words, punctuation and the conventions of sentence structure. Unlike music with its eight notes and a small variety of sharps that repeat in a cycle and produce harmony, writing (in English at least) has over 90,000 words (the notes if you will) which do not have any definitive harmonic pattern to them, and we keep making up new notes all the time.

    They're just totally different things.

    Making steps on craft is hardly worthless.

    Indeed, and yet the current range of steps is getting us precisely nowhere except in the rarefied blogosphere where we all write very worthy articles and counter-arguments and - forgive me - the odd book, and at the end of all that nobody likes to be told that their grand theory is essentially built on guff. And yet, personally, I'm thinking that that is exactly what is going on in the sphere and the books and whatnot.

    What we're talking about here is games, of course, but games is such a protean mishmash of horseshit and half truths and designs that got lucky and copied, and while it's all very noble to try and corral the horses and make some sense of it all, the fact is that the sense has been sorely lacking owing to the basic precepts being wrong. In my view.

    And second to that, of a generation of developers who are terribly frightened of taking the next real step forward (which is to actually grow up emotionally and start making games that really are challenging) and rather invest a lot of wasted time and effort in an embarassing hunt for a perfect system of bottling the creative, an activity that a child of six could tell us is foolishness plain and simple.

    We have a lot to offer and a lot of mental power to bring to the table, but the thing that stands in the way of that is ourselves. In otherwords, the problem with game development is game developers. *WE* are the big problem in the industry because this is what we do. We abstract things beyond the point of all common sense and lose sight of any sense of the why.

    Our problem is that we're all very smart, but by God is there a lack of wisdom in game development.

    And yes, much of craft is going to seem terribly instrumental, driven perhaps by "marketing considerations" (which in my opinion is just another way to say "driven by a desire to get people to actually try the thing out").

    But that isn't the craft. The craft is making the good game, not making the game that you think that people will like. There is such a huge difference in any creative field between tailored-for products and from-the-heart work. The first one is Vanilla Ice and the other is Jimi Hendrix. The first one is transitory means-not-a-whit work that'll be forgotten as soon as its media half-life flickers out, the other is possibly going to sink without trace but at least its honest.

    They both have an equal chance of failing or succeeding in the marketplace, but the big difference is that Hendrix is worth doing whereas the other is just wasting time solving imaginary problems and conjuring rounds of indecision in the fear that somebody somewhere might say a bad thing about you.

    Game development is an art first and an engineering problem second, not the other way around. All of this theoretical guff is just skirting around that realisation, trying to make it not so because for it to be an art means that it is unsolvable and involves learning how to trust instincts. Something that most developers are very bad at doing.

    I should really run a creativity workshop or something for game developers, don't you think?


  34. So I of course agree with you that the domain of writing is far far more complex than the domain of music, as regards getting it notated.

    That said, if you say that words are at the basis of language, then I'll trump you by saying that notes are not at the basis of music, but that timbre and pitch are; the notes in the tempered scale we have today are conventions, not mandates.

    Prosody does not exist for telling the poet how to read aloud; it exists because it is a notation system for sonic qualities in words. That's an important distinction. Prosody applies in cases where the poem is never meant to be read aloud.

    Not all notation systems are going to be intended to reproduce a given "performance;" in that sense, prosody is more akin to harmonic analysis than it is to standard notation (which is heavily aimed at melodic information). That's why alternate notations such as chord symbols, tablature, and jazz notation exist.

    What you're guilty of doing here is conflating the superficially similar to make a point while glossing over the deeper difference.

    Heh, see, I think you're ignoring the deeper similarities in favor of focusing on superficial differences, such as size of the problem space.

    Um, Raph, the basic building blocks of writing are words, punctuation and the conventions of sentence structure. Unlike music with its eight notes and a small variety of sharps that repeat in a cycle and produce harmony, writing (in English at least) has over 90,000 words (the notes if you will) which do not have any definitive harmonic pattern to them, and we keep making up new notes all the time.

    Twelve notes (sharp and flat are notation devices, not variants on notes) -- and that's if you stay out of microtones, untempered scales, and Eastern scales, 24 keys not counting variations such as melodic versus harmonic minor, dozens of modes (sort of like keys, only not), and that's not even getting in rhythm... don't sell music short.

