CIRCA:Methods for Game Design


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Taxonomy of social mechanics in multiplayer games

From BoingBoing - Cory Doctorow at 7:31 AM Tuesday, Mar 1, 2011 [1] Feb 28, 2011 Game Developer Conference in San Francisco presentation from game-design legend Raph Koster, entitled, "Social Mechanics: The Engines Behind Everything Multiplayer." Presentation Slides [2] From Wonderlandblog's [3] notes of the presentation:

40 essential social mechanics that have ever existed, in order that game designers need never have to reinvent them again.

1: The simplest form of multiplayer is simple advice and assistance. How good are your channels for communication? Helping is the building block of all social gameplay. Parallel symmetric games: darts, golf, snowboarding. You play alongside each other, comparing performance. Meausring progress against someone else is what makes it multiplayer.

2: Quantifying achievement. Putting it into a database.

3. Races. The first user to reach a goal, wins. Curiously absent. Why not have races to a level? You can use this in a network setting. Social games don’t tend to use racing.

4. Leaderboards: everyone competes asynchronously, parallel with historic attempts. We see this in neighbourbars.

5: Tournaments: bracketing users. Social games tend to use bracketing for simple pvp matchmaking: it’s under utilised.

6: Opposition. A rival good is something that can’t be used by someone else at the same time. You have my stuff, I can’t use it. Non-rival is stuff that clones itself: information, etc.

7: Dot-eating. I ate it, you didn’t. Zero sum resource consumption.

8: Tug of War. A winner and a loser.

9: Handicapping.

10: Secrets. Fog of War. Hands of cards.

11: Last man standing. Deathmatch.

12: Bidding. Mediated status. You bid, you take your rival goods (money) and whoever gets the thing, wins. Where are the silent auctions in social games?

13: Lying. Deception and bluffing. Deception only works against other people; not a computer. We depend on quantifying things in our social games; the more we move into psychology the more we can leverage things like bluffing.

14: 3rd party Betting. Betting is driven by the human brain’s bug at calculating odds. We’re lousy at it. This only works on people; you can’t do it vs a cpu.

15: prisoner’s dilemma. Players don’t have all the info, they’re on the same side. If either one caves, they both lose. If they both hang together, they will succeed. You don’t know if the other person will uphold their side. We currently don’t see this in social games. Yet.

16: Kriegspiel. Tabletop military strategy, effectively. Creates the dungeonmaster, the gamemaster. A referee enforces the rules, a gamesmaster directs the action, directs the game. We don’t do much directing in social games right now, but we could.

17: Roles. How many multiplayer games can you think of that don’t have positions on a team. We don’t use team roles or classes in social games. That’s fascinating. This one is guaranteed to increase retention.

18: Ganging up. Being it. Hot potato, Tag. Victim & Hunter.

19: Rituals. Role transitions: weddings, cut a cake, levelling, ding gratz. What is the social game equiv of attending the wedding? Shared rituals bind community like nothing else. The biggest thing that marks rituals is gifts. This one I’m happy to say, we’ve nailed.

20: Gifts. This is moving a rivalrous good to another actor in order to increase their status bar. Gifts have a whole pile of embedded cultural practice. [note, I think #20 was titled gifts, I was momentarily distracted...]

21: Reciprocity. Players will send what *they* want, as they know they’ll get it sent back to them.

22: Mentoring / Twinking. When a hilev hands a lowlev a pile of stuff. It’s hugely welcoming. It’s not cheating, it's powerful social glue.

23: Identity. Means of displaying your status inside a social context.

24: Ostracism. Group removal. Denial of resources.

25: Trust. Does your game call on your to trust someone you don’t know?

26: Guilds & tribes. Hugely powerful. Barely present in social games.

27: Exclusivity. Velvet rope. VIP clubs. What could this do for your monetisation?

28: Guild vs Guild. We know groups like to annihilate each other. Rivalry. Even in a farming game, you could have tropical vs temperate, and they will envy each other, and they will develop passion, and identity, and then…

29: Trade. These large-scale structures become dependent upon each other. They’re less likely to quit. We haven’t focused on them selling things to one another… You are shaping societies. You are building the things people play in, talk about, take part in. Be awake to this.

30: Elections. The largest MMO in the world today is American Idol. Politics.

31: Reputation, influence and Fame. Rolemodels for other players to follow or imitate. You can affect the way players behave by making them famous. Don’t publicis the griefers, publicise the wonderful ones.

32: Public goods. Parks. Air. Is there an infinite common resource in your game?

33: Tragedy of the Commons: can you use up your public good? The price of Facebook ads: the prices are going up, we’re driving those prices up, we're all affected...

34: Community. Where we start playing games on you, the player. If you don’t have good facilities for community interaction, you miss out on the people who set the tone and opinion for everyone else. They’re the small squeaky wheel with enormous broadcast reach.

