Welcome to Part 4 in a 6 part series on the phases of collectible game design. Here are parts 1, 2, and 3
Today we are going to dig into Component Design. During component design, you will be filling in the pieces that finally make the game playable. Returning to our analogy of building a house, component design is when the house finally begins to look like a home, with rooms, walls and furniture.
Successful component design is all about creating structure so that everything has a proper place. If your game is successful, you will be creating hundreds or thousands of collectible components. The only hope for you to wrap your head around that many items is to create a solid structure.
There is a pervasive myth that creativity is about being free from constraint. The opposite is true- creativity can only thrive in a world with solid structure upon which the creative impulse can be unleashed. The key to component design is defining and enforcing categories that provide structure to your designs.
At the highest level, you need to break down your components into categories. Examples of categories are:
- Colors in Magic: The Gathering
- Classes in World of Warcraft
- Roles in League of Legends
Categories are defined by story as well as mechanical function. The easiest way to define these is to answer questions about the extremes.
- What is this category best at?
- What is this category worst at?
- What is this category care about or want the most?
- What does this category hate or fear the most?
By answering these questions, you will begin to get a feel for what belongs in a category and what doesn’t. You will inevitably flesh out more details over time, but the big picture questions above are enough to get started.
Magic Lead Designer Mark Rosewater has written extensively on the topic of Magic’s “color pie” which illustrates the enormous amount of thinking that goes into breaking down Magic’s categories. I highly recommend reading through this entire series.
In addition to breaking down your factions, you need to decide how strict you will be in enforcing their separation. By forcing players to make tradeoff choices between categories, you create valuable strategic tension and enable a greater variety of viable strategic choices. The main question to answer here is how much freedom will you give your players to customize?
If you do not enforce categories in your game, then the category is primarily a thematic guide and not a game mechanic. This makes things easy on the player, but doesn’t do much work to differentiate your game experience and will make it very difficult to incentivize different strategies. Games like Yu-Gi-Oh suffer from this problem. Cards from any faction may be played together and there is no rules-based reason to play cards within the same category.
To make games like this work, you will need to put a lot of explicit synergies into your components (e.g. +3 Attack if you play another green card this turn). This approach can be great for very simple or non-collectible games, but I don’t recommend it for any advanced collectible game.
Players can use whichever combination of categories they want, but the game rules pressure you to stay within a limited number of categories. Magic is a great example of this. You can play as many colors as you like in your deck, but the more you diversify, the more you run the risk of not having the right resource at the right time.
This system is a big part of why my college notebook is filled with Magic decks scribbled in the margins. Soft enforcement has the advantage of giving the player lots of freedom to customize their experience and thus lots of variety in play. This limitless possibility is very exciting for an advanced player. The downsides of soft enforcement are that it is the most difficult to balance properly and the open-ended nature of customization may be intimidating for some players.
Players can only play with one faction at a time. Hearthstone is an example of this type of restriction- you pick a class and can only select cards from that class and a generic pool. Strict enforcement is the easiest for a player to understand and the easiest for a designer to balance. On the flipside, the lack of freedom in customization leads to a less robust overall experience.
Players are given a limited ability to combine factions. Solforge is an example of hybrid enforcement. Players are allowed to select any two factions they want, but can never combine three or more. Hybrid systems come in many forms, but they all try to find the balance between freedom to customize and complexity.
Sub-categories (aka subtypes, themes) give you more ways to divide your collectible components. Think of your categories as Russian Nesting Dolls of structure. Each layer can contain within it increasingly refined levels of detail. Once you have defined the top level, repeat the same process to create some subthemes within each faction.
In Solforge, Nekrium is the faction of death and destruction, but each “tribe” of creatures has its own particular focus. Abominations generally sacrifice themselves and others for beneficial effect, while Zombies continue to return from the dead. In Magic’s green color, which is about growth and nature, Elves tend to provide additional mana while Beasts tend to be larger creatures intended for attacking.
A cycle is a single theme or pattern that repeats itself across multiple categories. You can also have cycles within a faction to highlight a key feature (e.g. Have a small, medium, and large version of a core faction effect). Cycles are one of the best ways to establish your themes and communicate them to players.
One of the most famous trading card game cycles is from Magic’s very first set. The cycle was all 1 cost instants that provided 3 of something.
From looking at the above cards alone, you can instantly learn a lot about what defines each faction. Cycles are powerful because by keeping so many elements the same, you draw a player’s attention to the differences. This reinforces the structure you have built. In addition, when a player sees 2 or 3 pieces of this cycle, they will want to look for the final pieces. This helps drive excitement as players speculate about what the final piece of the puzzle will look like.
When in doubt, add more cycles and structure. It is hard to over do it.
Game design is an art form, and like all rules in art, the structural rules above are meant to be broken. You will regularly encounter specific designs or sub-themes that break from your initial direction, but you shouldn’t break rules until you’ve spent time working within them.
Breaking structure should be done with purpose to draw particular attention to a feature. For example, in Magic, the color green doesn’t typically have any flying creatures. When a green flying dragon is introduced, however, it highlights how rare and special that creature is. Judicious use of broken structures is a powerful tool, but only if you spend effort building up those structures in the first place.
Filling in the Skeleton
Once you’ve built out your structure, you now have a basic map of what your completed set of components should look like. It is at this point that I will typically break out a spreadsheet and start filling it in with designs. Create a skeleton outline with the number of components you want in each faction. Then block off time and start filling in the gaps. Now that you know the structure, your creative mind will instinctively start to fill in designs and the process for creating your first set of components should flow smoothly. If you get stuck, fall back on creating more cycles or try adding a new sub-category to help move you forward.
Once your components are designed, it is time to get to the development process, which we will cover in Part 5.
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