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Core, Focus & Power - A Game Design Methodology

This essay introduces a methodology towards designing games that portray a very clear and tangible intent, that are elegant to play and enjoyable to develop.

Intro

As game designers we often find ourselves having to make decisions quickly. Complex design decisions. How should we face such and such system? Are all these mechanics and features really necessary? What needs to be developed first? Do all these interesting-sounding ideas actually fit together?

When we get to a fork in the road and both options sound good, how do we choose one over the other?

Having to face these situations often, not being able to provide a concise and clever solution can (and usually does) lead to two types of consequences:

  • Poor design: making design decisions with no solid fundament or clear criteria, guided only by instinct or contextless taste usually leads to a design that’s limp, with games that end up suffering from “feature creep” (a heap of features, stacked on top of one another).

  • Suffering team: a good portion of the teamwork stands on the decisions made by the creative team, meaning that if you can’t explain those decisions through clear and logical reason the entire crew will feel as if their work is headed towards random whims and/or chance. That’s no good.

    • On the other hand, industry folk (no matter their role) usually show a creative restlessness that drives them to put forward ideas, yearning to have some input. In that context, if we as designers can’t justify why someone’s idea is or is not relevant, you can end up on a stage of discomfort and ailment.

 

Now, there are tools that help us make choices, to stay true and not reinvent the wheel over and over. A few of those could be: common sense, an understanding of the technical and production aspects, examples of how such problems were solved during other games, and lastly the pure study of game design as an expressive and communicational medium.

  • Common sense: I believe that the craft of game design is largely an exercise in applying common sense. Basic concepts such as “trade-off” in order to balance experiences, or the difficulty curve in order to create an experience that isn’t frustrating, etc, all tools that were not discovered through mathematical formulas. That is why so many players might feel that they “could certainly design a better game” than the one they’re playing, since practically anyone can notice what’s necessary for an experience to be more or less enjoyable.

  • An understanding of the technical and production aspect: videogames as products are extremely hard to create. You’ve got completely unrelated disciplines that are working together, with all the problems that this scenario implies. There’s constraints and conditions everywhere: time, resources, what technology to use, what platform it’ll be released on, the team’s knowledge and ability, priorities, objectives, etc. And game designers, not exempt from this reality, have to work in this context. You could draw the conclusion that so many constraints end up being disadvantageous for the design, and maybe they are in the long run, but they are at least useful (they’re practically an extra tool) when it comes to everyday decision making. In a small team and with a short development cycle, it’s rather easy to decide if the game will have five characters or a hundred. There’s no way you can do a hundred, so that’s done, the design will have to compromise, and that decision is made thanks to the constraints. It doesn’t take us even five seconds to reach that conclusion and we’re all in agreement.

  • Benchmark: studying how other games solved this or that design issue is one of the most basic tools we’ve got when it comes to tackling complex problems in our own games. Playing an assorted collection of games (and plenty of them) is without a doubt a source of useful knowledge when it comes to understanding the medium, with the good and the bad. “You don’t need to reinvent the wheel”, a graphic design teacher used to say, and it’s a phrase you can easily apply to any creative space, including game design.

  • The study of games as a medium: books such as “Aesthetic of Play”, “Uncertainty in Games”, “Rules of Play”, “Game Feel”, “On the Way to Fun”, “A Book of Lenses”, and a long etc. can provide tools towards understanding the medium, to grasp the anatomy of games in general and thus being able to design better experiences. They are useful when you’re looking to design at a macro level and when it comes to making decisions at a micro. It’s important to understand the quirks, strengths and weaknesses of the medium where we’re trying to express ourselves in order to create solid experiences and to nourish many of the design decisions that we must make everyday during development.

 

However, given these tools at hand (that I’ve managed to acquire along the way through experience) I still believe there’s something missing. Some solution or way of understanding design that allows us to create solid experiences. So solid that there can be no doubt how they should be designed (what I call “auto-designed” experiences). Products with such a clear vision, such a strong pivot that decisions leave almost no room for discussion, and you can focus your creative efforts towards creating rather than arguing.

