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The Art of the Designers’ Note

January 9th, 2006 by Troy Goodfellow · 14 Comments · Uncategorized

Though all of the praise for Civ IV is well-deserved, little of it is as merited as the kind words directed at Soren Johnson’s afterword in the manual. It is a beautiful little essay that gives some insight into the game design process, specifically how to adapt a classic game and make it better. Potential pitfalls are mentioned, justifications for design decisions are made and the whole thing is written in a familiar style.

It made me wonder why more games don’t have a “designer’s note” or “afterword” in their manuals. It’s certainly not new for Meier and co. Brian Reynolds wrote two excellent concluding essays for Civilization II and Alpha Centauri. Of the latter, Reynolds writes:

…in spite of the industry’s headlong rush to get on the real time bandwagon, [we believed] a strong market still existed for turn-based strategy games. Gamers wanted a new sweeping, epic of a turn based game, and they wanted us to design it.

He goes on to talk about the challenge of sci-fi settings, the important role of Bing Gordon and how the entire Firaxis team made the game come to pass. Curiously, Civ 3 had no such commentary from Jeff Briggs.

Back in 1990, Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley wrote an afterword for the Railroad Tycoon manual that paid homage to the classic board game 1830. They go into how the design changed as the game developed and what had to be done to keep the whole thing accessible.

As I rifled through my shelf, though, I found few other designer’s notes in strategy manuals to compare to the Meier-esque oeuvre. Caesar III has a note from David Lester that reveals that C3 was originally going to be city building in space. (Maybe someone should try that…) None of the Paradox games have great notes, though Hearts of Iron II has a great one from the manual author. Imperialism‘s manual has one of the great first pages in game history, but nothing from the Frog City developers. Many wargames have designer notes, but they are rarely very insightful into game design or development. None of the Age of Empires games have notes at all.

Why so few? The growth of design by committee could have something to do with it. There is little sense of “authorship” in many games, though I suspect this would change if we gamers got a little more of a feeling for the developers. Good designer notes also let us look a little at how the design process moves in fits and starts.

The decline of manuals in general is an issue. In-game help and interfaces have evolved to the point where thick manuals are mostly unnecessary and this is a good thing. Whatever manual there is will tend to be short, full of pictures, and with no room for “fluff.”

Still, I like designers’ notes and want to see more of them. Even a bad note lets us understand something about the anonymous people who make our fun. There are lots of great things to imitate in Civ IV. I ask developers to imitate the afterword first.


14 Comments so far ↓

  • jason

    There are lots of reasons why these things never happen…the simplest answer is simply cost. Most manuals (when you even get them these days) tend to be really quick and cheap, just barely enough to get across the point of the game for those willing to RTFM. I’m not knocking this, mind you (most of my games are like this) I’m just saying that’s why they’re like that.

    With Civ IV, there was a conscious decision made to create a substantial manual. A game like Civ needs a decent manual, and so you’ve got a lot more space to work with than your usual quickie manual. If you got the collector’s edition (and I hope you did, because they’re all gone), you even got it spiral-bound, which is pretty damn cool.

    I loved Soren’s afterward. I had no involvement in its inclusion (it was decided on by Firaxis and the PM at 2K), but I thought it was great, and I really liked the fact that some people (Tom Chick for one) made it a point to mention it in their reviews. I made it a point to tell people to RTFM when sending out copies, and even though most people probably ignored me, I think those who did got a lot out of it.

  • Troy Goodfellow

    The cost is undoubtedly a big factor, and with the interfaces and tutorials getting better while production costs go higher it makes sense to cut where you can.

    I’m not even convinced that Civ4 needed a decent manual (and yes, I have the Collector’s Edition) since the game is pretty easy to figure out just from what is in the game.

    I do think that there should be more designers’ notes out there if only to amuse me. I find them endlessly fascinating and I think I’m not alone.

