Design Essentials: Focus
In game design terms, a game's focus is what is considered most important about the game. This article explores ideas on reasons for establishing focus and beneficial uses once it is established. An original example focus is provided for discussion and practice development.
"A game's focus is the designer's idea of what is most important about a game. "
--Chapter 5 of Game Design: Theory & Practice (GD:T&P), "Focus".
The main function of a defined focus is for efficient communication of a concept idea. Any work as part of a team benefits from clarity in communications and understanding of the end goals. Thus, focus is particularly important for design work that involves more than one contributor, or constraints of time or money. You may know exactly what game you want to make but your team members may not have the same understanding. Similarly, if others are leading the project, you'll want to get a firm grasp of the end-target to keep from wasting time on things that may not fit.
Another function of focus is preventing tangents and distractions from slowing development progress. This works for both a single designer as well as a team.
GMs generally do not need to communicate to the same extremes, but the use of focus can still benefit the solo-creator working on a smaller scale. While table-top adventures involve sharing information with players, the initial focus communication is with oneself to see if the ideas translate well to paper.
Not specifically covered in the topic-inspiring guide is a more esoteric use of focus to attain a higher level of, for lack of a better term, "design-fu". Designers employing this method aren't, for example, attempting to make a "better fighting game than X, Y or Z", or even a "fighting game" at all. They are making the best Tekken / Street Fighter / The King of Fighters game possible. They intentionally use their own game title as referring to distinct entity. This mindset is meant to fuse the team vision to maximum effect as making complex games involves a huge number of distracting issues.
"There is nothing like trying to write down all the important information about your game to expose holes and failings in your original concept."
Focus, as discussed here, is a brief summary of the most important facets of a game idea. Only the very heart of the concept is needed. Details will come into play later. Focus should be the epitome of "short and sweet", a few statements that can be quickly communicated whether spoken or read.
GD:T&P Example Focus Questions
- What is it about this game that is most compelling?
- What is this game trying to accomplish?
- What sort of emotions is the game trying to evoke in the player?
- What should the player take away from the game?
- How is this game unique? What differentiates it from other games?
- What sort of control will the player have over the game-world?"
Each design will have its own variety and number focus points. The complexity of play doesn't matter, it is the complexity of the design that dictates at this point. There is no set format but a "Keep It Simple Sunshine" approach is highly beneficial. Simplicity translates to ease of understanding, a primary consideration.
A game or project title, even tentative, is useful to begin the process of describing the game as an independent entity. For our purposes a "game" can be a campaign, a single adventure, even a level within a larger game.
Voyages of Buddly (VoB) is an episodic campaign of self-enclosed d20 adventure modules. The adventures are loosely tied together by a transport mechanism in the form of an NPC, "Batmanshoes Buddly", gnome inventor and hot-air balloon pilot. VoB design provides maximum flexibility for gameplay approach within the individual modules and humorous, comic-relief episodes between adventures. The campaign can adapt to presentation as a series of articles or in various compiled sets, or any combination.
The VoB example contains a bit more detail than might be expected with the name and description of the NPC. For this particular idea, however, the NPC detail is considered critical by the designer. The content of the individual adventure modules is secondary to the core idea and won't come into importance until their own specific design phases. Specific features of the Buddly character and / or his balloon and how everything may be tied together are also omitted at this stage.
The best time and manner to begin jotting down your ideas may vary person to person, project to project. Establishing focus prior to getting to work on a prototype or even a design document outline is thought to reduce overall workload for the same result. By working through ideas and clearing problems in the least time and energy intensive manner, later stages of development have a lightened load.
All that work for one lousy blurb? Yes. The real importance of focus will come out later when things have grown complicated with multiplying details, conflicting priorities and time pressures. Hours before the eager gaming group arrives for the latest and greatest adventure -- which is technically not finished -- are moments when a clear focus shines brightest.
The other consideration for which focus pays is dedication to quality and should not be forgotten. Rouse introduces Chris Crawford and his book, "The Art of Computer Game Design" (ACGD* note 2) with a Crawford quote on goals:
"This is your opportunity to express yourself; choose a goal in which you believe, a goal that expresses your sense of aesthetic, your world view ... It matters not what your goal is, so long as it is congruent with your own interests, beliefs, and passions."
--GD:T&P on ACGD
Rouse sums it up, "If you do not believe in your game, it is not going to be the best game you can make." This is the same as held in the "design-fu" philosophy, just with less mysticism. A focus statement serves as a tangible tool to determine if the design is staying true to the designer's intention and goals.
Discussion point: Continuing with the VoB example, the next step after creation is a review to determine where potential weaknesses are before moving to the next stage. What potential problems can be determined with the VoB focus? One example and some ideas are provided to feed the discussion.
- VoB Focus Concerns:
- The name "Batmanshoes" and hot-air balloon suggest a modern setting, is this intended? * note 1
- [Too short? Too long? Too wordy? Too vague? etc, etc. ]
- [ insert concern here ]
- [ insert concern here ]
Fleshing Out Foci
Once the focus is clear and solid, it is time to move on to expanding the game description. One option is to jump right into outlining a design document. A smaller step would be to develop sub-focuses as suggested in GD:T&P. For the latter it is recommended to stay brief for each sub-focus just as with the main focus. A sub-focus must support the main idea and concept but shouldn't be so complex as to be a stand-alone concept.
- Some possibilities to consider:
- Audience / player -- Who is the game for?
- Gameplay mechanics -- What are some things you want the game to accomplish?
- What sort of story line will there be?
- Art direction -- What kind of visuals are appropriate?
Focus statements can provide a basis for other more complex compositions like a design document, related business proposals or an advertisement strategy. Any time the game idea needs to be communicated to a new audience, the focus statement can be used as the foundation.
It can also serve when considering adaptations and Genre-engineering. Deciding what is critical to take over to the new form of gameplay and still be the essence of the original game would be easier if those things are written down for reference.
In a perfect world you would never have to go back to the focus blurb and meditate on problems. For those of us in Not-So-Perfect worlds, focus will come in handy when mulling over the decisions that ultimately always come up. Like, 'Should VoB go d20 Modern, stick with the classic D&D fantasy or go hybrid?' ...
Your input, dear reader, is most welcome as always. Roses or rotten tomatoes.
* note 1VoB isn't intended as a modern setting so the moniker should be cut to "Batshoes". It just doesn't sound as good the ear however.
* note 2It may go without saying but the Chris Crawford book is open for other writer's review or reference because I can barely keep up with my posting schedule as it is ;-D