Game designer Colleen Macklin and technical author John Sharp introduce an important tool for guiding a game’s design through the iterative process, including three case studies showing how design values can guide a game’s design.
Most simply stated, design values are the qualities and characteristics a game’s designer wants to embody in the game and its play experience. Design values help designers identify what kind of play experience they want to create and articulate some of the parts that will help their game generate that experience.
Designing games can be challenging in large part because of the way games work. Game designers have many reasons for creating games. Sometimes they want to share a certain kind of play. Sometimes they have ideas that are best expressed through a game. Regardless of the reasons, being able to fully realize the goals you have for a game can be difficult. This is because of the second-order design problem we discussed in Chapter 1, “Games, Design and Play;” the designer doesn’t have direct control of how players will play; instead, they simply define the parameters within which players play.
One of the best tools to guide the creation of play experiences is design values, a concept we borrow from the scholar Ivar Holm1 and the game designers Eric Zimmerman and Mary Flanagan. The term value here isn’t referring to the financial worth of the game. Instead, design values are the qualities and characteristics you want to embody in a game. This can reflect your own goals as a creator, but also the experience you want your audience to have.
The broadest conception of design values is found in Ivar Holm’s work with architecture and industrial design. Holm identifies five key approaches: aesthetic, social, environmental, traditional, and gender based.
Aesthetic: Aesthetic design values focus on the form and experience.
Social: Social design values focus on social change and the betterment of society.
Environmental: Environmental design values address the concerns of the environment and sustainability. This has more obvious application to architecture and product design, but is also of importance to games.
Traditional: Traditional design values use history and region as inspiration. In the context of architecture, this might apply to restoring a building to its original state or building in the local, traditional style. For game design, this might involve working within a genre, or reviving a historically important game.
Gender based: Gender-based design values bring feminist conceptions of gender equality into the design process.
The first game-specific conception of design values comes from Eric Zimmerman’s “play values,” which he describes as “the abstract principles that the game design would embody.”2 At times, this sort of design value relates directly to the “mechanical” nature of the game and its play—the actions players perform, the objects used, the goal of the game, and so on. Sometimes design values are adjectives like fast and long and twitchy—descriptions of what the game will feel like while playing. Other times design values refer to the “look and feel” of the game. Sometimes design values are more about the kind of player the designer envisions playing their game in the first place. Other times, design values are reminders of context—the location the game is to be played, the technological parameters of the platform, and so on. These fit within Holm’s aesthetic and traditional design values.
In addition to the kind of play experience the designer wants to create, design values can be derived from different personal, political, or cultural values as well—in other words, social design values. Social design values might reflect a desire to express an idea about the human condition, an experience the designer once had and how it felt, or a political position based on personal or collective values. A good example of this notion of design values as an embodiment of political, feminist, and personal values comes from Mary Flanagan and Helen Nissenbaum’s project and book Values at Play.3 Flanagan and Nissenbaum developed a framework and toolkit for identifying political, social, and ethical values in games and exploring how designers might express their own perspectives. These connect to Holm’s social and gender design values but can as well extend to the environmental if we frame it more broadly.
Generating Design Values
Creating design values is a process of determining what is important about the game—the play experience it provides, who it is for, the meaning it produces for its players, the constraints within which it must be created, and so on. We’ve found the best way to get started is with a series of questions that explore the who, what, why, where, and when of a game. While not every game begins with all of these, the following are the general questions to discuss while establishing the design values for a game.
Experience: What does the player do when playing? As game designer and educator Tracy Fullerton puts it, what does the player get to do? And how does this make the player feel physically and emotionally?
Theme: What is the game about? How does it present this to players? What concepts, perspectives, or experiences might the player encounter during play? How are these delivered? Through story? Systems modeling? Metaphor?
Point of view: What does the player see, hear, or feel? From what cultural reference point? How are the game and the information within it represented? Simple graphics? Stylized geometric shapes? Highly detailed models?
Challenge: What kind of challenges does the game present? Mental challenge? Physical challenge? Or is it more a question of a challenging perspective, subject or theme?
Decision-making: How and where do players make decisions? How are decisions presented?
Skill, strategy, chance, and uncertainty: What skills does the game ask of the player? Is the development of strategy important to a fulfilling play experience? Does chance factor into the game? From what sources does uncertainty develop?
Context: Who is the player? Where are they encountering the game? How did they find out about it? When are they playing it? Why are they playing it?
Emotions: What emotions might the game create in players?
This may seem like a lot to think about before designing a game. And it is a lot. But all these are important factors to consider at the beginning of the design process for a number of reasons. For one, design values establish the overarching concept, goals, and “flavor” of a game.
Just as important is the way design values create a shared understanding of the game. Most games are made collaboratively, and everyone on the team is likely to have opinions and ideas about what the game is and what its play experience should be. Design values allow the team members to agree on what they are making and why they are doing it. They also are an important check-in when great ideas come up but might not fit the game’s design values. Continuing to ask, “does this fit our design values?” will help resolve team conflicts, and, even if it’s a great idea, know whether it should be included in this game or a future project.
Example: Pong Design Values
Having examples to draw from can be really helpful, particularly when exploring a new idea or concept—that’s why Part I, “Concepts,” is filled with examples drawn from games. Now that we’re moving from basic concepts into the design process, we’re going to use a speculative design example to illustrate things—Pong (see Figure 6.1). We’re going to pretend like we’re designing the classic arcade game. To start, the design values are the following:
Experience: Pong is a two-player game based on a mashup between the physical games of tennis and ping pong. It uses a simple scoring system, allowing players to focus on competing for the best score.
Theme: Sportsball! Head to head competition!
Point of view: Pong is presented from a top-down perspective, which takes the challenge of modeling gravity and hitting the ball over the net away from gameplay—focusing on the act of hitting the ball back and forth and trying to get it past your opponent’s paddle. The graphics are simple and abstract, also keeping the focus on fast and responsive gameplay.
Challenge: The game’s challenge is one of speed, eye-hand coordination, and hitting the ball in ways that your opponent is not expecting.
Decision-making: Decisions are made in real time, with a clear view of the ball’s trajectory and your opponent’s paddle.
Skill, strategy, chance, and uncertainty: Pong is a game of skill, with some chance related to the angle of the ball when it is served and some uncertainty of how your opponent will hit the ball and thus in how you will counter.
Context: The game is played in an arcade context, with your opponent next to you, enabling interaction on the game screen and in the real world.
Emotions: Pong is meant to generate the feeling of being completely focused, grace, intense competition, and excitement.
Figure 6.1 Pong. Photo by Rob Boudon, used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.