Monday, October 24, 2011

Ten Rules for Game Design

All rights (c) Hasbro.
OK, well, the first five. Mark Rosewater, the man behind Magic, is writing a 2 part article on game design principles. Worth a look. Especially for teachers who want to get their game on. I'll share his categories, with notes on educational games.

1) Goal(s). 
Usually easy for educational games.

But wait... maybe not. Teachers are used to setting objectives, but the kind of objective makes a big difference in the game.  If in addition to content objectives, the teacher has process objectives, it can make a big difference in the game. The good news for mathies is that any game with strategy feels like it's connecting to the problem solving process.
2) Rules. 
Rules need to be understandable, but make things hard enough for the player. I think some ed games have trouble here, because of the old saw about about good teachers make things easy for their students. Goes well, however, with the resurgence of the 'be less helpful' mode of teaching. (We can't call it new if Dewey was onto it.)
3) Interaction. 
The game has to help what players do matter to each other. This is a major failing of Jeopardy and Bingo and Baseball, etc. where competition is the only interaction. Probably this is the best aspect of my most recent game Card Catch, with Nick Smith. Players set the goal for each other, and the longer the game goes on, the more information you have about your opponents' cards, which adds a whole second level of strategy and math.
4) Catch-Up
If a player who falls behind has no chance, it disengages them. I just recently noticed how much this matters to me. I think because as a game lover, this is one of the few things I loathe about them. Think about the slow grinding Monopoly death... (shudder) Within the game, players need to be able to catch up. It doesn't have to be likely - then it's Candy Land, where you can't keep a lead. You might as well be teleporting around that board. It does have to be possible, which will help create stories of the epic win.

In educational games this is a double danger, since so many ed games reward players who've already learned the material. If a math game is about who's fastest, there are students who start the game knowing there's no hope. Sometimes this is an easy fix by adding a bit of chance, but usually it requires structural design.  I think this principle is why so many games get pushed to review in the classroom, instead of being used to help learn.

5) Inertia.
Leave them wanting more. Get out while the getting's good. Dave Coffey is excellent at this with his lessons, always leaving students something to think about on the way home. I measure this by whether students are 'whew' or 'ohhhhh' when our time is up. In my experience this connects heavily with (2), Rules. Too easy or too hard shows up here.

Mark connects it with writing advice: make it as short as you can, then cut 10%.

Also tough for teachers, because we're trained to go until everyone finishes. Much better to have people sitting around doing nothing (quietly, of course) than to have anyone not have a chance to finish. That's murder to a game.

So Far So Good
I'd be really interested in hearing other people's ideas about this. Not sure where the best venue is ... maybe the Linked In game based learning group?

If his list next week is as good as this week's look for my part 2 next Monday! I'm enjoying wondering what the next five things must be...

It was 2 weeks! My 2nd part is up, with links to Mark's 2nd part.

Image credits: Usonian, Kathy Cassidy @ Flickr


  1. Hi! First post I read of yours.

    Catchup, as you point out, seems specially important in a game that might use knowledge that is already known and better understood by some.

    I'd be specially interested to hear of the types of structural changes you think about.

    I understand non-luck-based negative-feedback loops in games but imagine there are special considerations for educational games you could help explain?

  2. Structurally I think you can attend to this by involving some randomization, or talking speed out of it, or minimizing the impact of previous mistakes. (Compare golf where a bad shot makes the next harder to tennis where a bad shot takes you to the next point.)

    If instead of negative feedback it becomes constructive feedback, it both supports the player and addresses the game's primary learning objective. Often that happens when a less skilled player can gain understanding from watching the more skilled player play.

  3. Nice list. Inertia and catch-up are ones I never thought about, but I always tried to design German-style games in which no player is out of the game - and waiting - until the game ends.

    I think you might like Bernie Dodge's Exploratory Learning Through Educational Simulation and Games course and site. These have even more design rules plus very good instructions on how to design games for education.

    I personally like games based on topic-specific chance and concept-and-skill-strategy to teach, review and explore outcomes. My favourite is the Evolution game created by Simon Boswell and Phillip Lewis. I consider this game an exemplar of education game design because play is dependent on evolutionary and ecological processes. In addition, for the 20 or so years that this game has been played, reviews have stated that no one game has ever been repeated and each game has "revealed" new evolutionary and ecological "behaviours".