Sponsored By
Jon Shafer

December 7, 2012

8 Min Read

You can read more of Jon's thoughts on design and project management at his website. You can also find him on Twitter.

This is what the inside of a game designer's brain looks like. Or feels like, anyways.

Abstraction is utilized by every game ever made. Not only is perfectly mimicking reality impossible – it shouldn’t even be the goal. Interactive entertainment sets itself apart by offering players interesting decisions, testing their skills or immersing them in a unique world. Games fail to achieve these goals when they prioritize realism above all else.

What does abstraction do for a game? How can it be used for both good and ill? What does a designer need to consider? We’ll examine these topics and more!

Along the way we’ll also look at some features of the Civilization series, as it presents an excellent case study for how abstraction not only improves a game but can also frustrate a subset of players.


What is Abstraction?

Whether in games, graphic design or fine art, the use of abstraction is always a means to the same goal: emphasizing a few important elements over the larger, more complex picture.

As with most design knobs, abstraction isn’t black-and-white, where you either have it or you don’t. The spectrum ranges from offerings which try to model every factor, such as military sims (the “game” status of which is debatable) to the venerable Go, where the incredibly nuanced concept of warfare is simplified all the way down to two types of stones on a grid.

The amount of abstraction a game embraces is one of the key elements in determining what type of audience it will appeal to. As such, developers concerned even a little bit about sales numbers are wise to give more than just a passing thought to the degree of abstraction utilized in their products. Sales figures aside though, virtually everything is on the table – an opportunity which designers should find both exciting and daunting.

Now that we know what abstraction does, let’s look at some concrete examples of how it can actually be applied.


Go is pretty much the pinnacle of abstraction in games.


Abstraction in Action

The best opportunity to utilize abstraction is when dealing with detailed subject matter. Economics, present in some form in a large number of games, is a great example. Notabstracting economics isn’t really an option – hell, not a single person alive has a complete understanding of how it works. Even the models professional economists use are heavily simplified from reality. Needless to say, we have neither the brains nor the computing power to properly simulate the economic impact of every human alive.

Because economics is such a vast and detailed subject matter, designers can pull out any number of facets to emphasize. What is the key to a robust economy - having the most people? An advanced industry? A large trade network? Buying and selling at the most profitable opportunities? These concepts are just the tip of the iceberg.

In the Civ series, the ingredients for economic success always include one part good geography, one part technological advancement and a pinch of “population is power.” This approach is very much an extension of the overarching theme of Civ - human history as the story of continual upward progress. Even this is an abstraction, as countless kingdoms have not just risen but also fallen throughout the ages. Despite this fact, over the course of civilization the needle has generally points upwards and this was the feel Sid Meier was trying to emphasize in the first Civ. Most folks find it more fun to play a game where you’re building ever upward, rather than dealing with the risk of being toppled by your own people. It would have been equally valid for Civ to prominently feature internal strife and famine, but these were elements the designer simply didn’t care to represent.

Combat is another real-world concept that goes through a bit of a filter before showing up in games. Accurately simulating the nuances of single combat is far beyond what most titles want to offer, and those which present full-scale battles have no choice butabstraction – the only question is what form it should take. As with economics, the specifics mainly come down to the team’s preferences. Is success in battle primarily based on good timing? Proper positioning? Wielding the best weapons? It’s possible to incorporate all of these elements, but odds are the developers have a few pet ideas which they believe are especially interesting or pertinent.

Winning wars in Civ usually just comes down to bringing the biggest, most advanced army to the party. Tactics also factor in, but to a much lesser extent. This abstraction was no accident, and applied largely because Civ is an economic game at its core. Modeling the intricacies of battlefield strategy is no small challenge, and it’s very easy to simply “round down” and accurately claim that wars are typically won long before soldiers take to the field.


One of the new features in Civ 5 was embarkation, an abstraction of naval transport.


