Design Essentials: Genre Engineering
Installment-3 in the series of general game design discussion. An old interview of Sid Meier provides some "topic seeds" on taking play elements from one type of game and employing them in another format. The subject is developed with examples from Gamegrene contributors actively cultivating ideas on genre-splicing game designs.
Before Sid Meier programmed his first computer game hit he played a lot of board games and was, in his own words, "into Avalon Hill". While he doesn't credit inspiration to A.H. in the chapter 2 interview of Game Design: Theory & Practice (Amazon) Meier admits to gaining "seed ideas" from board games. Those seeds sprouted game titles that are now of legendary status; F-15 Strike Eagle, Pirates!, Railroad Tycoon, Civillization and many more.
What the board games provided, according to the prolific computer game designer, was distilled research and a framework of what is fun and compelling about a topic. Not coincidentally Gamegrene's own prolific adventure designers -- and Time's Person of the Year (we are legion) -- Whutaguy, Cocytus, Scott Free, and others I haven't discovered -- also employ cross-pollination techniques.
Based on the seed ideas comment it is no surprise that Sid Meier starts with a topic before deciding on a genre for a new game idea. We make take that the category of game is flexible while the play subject is the critical focal point. It may seem backward to adventure writers who are creating for a specific game format, but Scott Free's suggestion on Cry Havoc! could be taken differently. The examples are clearly cross-genre solutions.
So why bother with juggling game elements at all? In the most general of terms, nothing exists in a vacuum. It is the nature of humans to test their environment, to play with things so to speak. Complex games are more susceptible to "improvements" through adaption and refinement than simple ones, so adaptations of various RPG systems will be more common than chess versions, but no game is immune.
Some more specific reasons:
1.) Solve problems
In the "Cry Havoc!" example my motivation is to distinguish different gameplay phases for D&D characters. Early on, individual character development is at the forefront in D&D. Rolling up a character can be a very involved (and frustrating) process but once it is complete the task of developing or refining the character is much simpler. At no later point will more detailed traits (abilities, feats, skills, story) be set or changed in one instance than at creation. Along the standard development path each subsequent level increases the ratio of established traits to gained attributes.
At the same time the characters are growing in relation to the game world in an opposite arc. Enemies and challenges are growing more complex. The characters move from common rat-zingers (apologies to the Pope) and progress to more substantial targets like dragons and liches. The question of basic survival transforms into what epic mark they may make on the world.
One specific cue for me was the Leadership feat. Whether or not the specialization is selected, characters should be gaining notoriety, power and influence on par with the feat. Their nemeses will certainly be attracting followers and utilizing hirelings. At this point characters take their first steps past the micromanagement stage and into macro-management territory. To promote the feel of that shift, I wanted to mix in mass battles with the individual encounters, to move them from saving themselves to "saving the princess" to saving whole kingdoms.
The immediate problem was large scale conflicts were clunky with the edition of D&D in use. I tried D&D Miniatures with some success but was limited by newness of the product at the time, the randomization marketing strategy and my own limited purchasing power. There were some orcs, for example, but not all the types of orc troops I needed. Learning the combat system, however similar, helped eat up a whole evening on one battle. Switching between mass-battle rules to standard D&D rules was a problem in sevral instances.
Fusing parts of a game like Cry Havoc into D&D could have created a nice, seamless solution.
2.) Focus on or emphasize different parts of gameplay
The D&D Miniatures game itself is an example of genre-splicing. Characteristics from D&D were melded with a minis wargame category. It focused on the action and tactical parts of D&D and eliminated rolling of characters entirely, a very refreshing change for some, but still shallow enough not to displace the role of the mother game.
3.) Creating new gameplay
Toying with the interplay of mechanisms and systems for new and interesting experiences is game design at its bleeding edge.
Let us return to the question in an earlier topic about whether repainting a Monopoly board qualifies as game design. If the repainted board added more streets and some stoplights, incurring new game mechanics, and new character capabilities were added beyond roll, move, buy, sell and otherwise exchange money, then we would have a budding game in development. Defacing or enhancing an opponent's properties and neighborhoods with graffiti, homeless and drug dealers.
4.) [ Your answer here ]
What reasons do you have for tampering with a game's set-up? "House rules" are universally recognized but the reasons are not often discussed.
A to B and Back Again
A lot of your games seem to be inspired in part from board games. But, as you just said, Civilization would never really work as a board game.
--Rouse to Meier in the GD:T&P interview
Whether or not the the Civ game works as a board game I can't say, but they are certainly selling it. Board games seeded the Civ series which in turn inspired a board game.
Pencil and paper RPG inspired MUDs to MMOGs, some of which inspired d20 rule sets and campaign settings in return.
Genre-changing generally goes beyond additions and enhancements. Gameplay "radicals", portions or parts of gameplay, like mini-games and puzzles, can be used to add flavor to a game without changing the category outright, the only risk being whether the addition is a bonus and not a distraction to the original gameplay.
- What reasons do you have for genre engineering?
- Which comes first for you, genre or topic? Something else?
- What other reverse-genrengineering examples are present or possible?
- What games are choice for adoption or genre-engineering?