    I also wouldn't sell words short -- sentence structure is somewhere between "significant" and "irrelevant" to language arts.

    I guess we can agree to disagree on this... I've done quite a lot of formal training in writing (prose and poetry), rhetoric, music theory, and various forms of pictorial art. All I can say is that I see significant commonalities in how underlying formal structures and notations thereof are used by craftspeople in all those disciplines. *shrug*

    the fact is that the sense has been sorely lacking owing to the basic precepts being wrong. In my view.

    What are the basic precepts you advocate?

    *WE* are the big problem in the industry because this is what we do. We abstract things beyond the point of all common sense and lose sight of any sense of the why.

    What is the "why" you advocate? And, don't you think that a "why" may well indicate a general philosophy or aesthetic, rather than an ultimate answer?

    The craft is making the good game, not making the game that you think that people will like.

    Oof. That debate is FAR larger than games. In general, I side, as you do, with the artist. But I am not going to make that a blanket statement -- it's far too debated a subject.

    Wanting people to experience your work doesn't mean that your work won't come from the heart.

    Game development is an art first and an engineering problem second, not the other way around. All of this theoretical guff is just skirting around that realisation, trying to make it not so because for it to be an art means that it is unsolvable and involves learning how to trust instincts. Something that most developers are very bad at doing.

    To be brutally frank, this is a position on art that I have never agreed with. It's a sort of "naif" approach, that talent and hard work will win you through. But the great artists have ALWAYS been half-scientist about their work. Leonardo da Vinci dissected corpses to examine how to render the play of muscles beneath the skin. Bach was deeply into the science of harmony when he developed the form of the fugue. The examples are everywhere. It has nothing to do with creativity.

  35. Hey Raph,

    I was all raring to go with a reply earlier, but I've changed my mind on doing that. I don't really find that these internet threads ever go anywhere, despite many years of usenet, forums and blogs etc, and they take away from the energy of actually getting on and creating. It's a bad habit of mine to get misdirected so, but I'm trying to get out of it.

    So, good talking to you,


  36. The real question becomes: can a scientific system help to encourage creativity? A system such as the one danc proposes may be inaccurate, incomplete, or even downright wrong, but could it still be useful? It would never serve to notate the entirety of a game, but it might be an extremely useful tool of analysis. There may be fierce disagreement as to the definition of "game" or whether science deserves a presence in art, but I think of formal systems as placing a direction to my creativity. Currently I am a massage student. When I learn the basic techniques of a swedish stroke, am I limiting myself by that knowledge? Perhaps, but the theories are still based on a conrcrete understanding of human anatomy and how the body works. Without this knowledge, I could experiment and find out what "feels good," but I'd always be lacking the knowledge of where the muscles attach, and and the stroke should finish.

    More appropriately, Chinese five element theory lays out a description of the human body based on water, metal, wood, fire, and earth. From a western medical perspective, it is bogus. However, a Shiatsu practitioner (shiatsu is a Japanese modality based on Chinese medicine) can still give a kick-ass treatment. I happen to disagree with the basic assumptions underlaying the whole endeaver. But, it seems to work on some level. Does it still have worth?

    Danc's system is not comprehensive. It is just a beginning. If you don't like it, don't use it. It's just a tool, nothing more.

  37. Samuel said The critical theories of literature are analysis techniques and they are applicable across media in general (such as the game meta-medium) though.

    It's Lang not Lit. Lit Crit is undeniably usefull in looking at games as cultural artifacts, but doesn't go far in telling us much about our experience of a game itself, for that, we need to use more Linguistic tools (both prosody and phonetics use notational tools).

    I read Dincs article as a useful theory of the Language of Games (although possibly, with some advancements, of any structured interaction - be it a UI, debate, football match).

    By focusing on rewards, we are illustrating a crucial part of the player experience

    I can see how a rewards-based notation does make sense but annoyance and frustration are just as important as rewards, 'just one more go, and I'll get to level 2!', and in some games ('insert coin to continue') it's critical to it's success or failiure.

