About Me

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Seattle, Washington, United States
I'm an old time roleplayer who became a soldier who became a veteran who became a developer who became a dba who became a manager who never gave up his dream of a better world. Even if I have to create it myself.

Monday, February 20, 2012

#1 Rule of Game Design

I used to work for an MMORPG game development shop, which shall remain nameless.  The management at said company left a lot to be desired.  I was young at the time, and couldn't really articulate why they weren't effective, but now I realize it was a fundamental lack of pure management skills - they loved video games, but didn't understand how business worked, lacked basic leadership skills, and didn't understand project management.

Still, they loved video games, and games of all kinds really.  There is at least one positive thing I learned while there - the fundamental rule of game design and game play.

Rule 1:  The game must be fun.

Remember this?

This rule gets overlooked so often that it makes me wonder why some people play games at all.  A great example is loss-of-xp mechanics.  In some games, when you die, you lose XP.  Why?  To punish the player for their character dying.  Here's a corollary to rule #1:

Corollary 1:  Punitive rules are not fun.

Game designers shouldn't punish players for playing their game.  The players will eventually realize that they are victims and seek liberation via another game.  World of Warcraft doesn't make you lose XP and it's one of the most popular online pseudo-RPG games of all time, making any argument about how awesome it is to lose XP moot.  Blizzard realized dying basically sucked on its own; not only do you know you lost, but you also can't play for a few minutes, and that's crappy enough.

The most pitiful excuse for this type of behavior is that punishing players somehow adds to the "realism" of the game.  What a great segue to the next corollary.

Corollary 2:  Realism != Fun.

I wrote a whole post on Realism != Fun so I won't rehash that here. What I will hash here is that when people talk about things like loss of XP adding to "realism" they probably rather mean that they want other players to act more realistically. Like, you know, most people are afraid of torture and death - so don't talk smack to the King.  Making magic items should be taxing, so don't turn out wands of cure light wounds like they are candy canes.  Ghosts are scary, so if your character sees one, try freaking out a little.

How often has the threat of xp-loss convinced players to do any of those things?  Right.  Now, how often has that type of rule just caused them to be more belligerent?

It is human nature to rebel against XP taxation without representation, at least according to the American Revolutionary War.  Either a group and its players are interested in acting out some drama, or they are not.  Punishing them won't change their behavior.

If a game really wants to address these sorts of issues, it needs to not be lazy in its rules design, or at least in world design.  Find story-propelling reasons and hooks where possible.  Maybe a character's god gets angry if they siphon a bunch of holy power into the "Wands r Us" factory (atonement quest!) - or maybe there shouldn't be a mechanical reason to need three billion charges of CLW anyways (fix the rules!).  Maybe ghosts cause random schizophrenia (fun roleplaying!).

Maybe when a character dies, not playing for 30 minutes or an hour while waiting for a resurrection is already bad enough.

When designing any adventure, feature, or mechanic, always ask:  Is it Fun?


  1. I can't say I entirely agree with your premise.

    WoW may have removed XP loss, but they still have
    a penalty for death: running back to your corpse and paying repair bills. Are these fun?

    I think gaming isn't JUST about designing for fun. It's about a balance between fun and challenge.

    Here is a relevant image: http://images2.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20110522180205/vsrecommendedgames/images/a/a5/Dwarf_Fortress_fun.png

    But then what do I know - I write finance systems for a living.

  2. I think "fun" can include challenging - just not punishments. Taking things away that a player has already earned is not fun. Giving them a challenge to overcome can be done in such a way as to create fun.

    That being said I have the following responses.

    1) Repair bills are anti-fun and should never have existed in WoW or any other game, unless there's one called "blacksmithopoly", or the game is otherwise very simulationist in design (which most RPGs are not). WoW only avoids backlash by making repair costs minor and by being awesome in other ways (or at least addictive).

    2) that comic is great

    3) finance systems are even less fun than XP loss. What cover story do you use when trying to impress people at the bar?

  3. Games do need to have *some* form of punishment though. If you die, you get punished for the death - in WoW, it takes the form of a corpse run. Would the game be more fun if you immediately ressed after death and continued fighting without skipping a beat? Maybe for half an hour, but then it would get dull for lack of a challenge.

    To me, it's all about balance - using your terminology - a balance between punishment and fun. I agree that XP Loss is too much punishment, but there has to be at least some form.

    And by impress people at the bar I assume you mean impress elves at the tavern? In that case, I tell them I have a +4 Sword of Undeath and a Level 85 Paladin. That makes all the elves put out.

    Also, where's today's latest blog post?

    1. Characters can be "punished" to some degree, but I wouldn't call it punishment so much as the negative outcome of a challenge, like being caught while stealing the crown jewels. Still, it needs to not even be a fair penalty, but rather a very slight penalty (it will always feel bigger).

      Players, as versus to characters, should never be punished. XP is a metagame attribute, and represents an investment of time from the player. Taking XP, therefore, punishes the player.

      In a tabletop game, sending a character to jail (prison break!) or stealing some of their money (story hook!) can be ok in the right circumstances. In games like WoW, gold is a lot more of a metagame attribute - it more directly represents a player's effort and not the character's - and so taking it in that type of game is just annoying with a zero fun coefficient.

    2. A very interesting point, one I've never thought of before.

      You see, I've never ever made the distinction between metagame punishments and non-metagame punishments in games, simply because I metagame *everything*. I don't see a corpse run as an ingame result of my character being killed, but rather as a time based metagame punishment.

      It's the same reason I would wear a pink headband without a second thought if it gave me a +1 stat to something.

      I suppose that's one of the distinctions between a hardcore and casual gamer. I've never really met a hardcore gamer that cared about the non-metagame aspects of a game. That's the gaming culture I've always identified with.

      In the end, to players like me, punishments are punishments. It doesn't matter if it's a corpse run or a repair bill, it just has to balance out with the fun.

    3. http://www.nerfnow.com/comic/450


    4. Kinda sad when I look at that and my first reaction is, "I kinda miss the old Desolace."

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. I agree that games should be fun and designers avoid use of the stick to modify behavious.

    Whilst it is a quick and easy way to change behaviour it just irritates me.

    The old money grind in wow (at level 60) to pay repair bills whilst raiding quite simply sucked. This was mitigated later due to the relative ease of obtaining cash in game.

    I suspect a different mechanic was intended here, mainly to provide a money sink in game to assist with controlling inflation. But thats a whole other story.

    You may be interested in http://www.lostgarden.com/

    It is an interesting site full of game design insights and generally reflects your attitude.

    PS, I have a +5 Sword of Undeath.

    1. Incidentally, using the proverbial stick at work is equally unsatisfactory. One of my pet peeves is poor leadership, and a cornerstone of poor leadership is using the stick rather than truly addressing the root cause.

      (Disclaimer: Stick is ok when lives are on the line)


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