A version of this article first appeared in the April 2009 issue of Game Developer magazine.
In the late eighties, the sitcom Cheers dominated the ratings. Set in a pub in Boston, the antics of Sam Malone and his everpresent cadre of barflies never failed to provide belly laughs. The writers of the sitcom pointed out that the bar itself brought a lot to the show. The very nature of the setting meant that new characters and stories could stumble into the front door and into the lives of the Cheers faithful. The comedic ground was fertile, and Cheers had a long and distinguished run.
By comparison, the recent Fox hit Prison Break was very confined in where it could go. Set in an Illinois prison, the first season involved the protagonists plotting their escape from prison. Despite generally good reviews, water cooler talk was skeptical. Could they really stretch out a prison break for 22 episodes? What would the next season be about? And the one after that? Fox gamely managed to keep things going, but ultimately ran out of space to run. It was recently announced that this season, the fourth, would be the show’s last.
The writers of Prison Break were boxed in. The inherent nature of the show limited where they could go, and what they could do with the show. The ending of the series arc was somewhat predetermined, and therefore all of the interest was in the journey to that end. What’s more, the closed nature of the prison setting limited to some degree the introduction of new characters. They had very fertile ground to explore, but that ground was very finite. Subsequent seasons (with the prisoners on the lam, or in a prison in Panama) felt forced. In game design terms, their design space was limited.
Defining Design Space
Design space is best described as the canvas that the designer can paint on. How far can an idea go? Does it have legs? Where can it grow? What are the boundaries? Where can mechanics be expanded upon at higher levels of play? What can downloadable content or expansion packs explore?
Different games vary wildly in terms of the design space found within their settings and their mechanics – and different games have different needs in that regards. “Civilization”, for example, has an almost unlimited room to grow. The game can continually pull from the enormity of human experience, but even more importantly, the core game mechanics are simple, making it trivially easy to expand the game with data, such as additional technology advances and civilizations. The challenge for designers of Civ is actually keeping it simple — deciding what elements to incorporate now, what to save for later, and what to cut. By contrast, “Bejeweled” has limited design space – how much can you do with a game about matching three colored blocks in a row? Then again, how much design room do you need?
Settings and Design Space
Shortly after the launch and success of Everquest, a plethora of companies announced their own entries into the emerging massively multiplayer market. Of particular note for this discussion were “Midgard” by Funcom and “Mythica” by Microsoft, two games that never shipped.
Both were set in fantasy lands based on Norse mythology. Scandanavian mythology is incredibly rich and interesting, but in this case, it also proved to be incredibly narrow. Everquest, like many invented fantasy worlds, was a wide-sprawling game setting that included not just medieval elements, but also elements influenced by Norse, Egyptian and Aztec elements. The very nature of Everquest’s fantasy realm was that it allowed easy expansion of any of these themes, or to add new themes they later discovered. As a result, the design space of Everquest’s setting completely contained that of the other two games.
MMOs require a huge amount of content, and successful MMOs may have life spans that extend for a decade with dozens of content patches and expansion packs along the way. Having a lot of room for your designers to explore is incredibly valuable. This fact goes a long way towards explaining why medieval fantasy dominates the genre – and why, for example, Westerns do not.
Despite the clichés, fantasy games have a nice escalation of content –there’s a real sense in character progression in fighting rats, then orcs, then demons and dragons. Westerns lack this smooth progression – you’re mostly killing guys in black hats. The content escalates poorly – you could give the bad guys bigger hats, or throw larger crowds at the hero, but the experience still isn’t changing tremendously – and this lack of change can prompt an MMO player to conclude he’s seen all there is to see, and unsubscribe. The standard western setting, out of the box, lacks the design space to marry to standard MMO mechanics.
The design space needs to be found elsewhere. You can modify the genre by adding steampunk or zombie elements so content can escalate. Or you can modify the mechanics and make the game less of a level-based combat simulator. But the first approach risks alienating fans of the western genre, and the second forces the game to rest on potentially unproven design principles, with no idea how MMO genre fans will truly react. Either approach is likely to make the guys signing checks nervous.
