Over on RPGnet there has been a great discussion on game design from a meta perspective. It started as a list of things that a prospective indie/small-press game designer should avoid if they want to write a passable game. Like most threads, the first few ideas were solid; then later ideas started to waver between sheer brilliance and rubbish. But one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.
Like many threads, it also degenerates into trash talk for a while before getting focused again.
I made the comment:
“And that's why a listing like this one is really good.
Once you know where the lines are drawn in the sand, that's when you know where to cross them and the effects to worry about when you do cross them.
A lot of inexperienced designers don’t know the traps and they don’t understand why their games are falling into them.
Occasionally they'll hit upon a stroke of genius, but more often than not the resultant output will be utter crap.”
So, for posterity, here’s the complete listing so far.
1. Creating a game that is “D&D but better”
2. Using my own campaign background as the game background
3. Overdeveloping creation myths
4. Allowing players to be anything, be anyone!
5. Designing without premise, theme or focus
6. Developing a game with lack of a fruitful void
7. Designing with assumptions about what games “should be like”
8. Forgetting that you are designing a social activity
9. Holding onto your darlings too hard.
10. Lack of blind playtesting
11. Writing a set of rules when a supplement would have sufficed
12. Being different just to be different
13. Forgetting the Human factor
14. Deep customisation…how much detail is too much?
15. Assuming the way you play is how others will play, building something that works great only if done the way you would do it, but falls apart if done with even minor change.
16. Being different for the sake of being different, in the belief that it makes the game "better"
17. Writing a RPG that is too closely based on a book/Film/comic, that only works when you've immersed yourself in the source material.
18. Writing something that has a wonderful setting, but there's nothing for player characters to do.
19. Writing something that requires several separate, pricey books before you can even start to play - and I mean beyond a player's book and a GM's book.
20. Failing to be aware of the common traps and pitfalls of game design!
By the time you’re reading this, there might be more traps to avoid on the thread. But at this stage I’m starting to see that a lot of the traps are doubling up, or simply being reworded from new perspectives. So I’m going to limit the variety of traps and consolidate them into groups. Let’s call them, the Seven Deadly Sins of game design.
1. Lack of Focus (Traps 4, 5 with a touch of 18)
2. Not Designing the Actual Play (Traps 6, 8, 9 with a touch of 13 and 19)
3. Not designing for others (Traps 2, 7, 9, 10, 15 with a touch of 13)
4. Excessive Detail (Traps 3, 14, 19 with a touch of 17)
5. Trying to Improve on the Successful (Traps 1, 12 with a touch of 11)
6. Not doing your research (Traps 15, 20 with a touch of 16)
7. Overdoing it (Traps 3, 11 with a touch of 5)
I've shuffled the traps around a few times to fit in with the traditional seven deadly sins, but so far nothing much has proven successful. Some of the traps that I've seen really kill a game just don;t fit into the nice patterns I keep trying to generate. Maybe I'll look at the Buddhist precepts, or just end up writing a list of 10 commandments for game design.
It's interesting that the issues I was internalising a few days ago on the blog (about gaming success and failure) have been echoed in other parts of the design community. I still stand by my comment that these traps can be used by a good game developer as long as they know them, consider them like a map to a minefield. Sometimes you want to get close to the mines so that you can draw your enemies in, or simply perform amazing stunts with your ideas.