Saturday, October 4, 2008

Theme and game design

Recently I was chatting with some friends about the role of 'theme' in game design. Theme, in this discussion, was the setting of the game, be it fantasy, sci-fi, military, etc. At first blush, the typical game designer's use of theme appears a bit primitive.
  1. Limited range compared to the wide variety of themes in movies or books. Games recycle a half dozen major themes or in some cases invent their own surrealist themes that make little sense outside the context of the game. Books, despite being grouped into narrow genres, have explored many thousands of powerful, evocative settings. You have books about bored European manuscript editors exploring the bizarre world of the pseudo occult and you have books set inside the mind of a quadriplegic. The disparity in variety is intriguing.
  2. Crudely applied. Theme is applied in broad strokes at the beginning of many games, but almost always plays second fiddle to interesting game mechanics. Goombas are mushrooms, but this matters little beyond the fact that they are squat, match the scale of the world and can be squashed. If a novelist lazily integrated a character into their book's theme the way that game developer do on a regular basis they would never be published.
The result is that theme is often seen as an interchangable 'skin' that can be applied after the fact to a set of working game mechanics. The task is typically left to marketers to round up a popular license so that it can be painted onto the latest hot collection of game mechanics. This attitude towards theme affects the very fabric of game development.

And yet, something interesting occurs when we work this way. Very few licensed games turn into major long term franchises. They often feel incomplete and the pieces ill matched. On the other hand, seminal 'grown from scratch' games like Bejeweled, Mario, Quake, GTA or Sims end up doing amazingly well. Despite their surreal and often disjointed themes, they are surprisingly fun. In these titles, the theme of the game mechanics and the theme evolved hand-in-hand, often undergoing major switches half way through before settling into a successful partnership.
  • The Sims was a game about architecture that morphed into a game about playing dollhouse.
  • Grand Theft Auto was a cops and robbers chase game where you were the cop. It evolved into a game about being a free roaming criminal.
  • Quake was an Aztec style world where you tossed about a giant Thor-like hammer. It evolved into a nameless soldier battling against the mutants in a series of brown dungeons.
  • Bioshock was originally about Nazi's on an island.
If you start to dig into how game generate 'fun', many of these thematic transformations are, if not inveitable, certainly commonplace. It turns out that most game designers are not complete idiots when it comes to integrating theme and setting into their game designs. Designers aren't ignoring theme. They are simply using theme in a manner appropriate to the medium in which they work.

Some logic behind the madness
If you look at games as being about exploratory learning, they tend to teach the player a series of skills. First the player learns basic skills (how to press a button) and overtime assemble a scaffold of skills that lets them engage in more complex scenarios like 'save the princess'. Each moment of learning gives a burst of pleasure.

These basic skills are utilized over and over again. If the player fails to learn them, the rest of the game is lost on them. Games reward involvement, yet there is a high cost the player must pay in terms of initial learning necessary to become involved.

"Theme" from this perspective, is shorthand for a collection of preexisting mental tools, skills and mental models. I think of it as a tool chest of chunked behaviors that the designer can rely upon to smooth out the initial learning curve.

The theme you select directly influences how you present your initial skills to the user. By saying "Pirates", I turn on a particular schema in the player's brain and a network of possible behaviors and likely outcomes instantaneously lights up. If they see a pirate with an impressive sword facing a small soldier, the goal of fighting the enemy is self evident. With a small visual cue, I've eliminated minutes of painful initial learning.

There is a fascinating moment in the sequence of exploratory learning where players say to themselves "Oh, I recognize and have mastered this situation already, so let me demonstrate my excellence." Because of the triggering of the theme, the challenge appears possible and
attainable. If on the other hand, I had substituted the pirates with gray blob A and orange blob B, the player might be quite confused and not even bother to pick up the controller.

Why so few themes?
To a certain degree this perspective on games explains the limited number of themes used in games compared to books or movies. A book uses theme as a hook to get people interested in plot and character dynamics. There are lots of potential hooks and the more unique they are, the more intrigued the reader is to find out more. This encourages a proliferation of fascinating settings.

On the other hand, a good theme in a game is one that triggers a number of clear mental models that are applicable to the game mechanics at hand. If you push too far outside the experience zone of potential players, you make them feel inadequate.

It also suggests that occasionally a literary theme simply is not needed. Sometimes it is better to just tell the player, "Hey, it is a game and like any game you've played, we'll educate you as you go." The same triggering of appropriate schema occurs. If it is enough to grease the wheels of learning, then our mission as a game designer is accomplished.

"Skinning" game designs is a bad practice
When you look at game design from the 'games as learning' perspective, the idea of creating an slap-on aesthetic skin for a set of game mechanics starts to break down. In the best games, mechanics and theme evolve in lockstep over the course of the many iterations. If a mechanic isn't working, you have a couple choices. You can adjust the rules or you can adjust the feedback that the player receives. The two act in concert to produce the player's learning experience.

