Soren Johnson has just wrapped up his two part post on mistakes people make in game design, specifically strategy game design. For the most part, I agree with with eight points but, being a contrary type, I have a few nitpicks here and there. Make sure you read both parts one and two before you proceed in this post.
In Number 3, his point about needless repetition, Johnson throws out a formula which he probably doesn’t expect people to take all that seriously.
Fun Factor = Interesting Decisions / Actual Time Played
The argument underlying this formula is clear; time spent away from interesting decisions is wasted time. So when you force the player to repeat actions that are either obvious or dull, you take the him/her away from the game part. But according to this formula, I think, the perfect game would have every segment of time filled with an interesting decision. This type of design would be exhausting and probably overwhelming. You can make a good case for games that delay gratification, like many of the early 4x games (Seven Cities of Gold or Imperialism, for example.) Part of the problem with this formula is where it is the connection to repetitive activity implies that an “interesting decision” is an “action”. However, to paraphrase Talleyrand’s saying regarding intervention, in many cases action and inaction amount to the same thing; the decision not to take an action is as significant as the decision on which action to take.
I can’t underestimate the importance of Johnson’s fourth point on “too much stuff”. I think that Beyond the Sword is a little guilty of this. Both of the new major mechanics (espionage and corporations) would have been stronger I think if there wasn’t an impulse to add a bunch of new units, buildings, blockades, a new space race, the Apostolic Palace and random events. Even the great range of scenarios is undermined by the inclusion of some real dogs, like the Defense and Afterworld scenarios. Both work as demos of the flexibility of the Civ 4 system, but aren’t very entertaining. I think Dominions 3 could be a lot smaller, too, but I’m fully aware of how heretical that statement is.
Fan content creators are, I think, very prone to fall into the “bigger is better” mindset. I’ve written before about how many users think in epic terms and can sometimes lose sight of how what they add can weaken the elegance of a game design. Even truly amazing accomplishments like the Fall From Heaven mod for Civilization IV would probably be better if the designers limited their focus.
In spite of this, I think he’s right on about the importance of opening up strategy games for modders and scenario creators. A lot of the time you’ll end up with scenarios that miss the point, like most of the theater level battles people have made for Operational Art of War. But, as much as I loved Rome: Total War I would have loved it more if battle and army creation was a lot easier than it proved to be.
The good news about this list is that it means that there’s a good chance Spore won’t turn into SimEarth, a game that was plagued with a lot of design issues that Johnson attacks in these posts.