Released almost 5 years ago, my book Think Like A Game Designer captured everything I learned in my twenty years designing games. But did you know there is a lost chapter I never printed?
It’s something I’d originally written to add to the book, but had to cut it to keep things clear and focused. That said, I still think it’s an important lesson that any new game designer should know, so I’m going to share it here.
It’s all about Novelty.
There are two types of Novelty I want to talk about: Novelty in Concept (originality) and Novelty in Play (variety).
Let’s start with the least important of these: Novelty in Concept.
We all want to create something original, but originality is overrated. I’m not suggesting that you plagiarize other games, but borrowing from successful ideas makes your game more accessible.
If you try to create a mechanic that is too original, you will have trouble getting people to understand and adopt your game. Humans are incremental learners. The average person does best when presented with only one or two new concepts at a time. Don’t feel uncomfortable borrowing liberally from other games and combining ideas from multiple sources. Take old ideas and present them in new contexts that show the familiar in a new light.
As you create and iterate on your games, you will inevitably place your own personal stamp on the design. The game you create will be in the end a thing only you could have created. Give credit to your inspirations, and be proud to be a part of the continuing evolution of game design. The greatest compliment to a game designer is to see their ideas spawn new games that they then can enjoy.
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about a form of novelty that is critical to successful game design: Novelty in play.
Imagine playing a great new game that you absolutely love. You immediately decide to play again and find that the game plays out the exact same way. A third play through is pretty similar… Are you going to want to play again?
When the novelty of play experience runs out in your game, you can expect it to quickly be put aside for newer experiences that are more exciting.
This is because we play games in large part because they provide us with novel challenges that we can engage with and learn from. Without the novelty of play, learning ceases and play becomes far less interesting.
To illustrate this point, look at a game like Tic-Tac-Toe. Most children enjoy the game until they eventually figure out all of the permutations to force a draw. Once the game-space is explored, Tic-Tac-Toe becomes boring and is left behind for other games that provide more novelty and challenge.
At a certain point, almost every game is doomed to reach this plateau of boredom. Players gain joy from a game by gaining “ah-ha” moments where they understand a new concept. As more and more concepts become ingrained, it becomes harder and harder for a game to continue to provide novelty.
Outside of the depth of the Core Mechanic, (which I go over in detail in Think Like A Game Designer) there are several tools that designers may use to help increase the novelty of play in their games.
Randomness: By adding random elements into a game, you can greatly increase the total possible game outcomes and thus the number of novel experiences possible within a game. A shuffled deck of cards, a roll of the dice, or a random monster generator can all exponentially increase the novel experiences possible in your game. Even unbelievably simple games like Left-Center-Right where players make no decisions can be engaging for audiences just because of the permutations of a dice roll.
Hidden Information / Bluffing: Trying to understand the mind of another person is an endlessly fascinating learning experience. Add hidden information into your game that one player knows but the other doesn’t enhance the game’s novelty. These mechanics are at their best when limited amounts of information are exchanged during each game turn. Poker is a classic example of this kind of depth. Players reveal information via bets, trying to discern their opponent’s hand while concealing their own.
Balance: Ensuring that there is no one dominant strategy in your game can increase novel play by forcing players to adapt to whatever strategy is adopted by their opponent (or by the game itself). The classic game utilizing this strategy is Rock-Paper-Scissors. To find balance in your game, try to ensure each strategy in your game has a reasonable counter-strategy available.
Increased Difficulty Levels: Provide simple options that increase the difficulty level of a game to encourage players to retry the experience and maintain a challenge. Many video games have “hard” or “impossible” modes to increase replay of the same content.
Time Delay / Grind: Finding the right balance of learning new skills vs. spending time utilizing those skills is never easy. Many games extend out the novelty of their content by tactically increasing the amount of time in between new skill adoption. World of Warcraft is a classic example of a game that uses grinding to extend the play. Often, a player will have to complete several repetitive missions -kill 20 boars / collect 10 gems- before “leveling up” and gaining new skills to learn and master. Adding too much grind is dangerous, however, as players may get bored and give up before reaching the novel experience at the end of the grind. Tabletop games can also use this strategy by tactically introducing new concepts through expansions.
Understanding what your expected novelty/boredom curve will be is very helpful for understanding how you should market and sell your game. There is nothing wrong with creating a fun but short-lived experience, whose novel gamespace will be explored in a few hours. It would be unwise, however, to try to sell such a game in a monthly subscription fee model. Understand where your game falls on the spectrum and, if needed, utilize the tools above to gain more mileage out of your core mechanic.