    Another key element of games seems to be learning, from initial controls to advanced powered-up-combo-move skills, and that this learning, more often than not, performs a kind of meta-narrative to the game narrative (where there is one), and could be introduced into the notation as a simple overlay.

    I see no reason why entire games couldn't be conceptually sequenced out like that as part of the design process, if they're not already.

  38. I think one of the things that made music notation so much more powerful to the medium than the type of notation we've seen in games so far is the iteration time. When you change or adjust a piece of music, you can preview your work in real time with a few musicians or on a piano. When you change a script, you can see it's affect on the plot immediately if you've read the rest of the plot. These mediums both share a linear structure, and fast iteration times, something good games don't always have.

    Lets say for a second that we devise a really good notation system; something that is detailed enough to describe the systems, yet abstract enough to not be like writting code. Will you be able to understand the results of changes at the rate of music or story notation? Probrably not unless you can run a simulation which shows you results in one form or another.

    In some ways, higher level languages (such as visual node based scripting) are the closest thing we're seeing to game notation. While other attempts do have analytical uses for game revision, they don't seem to lend themselves to initial concept work because concept work often relies on the iterative feedback provided by prototyping.

    So, I guess my thoughts are these: Any approach to notate game design without being able to 'run' said game from the notation will mostly be useful for tweaking and understanding existing games; not creating new ones.

  39. This is very clearly an analytical tool rather than a notation system. The notation system would be the design document. It's a good analytical tool, though.

    I never liked the idea of boiling down games to classical conditioning. I mean, there's some entertainment value for it... but it seems like it runs the risk of removing a critical element that will seem obvious once it's not there. A risk-reward schedule wouldn't have brought about, for example, Shadow of the Colossus. It's possible to analyze such a game from the perspective of risks and rewards - but you can't do it backwards. To use a music metaphor, you can take the algorithms used for analyzing pop music - music that is designed to be enjoyable - and analyze a masterpiece like, for example, Rhapsody in Blue. However, the algorithms used to write pop music are never going to create a song that good without adding an element of inspiration, of artistry.

    That's no reason not to create such algorithms, because masterpieces are rare, and the people demand to be entertained. But reliance on the algorithms will cripple us and flood the market with soulless marketing-driven exercises in appealing to the lowest common denominator.

    Your articles are useful for creating such algorithms - they will serve as guidelines for the inspired and the focus groups alike. But I don't think they can ever form a heuristic for "making an excellent game."

  40. Why not just write some rules and draw a map, like in a boardgame?

  41. Well, a little irrelevant but the Byzantines used notes long before the split of the church, so your historic reference is inaccurate.

  42. Good gravy people! He never said this was the end-all, be-all system, just a starting point. As others have pointed out, this is a tool - something that allows us to understand something better, and thus, gives us power. Also, yes, the comparison to musical notation is imperfect - welcome to the world of similes and analogies. That's how we learn - "This is like that, except for ..."

    Like any tool, it can be used well or badly. Yes, in the hands of a "soulless" company/producer this would be used to replicate previous game experiences, just with a different coat of paint. How is this different from the majority of what we see today? In the hands of someone skilled/artistic - it could help them structure the game, helping not just point out problem areas but reveal patterns of play (risk/reward, feedback, etc - again, these are fuzzy right now) that are both good and bad. A good artist isn't going to rip out a section just because the graph tells them it's "bad", nor will they insist on leaving in a troublesome part just because some notation analysis says it's "good". I think also there is confusion - just because there's a dip in the "buzz" meter doesn't necessarily mean it's a problem, (unless the designer's goal is to keep it above a certain threshold) in music it's called a rest.

    I do agree that focusing on "buzz" is a misstep, but at least it's a step. Until we try, there will never be a common language we can use. Like all systems, used slavishly it can become limiting - that's why artists sometimes push, bend or ignore completely the rules. (Sometimes to good effect, sometimes not. The risk-reward rythym of Doom applied to a RTS or an adventure game could be genius, it could be utter tripe, but at least it would be possible.) Yes, this may give rise to the game equivalent of the dissolve-to-blurred-flashback with harps, or the evil twin plot device, or any other over-used, hackneyed music/film/literature/drama device - I contend we already have them, but don't have the language to know it. At least then we'll be able to describe why it's what it is, rather than just say "It's sucks" or "It's fun".

