Design Essentials: "Embrace Your Limitations" Digression


Ever wonder why I might be using a reference book that I seem to disagree with on every other page as my topic guide? The first clue is in Chapter 3. That chapter contains a gem of an idea that was worth the whole of the book to me. It was a carrier of epiphany, something that proved valuable beyond the realm of fun and games. The mythical million-dollar-idea was offered up in the chapter attempting to debunk the very myth of the One Great Idea. And I do so love irony.

Digression upon Inspiration

In my search for books on game design back near the turn of the millennium I came across almost nothing but texts on programming tips, code snippets and example algorithms. It was frustrating. I didn't want to study programming, I wanted to understand the elements of game design. How did the professionals define "gameplay"? What parameters had been isolated in the analysis of "fun"? Where could I find a library of Game Mechanics? Yes, yes, efficient pathing formulas, frames-per-second and pixels-per-inch are important, even critical for some, but what about before things get to the stage of ROMs or source code?

After several false starts I found the book to which I obnoxiously refer to in each of the Design Essentials installments. It was a mixed blessing. While it was a refreshing step away from straight programming it was still more about electronic games and had its own irritating quirks. For example, Sid Meir slipped a few notches in my opinion with his failure to credit "inspiration" to Avalon Hill's game Civilization in the Civ-series design. It is still a struggle not to rant on that issue when I cross it. I ended up deleting much of my writing on the chapter because I repeatedly slid off on the tangent. There are other issues as well but grousing is largely dull and profitless. Suffice to say the frustration did not completely evaporate.

Then I hit the phrase in chapter three, "Embrace Your Limitations" ... and continued right past it without any more thought than I'd give a speed bump fading in the rearview mirror. It just didn't do much for me. I was still chaffing about the "games without stories" or other some other such thing. "Yeah, embrace this" I thought while mentally making a crude gesture.

But the idea started popping up on its own and usually nowhere near the realm of fun and games. It added something beyond the use of "doable", as in "We are applying this method because it is doable" meaning that yeah, we would probably like to be doing something else but that just isn't happening, so we're going ahead with what we can do. "Doable" is practical but lackluster. It isn't just lacking positiveness, there is no joy.

So the phrase started growing on me. Embracing doesn't mean to intentionally seek out limitation, but it does mean more than just accepting when confronted. It is an issue of contentment. When I would invoke it I would get those looks. I could tell exactly what was going through the listeners' heads ("Yeah? Embrace this, wiseguy." *crotch-chop*). But I was happy and they were grouchy. Rack up a quality of life win! Whoot! It made me laugh. I was beyond the pain and suffering of restrictions and onto optimizing.

Don't get me wrong, it works in game design too. It works quite well. There is always some limitation with which to deal. Time is a common one, whether you are a hobbyist trying to manage a day job in addition to creating the next Pokemon or are a fulltime game professional racing a release schedule (and prime shopping season). Skill is another big one, be it programming, writing, drawing, people-management, or something else. Budget is an obvious one, there is never enough money. Ever. Even Bill Gates still wants more money. Technology limitations are as common as advances because one usually entails the other.

So you just know there are going to be limitations. Fighting limitations is usually a good thing only to a point. In any case there's no need to dread them or let an impasse simply equal a defeat. Push the envelope ready for limitations. When you find them, greet them with open arms and you can often find creative ways ahead -- or around. Think Aikido. Misdirection. Out of the box.

Rouse's story on the phrase I'll leave in the book but I will reveal that it came up when he was working on Centipede 3D and facing what looked like an unsolvable design problem mess. It turned out to be a fantastic reversal.

For my own more direct example, I solved several limitation problems by leaning on his book for topic-inspiration and references. Unlike some designers, however, I shall credit and credit and credit some more. So please bear with me, I don't know when or where someone may come across one of the articles, so the references and links may seem profuse.

I'm curious what conceptual treasures others may have come across in games or things associated with play, especially those that have crossed into other portions of life. The reverse is very welcome too, where life-lessons have helped out in your gaming.

Aozora, I'm looking into ordering some game design books from Amazon. Would you recommend GD:T&P? Any other recommendations?

Touche! Good one!

While I feel I owe some viral-marketing in return for the crutch, especially as I'm pushing the "Fair Use" envelope, I also owe readers -- particularly those who reply -- the whole story.

In that spirit I'd say I'd recommend GD:T&P (the newer edition) as part of a starter library if you were planning to get involved with any kind of project-based, electronic game design and didn't have a base already. A CD that came with the old edition book had a bunch of interesting software and links to further resources from seven years ago, so the new one must be much improved.

