Design games set out to help players to go beyond following the rules and gameplay presented by game designers. Most games can offer some level of design gaming in terms of making it easy to adjust or adapt the basic format of a game, e.g. minor changes to the rules when playing a boardgame or designing your own simple card game.
However, many games are presented to us in the form of fixed rules and narratives, which encourage players to soak-up designers’ gameplay without using much of their own creativity or imagination to customise or shape gameplay. Obvious examples of games which concentrate on delivering a largely shrink-wrapped experience include recent Final Fantasy titles, multi-volume tabletop RPGs, tabletop wargames and so-called ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ gamebooks.
These kind of games are produced to a high standard and can offer a lot of enjoyment. At the same time, they’re designed to walk or ‘railroad’ players through the content without presenting players with meaningful choices. There may be some optional extras on offer to extend play, but these are typically limited to additional content and/ or ‘fan’ purchases, (such as the recent Final Fantasy iPhone App, which, remarkably, simply repackages screenshots from the game).
There is nothing ‘wrong’ with swallowing down easily digested chunks of other peoples’ imaginative content. After all, many players simply may not wish to get involved in designing and redesigning their own gameplay. (Though one has to wonder whether or not that’s because we’ve become accustomed to marketing and game formats which discourage design gaming).
For those who do want to use games as platforms to support their own imaginative input, design gaming has a lot to offer. Lego serves as a good example, because purchasers are immediately presented with two options. Many Lego products are packaged as kits, which are, at least initially, intended to allow the construction of a particular model, e.g. the Eiffel Tower or a fortress from Prince of Persia. The same bricks can, however, be re-used and re-mixed to make any number of models. From there, the models can be used to play all manner of games based around players’ designs.
Lego, therefore, presents as a procedural, instruction-based exercise, but can easily become an open-ended design platform, which players can use to construct whatever their imaginations find appealing. (Procedures and instructions may be important, but there are plenty of opportunities to develop such methods. Imaginative play and design gaming are less readily available and seem better able to access learning rather than just training).
It’s difficult to draw hard and fast lines here, as pretty much any game can be used for design gaming on some level. It’s more a case of how easy a game makes the process of introducing design gaming and, in particular, how it supports ‘springboarding’ from viewing the rules and content as fixed, to treating the rules and content as a framework for design gaming.
Design gaming is ‘up-and-running’ when it delivers a qualitative difference, which can, perhaps, be described through analogy. With fixed gaming players basically take the rules or ‘skeleton’ and dress it in extra garments from the manufacturer’s wardrobe. With design gaming players take the ‘skeleton’, put ‘flesh on the bones’ and design any clothing.
There are four obvious ways in which games may deliver design gaming:
Games which allow players to easily auto-style the format, configure gameplay, skin environments, design avatars and select personal, narrative and gameplay characteristics contribute to design gaming. Sims 3 and Sims 3 Ambitions are ‘stand outs’ for allowing players to customise, construct and re-mix gameplay.
Sims titles offer plenty of ‘construction’ options, but designing interactive experiences within games went a step further when Neverwinter Nights appeared with a relatively straightforward level design ‘kit’. Players could design their own adventures and much of the resultant gameplay from the ground up. Doing so can be a pretty demanding task, but the now dated game still remains popular as a result of it’s design kit.
Some recent games, including Dante’s Inferno and Dragon Age: Origins, have similar adventure or level design options, but these tend to be either fairly complex to learn to use or a bit short on features.
Gameplay can be designed to project players into particular types of interactions and challenges, which involve designing solutions to fairly complex problems. For example, a traditional counter wargame focuses on resource management, poker involves a social dimension to play and a boardgame design, (like Catan), asks players to occupy a ‘gamespace’ combining resource management, social interactions and rapid decision making. (Ideally, the gamespace can be extended or modified using straightforward variations, such as with the many versions of poker or Catan’s add-on packs).
Tabletop RPGs offer personalisation, design activities and design gameplay opportunities as a matter of course. Some tabletop RPG games also act as ‘springboards’ to creative, imaginative roleplaying, involving high levels of player choice, open-ended storylines, ‘house rules’, depth of characterisation and the construction of shared, imaginative narratives.
Ideally, an on-going interplay between rules treated as guidelines and gameplay makes it easier to move or ‘spring’ beyond the confines of fixed gaming to a flexible or ‘fluid’ gamespace where the guidelines fade into the background during play, (leaving design gaming to focus on communication, creativity and critical thinking).
Most tabletop RPGs have the potential to act as ‘springboards’ to design game roleplaying. However, leading publishers have adapted many of the original tabletop RPGs to offer easily consumed fixed narratives and procedural rule sets.
The resulting pre-packaged pastime only offers limited design gaming and most multi-volume systems require extensive modifications to make it easier to deliver creative roleplaying. The sure route to design gaming, including springboarding, is to start with a set of guidelines designed to serve as a platform or framework for helping players to access imaginative roleplaying.
‘Rules light’ tabletop RPGs are often best equipped to enable design gaming. Games with enough clear guidelines to sketch out player characters, set challenges and outline a setting tend to fill less than 250 pages, use modular game designs to make it easier to integrate new content and, ideally, leave room for ‘in-game’ interpretation and expansion of the underlying framework. Typical examples that we’ve mentioned before include the Traveller SRD, Treasure, Fortune’s Fool and Eden Studio’s Buffy RPG.
If you’re a Pathfinder or an AD&D enthusiast the route to ‘springboarding’ into ‘cinematic’, ‘freeform’ and ‘sandbox’ play is always open. Though it seems necessary to take a step back from the combat-focused rule sets and mechanics to consciously lead play in the direction of design gaming.
These multi-volume, combative games can support player choice, but doing so involves mixing exploration, characterisation, discovery, mysteries, investigations and purposeful missions into the gameplay. It also requires a willingness to interpret the rules as guidelines and place the rules ‘cart’ behind the gameplay ‘horse’.
Though tabletop RPGs offer a unique medium involving social gaming and capable of supporting design gaming on various levels, Tabletop RPG publishers are in some danger of being completely overtaken by videogame design games. The forthcoming Sims 3: Medieval promises to allow players an almost unprecedented level of choice within the fantasy genre. It will do so by providing readily accessible design game kits or modules for building medieval gameworlds and gamespaces. Simply learning to building a ‘scene’ in Dragon Age’s design kit is time-consuming. With Sims 3: Medieval constructing an entire castle, populating it and defining a series of ‘missions’ will be quick and easy.
Players of Sims 3: Medieval and design game-focused tabletop RPGs will not be getting the same qualitative experience, but tabletop RPGs can expect to have (further) difficulty ‘competing’ unless they become more accessible and emphasise design gaming.