    -Scandalon (Matthew Parsons)

  43. Interesting discussion/debate. You guys certainly have a broader knowledge of notation than myself... make me want to head back to school!

    One thing I saw lacking in the analogy between music notation and the offered game notation is that the game notation described the end results, the performance so to speak. As a result, it spoke to the feelings and experiences of the player/audience. Musical notation, on the other hand, is instructions for performance, and don't indicate the feelings of the audience or the experience of the musicians (as participants in the performance).

    In other words, I would say the only connection musical notation has to the notation discussed above is that they are both notations. The notations capture different perpsectives of information and would be used to different ends.

    A more interesting notation, and the one I expected to see when referred to this article, would be a symbolic notation for describing the decision points, pacing and results. For me, that would be the useful notation to use as a designer; the notation presented above would also be useful, but only as a more concise conveyance of the results of a play session.

  44. I think the problem most people are having with this article is that the focus is on the buzzes and lacks thereof. Danc, it's a great start for evaluating, but if you're talking about notation you should probably focus more on the tokens, verbs, and rules than on the results of said items. It's in there, but early in the essay, and not defined as well as it could be. It seems that your focus on the "Element's of a player's psycological experience", as least as far as this article is concerned, ignores the actual game notations, "Elements of a game's mechanical structure." The notation is the structure, whereas Danc describes a method of viewing the results of that structure.

    Of course, tokens, risks, and verbs are in fact at the top of the game's "sheet of music," but if you're talking game notation they should be the entire thing. With music, the listener evaluates the notes on the page; with games the player should evaluate the structure defined on the page. Danc has skipped the actual notation in favor of measuring the result of the game.

    Although, it's a damn good start for measuring such results. You just skipped a step.

  45. Folks are very correct in pointing out that this is not a notation system for writing down the mechanics of a game design. It is instead a feedback tool that facilitates a highly iterative software development process.

    The music analogy was perhaps a bit too strong and overwhelmed this distinction. I'm certainly not looking to write games designs down like you would write music.

    I come from a rather radical sect of software development that believes that design documents are generally a load of whooey. They are at best a promise of a conversation and at worse an excuse for why things didn't work out. They are never, ever accurate and never will be.

    The simple fact is that software development is a process where you learn as you go. You make adjustments and improve. To imagine that there is any system that lets you pop forth a perfect piece of software full fledged from your forehead is highly questionable.

    A full fledged description of game mechanics is a lovely academic exercise. Someone far smarter than me may create a useful solution. If that happens, sweet.

    Until then, it is worth creating a useful tool that solves critical development issues that we are facing right now. Once you create a prototype (be it low level or highly polished), how do you know what to change? That is a common question that most game developers face.

    I'll always take a good feedback mechanism over a master theory of everything. :-)

    take care

  46. Greetings:
    Hrm, well, late to the party, I suppose, but lots of good conversation here. I'll try to avoid the various red herrings and side tracks, and stick to the basic point:

    Here’s the basic premise: If we can measure and transcribe existing game experiences in a robust symbolic fashion, we can reuse the same system to improve new games. Just like the Catholic monks of yore, we are figuring out how to record our medium in a meaningful fashion.

    I think this goes to the heart of what Danc is doing, and Raph as well, and Doug Church back in the day. This is bunk.

    Just because you can develop a robust analytical language for describing game design (or in Danc's case, reactions to events based on game design) does not mean that you can use that language to increase the effectiveness or efficiency of generating new game designs. Regardless of whether or not there are game "atoms" or "notes", and in general I am in Samuel's camp on this one, having a defined set and notational conventions does not enable one to generate new constellations of them any better than we currently do.

    The tools of literary analysis, rhyme and meter, prosody and zeugma, deconstructionism and close reading, may help us to better understand literary artifacts, but they are largely useless to the writer. True, they may help you to meet an established convention (hard to write a sonnet, for example, without paying attention to rhyme and meter), but they do not help you to write better within that convention. In fact, most of the great artists work away from or outside of the established conventions of their time, and it is only retroactively, through criticism, that we adjust our notions of convention such that we can fit these artists' works into our critical models (see Harold Bloom, T.S. Eliot, et. al.).