This is how I came upon a methodology I nowadays call “Core, Focus and Power”, which fills this void, can be applied to mostly any development and delivers the expected results (solid experiences and an enjoyable development)

 

Core, Focus y Power (in a nutshell)

That’s what I call this methodology, which is simple:

  • First you define the core.

    • Core is the objective, the intent behind the design, the North that we’ll keep through the design.

    • This is defined only once, preferably before you even begin making a prototype.

  • You then Focus on that Core.

    • Focus means that EVERYTHING in our game should be pointing toward the Core, focusing on it, and if something isn’t then it should be for a good reason and it should be on purpose.

    • This step is taken every time a new feature is brought forward, or every time a design decision needs to be made.

  • You take every focused feature and you seek to give it Power.

    • Power means that at least one of the game’s features should go the extra mile, take the product to a non comfort zone, with a fresh and bold outlook.

    • This step is taken after having designed a feature or an element that focuses on the Core, and is achieved by asking: how can I take this beyond, or hopefully to the extreme?


 

Core

The Core is the central piece in our game. It’s what we want to deliver. It’s the message.

The Core could be a word, a feeling, an emotion, a mechanic, a character.

It could be a business objective, a platform (for example making use of the Switch’s capabilities).

I like to sum this up by saying that the Core is: “the design’s intent”.

 

Practically anything could be the Core. For example, all along this essay I’ll use a game I’ve developed as reference. It’s called Mages & Taverns, and it’s a board game. In this case the Core is something as quirky as: “generating an interaction between players”.

 

Other examples of Core can be:

  • Fez: perspective

  • Ico: the relationship between two characters

 

The Core will be the cornerstone with which we’ll be designing the whole experience. It’ll become the objective, and thus the North.

When it comes to design it fulfills two functions:

  • Being the sieve that separates what’s good from what’s not: every idea will go through this sieve. This feature, this artstyle, this name for the game, does it point towards our Core? Is it aligned with it? (Passive usefulness)

  • Releasing relevant ideas: having a well-defined Core will surely bring ideas that would not have come up otherwise (Active usefulness)

What other advantages does it provide?

  • It leads to reprioritization: our game should now be much better fused. The ideas should all be circling around a clear objective. We shouldn’t have to suffer through the disease that we mentioned above, the “feature creep”.

  • It provides a unified vision for the team: of course, having a common North will prove undoubtedly helpful. That way, whoever holds the creative responsibility is merely the keeper of concepts that have been previously accepted, and not a dictator that handles other people’s efforts without a clear course. Decisions can be justified in terms everyone understands and accepts, and even team feedback and new ideas will be far more accurate.


 

Practical example:

My game, Mages & Taverns, started as a cross between a typical game from Argentina, the Truco (a simple game, built on bluffing), with Magic: The Gathering. This turned into a simplification of Magic, with three players, where they each took upon the role of a wizard that arrives at an inn with only one last beer left, and they all decide they should play this ancient magic card game too see who gets to drink it.

That was the original design intent, but after having made a prototype and noticing how much the game forced players to interact, I decided that my game’s Core should be precisely that: generating an interaction between players.

From that modification on, I introduced a very important card: “Fire”

This card has a strong effect:

  • Destroy one gem. Getting three gems is the winning condition, meaning that this becomes certainly impactful.

The point of the card is that if another player (remember this involves a minimum of three) pays a basic resource (an orb, this game’s currency) then this card becomes stronger and destroys two gems, which can become devastating.

I took this new version to a meetup at @Tembac ‘s house (a place known for hosting game development parties with characters such as Ron Gilbert, Jonathan Blow, Dino Patti, etc) where a match took place, lasting approximately thirty minutes. The first twenty minutes of it were completely silent, where no player was interacting with anyone. The experience was turning out to be a failure. Up until the last few minutes when somebody used a “Fuego”, another player paid up an orb (to give the card a power-up) and chaos ensued. The argument this move created lasted about five minutes, and it made me sigh with relief: the Core, the intent of the design, had shaped that experience and I had achieved my goal.

(The most quiet match of the evening, until “Fire” came up)


 

Annex:

How new is this “Core” concept?

