Design Essentials: Basic Elements of Gameplay


A discussion starter, from the unusual inspiration source, on the question: "What are elements of good gameplay?" Some example ideas are provided along with the application to different game forms.

Design Essentials: Basic Elements of Gameplay

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Basic Elements

In Chapter 7 of Game Design: Theory & Practice (GD:T&P), "The Elements of Gameplay", the author Rouse suggests some things that are indicative of good gameplay design.

Gameplay Elements
Unique Solutions
Determining viable approaches to in-game challenges is a real bottleneck for programmed games. The GD:T&P example is a pressure-plate mechanism that the player needs to solve. Two system types are compared: Anticipatory and Complex. As the names suggest, the designer attempts to anticipate player actions in the 'Anticipatory System', guessing what objects the player might use to solve the pressure plate requirement. The guessing method is a simpler approach to program than the alternate 'Complex System', where a weight-value is assigned to all objects and forces within the game world that could possibly effect the pressure plate and thus the challenge.

Determining what player solutions are viable is less a problem for human-run RPGs which can start without even Anticipatory plans and still accommodate Complex solutions on the fly. But it is not unknown for players to take unexpected actions, forcing the GM to re-think or interpret on the spot for better or worse. Looking at a created level or scenario with a Complex viewpoint in mind could help prepare the GM and smooth over any surprises.

Emergence is described as Emergent Play that wasn't intended in a game's original design but "comes out" later during game play. The Complex System approach mentioned above to offering Unique Solutions is presented as the best way toward achieving emergent play which Rouse calls a sign of very good game design. The idea borders on "good design by accident", a somewhat ironic idea for a textbook on learning intentional game design.

When Emergence is good, it is really, really good. An imaginative party can energize a table-top RPG in a number of ways. A sideline within a story can be drawn out and magnified with interest, or personal quests can be fused with the existing adventure. A layer of depth can added to a game purely by interaction and foster further creativity.

Emergent Play is not always a good thing, however. Some forms of emergence can be a problem if destructive in nature. Distractions from a table-top adventure at hand leading to a session spiraling out of control is not an unknown occurrence. In on-line play, virtual goods and real-money trading grew into a volatile design challenge.

A related issue for table-top RPG is disallowing solutions considered reasonable by players leading to alienation and a confrontive relationship between GM and players(discussed somewhere on Gamegrene with Whutaguy I thought, but darned if I can find it).

A facet of Storytelling, Nonlinearity also refers to Multiple Paths / Endings in game story lines, Order in which challenges may be completed, and whether Selection of challenges is allowed.

A strictly linear design would offer only one path for the unfolding of a story, to be carried out in a determined sequence with a decided number of challenges to be completed. A fully nonlinear design would allow for the player to choose which challenges to take, the order in which to take the challenges, and offer a different result based on the choices.

Tabletop RPG adventures can come in either variety, either laid out in a roughly linear fashion as part of a story, or presented as independent scenarios. The live play form is very efficient at handling changes back and forth, subject entirely to the GM and players so either approach can allow for fully nonlinear divergences.

For designers however, writing in multiple possibilities for each juncture of the story would entail a huge increase in the amount of design work, just as it does for programmed games. But some degree of nonlinear consideration is better than none. Designs that do not possess much or any of these design considerations ultimately leave the burden to the GM, and set up the unpleasant surprises when player choices go outside a linear track.

Modeling Reality
The degree of realism is a common design consideration for all types of games. It is a spice which influences gameplay flavor. It can't "make the meal" on its own, but it can spoil one. There is no single recipe. Finding the right balance of reality means the difference between gritty fun and frivolous drudgery.
Teaching the Player
GD:T&P primarily discusses the use of Rewards as opposed to teaching lessons by handing the player repeated defeat as a form of punishment.

Patterns and themes can be used to teach a player or group how to play an adventure, intended or not. Early encounters may show the adventure is pure hack-n-slash or that the players should always look alternate solutions to defeating the boss monster. Are the brave rewarded for charging in or are there nasty surprises which call for cautious investigating first?

Input / Output
Input is how the player acts upon the game world. It can be joysticks and buttons or words and dice rolling. As mentioned here, just switching from dice to a spinner in special cases can provide a different feel to gameplay.

Output is Game-World Feedback, how the game communicates to the players. Sound effects, visual displays, scoring and GM narratives are all parts of the feedback.

    Some possible questions for sharing:
  • Have you encountered instances of emergent play? How did you handle it?
  • What design could offer more non-linear features to tale-top RPG?
  • How do you plan for contingencies as a GM?
  • Is nonlinear game play overrated?
  • What kind of feedback "gimmicks" do you use / enjoy?