Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Game Design Isn't Engineering It's Biology

One thing you notice if you pay attention to critical indie game designer circles is: jesus christ these people play a lot of D&D. I mean, even the ones who have a critique D&D or hate the company or say they're permanently emotionally scarred by it or whatever. Last time I was in a game store the counter guy said Fate was what everyone should play instead of D&D--that isn't what the co-founder of Fate thinks because what he's playing in the pandemic is D&D. People like D&D. They like Vampire. They even liked Shadowrun. They play games that they are sure they can do better than.


Here's what I think: everybody needs to stop pretending they know how games work. We don't. You know what Gary Gygax did? He made a game with no dungeons, based on a wargame, it was ok, and then Dave Arneson added dungeons and messed with it and both of them were probably influenced by Braunsteins--which, like, the guy who made that didn't have any idea that it was a whole pandora's box to go, in the middle of a wargame, "Yeah, sure, you can drop leaflets on the island to try to start a revolution, that's part of war I guess"--and then somehow this combination produced the game that makes people want to play games or make games or never shut up about games.

And then--none of them ever made anything that good ever again. Lejendary Adventures anyone?

In the '90s, Vampire: The Masquerade came out and completely changed the industry--Call of Cthulhu was already out, Chill 2nd Ed was already out--also a game with slick art about modern horror, and yet neither were a patch on Vampire. And then there was Werewolf and a series of other games which were fine, sure, but that were exactly as less-popular-than-vampire as the monsters they were named after were.

And then the people involved never made anything that popular ever again.


I could go on: Sandy Petersen on Call of Cthulhu, Pondsmith with Cyberpunk, any number of indie darlings, this industry is littered with not just one-hit wonders but also Clever Game Theorists who never produce anything that catches on. 

I think there's a reason for this: nobody really fucking knows what makes games work.


So that's where the title of this post comes in. Engineering is about what humans make--you understand a principle, you understand the physics behind a simple machine, you build bigger and bigger machines based on these understood things. Nearly everyone in the industry talks about games this way--as built bit by bit from knowable parts that they can explain to you.

But it's not like that--making a game involves spinning a metastatic cotton candy web of fictions and then making the rules key off every part of those fictions (often in chaotic ways you didn't expect to have to do when designing the project) and it becomes much less like building a car and more like when a novelist tells you the characters start telling them what they have to do next.

A game isn't a machine you build--it's an animal that you find living next to the mouth of a volcano and you didn't know anything could live there and then you study it.

Engineering is starting with nothing and creating something, biology is starting with something and going ok what the fuck?

People have real trouble with the idea that some beardy paternalistic Christian '70s insurance guy is smarter than them and so they think game design can't be that hard. Well it is, but not for the reason they think--they're not trying to compete with the people who made D&D because the people who made D&D are right next to them on the ground watching their creation stomp around Tokyo smashing buildings breathing fire and they don't know why either.

A successful game is like a platypus. You're probably doing less useful game design when you point out all the things about D&D or another mainstream game that shouldn't work (It's poison! It's got an electromagnetic beak!) than when you're trying to figure out why it does work anyway despite all the other competitors that don't.

Just as, on paper, a bunch of random electrochemical reactions should not have resulted in self-replicating cells which should not have resulted in a tyrannosaurus which in turn should not have eventually evolved into a cornish game hen, no adult should be so attached to sitting around a table playing pretend with way more paper and accoutrements than necessary with no audience for four hours. That shouldn't work.

Like biology, game design must be understood as the study of the workings of things that should not work.

This requires a humbleness in the face of unknowing which is wholly uncharacteristic of nerds. It requires a letting-go of the comforting nerdwords of predictive science like "will" and "should" and "always". It also requires knowing (this is very difficult) that all the things you know you got right weren't necessarily the important thing.





Paul said...

I like this post! Nice work man

Simon Tsevelev said...

A good comparison, since, in my opinion as a guy who'd had medical science crammed into his skull for twenty years, "biology is kind of like engineering only it's been done for millenia without a plan other than let's see how long this thing can self-replicate and ohhh let's put them ALL in one place and see how they interact so yes, it kind of got complex over the years". And with games, if you really want to predict what's going to be a hit, you have to take into consideration everything including popular culture, trends in economy, gun laws, dog breeds, et cetera, et cetera, and do it REALLY fast because it's all going to change while you're making your game.
It just doesn't work that way, okay.

teamslope said...

You've said it's quite difficult to do tarot cards "well". How do you feel about these Cyberpunk 2077 ones?


As to the topic, Gygax didn't even really play any version of DnD he sold, he just ran weird oDnD, and a lot of his advice he didn't even follow. It's wild he'd do up mega-dungeon sized levels, then just have 1 table for loot and 1 table for monsters and traps. He also gave experience points for magic, apparently, since someone got a snap of him doing that at one gen con or another. I don't really understand why never tried to sell the version of DnD that he actually liked running.

Zak Sabbath said...


re: Tarot Cards -- theyre ok but not special as tarot cards

re: Gygax -- He was making things for the market. As soon as they published the first pre-made adventure they decided on that path

Sean Whittaker said...

Well put! Also, I don't think I've ever played a true "as written" RPG. They've all been modified in some way, either through poor understanding of intent or a willful disregarding of the rules. If the game were a car, we'd have stalled it because we diesel in the gas tank.

Cars, I've learned at great cost, very much require you to follow explicit instructions.

Games? Well, our Monopoly game got really interesting once we adopted an obscure house variant involving blood sacrifices...

Zak Sabbath said...

@sean Whittaker

What's fun is to get 2-4 Monopoly boards, like Star Wars monopoly and Simpsons monopoly, and hook them together at the corner in a figure-8/domino mask configuration so there's twice as many properties.

ᶘ ᵒ㉨ᵒᶅ Rusty James said...

U hit the nail on head

Kekeke said...

nobody plays rpgs as written and the idiots that do tend to feel the pressing need to write an entire rpg and advertise it as "fixing the issues" that everyone else just houseruled away.

"this rpg has special rules for players missing sessions" yeah everyone else just says your guy was stuck doing his taxes or whatever

"this rpg has special rules to incentivize roleplaying" great thanks for adding rules to something that didnt need rules

Penny Dreadful said...

Welp. You can black out all the other RPG back-of-book quotes.
We've got the pinnacle now.

Alex J said...

Ron Edwards may be an evolutionary biologist, but as far as game theory goes he was definitely Intelligent Design.

Geoff said...

I think you're onto something here (and being bloody funny too). I know campaign planning =/= game system design but every time I have tried to sit down and formally design a campaign structure, it has died on its arse in play. All the stuff I've done that's worked has been riffing off a constantly evolving thing and steering it at best.

Zak Sabbath said...


I think that’s pretty accurate-/
And I think campaign planning (and GMing) are closely connected skills to game design. GMing has A performance element in real time but in almost every other respect do you need the same skills.

it’s been my experience that people are about as good at writing game material as they are a GMing

Geoff said...

"it’s been my experience that people are about as good at writing game material as they are a GMing"

Probably personal bias speaking, but there does seem to be a stereotype of people who spout high falutin pronouncements about a thing that do not actually spend very much time DOING the thing in a lot of walks of life - The sort of person who comes up with a very complicated new thing that is utterly unworkable at the actual coal face.

Not enough asking oneself "How is this going to work, at a table, with a bunch of ordinary people who may not all be tuned in to the same wavelength?"

Trent B said...

Dig this. I've been getting best results in developing game bits by trial and error/iteration rather than by design. Takes time, and an uncertain amount, which I think is a problem for anyone who has a schedule.

Zak Sabbath said...


Erased. No anonymous comments.