Some companies such as Ubisoft or EA work with a similar concept, and they call it “fantasy”. It calls upon an ambition the user assumes from the moment they interact with any communication piece of the product. And the game must make that experience come to life, fulfilling those expectations. In order to do that, all the design and development has this “fantasy” as its center. It becomes the pivot. An example of “Fantasy” could very well be Dragon Age Inquisition: “Become the Inquisitor”. With that simple premise, the user understands what their role will be, what setting to expect, etc. But that’s not only good as a marketing tagline, it has to also work as a North and a guideline of the development itself.

Other people use the concept of “design pillars”.

Defining the Core sooner or later.

I recommend defining the Core BEFORE you start designing anything else. But I also understand that there might be cases where something gets to the design table without a clear objective, and when you’ve already got something that’s alive, you have to stop, catch yourself, look at the game and understand what its Core is.

A example can be found doing a prototype for a Jam, where maybe something gets done without thinking about it too much and then, realizing that however interesting it may be it already brings up several design uncertainties, you must slow down and comprehend the game, figuring out what its Core is and designing with that in mind from that moment on.

 

---

Focus

Focusing is an exercise and a mindset that involves applying a filter that’ll only keep those elements that are aligned with our Core. Focusing is asking ourselves every time that something is about to be implemented: does this feature point towards the Core of our game?

Even if it most of this might seem obvious, what’s not is that the whole package of features and elements must have a clear intent that’s aimed towards the Core.

I named it Focus precisely because it involves placing the Core in the center of the scene. Everything in our game should highlight the Core, front and center. Achieving that is Focusing.

What can point towards the Core? Anything.

Any and every tiny piece in a game is a chance for communication. Here, as an example, is a list of a few elements that can achieve Focus, so as to understand the range I find it to cover:

  • Mechanics

  • Scenarios

  • Level design

  • HUD

  • VFX

  • Dialogues

  • Artstyle

  • Logos

  • Game name

  • Menus

  • Sounds

  • Music

  • Communication pieces

  • Concept Art

 

Mise en Scène

During some research, I found that the world of film already holds a similar concept they call “Mise en scène”

This concept claims that the way you communicate in film isn’t just through the script or the performances, but anything that takes part of a scene will have an effect on what’s being told. Elements such as lighting, framing, the surrounding, the colors, the wardrobe, etc. They’re all working together towards conveying something in particular.

We should be able to pause a movie during any frame and appreciate this concept in action.

For example, in this frame from American Beauty, which tries to place Kevin Spacey in a position of vulnerability, we can observe:

  • Composition: he’s placed below the medium line, making him to look small.

  • Wardrobe: his clothes are loose-fitting, which doesn’t make him look confident.

  • Lighting: softly lit, and even though the actor gets hit a bit by the light, it’s still soft and from the side. There’s nothing, not even the light, that’ll listen to what he yearns.

  • Acting: not an authoritarian pose.

  • Decor: the room has few elements, which are scattered and placed with no clear intention. They work as a reflection of the state the character is in.

This video explains in a very interesting fashion the concept of Mise en Scène and the detail involved in this scene from American Beauty:

Design by subtraction

A way of achieving Focus is asking if the features that we’re implementing really do point towards the Core, but it’s also a backwards exercise. Taking a moment every now and then so as to actually look at what we’re throwing in and asking once again if they’re Focused on the Core can be really important. In this video, Mark Brown explains the process other developers had to go through:

 

Practical example:

Going back to the board game example, after having found the mechanics that highlighted the Core (player interaction), I realized that perhaps not everything was aligned towards the same concept. That’s when I applied this notion of Focus, and, in order to improve the game design, I went through each of the game’s cards and rules, modifying a few of them, taking a few out and eventually adding a couple more into the deck.

Some of the measures I took when applying Focus were:

  • The cards that only allowed a player to defend their own gems now also allowed them to defend any player’s (allowing for spontaneous alliances)

  • A card called “Plagiarism” (which enables the copying of any effect that’s been put into play) used to feel overpowered so I was considering pulling it out, but when I noticed that it was the one that created the most interaction among the players, I went back and left it in.

  • I thought up cards that would feel annoying for particular types of players, making it so that they had to collaborate with others during the game in order to get the card out play, leading to more interactions. Hence, “Shield&rdq

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