A good portion of the time, it makes sense to adjust the feedback side of the equation. What if people don't understand that the pirate is their character? Maybe it makes sense to make the pirate wear a right red outfit and the enemy a bit more evil looking. When you do so, the theme of the game shifts ever so slightly. Over hundreds (or thousands) of tweaks, a theme for the game might emerge that is quite different than what you originally envisioned. This is often the case for the best game in the history of our industry.

In fact, the final theme may be semi-incoherent if you attempt to analyze it as a literary work. However, that doesn't matter because it provides the moment-by-moment scaffolding of feedback that helps the player learn their way through the game. As long as the game is fun and delivers value to the customer we can often toss the literary definition of theme out the window.

In fact, you start getting into trouble when you make the theme so rigidly defined that you can't adjust the feedback for specific game mechanics. What if you are dealing with a license where the pirate isn't allowed to wear a red outfit? That design option, which may have been the best one available, is taken off the table. The hundreds of little trade offs that occur when theme coherence wins and gameplay loses diminishes the effectiveness of the game.

So you can't just 'skin' a set of game mechanics. When you do makes the attempt, a well executed iterative process of game design will often result in a game that is quite different than its source material. A poorly executed process results in a game that plays poorly.

There are a couple lessons here.
  • The most effective game themes exist primarily to facilitate the learning process for the player. This may be a traditional narrative theme, but it doesn't need to be.
  • Theme evolves in lock step with the rules of the game over a process of many iterations. You might as well plan for it. Early on develop vertical slices of your game. This will help you converge on working combinations of theme and rules. As you go allow for iteration on production assets.
  • Locking in your theme too early and too rigidly can stunt the exploration of more effective feedback systems. A bit of flexibility often yields better gameplay.
take care


  1. It's an interesting article...Reading through something bothered me about it, though, and I think it's because what you call "theme" I would just call "setting". For me, a "theme" would be more like some insight or experience you're trying to get from the game. In that sense, the setting of DOOM would be a military base on Mars invaded by demons...But its theme would be the exploration of mazes filled with enemies, items and secrets.

    Well, I suppose it's all just terminology anyway...

  2. I believe you are referring to Quake and not Doom in your theme examples.

    I think you nailed it with the pirates analogy. It is all about being able to relate. The more relative your game theme is, the easier it is to introduce higher level gameplay into your game earlier. Most people understand military encounters or at least have been exposed to them through games, tv, news, movies, books, etc. Most people instantly know what to expect from a shotgun and how to use it. They know the shots won't be accurate from far away but will be deadly close up. You don't have to teach the player this. You do have to teach the player in Portal the parameters behind the portal gun, what surfaces it can stick to, how to gain velocity, etc.

    You also gain enormous context with a setting someone can relate to. A majority of the fantasy games released are related to Tolkienesque ideas. Characters in dresses with pointy ears have an affinity for magic. Orcs are bad. Dwarves like to live underground, etc. Games that have tried to use non-traditional themes that fall into the fantasy realm can sometimes be a critical success, but are rarely financially successful. Sacrifice and Planescape are two that come to mind. The creatures in Sacrifice were too surreal and abstracted. The entire theme was. I truly believe if they had stuck to elves, wizards, knights, dragons, trolls - it would have been a successful product. I'm not saying these games don't have merit - what they did was raise the barrier of entry for players willing to invest in their game.

    There are always going to be exceptions to these rules, Mario is often cited as being this incredibly abstracted world that managed to achieve unbelievable success. There are several reasons for this, the big one being the exclusive advantage the game had when it shipped with tens of millions of Nintendo systems for free. It didn't hurt that the game was engaging on the gameplay level and coupled with the nostalgia factor that propelled later editions of the game - it's easy to see why it was successful.

  3. Aye, the joys of overlapping terminology. Here are a couple other words I've seen used to cover roughly equivalent concepts:
    - Genre: If you are talking to people outside the game industry, you'll sometimes hear 'genre' used as well since books are often in the fantasy genre or military genre. Yet, genre often (but not always) means classes of game mechanics in the game industry.
    - Metaphor: Since we are setting a mental state for approaching a set of problems, you can think of it as setting up a metaphor that the game design follows.

    So which works best? Setting, theme, metaphor, genre or perhaps another one that I'm missing?

    take care

  4. Theme as in Theme Park, right?

  5. "You have books about bored European manuscript editors exploring the bizarre world of the pseudo occult"

    Are you talking about "Foucault's Pendulum"?

  6. "Setting" does seem to be more accurate than "theme" in context here. A game with any number of thematic elements could exist in any setting.

    Wonderful piece, though of course I'm sympathetic to your line of thinking :-)

  7. Ack, this really got me thinking my current project and it's planning. The idea of use theme as a tool to implement higher gameplay is pretty good and I haven't though it before (well I'm just hobbyist developer, meh). This was really enlightening article so thanks :)

  8. Nice post as always. I wrote a similar note a few months ago (, but at the time I didn't give much thought to the idea of mechanics and metaphor/theme being constructed in tandem. Now I see though, that the overall design will be stronger by not letting one dictate the other.