    While the exercise of symbolically mapping a game design may be helpful for individual designers to hone their understanding of game design (which, I understand, both Raph and Danc feel that it has for them), there is no symbolic language of game design, no matter how robust, that can arrive at all of the potential constellations that will produce good game designs. This is Godel vs. Russell all over again.

    Furthermore, the creation of abstract codifying systems touches only on one side of the game design issue. In Matthew Arnold's dichotomy, this is the Hellenic tradition of idealism, which attempts to identify transcendent structures to explain the pleasure of the encounter with culture. Equally important is the, in Arnold's somewhat colonial framework, Hebraic tradition that focuses on the empirical "factness" of the thing itself, and the way that the specifics of the work create a relationship not only of light but of sweetness. It is this interplay between structure and experience that is important, and a symbolic notational system may help us to understand the former, but it does nothing for the latter.

    Beyond the simple impossibility of creating a complete symbolic notation of game design lies the further problem of production. While there are, no doubt, better ways to document game design than the epic Tome of a GDD, and while it is indisputable that being able to document game designs is an integral part of being able to build games (at least, in the realm of large projects that require large teams), the notion that one symbolic system will produce greater efficiency across a broad range of games is itself nonsense. Ultimately, the symbolic system has to map back onto the concrete questions of implementation (not just code, but art, scripting, sound, etc.), and so while it can be helpful to annotate the structural mechanics of a design, there will always need to be fuller, more concrete desriptions of the play experience.

    For example, one of the techniques that I find useful when working with non-open-world games (ones in which there are discrete environments and limited paths through them) is to combine a top-down schematic of the play-space with a notational system that describes the various things players will encounter on the map (scripted events, puzzles, encounters with enemies, "wow" moments, etc.), these abstract notations always point to documents that fully lay out what makes those things different from other, similar encounters and how they should be experienced by the player. The map itself, without the referent description of the experience, would be useless to the scripters, artists, coders, etc. who actually have to build the damn thing, and while the map can provide a useful analytical tool to discover issues in pacing, variation, game flow, and progression, it ultimately helps to refine an already established design. In other words, it's an internally useful analytical tool, not a generative language.

    You can argue about whether or not it makes artists more efficient to understand the vocabulary of the critics, or to apply those critical filters to their work while creating, but it is indisputable that the language of criticism is not sufficient, and generally not necessary either, to producing works of art. Or games, either, for that matter. The examples that bear this out are far too numerous to bother mentioning.

    So, I'm all for people working to further develop their understandings of game design, and even for people advocating that other people in the industry (or the academy) work similarly to refine their own understandings of it, but I really wish that we could once and for all get rid of this notion that the field of game design will somehow benefit from a formal language, as I've said elsewhere. It's a fool's errand, and for that reason, best left to the academics.


  47. Thanks for stopping by, Eyejinx. Let's run with one of your themes for a little bit.

    I've heard the comment before that the feedback system I've proposed is 'only useful for tweaking an existing design'

    Imagine that instead of creating a large design and then entering into an extended production cycle, we start with a little design. This little design roughly describes core gameplay and takes a few days to implement.

    Now, we play test that prototype, log the results in a manner that provides useful feedback. Then we spend a few more days adding to the prototype. Repeat.

    For argument's sake, let's build the entire game this way. It isn't a phase. It is the entire development process. Is using the feedback system I've described for this particular process 'bunk?'

    In this scenario, we are dealing with simple practical problems here, not deep philosophical ones.

    - How do I record useful feedback from my prototype play sessions?
    - When there is lots of log information, how do I compress it so that I can understand it and manipulate it?

    I certainly appreciate the wildly divergent thoughts this essay has provoked, but I get the feeling that the core message was somehow lost. :-) It is all good though.

    take care

  48. Greetings:
    I'm always up for a little gedanken experimentation.

    Imagine that instead of creating a large design and then entering into an extended production cycle, we start with a little design. This little design roughly describes core gameplay and takes a few days to implement.

    Now, we play test that prototype, log the results in a manner that provides useful feedback. Then we spend a few more days adding to the prototype. Repeat.

