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Playing By The Rules

Can a different perspective regarding the nature of rules improve game design processes?

Having recently spent time performing the yearly ritual of dusting off the family board games for festive fun, I’ve been thinking about the differences between non-computer and videogames.  While many of the distinctions are pretty blatant and don’t require much discussion, there is an area of divergence that says something interesting about the structure of videogames: the nature and function of a game’s rules.    

Rules define games

In Rules of Play, Salen and Zimmerman provide a synopsis of various academic definitions of games, listing out for each the factors considered to qualify any activity as a game.  Interestingly, the only point of common consensus was that games require a formal system, or rule-set.  From a technical standpoint:

A game is governed by a set of rules.

In order to construct your game you need clear, logical instructions.  Mechanics, parameters and play-space all constitute parts of the rule-set and as such need to be properly defined.

Games can have few rules

Games do not have to be particularly big or complex. For instance, predicting a coin toss can be a game - albeit a simple one.  Within the realm of videogames, titles like Canabalt neatly demonstrate how something as simple as a one button jumping mechanic is sufficient to build an enjoyable game around.

Non-computer games have explicit rules

Non-computer games typically require explicit rules and goals that can be easily understood and are transparent to all players.  This explication places constraints upon the number and complexity of the rules.

Videogames may have hidden rules

Videogames, on the other hand, are free from the requirement of transparency; the rule-set no longer needs to be explicit.  Prior to playing a videogame you need only know the rules governing input controls and their direct effects (and sometimes not even that); all subsequent rules can be discovered through experimentation, although we may prefer to be familiar with a subset of rules before - or during the early stages of - play.  Even the ultimate goal can be hidden right up until the end of a game.

Non-computer games have fixed rules

In non-videogames an agreed, fixed rule-set is paramount.  Changing any one rule of a game makes it a different game.  Even if all the players agree upon a rule change and still call the new game by the old name, the game logic has changed, and as such so have the solutions to that game.   Changing elements such as play space (this being a visualised set of rules), mechanics and parameters constitutes a rule change and thus a movement to a new game, admittedly a game similar to its progenitor but a new game nonetheless.

Rule changes create new games

You may question whether a single rule change can constitute a new game, but it is often difficult to ascertain what the impact of a rule change, no matter how small, will be upon the strategy and tactics available to the player; even small adjustments to variables may allow some or all participants access to significant novel strategies that were previously just out of reach.  If we agree that a major rule change (such as picking up a ball and running with it instead of just kicking it) would constitute a transition to a new game then through a process of contraction we must extend that conclusion to also cover small rule changes.

Videogames change the rules

Most modern videogames, because they are free from the requirement to expose the rules, can continually introduce new play-spaces, mechanics and variables as you progress.  They flit back and forth between different overlapping games, played out in continually shifting environments.  Each modification creates a new rule, and the game changes.  Sometimes these rule changes may even move from a game to create puzzles and toys.  As such, most video-games are not pure games but are actually collections of overlapping interactive entertainment experiences.  I’d like to adopt an pre-existing term for this collection: metagame. 

A designer’s definition of metagame

The standard definition of metagame focuses upon the culture surrounding a game: the metagame is the social interaction that influences both how the game is played and the way it is experienced by players and observers.  Literally, metagame means “beyond the game” and it is based upon this etymology that I’d like to offer a definition specific to the process of game design that I hope to show complements, rather than contradicts, the standard one:

A metagame consists of a number of distinct - but not necessarily mutually exclusive - games typically contained under a collective fiction.

From a design perspective, a metagame is a collection of games, but more than just a compendium in that there is an overarching theme, narrative and/or aesthetic forming a fiction that serves to bind and add continuity to the movements between the games that comprise it. The component games often overlap in their rule-sets, sharing mechanics, although this isn’t obligatory.

Grouping the games under a collective fiction in this manner creates the interface between the component games – abstract sets of rules - and the player experience.  This can be considered the most basic level of game culture as given by the standard definition of metagame and it is created by the game developers. 

Most videogames are metagames

If we accept this definition then most videogames can be viewed as metagames.  Often the division between the component games is quite obvious (Brain Training, Raving Rabbids, WarioWare) in others a bit more subtle (Mario Galaxy, Grand Theft Auto) and in some quite hidden (Portal, Uncharted 2).

An example of an early videogame that fits this definition of metagame is Pacman: most obviously, when you eat the power pellet you start playing a different game – the hunted becomes the hunter.  The skill of this metagame is to plan when the best time will be to switch from one component game to another.  A more recent example would be weapon changing in Quake: each time you swap, the rules governing how you shoot change and as such so do the winning strategies open to you.

Designing metagames can help us make better games

The value of a theory is in its application. I believe that recognising the distinction between games and metagames - based upon this technical definition - and appreciating its particular relevance to videogames allows us to improve our game design practices by preventing us making the mistake of seeing the metagame as a single entity composed from a sea of mechanics, instead gaining a better sense of its internal structure.

Below are some of the ways we could apply the metagame concept to different stages of the development process: 

Concept design – instead of focusing upon the metagame from a top-down perspective, where we imagine the fiction and then fit the gameplay around it, we can start by asking what mechanics would make interesting component games and then what games would gel together well within a metagame framework. We can then consider how to structure the fiction to support them.

Pre-production - prototyping becomes easier as we can then aim to ensure that each component game is enjoyable and satisfying in and of itself – if it was divorced from the metagame would it provide a sustained, compelling experience?  Only by achieving this can we ensure that the player consistently has their expectations met in terms of challenge and reward for the duration of the metagame.

Production pipelines – a common level design production practice is to distribute missions or environments between level designers, who then implement all of the design content for their missions.  However, in certain situations it may be more appropriate to task each component game to one designer across all levels – this may result in a more consistent progression path for that component game.

Scope rationalisation - by identifying the component games we can better assess what the impact will be of removing or modifying any one mechanic based upon the number of games that will be affected by those changes.  In more drastic situations we can consider the impact of removing entire games.

All Fur Coat...

I acknowledge that the metagame concept is a perspective from which to consider game design rather than a concrete law dictating the structure of games, and that its application may not be relevant in all cases.  However, I feel that there is a growing problem in development, especially with respect to many recent AAA titles, that could benefit from this outlook: as videogames have become more complex and increasingly indebted to the fiction there has been a massive skew towards top-down design; deals are signed on what the game is about rather than what you actually have to do.  

Consequently, the aesthetic and narrative take priority over the nuts and bolts of the game.  New rules and mechanics are often thrown in throughout development in an ad hoc manner in support of the fiction without proper consideration for the impact upon the function and progression component games.  Because there is no requirement to expose the rule set to the player the ramifications of modifications can go unchecked until it is too late in development to rectify the problems.  Ultimately we can end up with videogames that have a lustrous veneer but shallow, unrewarding or simply broken gameplay.

There is an adage amongst cartoonists that runs along the lines of, “a great joke can save rubbish drawing, but great drawing will never rescue a rubbish joke”.  I hope that we, as an industry, aren’t at risk of losing sight of our punchlines - maybe the metagame concept will help.

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