Good Day Internet!
Today we’re discussing the importance of designing with the core experience in mind and how properly doing so creates better games.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the term “core experience” it’s generally defined as the experience you want your game to provide to players. More specifically, it’s the emotions and feelings you want your game to provoke as determined by its mechanics and the way the theme is presented.
It should be noted, however, that games that have the same theme and similar mechanics can still have different core experiences. For instance, Axis & Allies and Memoir ‘44 are both World War II games with dice driven combat, but the experiences and feelings provoked in each are different. Axis & Allies focuses on the stresses of managing a large war machine, and Memoir ‘44 focuses on the tactical combat of historical battles. Because of these and other nuances, there is a deeper ‘connection’ to your pieces in Memoir ‘44 than there is in Axis & Allies and the core experiences are different.
We’re going to address a common mistake some designers make when asked about the core experience of their game and then we’ll get into how designing with the core experience in mind helps designers create better games.
Some designers define the core experience or the core of a game as the thematic elements and mechanics that have to stay aka are “must-keeps”. Oftentimes when a designer thinks about the core experience in terms of “must-keeps” they tend to list most of the mechanisms and thematic elements currently in the game. As far as we can tell, this tendency is related to the emotional and psychological connection designers have with their designs and people’s natural aversiveness to change. Designers may be averse to change to avoid feeling like they are losing control over their vision and the game they’ve created. However, by limiting the creative space you have to work in, by creating a long list of “must-keeps”, your game will have a tough time growing and developing. It will also be much more difficult for you to accept outside feedback and apply it to your design. Basically, whatever state your game is after the first external playtest is pretty much where it’s going to stay with this kind of fixed mindset. Of course this won’t apply to every designer, but the amount of creative space you can work in is vastly increased by chasing the experience your game creates for players instead of what you want to keep in the game.
One of the other problems with designing based around keeping certain mechanical and thematic elements is that the goal of any changes you make is unclear. Your only goals will be to make a good game and to keep certain elements in your game. The elements you want to keep are already there, so the only real goal you have is to make a good game. That’s so arbitrary and wide open that it’s a nearly impossible target to hit. On the other hand, designing around the memorable experience your game should create gives a very specific goal on how your game should perform and feel. This does open up the game for a lot of possible changes, but when the game is off you’ll know what needs to be added and can start exploring possible design solutions, and when do find the memorable experience you were chasing after you’ll know it.
Designing around a core experience may be a difficult challenge at first. As we’ve mentioned, there’s a natural tendency for us to be averse to change and hold on to the thing we’ve created, and there’s also a lot of creative space to work in that may seem overwhelming at first. However, having all that open creative space allows you to experiment with your design in many ways without losing what you liked about the game (assuming you’ve fully embraced designing based on a core experience). You’ll learn a lot about approaching themes and mechanics from unique perspectives which will ultimately separate your game from others like it in the market. All this experimentation has another positive which is you’ll become a better designer. The more you practice and experiment doing something the better you’ll get at it, and game design is no different. But wait, there’s more! Being flexible with your design and experimenting will alleviate some of the anxiety you may have passing your design onto a publisher who will want to develop and tweak your game to fit their lineup.
One last note on designing with the core experience in mind; the experience your game creates is going to be somewhat determined by the heuristics held by your playtesters. Being conscious of this may help you decipher why your game may not be performing the way you want it too. For instance, you may have come up with a really cool bidding mechanic that works like regular poker bidding, but you always have make a bid at least once per round. This solution may have been useful to make players feel like they’re forced to do something they don’t necessarily want to do while also making sure everyone is involved each round, but anyone who has played poker will probably be very averse to this change and not enjoy the game. For those players it will be very difficult to get over those habits which will negatively affect their experience. Going against heuristics like this will be tough at best and so you need to be aware that they may be one of your few limiting factors to how you can manipulate a game to provide the core experience you’re looking for.
Before we go, we’ve got a few things to keep you up to date on. First off, Kevin is currently in New Jersey for Metatopia! It’s the first time either one of us will have attended the convention so if you’ll also be attending and spot him expect him to look a little overwhelmed. If you’d like to see what we’ve been working on, feel free to approach him and ask to play a game. Throughout the weekend he will be running playtests of our party word game Grumble. You can find it on the schedule under codes B188, B308, B566, and B724. Also, we’ve been working on organizing another project for the Toronto area that we hope to make an official announcement about soon. Stay tuned for more details!
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Board game designer and developer discussing the ins and outs of game design.