The Limiting Nature of Licenses
Most industry professionals, when they look at a potential license, look first and foremost at the reach and influence of the license, which is a good place to start. But it’s also useful to look at the design space that license provides, to see where the game can go. For example, the Matrix is surprisingly limiting – a central premise of the movies is that Neo is the only one of his kind. This is fine for a single-player game where the player can take the reins as Neo, but may be more difficult in a multiplayer environment. Compare this to Marvel Universe, where the existence of mutants means any player can be special.
Sometimes, the limitation is more subtle. Battlestar: Galactica is a universe with no aliens to interact with, relatively few bad guys to shoot, and surprisingly few environments to explore. Star Trek, by contrast, has an endless wealth of planets to explore and aliens to interact with, but it has its own problems: in that universe, diplomacy is almost always preferable to conflict. Great games can be made around either license, but the designer must delicately deal with how to remain true to the spirit of the license.
Dividing Up the Design Space
Once you have your design space defined, you need to determine how to divvy it up – what is the role of each weapon, each faction, each player class or each villain? Exclusivity here is powerful: if you add a railgun to your game to provide one-shot one-kill capability, you probably don’t want to add a sniper rifle as well, for fear the two will compete for design space. Declaring that Taki is your fast, acrobatic Soul Caliber character also implies that the other characters don’t impugn on that role.
Leaving yourself enough design space in each of these defined roles is key as well. When Magic: the Gathering shipped, they divided up their design space into what they called the ‘color pie’ – red cards were primarily about damage and land destruction, whereas white had a lot of healing and blue had a lot of spells that affect, counter or control your opponent’s spells. As the game aged, though, it became clear that some of the colors had far less design space than the other colors – in particular, red was having problems because it turns out there’s only so many ways to say “Deals X damage to target creature or player.” Ten years after the launch of Magic, the game’s designers readjusted the color pie, giving red some of blue’s metamagic, as well as some goodies previously claimed by other parts on the color pie. Players grumbled in the short term, but the move was vital to Magic’s continued longevity.
In your RPG, it’s not enough to say Paladins are your plate-wearing holy death machines. Players need ways to customize their characters beyond that, having options to differentiate their Paladin from the next one over. And they need to give the designer enough space to explore without having the Paladin cheapen the role of the more conventional Warrior or Cleric . In particular, it’s harder to design the more mundane fighter than a magic-wielding soldier of god who can call upon the wrath of the heavens. The need to leave space available is yet another reason why having fewer classes (or weapons or factions) may be better than having more.
If you have strong design elements in every side, faction or class in your game, then counters to those elements can be potent sources of design space. If, for example, you’ve designed the Zerg to win by swarming and overwhelming the enemy, then there is room for designers to play in terms of giving the other two factions means to deal with these rush attacks. If there are too many sides, though, or the tactic is too rare, then counters are more likely to pollute the design space and clutter the player’s interface.
In 2001, Magic the Gathering introduced the “flashback” mechanic, which allowed players to cast spells in their own graveyard (i.e. discard pile). In doing so, they created a new demand for graverobbing effects – cards that would remove spells from their opponent’s graveyard before flashback could be used. Wizards of the Coast has been selling Magic expansion packs for 16 years now, and a huge contributor to their success has been the design team’s amazing knack for finding new mechanics and fresh design space that continue to expand and reinforce the core rules.
Ultimately, it’s all about finding room for yourself and your fellow designers to play. Identifying that your game has a problem with design space can often be the fastest way to redefining your game’s boundaries and getting out of a sticky situation.
Finding unexplored territory in your game design can be a true Eureka moment, giving your designers space to fool around and often leading to some real innovation. I previously mentioned that Bejeweled didn’t have a lot of obvious design space to play around with. Developers Infinite Interactive disagreed, making a variant that incorporated significantly board-altering spells and a full RPG system in their 2007 hit PuzzleQuest. The lesson is that there is always room to explore, even if your game design is lining up three colored blocks.