    Fine, you're an advocate of iterative game design. I get that. I'd argue that, unless you're building an established genre with an established engine and toolset (like building an FPS with the UE3 engine and toolset), you're not going to be able to build a sufficiently sophisticated prototype in a few days. So, I'd say that you're better off using other mechanics to prototype, like pen and paper, or appropriated pieces from things like board games. But, independent of the mechanics, the answer to the question of whether you can build a game through iterative design is, obviously, yes.

    Of course, if you've got a large team on staff, you're going to have to work pretty hard to get out in front of the rest of the team; after all, you don't want the programmers to be idle while you're busy play-testing your prototypes. And particularly if you're going to bring in folks from outside the team for your playtests, your iteration cycles are likely to be longer than necessary, or practical for that matter. Of course, there are methods for tackling those problems as well, things like extreme programming, or Scrum.

    In general, the kind of iterative process you're talking about is going to work best either with very small teams, and thus very small projects, or as a pre-production phase that helps you to identify and refine all the pipelines you'll be using in production. In production, you're still going to need to scale up, which means solidifying the overall design and building for longer periods between evaluations.

    But, and here's the rub, let's say you and I have equivalently talented groups of programmers, artists, sound designers, scripters, and the rest to work with. You take the iterative approach you sketch out here. I do a more classical implementation of the Cerny method, with a top-down design approach. If we're both trying to make a competitive commercial mainstream product, my team gets there faster.

    Why? Because we can schedule the team more efficiently. Because we can implement already-established solutions without having to prototype them. Because we can rely on the expertise of the team rather than having to verify all of our decisions through playtesting. Because we're not duplicating effort by rough-drafting and then re-architecting the engine.

    I don't know which game would be better; not only is that highly subjective, but we just don't know enough about our respective design skills. But if my team finishes sooner, then we've got more time to polish and embellish the final product and get it onto the market before your team is done.

    So, you know, if you need to create notational systems to record feedback from your prototype play sessions, well, go for it. If you need to compress your data to understand it, then by all means, come up with ways to do that. No one's saying you shouldn't create tools to overcome your personal shortcomings.

    What I'm objecting to is what you yourself stated as the basic premise of your article: that creating a robust symbolic language of analysis for existing games will lead to increased efficacy in creating new games. I even quoted it in my previous response, so it would be clear. If addressing that is "wildly divergent", then you and I have a much deeper problem agreeing on the semantic definition of terms like "basic premise" that will prevent us from having any useful communication.

    You're not the first person to call for this kind of project, as Raph's post and his presentation at GDC demonstrate. You won't be the last either, no matter how much I fervently desire that were so.

    Ultimately, I'm not even against the concept of developing symbolic reference systems (which I state can be useful for refining your own understanding) that help you to refine the particular game you're work on. What I object to is the notion that there's a universal formal language of game design that will help all game designers to do their jobs better.

    That's just bunk.


  49. I disagree that it could only be used for "nearly completed" titles. By the way, this is by far the best article you have written (in my opinion) at least that I have read. Probably your breakdown of the lifecycle of videogame genres was more informative but as you were working with existing data that is a given. I think you are really on to something here. What is needed is a program to be written that records a timeline and as you said a list of all imput commands from the player and also records defined rewards obviously (with programmer defined amplitudes) and plasters it all on a timeline. You would use this system on what are regarded as the most popular games. The Marios, GoldenEyes and Zeldas. The groundbreakers for new genres and compare them with todays blockbuster titles (GoldenEye to Halo for example). As Danc said we are just collecting data, which we must do on existing games in order to formulate what we could classify as an 'optimal' game notation for an existing genre. Once we have this data we can EASILY distiguish where we need to put rewards (on an average timeline) as well as risks. So we sit down with a game concept, come up with our long term goals versus medium and short term goals and we can award amplitudes to these awards as well as awarding amplitudes to risks, remembering as Danc noted, the exponential buildup associated with layering our awards or our risks. Then we can easily assign these risks and rewards on our optimal notation based on our own chosen "average timeline". It would be exceedingly easy to see where you need what in the EARLIEST developmental stage. Then we build up these timelines with actual scripts and events and playtest them to ensure we are actually hitting our chosen timeline as well as our optimal notation score. Tweaking would be extremely easy for anyone remotely competent in reading the feedback notations. This notation system could even be used to anticipate genre lifecycle instead of using what we would call a "lagging indicator" of game sales. Incredible post Danc, I will have to link to this on my blog if you don't mind.

