Most game design discussions deal with the question, “Does game design start with theme or mechanisms?” I think this question misses the point. Games designers create player experiences not a lifeless product. Beginning the game design process with a clear picture of the desired player experience creates a unifying, streamlining vision for the game. As the design develops, incorporating elements of theme, mechanics, and physical components produces the desired player experience. If this is true, then the designer’s challenge lies first in understanding the player experience, and second in the way the three elements affect this experience. In my own designs, I use the D.I.E.T. acronym to define and refine the player experience. D.I.E.T. stands for decisions, interactions, emotions, and tensions. This blog explores how designers can use D.I.E.T. to incorporate theme, mechanisms, and components into a cohesive player experience.
While every game is different, players expect to make some decisions, and for those decisions to materially impact the game. Designers can disrespect this expectation in two ways. First, a design can over-restrict the player’s choices. This gives the player a sense of powerlessness. Second, a design can offer too many choices. This induces analysis paralysis, and slows gameplay. Between these extremes lies the acceptable “decision space” or manageable range of choices for the player. Theme, mechanics, and components each contribute to the decision space by bounding the player’s choices in a way that supports and propels the game’s narrative.
Next, the degree of player interaction puts muscles on the decision skeleton. Will your game have tit-for-tat exchanges, a solitaire-ish feel, or shared responsibilities? Matching the level of player interaction with the desired player experience produces consistency with the theme, mechanisms, and components. For example, a deduction game in which you couldn’t ask the other players questions just wouldn’t work. Now that the design has mapped out a good decision space and an appropriate level of player interaction, it is time to assess how your players are feeling. Does their emotional engagement reflect what is happening in the theme, what they are doing in the mechanisms, and how they are using the components? If not, then they will experience a gameplay interruption. These interruptions force players out of their groove, and leave them thinking, “This makes no sense, but I guess that’s just how it is.” From that point on, the player will have significant doubts about the game.
Lastly, designers must consider the game’s tension. I see tension as a balance between pace, effort, and game length. Can you imagine a 4-hour version of Space Cadets: Dice Duel? The tension would wear out the players long before the game ended. Designers need to adjust the theme, mechanisms, and components to create, or vary, the desired duration and intensity of game tension.
What does the D.I.E.T. process look like in reality? It is an iterative cycle. Our upcoming Kickstarter game Commissioned is a good example. It was designed to immerse players in the faith, fear, and wonder of the early Christian church. This called for a decision space that reflected first century options and limitations, dictated a cooperative approach, targeted an anxious-but-hopeful emotional state, and suggested a gradually escalating game tension. Early efforts fell way short on the meaningful decision and tension scales. The incorporation of a deck-building mechanism enhanced player choices, deepened player interaction, and really heightened the game’s tension. We hope you will check it out, and let us know if we hit our player experience target!
Patrick & Katherine Lysaght recently founded Chara Games to build games that create joy by developing relationships with God and people. Patrick is active-duty Air Force, and Katherine homeschools their three kids. Their first game, Commissioned, will launch on Kickstarter on June 3rd.