A Double-Edged Sword

Like all powerful tools, abstraction has the capacity to do as much damage as it does good. An abstracted icon can be hard to identify. Abstract art is only understood by a dozen people worldwide. Maybe. Too much abstraction in a game can cause the final product to bear very little resemblance to the source material. Abstract games that draw on topics only loosely can certainly be fun, but creating one means the designers are inviting a much greater challenge upon themselves.

In game design, the downside of too much abstraction is the potential for players to refuse to buy what you’re trying to sell. One famous (or infamous) example from the Civ series is the eternal struggle between tank and spearman. For those of unfamiliar with this “meme,” in the combat system there are rare times when a vastly superior unit can get extremely unlucky and lose a fight. Ultimately this is a consequence of abstracted form combat assumes in the series. For some people this is nothing more than a humorous quirk but for others it’s an unforgivable sin.

While I certainly wasn’t one of this “feature’s” largest detractors, I did find such occurrences to be a little out of place in a game that, while not a simulation by any means, at least tries to tie itself to world history. As a result, I modified the combat resolution model in Civ 5 so that the possible outcomes for a battle live inside a much narrower band.

One of the other design changes I made in Civ 5 was to abstract naval transport. Instead of needing to ferry armies around on actual boat units, the idea was that once your civilization is capable of launching seaworthy vessels, transport ships are simply “available” for your forces as soon as they enter the water. This made crossing the seas much less of a hassle, and as a result there are many players which vastly prefer this model. But it wasn’t universally beloved. A number of other people found this design tooabstract, believing it ridiculous that a group of spearmen could “magically transform” into a boat.

Although it’s second-nature for many of us at this point, even the basic abstraction of “turns” (when some agents can act and others cannot) out of our real-time experience of living is a fairly unnatural translation. Outside of artificially-created constructs, how much of the world could really be considered “turn-based?” Turns are a crucial component of many games, and they help focus attention in ways real-time titles struggle to or simply cannot offer. The way turns “freeze” time in Civ opens up a better opportunity to craft both short-term and long-term strategies compared with a real-time cousin with similar subject matter, such as Age of Empires.

Civ also applies another abstraction relating to turns. In order to inject a sense of progressing through history the turns are labeled with very specific dates, such as 3950 BC or 1492 AD. Few people have taken issue with this, but there are those who dislike the unrealistic holes this opens up – after all, there’s no way it would take 50 years to get from New York to Boston no matter how slow you walked.



Reality TV is better than reality-based games. And that says a lot.


Fans of Realism

While most people are fine with a fair helping of abstraction in the games they play, some are not quite as forgiving. Given that all games are entertainment, there’s no objective “good” or “bad,” and as such their opinions are just as valid, even if their numbers are few.

But even hardcore realism fans are looking for some form of abstraction. Civ players who ask for more realism simply want to slide over a few notches on the abstraction spectrum – they don’t actually want to live out the life of a historical leader with all that entails. Even sports sims aren’t perfect replications, if only because you’re giving commands through a controller or mouse. I can’t imagine anyone really wanting their gaming experience to include bundling up to ward of sub-freezing temperatures while dealing with insubordinate players who refuse to follow through on the play you called! Anyone interested in this would actually, you know, coach football in some capacity.

The only time I can see the goal including a perfect duplication of reality is when the target audience is comprised of individuals who simply lacks the capacity to perform the represented activities outside of a game. Projects of this type are part of a very rare breed.

As I noted earlier in this article, abstraction is simply one part of the designer’s toolbox. While true realism is never the objective, nearly everyone at least expects the games they play to be believable. As long as a title is consistent with itself and its subject matter then you as a designer have done your job.

- Jon

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Jon Shafer


Jon Shafer is a lead designer at Stardock Entertainment, currently directing an unannounced project. Prior to working at Stardock, He was the lead designer and principal gameplay programmer for Civilization 5 while at Firaxis Games. Jon lives in Michigan and (when he's not fighting-the-good-fight on behalf of PC games) spends his free time cooking, listening to podcasts and playing strategy games/RPGs.

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