  50. eyejinx:

    You say that there won't ever be a formal language that will help game designers do their jobs better. You say that it isn't possible.

    So why does all other "entertainment" forms have these kinds of formal languages? Music has, theater has and the film industry has. There isn't ONE language that is used ALL the time by all, but different dialects that all put together gives a potential "artist" or "designer" a great tool to help him make music. Most languages DO restrict the user a great deal, but without it it becomes quite hard to be productive at all.

    Why? Because we can schedule the team more efficiently. Because we can implement already-established solutions without having to prototype them. Because we can rely on the expertise of the team rather than having to verify all of our decisions through playtesting. Because we're not duplicating effort by rough-drafting and then re-architecting the engine.

    You seem to disregard the fact that an "already-established" solution WILL meet upon difficulties during the developement phase that wasn't previously foreseen by the design team. These difficulties COULD potentially lead to a big rewrite of the design, and again rewrite of "finished" code. This has a much smaller chance of happening using an iterative design loop. Thus your project would have a much higher risk factor than what danCs project would. This "flaw" of current top-down game design is rampant through the industry, as you can see by all the games being delayed (close to all in-fact). The bigger the project, the higher the risk.

    From a funding point of view, these risks makes a project less interesting to invest in. The only reason companies invest in games now, is because of the huge potential for profits, IF the game is successful. And thus game companies design games that are "tried-and-tested" designs with graphics upgrades. Trying to "sell" a game to investors with : "We're going to do this amazing new thing that noone has done before!" will probably be met with alot of sceptisism. And you multiply that with the high risk factor of top-down design, the amount interested investors would be scarce. Iteration promotes creativity. No question about it.

    And to end this long post : The iteration design HUGELY benefits from the feedback logs that danC is suggesting. And the top-down design doesn't.

  51. Dan, I'm sure you are aware of the work by Ben Cousins (read his GDC lecture about this) concerning ludology and identifying ludemes.

    It seems there is a great deal of overlap in what you both are proposing.

    I absolutely agree that there are strong patterns of mechanical and psychological change during gameplay and that we are wise to study the sequencing of those patterns that lead to what we might loosely term "fun".

    It seems fairly obvious to me that as we study the core patterns, we will inherently become better at reproducing the pleasing patterns and subdue the less pleasing ones.

    Its like when you are improvising on an instrument, inevitably you end up drawing on patterns you enjoy to create a core structure for your music, then you apply other sequences, scales, harmonies as appropriate.

    I think its clearly absurd to think that we wont benefit from identifying and applying some solid theories to these "riffs" at least, then delving deeper into the composition of these patterns.

    I just dont see why people would have a problem with this.

    Its like saying that most music hasnt benefitted from popular patterns being identified and re-used. Like there is no value at all to the three-chord-trick?

    Almost all of popular music is identification of patterns that please people and their re-use within different contexts (or sometimes simply repetition of those).

    It seems likely that generally when creating games from "experience" all we are doing is subconciously applying the patterns (riffs) we enjoyed in the past.

    But as any real musician will try to tell you, relying on simple learn by rote riffs is a poor substitute for real musicianship. Sure the three-chord-trick would be fine for a lot of mass media, but if you really want to be an artist, you have to delve deeper into the structure of music.

    We are at the superficial level right now and I wholeheartedly support the efforts to delve into the deeper structures.