35: Strategy Guide. Players are able to solve insane problems as a group via the scientific method. Every player is a fresh experiemtn trial run, they get better, they figure stuff out. But this only works at large scale with shared info.

36: Teamwork. Groups operating together are more successful than those operating on their own. Dragon Kill Points.

37: Arbitrage.

38: Supply chains. Chain value, interdependence.

39: User generated content. Design for this.

40: Griefing. Change the rules out from under the players. Sometimes players are reinventing your game for you.


A formal approach to game design and game research based on Mechanics, Design, and Aesthetics. Article written by Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubek available here: [4] MDA was developed and taught as part of the Game Design and Tuning Workshop at the Game Developers Conference, San Jose 2001-2004. The system is a formal approach to understanding games that aims to combine game design, development, criticism and technical research into a constructive iterative process. By moving between MDA's three levels of abstraction (mechanics, design, and aesthetics) the game designer can conceptualize the dynamic behavior of game systems to aid iterative design processes and guide the game design toward desired outcomes. From the designer's perspective, the mechanics give rise to dynamic system behavior, which in turn leads to particular aesthetic experiences so thinking about these interrelated processes can help guide game designers more efficiently tune iterations of the game.

Mechanics: describes the particular components of the game, at the level of data representation and algorithms. Can be various actions, behaviors and control mechanisms afforded to the player within a game context. Together with the game's content (levels, assets and so on)the mechanics support overall gameplay dynamics.

Dynamics: describes the run-time behavior of the mechanics acting on player inputs and each others' outputs over time. They create aesthetic experiences(eg. challenge is created by things like time pressure and opponent play. Fellowship can be encouraged by sharing information across a team or supplying winning conditions that are more difficult to achieve alone)

Aesthetics: describes the desirable emotional responses evoked in the player, when she interacts with the game system. The authors propose a taxonomy of what makes a game "fun" as a way to determine aesthetics and guide game design. Games are usually a combination of these aesthetic goals (i.e. Quake is Challenge, Sensation, Competition, Fantasy)

  1. Sensation (Game as sense-pleasure)
  2. Fantasy (Game as make-believe)
  3. Narrative (Game as drama)
  4. Challenge (Game as obstacle course)
  5. Fellowship (Game as social framework)
  6. Discovery (Game as uncharted territory) 
  7. Expression (Game as self-discovery)
  8. Submission (Game as pastime)

P4 Games - Model Syllabus for Paper-based game Design

[5] This syllabus is for a game design course whose goal is to use rapid paper prototyping to develpe 10 paper-based games in 10 weeks (students make one game per week). It is unclear what age group this syllabus was written for but it is sufficiently challenging to prove useful for this research group's purposes. When applied this group decided to use weeks 7 & 8 to iterate, revise, refine and improve the gameplay and production values of their best game produced during the earlier weeks. They expressed a desier to complete a polished project. They found the enforced rapid prototyping to be exhausting and were seeking tangible rewards. The materials used were a sketch book, paper of various sizes and generic game pieces and tokens. Formal and conceptual restrictions were placed on each iteration of the game development to guide and challenge the students, for example:

  1. Formal Parameters: Create a turn-based, two-player game. The game will be complete-able in 15 minutes. The gameplay will occur within an 11" x 17" surface. Turns or moves may be signalled by either a six sided dice (D6) or a coin.
  2. Formal Parameters: Create a two-player game. The gameplay will occur on a surface made up of hexagonal tiles with a diameter between one and one-and-a-half inches. Gameplay can proceed as either turn-based or simultaneous movement. Turns of moves may be signalled by either a spinner or cards. An 8.5 x 11 inch hexagonal field is available for download (HexagonalField.pdf 627kb) and at
  3. Formal Parameters: Create a one-player game with a knowable outcome (i.e. not a toy). You shall use only one of the following sets of materials.
         * A rubber band and a tooth brush
         * Thirteen tokens of any size/shape
         * A bowling ball (or facsimile thereof)
  4. Conceptual Constraint: Make a game about Red.
  5. Conceptual and Formal Constraint: Make a three-player game that cannot be played as a two-player game.
  6. Revise a previous game or revisit a previous week's constraint by constructing a new game.
  7. Make a further revision of a previous game, and refine your production values paying particular attention to the material, visual and haptic qualities. It's not advisable to create a highly polished version of a game with unrefined gameplay.
  8. Make a game whose rules are expressed in a maximum of three haikus. No verbal prefatory remarks are allowed.
  9. Make a game that expresses its ideology (point-of-view, belief system, etc.) through gameplay.

Boardgame Remix Kit

[6] This project is a set of alernate rules in book/e-book, iPhone app or printed card form that use the boards and pieces of traditional games like Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, Scrabble, and Clue to make up new games. While not strictly a design tool it is a good example of how existing popular games can be remixed to create new games.


[7] This is a card game where the rules constantly change as the game is played. For ages 8+ and 2 - 6 players this is not a design tool per se, but it is another example of how players can manipulate game play and become authors of the game themselves.

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