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Welcome to the blog of The Killer Nacho, known to most mortals as Timothy J. Sharpe, a Computer Science graduate of Messiah College and currently a Systems Analyst for Sunoco Logistics. Within this tome of pages, one will find my innermost thoughts about various things concerning things that I enjoy. These subjects include, but are not limited to, roleplaying, gaming, American Football (the NFL), things to do with computers, philosophy, movies that are awesome, TV shows that are awesome, my own writings and creative works, and dangerous Mexican snacks.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Competitive Game Design Philosophies

As most of you know, I love games. All kinds of games, really, but in particular, competitive games. I like the ability to match my wit and skill against an opponent's. The excitement and desire to compete against another human to determine who is 'better' is very enjoyable... and of course, to the victor goes the spoils. I have played several competitive games in my lifespan, spanning from video games like Warcraft 3, Doom, and Pokemon, table-top games like Star Wars Miniatures, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and Magic: the Gathering, and even board games like Monopoly, Chess, and Munchkin. Using my experiences, I have compiled a list of 'Game Design Philosophies' I hold. These are general qualities of what makes a good competitive game. While this list is intended for competitive games, most of these points apply to other sorts of games as well. Without further introduction, the list:

1. General simplicity is a gaming virtue. This is debatable, but I believe it is vital to any game's success. Any game should be simple in concept, for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that unnecessary complexity will discourage people from playing the game to begin with. It also creates situations where there are so many variables, it is difficult to come to a decision in the game, and therefore slows down the game. Sometimes, people wonder how a simple card game like Yu-Gi-Oh! became so popular. As far as game design goes, it really doesn't score that highly in any other category. But its simplicity and fast gameplay is fun and 'charming', as the game continues to draw in players. Another game I've enjoyed is Doom (using the free multi-player software known as ZDaemon to play online). This oldie is really the first successful First-Person Shooter, but many people still play it competitively due to its fast-paced nature and simple design.

2. Mastery is what is complex. While philosophy #1 states that simplicity is good in game concept, mastery of the game ought to be complex. A newcomer shouldn't be able to come into the game and be very good his first time. On the contrary, skill should be very important for any game. A good example of this is Chess. While the rules of Chess are fairly simple, it can take years to truly become "good" at the game. A game which is simple in concept but complex at the competitive level is ideal. Of course, other games are good at this. Warcraft 3 (not the crappy MMORPG, the RTS) has pretty simple gameplay when you first get into it, and almost everyone can beat the single-player campaign. However, when playing online, the player soon discovers that his skills must be improved, as there are several complex strategies competitive players use to overwhelm opponents.

3. Luck's role should be limited. Luck is a tricky concept since it is inherent in several competitive games from the start. For card games, for example, luck is already vital since it controls which cards you will draw from the deck. Luck is somewhat of a mixed coin. On one hand, luck ensures a fresh playing experience each time the game is played. It also adds some element of "surprise" and "randomness" that we see from real-life. Overcoming these random events can be very rewarding. On the other hand, though, Luck can be a very bad thing for a competitive game. An unlucky player may feel his loss is undeserved, while his opponent may feel the same thing about a win. No player wants to lose or win based on luck, a player plays a competitive game due to the desire to compete, to win on their own merit. A competitive game can survive with elements of luck (TCGs are perfect examples), but it must be limited as much as possible. Magic: the Gathering is a game that compensates its inherent luck very well. For one, its mana system creates an alternate resource besides the amount of cards you have currently in your hand. This slows the game down. And due to the fact up to four copies of a card can be played in any Magic deck, the probability is high of a player drawing his key cards by the time he wants to use them.

4. Balance and diversity keeps things interesting. In game design, this is one of the hardest things to accomplish. While it is foolish to think that every strategy in every game ought to be equal (in fact, if this were the case, it would not be ideal since it would likely be a strong luck-based game), there ought to be several strategies and options that are viable in every competitive game. This allows different players to go different options, and makes the game more interesting to play due to the wide array of different styles of players that player can face. One way to accomplish this is making sure that certain strategies "check" others, creating a "checks and balances" system. If Strategy A becomes more popular, then Strategy B (which is good against A) will increase in use, creating a natural defense against centralization around a single strategy. Some examples include the Color Wheel in Magic, which ensures at the very least 5 equally-good 'colors' players can play with. In Pokemon, players create a team of 6 of over 500 species, which at least 100 are competitively viable. Sometimes, though, things get out of hand and something becomes 'too good'. When this happens, almost every game has created some sort of Ban List, which limits what players can use. This is necessary for most games.

5. Environment is almost as important as gameplay. What I mean by this is it is not enough for a game to excel in rules 1-4 for a game to become popular. Another big concept is the game's environment, or how the game feels... its background. In Warcraft, one plays the role of a commander, waging war on enemy nations. In Pokemon, one is a trainer of creatures to battle others. In Munchkin, you are exploring a dungeon, trying to obtain treasure while backstabbing your 'Friends'. In Magic, each card has flavor that really makes you feel like you are casting the spell. Each of these examples allows the user to create a light sense of roleplaying, which really adds to the game's general enjoyment. I've played several games that may be good games, but lacked this general factor and really failed as a result.

Anyway, these are the 5 philosophies I've come up with. Feel free to leave a comment about what you think about these, and if you can think of another game design philosophy I missed, feel free to mention it!


  1. This is a pretty good I have played a LOT of card games in my life and at lest played with players of a competitive level. This pretty much hit's the nail on the head. Good Work :)

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