  52. sorry for coming late to this discussion, in only found it just now. my comments come from the perspective of a software developer who's helped teach an artist (writer, mostly) how to analyze his own work in order to improve it.

    first off, i think this is a great start. there are some gaps, as i see them, however. the most notable to me is the question of time scale.

    when i look at the graphics you produce, you have the executed actions on one axis, and the buzz on the other. the first problem that springs to mind with that representation is that actions (in your definition) are a series of verbs, each of which can take the user a certain amount of time to execute. that means that different actions will likely take different amounts of time to perform, thus making the time (actions) axis non-uniform. the result of that is that the length of time buzz is at a particular high or low point can't really be told from the graphs, but that seems to be a very important piece of data.

    another, related issue is pauses in the game. i'm not talking about the time spent on the toilet while the game is paused, i'm talking about the kind of games that allow you to essentially stop playing for a while. specifically, this problem is posed by MMORPGs, where you can essentially log on to the game and not play, but instead just talk to other players. it's pretty hard to record the difference between time spent doing something like that and time spent actually playing in order to analyze the buzzlevel/time. does running around in the game world count as play? when you're trying to reach a specific point to reach a goal, yes. when you're running around out of sheer boredom because your mates aren't online yet...? that problem doesn't invalidate the model, but makes it hard to apply to non-arcade games, imho.

    now you might have noticed that i'm hung up on time here as opposed to what the graphs actually _record_, namely executed actions. the thing is, i'm not sure whether buzz/actions is a good metric, or rather, whether it's the _major_ metric you should be looking at. what buzz/actions gives you is a look at how much effort the user has to put in to achieving a higher level of buzz. it shows you which sections of your game are less interesting than others. what it doesn't show you is the actual player experience, which in my opinion is better measured in buzz/time. i hope i made that difference clear :-/ i'm not always good at expressing these things in english.

    third, the notation system might be problematic when you you look towards how games might be built in the future. i remember a sequence from space quest, where you had to drop a rock on a spider droid. imagine a similar puzzle in a modern game engine. you might take a crowbar from your inventory to push the rock over the edge of the cliff. that's a pretty well-defined action that leads to a clearly defined reward. now what if your game world includes a good physics engine? you could drive a car into the rock instead, pushing it over the ledge. or you could drop the car on the spider droid. or you could park the car next to the rock, put a fuse in the fuel tank, and let the explosion push the rock off... my point here is that the more, umm, let's say "realistic" games get in terms of world interaction, the less simple it becomes to identify which actions led to which rewards.

    and that, i think, is a very important thing when attempting to analyze your game. specifically, if you don't expend any effort, the reward event will probably not be very rewarding. what i therefore think this notation system sorely lacks is a correlation between actions, risks and rewards that determines the strength of the resulting buzz. no, i haven't figured that out yet :P

    all in all, i get the feeling that the notation system as it is now would be very well suited to arcade-style games, in which the verbs and rules are fairly limited in number and complexity (i.e. side-effects). i can see jump'n'runs or simple shooters to be analyzed in this way, but when the shooter allows destroying part of the surroundings in order to kill enemies, things become difficult. and not because the notation system doesn't apply, but rather because of the technical difficulty of how to detect and therefore record how an action results in a specific reward.

    still, it's a great start and it's given me a lot to think about.

    i'm struck by how many of the posters here seem to think how useless the whole thing is, however. i'm struck by that mainly because it seems to parallel how many, many software developers think about tools to analyze the quality of your software, such as unittesting (not going into that here). there's a famous saying that illustrates why tools such as this notation system are useful: if the only tool you know is a hammer, everything will look like a nail. rephrased it might be: if you only know how to design your game intuitively, you're not likely to produce the best possible results. learn how to use many different tools, and learn _when they apply_. that's the only way known to man to produce works of excellence in a reasonable amount of time (pure chance takes too long).

  53. Danc,

    I find this article fascinating and important, and would like to talk to you. I have hosted a small and elite think-tank on the topic of "music on computers" (Project BBQ) that has been extremely successful in influencing that industry over the last 10 years.

    This year my team is putting on Project Horseshoe, a similar event but for Game Design.
    This one is by invitation only, and there will only be 50 attendees. Will you please contact me through the contact info in my website? Thanks.

    George A. Sanger
    The Fat Man

  54. Hello Danc, I am really late on this, I just have to hope that you'll still read this...
    Well I enjoyed your article A LOT and there is something I wrote I'd love to hear your opinion. I'm Alessandro Canossa, at the moment writing a Phd on level design in Denmark. I don't know how to get in touch with you, but if you have time and are curious enough to google me, please send me a line. I am not a webstalker, I repeat, I'd just like to hear your opinion on my articles. Ciao.

  55. My email is danc [at] lostgarden [dot] com if you want to contact me. :-)