Today’s guest post is the first in a series of posts to come and was written by my pal Brian Powers. He has guest-posted for Real Life Artist before, on topics including surnames that are verbs and getting hit by an egg. is also heavily featured in “This is your Brain on Egg Puns”, the post that is the lifeblood of this blog. Today Brian offers insight into his process as a game developer and designer. (FYI: he’s into card games and board games, not so much video games.)
Math, Art and Game Design
A Series by Brian Powers
Part 1: The Game Concept
When Chloë asked if I’d be interested in writing a guest post on Real Life Artist about game design, I FIGURATIVELY jumped at the chance! Although I’m a mathematician by training, a banker by experience, and a teacher by occupation, I consider myself an amateur game designer.
As with many forms of media production, game publishing has become more and more feasible for the individual with a small budget in recent years and we’ve seen a burgeoning burgeon of amateur game designers coming onto the scene. In 2008 there were essentially no options for an affordable small run of a card game (one or two copies), but now websites like Superior POD and the Game Crafter make it not only possible but relatively simple to publish your own game. This does NOT, however, mean you will make money from the game or become famous! Haha! We don’t do this for money! We are artists! We do it for Zeus!
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves—before we publish a game, we have to design it, and before we design it, we need some sort of concept. The concept can come from anywhere—the most boring place is a flash of inspiration, but as Ze Frank nicely explains, we shouldn’t wait for inspiration before we make something. We can look for ideas everywhere.
I’ve had many ideas for games: some I’ve acted upon, and some are on the back burner.
- Pensacola: A strategy game where players run competing retirement homes and try to make money before their residents “move on”.
- Crazy Celebrities: A card game where players are celebrities trying to become crazy (like Tom Cruise, Lindsay Lohan or Charlie Sheen) without destroying their careers.
- Get Sick: A card game where you try to fake diseases to fool your boss into letting you take sick days.
- Cult Classic: A card game where players compete to found cults and lure the most followers they can.
- Pathways: An abstract tile-placing game where you build a connected path between points A and B.
- Element Tower Defense: A novel tower defense computer game I made a number of years ago, to be played in Warcraft III.
And the list goes on.
The game that I want to discuss here is a concept that I’ve been playing with in my head for a while now. I’m not really sure what to call it but we’ll hopefully see it evolve as this series of blog posts develops. The game involves players manipulating the rewards they receive from various actions and then strategically taking these actions. That’s the simplest way I can describe it, but I want to talk a little bit about Game Theory in order to delve further into it.
Game theory is a branch of mathematics with heavy applications to economics, political science, international relations, sociology, biology … any situation that involves one or more individuals or collectives making strategic decisions in order to maximize some sort of positive result for themselves. These situations are abstracted into a ‘game‘ and represented using mathematical tools such as matrices for analysis, and often we can find the ‘solution’ or ideal set of strategies for the game. The name “game theory” is a bit of a misnomer because the theory really isn’t so much focused on the games we play for fun, but that’s the name it’s stuck with.
This may all seem pretty dense, so let me present a classic example (in fact, the inspiration for this latest of my game concepts):
Consider two individuals. Each person has two options: be nice or be mean. If they are both nice then they are rewarded with 3 points each. If they are both mean then they are given 1 point each. If one is nice and the other is mean, then the meany gets 5 and the goody-two-shoes gets nothing (out of whatever deal they make – the meanie takes advantage). We can depict this situation as a matrix, with each box showing the points for player 1 and player 2 as an ordered pair:
This situation has come to be known as the prisoner’s dilemma. It is a dilemma because although you can see that collectively the greatest benefit for the pair is when both are nice to each other, both players have a tasty incentive for meanness. If both players are mean, however, they are stuck with each getting a low reward, a third as much as they would have got if they had been nice in the first place.
The prisoner’s dilemma has been studied and written about A LOT. Although I think it’s completely fascinating—and I can’t recommend enough the book The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod—I don’t want to dwell on it. What I’m interested in is how this could be turned into a board game.
The game becomes a lot more interesting if the rewards could be adjusted through repeated plays of the game. As you begin to recognize your opponent’s strategies, perhaps you can re-balance the rewards to favor yourself, or choose actions that will give you the upper hand.
The challenges I’m facing are:
- make the game fun for 2 or more players,
- make the game interesting strategically,
- make the game aesthetically pleasing (in other words: fly!),
- design it in such a way that it doesn’t rely on extraneous game pieces.
Calling these “challenges” may be too dramatic – they are just steps that need to be taken, and that I haven’t taken yet. I feel good about this game idea, and I’m eager to see it through. Hopefully the process will be interesting enough for you to want to read about.
So we have a concept. The next step is to figure out the game mechanics! What are game mechanics? Obviously they are little grease monkeys who play checkers all day. (If you have an infinite number of grease monkeys with an infinite number of checkers boards, would they design Monopoly? Maybe they need an infinite number of typewriters too.)
In our next installment we’ll get all into game mechanics and some of the nuts and bolts of game play design!
(You can go on to Part 2: The Game Mechanics now if you like!)