The Center Of All Things
Games communicate something from the creator to the player, and as such, carry intent. While I can’t statistically prove it, I’ve come to believe intent is what separates a good from a bad game. Intent creates a direction, an impulse to a design. It doesn’t necessarily start at the idea’s inception – very often a game comes from messing around and experimenting, but at some point an intent must form. When an intent is decided upon, a game can form around that.
Rocket League, a 2015 favorite car-sports game, famously started as a weaponized car combat arena game, much in the vein of Twisted Metal. When a programmer added a ball for a physics test, the team decided to re-imagine the game as the first iteration of Rocket League. This is where the intent came from: create a game about skillfully navigating a ball using cars. Rocket League is many things, but that essence statement summarizes not just the core gameplay mechanics, but also the inherent absurdity and humor of the idea.
When you think about it, most good games can be summarized into simple essences without too much effort. Their intent shines through clearly, and without the designers’ interference. This is why, when I give feedback, or have to greenlight a project, I try to build up to what I expect to be the essence statement for the game, based purely on the build I played. I then question the designers or creators about their game, and try to get them to make an essence statement of their own.
Obviously, I then compare the two statements. If they overlap, the game and the designer have an aligned intent, and I have faith in the game. If not, I try to build a mental model of what led to those separate statements.
Schools often teach the Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics framework to analyze game design, which is a tremendous framework focused on the input-output loop a game creates. While that is an extremely powerful perspective to have on games, I tend to shift focus to the space between Mechanics and Dynamics, and use a personal Intent-Mechanics-Declaration model to communicate flaws in the game design. As always, the model is always in flux, and I doubt I’m the first one to use a model like this. The model is rather simple and by no means exhaustive, but can be most easily communicated as three concentric circles. The Intent is a circle. Around that circle is a larger circle, the Mechanics layer. Around that is a third circle, the Declarative layer.
The Intent is the essence statement, a short and clearly communicable statement that the team working on the game should agree on. It’s important to realize this statement does not have to be exhaustive, and should be considered more along the lines of an architectural parti – something that encompasses the big idea of the game. An essence statement is also not a pitch – it’s used internally. Where Ridiculous Fishing’s pitch was “a game about fishing with machineguns” – a pitch crafted to elicit laughter & interest, internally the goal was to “create a game with an infinite positive feedback loop” – an essence that was pleasant, comfortable and positive no matter the skill of the player.
The mechanics are designed to reinforce the intent, or at the very least not contradict the intent or the other mechanics. This sounds remarkably obvious, but it’s the easiest way to distinguish the average student game from the average professional game. The mechanics are purely the technical state-changes in the game, the values adjusting, the input processing, the ruleset and the ‘deltas’ between two distinct moments in the game based on those rulesets.
The declarative layer, then, is what communicates these ‘deltas’ back to the player. They’re the graphics, the audio, the feedback. It’s each frame of the game rendered (or otherwise communicated) to the player. In other words, the declarative layer is what the player can actually process. It declares to the player that which has changed. Based on that, the players adjust their mental model, create a new intent of their own, and offer input based on their intent. Clearly, the declarative layer should communicate the mechanics and the intent behind them as clearly as possible.
When the model is drawn, you can imagine every decision made in the game as a point in the appropriate layer. The model gains value when you think of the decisions as arrows, drawn from a point in their appropriate layer towards what they’re meant to communicate. If everything is alright, your game should look a bit like a snowflake, with every single arrow more-or-less pointing back towards the center of the circle – the intent.
Considered as a whole, the model should teach you one or two things. The first lesson is that having a clear and easily communicated essence statement early on in development, will avoid disagreements about where the intent is, and as such, it’ll avoid arrows pointing in wildly different directions. The second lesson is that if you apply this model to agame, you’ll usually find some decisions of which the arrows point in the opposite direction of the intent on purpose. A model is not something that should force your hand. A model should guide your decision-making, but never force a decision.
In Ridiculous Fishing, the game we built so carefully to be an infinitely positive feedback loop, we created the second ‘boss-fish’ of the game to intentionally break with that essence. The ending of Ridiculous Fishing, then, again, breaks with the ‘pleasant’ and ‘comfortable’ essence. These moments stand out, because they’re carefully and intentionally opposite.
I use this mental model frequently, not just to give feedback, but also in figuring out what to do with Vlambeer games. You can extend the model further, to include pretty much anything beyond that. I often consider a packaging layer around the declarative layer, for the menus and other non-game interfaces. At other times, I’ll model a marketing layer around the game.
Most experienced designers and creators go through this model somewhat instinctively. Nevertheless, when working with a team, it is valuable to ensure the intent of the game is clear to everybody. Unless a team is remarkably attuned to each other, it is very likely that someone is trying to make a game unlike the game the others think they’re making. A single essence statement, a few keywords, a mock-up of the game, a sketch or silhouette or color palette or small video for the visuals, a sound effect or song to define the sonic qualities of the game – they all help. They declare an intent. They help keeping your game consistent, your team focused and your goals clear.
There’s enough to discuss when you’re making a game without having to argue where the center is.