This past week, aside from dealing with massive web-related headaches, I managed to re-read Raph Koster’s excellent presentation from the 2005 Game Developer’s Conference. Any serious student of games owes it to themselves to take a look through. It’s witty, it’s fairly accesible, and it avoids being dry like many academic studies on the subject. Which is not a problem for me, but it can be hard to get the message through when just reading through Rules of Play.
There’s a great many things I agree with Raph on. And then there’s one big point that I don’t. We disagree on what the smallest pieces of a game are, and how that relates to what exactly makes a good game.
There are those who would say (not Raph and not myself) that any Good Game is one that you enjoy. These would be the same people who say that any good painting is one you enjoy, or any good tv show that you enjoy, or any music that you enjoy. This is a subjective theory of Goodness. And I will agree that any game you enjoy can be a good game… for you.
However, the purpose of many academic fields is to say either there is an subjective value of good (an extreme example of this is in post-modernism) or an objective value of Good. (Notice the capital letter.) Academic studies that focus on the objective are fields like Aestethics, where it is argued that certain techniques register better with the human brain, and so are better. Similarly for music theory, and as Raph references in his presentation, choreography.
So let’s assume, entirely for argument’s sake, that the objective theory is right. This is because if we develop an objective theory, we can design games with these objective priniciples in mind. In a subjective few of design, you’re just doing market research to figure out what people like and try to move the game to fit it. This is, of course, what Hasbro and similar companies do. But I am not interested in what will sell (as should be obvious by how much money I’ve made from game designer!) but how good a game I can make.
So Raph’s assesertation, if I understand correctly, is that the central design point of every game is a verb. Some action is taken, and “atoms” or “beats” extend from that.
This is where we disagree, but only kind of: I believe the heart of every game is in a decision. A verb seems to imply the decision is “do this or not.” Again, this is an oversimplification, but an important one: when designing a game, I do not look at what a person must do. I look at what a person must decide. My game designs are guided by attempting to have quality decisions.
Part of this, of course, is because Raph is talking about video games mainly, and comes from a video game background. My field of study is much more into rpgs and boardgames. While in many ways the two have a lot to learn from each other and have a lot of overlap, in a pratical sense, it is often hard when you boil it down to translate some of these terms.
So that all was a long winded way of answering: What is a Good Game anyway? It’s one filled with interesting decisions for the players. A game’s “goodness” is defined by the quality of the decisions you have to make within the game. It also means that a game is defined by having decisions at all, an assumption that I am questioned on constantly by people asking “is this a game?” and then us trying to remember how the game is played and if you have any decisions.
I think we finally figured out that Candyland barely qualified as a game because it has one decision. But it is not a Good game because it only has one decision and it’s not a very good one.
Even if you enjoy it.