  • Bruce

    When I was younger and playing board wargames, my favorite part of reading the rules was the deisgner’s notes. Every game had them. They varied in quality, but they often had interesting gameplay suggestions that showed not only why the designer had made certain decisions, but how he expected the game to be played. That often offered more insight into the game than any self-analysis on the designer’s part. There is one designer’s note for a recent boardgame that I think shows better understanding of game design than any computer game I’ve seen, and I’ve been trying to find a way to work it into an article. I’ve never understood why computer games never had them. I’ve been trying to get the designers of a game I’m writing the manual for to give me a piece that gives some idea of why they made the game that they did – I think it’s worth the cost of the manual.

  • Dave Long

    I think it just amounts to interest level and the lack of it from anyone outside of those of us reading this blog.

    However, if it’s a cost thing, then I think what PC game makers can do to get around that is put a PDF in the installation with Designer’s Notes. That’s not going to cost anyone a cent and it still delivers the goods.

  • Ken Wootton

    You see a lot of this type of stuff show up on gaming web sites in the form of developer diaries.

    Designer notes like the one written by Soren would be perfect for gaming magazines, where an in depth look at an already published game would be both welcome and provide a somewhat unique marketing opportunity for the developer.

  • Kafka

    Valve software did something really interesting within a recent update to their engine. They released a demonstration map that showcased a new feature of their engine (HDR), but they also added a “developers commentary” feature! Area triggers on the map play different bits of the audio, so you get to hear the designer’s point of view while walking around the space they created.

    I like it because its reminiscent of the commentary track on DVDs. Hopefully, game companies latch onto this and we see more of it.

  • Bruce

    I got the latest issue of C3i (GMT Games’ magazine) yesterday and it has a four-page article by Mark Herman called “My Philosophy Behind Card-Driven Game Design.” I think that this kind of analysis just isn’t very interesting with most computer games, where players are somewhat insulated from the game mechanics.

  • Troy Goodfellow

    Maybe, Bruce. In a world of cookie cutter RTS and movie license action games, there may not be a lot of room for “Philosophy of Game Mechanics”.

    But Designer’s Notes can be more than that. Take Lego Star Wars – there we have a huge license and a legendary toy company joining forces for a really silly game idea. Why not designer/developers notes on how they approached this union? Or about the challenges of translating popular movies to a world where characters break apart at the legs? In short, anything that would give the player some insight into how this thing is done.

    Johnson’s afterward is mostly a discussion of what they kept, what they tossed and how sometimes starting from scratch is better than tweaking. Not much philosophy at all.

    A game like Rise of Nations, though, could have used a game design philosophy note. It breaks the rules of RTS and then builds the best one ever. How did Reynolds and co. get there from the Age of Empires model? I’m not sure players are all that insulated from mechanics in strategy/war games, after all – certainly less so than in your latest rag doll physics shooter.

  • Bruce

    I think that Soren’s afterword has a lot of “game philosophy” in it, although we may just be disagreeing on the word “philosophy.” For example,

    we needed a positive which also encouraged fewer, larger cities

    and all the stuff on worker options tells me what they feel makes a better game and why.

  • Soren Johnson

    If a college friend of mine had not have gotten married in August, there is no way there would have been designer notes for Civ4 – I wrote them on the plane ride. It was litreally the only time I was not either working or sleeping during the last three months or so.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the scope of modern games and the rush to release is what has killed the designer notes. Civ I was a hard-coded game with no modding and no multi-player and no pre-release hype. Thus, I am sure it was a lot easier to find time to write at the end of the project than with something like Civ4.

  • Troy Goodfellow

    Thanks for stopping in Soren.

    I can see time being an issue to some extent, but I don’t think it has to be a big barrier. Not all designers’ notes have to be epic works of nonfiction – simply a memo to the player about how and why things are done the way they are.

    Rise of Legends could use a designer’s note, for example. I read a lot of stuff in previews of the game that would only add to the experience, I think. Why this Chariots of the Gods crap for Cuotl? What makes this combination of races attractive?

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