Whatever you buy, I would highly recommend buying them via the link provided in the articles here to lend support to Gamegrene itself. >;-D

First, I'd be happy to support Gamegrene, but I fail to see any appropriate link.
Second, I'm more into checking out generic (no specific project in mind) not-necessarily electronic game design. Does your recommendation still apply?

1.) On the thin green bar just above the bottom banner:

Like us? Donate to Gamegrene through Paypal; we'll love you for it!

It is rumored to also be good for bonus experience points. Shhhh! Don't tell!

1a.) Please note that I personally do not profit from articles, associate book sales or donations to Gamegrene except as a member of the community like everyone else.

1b.) I think clicking on the banners and signing up at the respective sites also helps. I could be wrong. I do it anyway.

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2.) Generics rock. The old GD:T&P edition isn't it. I don't know what's in the latest edition.

2a.) My "credit where credit is due" within the articles isn't intended as a recommendation to buy but a fairplay credit as to the source of the topics. I don't want to come across as claiming knowledge or ideas I grabbed from elsewhere like in ... other cases.

2b.) My recommendation in my reply to you is meant with all the conditions attached.

2c.) I was having such a good time with the numbering I just decided to roll with it. All is Play.

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3.) If you have some good sources, links, ideas, wild hairs, I'm eager and interested to hear. One of the best design document examples I ever saw I found on the web in a discussion thread much like this. I even think opinions are valuable and worth reading.

Some day soon I'll be done with the topic-inspiration guide and move on to a more freestyle method. For now I'm trying to revive the old drive, like Paul Newman in "The Color of Money", while enjoying entirely too much play at the other activities that fill my days.

Yeah,ok I misunderstood...I thought you were saying I could buy the book through the RPG Shop link.
Unfortunately, I currently can't donate through PayPal, due to a continuing (and annoying) misunderstanding with them.

A few other books I'm looking into buying are not on exactly the same topic, but interesting enough:

Theory of Fun for Game Design By Raph Koster
Chris Crawford on Game Design by Chris Crawford
Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals Hardcover by Katie Salen

I can relate with the Paypal woes completely. I've had brief and mercurial flings with them myself.

Regarding the books, Raph Koster is a familiar name. He has some real claim to game design genius. Unfortunately his recent stuff included a disappointing stint with SOE and the Star Wars license and the follow-on act is contributing to what sounds like a Second Life clone, leaving former fans puzzled.

Chris Crawford's book is quoted in one of the GD:T&P chapter articles. I'd like to hear about it but am not going to pursue it myself.

The Roger von Oech and Katie Salen book titles are intriguing.

How about a review when you've picked one?

sure, why not?

Well Done. A gaming limitation is like that post in the middle of your basement. You can decorate around it and pretend it isn't there or you can do something interesting with it.

I am wondering if there would be merit in starting a game porject by lisiting all the limitations that you can think of at the beginning. Some you should be able to dispel, others you can incorporate into your design.

Again, you always give us something to ponder.

Again, you always give us something to ponder.

Thank you sir, you always give me reason to push on.

This evokes a discussion I had with a player who didn't like the 3rd edition rules.

My understanding of his criticism was that the newer combat system and feats quantified a much larger portion of the activity, placing limits on his ability to realize the gaming actions he envisioned for his character.

In contrast, I felt that overall in the game, the introduction of these "enabling constraints" had resulted in a substantial increase in the variety of tactics used by all combatants - and a injection of real tactical choices, allowing players to apply their expertise. Prior to that point, tactics mainly consisted of simply slugging out damage and hit points. Tactics that were off the beaten path ended up succeeding at the whim of the GM anyway. So, the in the end, while it might appear that fewer rules would give him artistic freedom, the amount of DM involvment required to navigate that freedom ended up making materially less choice on the players' part.

I just love your term "enabling constraints". It goes right to the heart of the idea.

To be fair, another person on the board used it first, but I agree - it fits. I think it's interesting because by putting limits on something, or quantifying a nebulous thing in some way, it introduces a "game" aspect to the tactic and gives a practical reason to use it.

Prior to the 3e, when combat moves and feats were not actually codified, very few people actually used them, and if they did, their success was merely at the arbitrator's whim. Once introduced as a game though (rather than mere role-play description), players began to push them to the limit - to use them in ways they might not have considered before. I would liken it to drawing a chalk line around the edge of a field, and setting up goal posts. Where before, you could just kick the ball around and just play, now you can play a game.