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Sacred Cows Make Great Steaks


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The rise of popularity of casual games has demonstrated that two great principles of game design are not nearly as universal as we thought — Guitar Hero is a great example of that.

The first principle came from Chris Crawford. This early thinker about video game design compared a game to a conversation: the computer “talks” by showing pictures and playing sound, then the player “talks back” by doing various actions at his disposal — he called each action a “verb”. Since then, designers have tried to make more and more verbs available to players. Grand Theft Auto IV has a lot of verbs available to players, so many that the controls take 2 pages in a very small font to explain in the manual.

Problem is, each new verb adds complexity. A game like Guitar Hero keeps the number of verbs, and complexity, very limited and yet it’s a massive hit. Guitar Hero slays the sacred cow of verbs: not all games are improved by giving players more verbs; simplicity is a virtue.

The second principle came from Sid Meier who once described a game as “a series of interesting decisions”. Sid Meier makes great games (who doesn’t like Civilization?) and so designers tried to emulate that approach. What’s an interesting choice? How can we make players make more decisions? A lot of efforts went into answering these questions, to make games deeper and more interesting.

But here comes Guitar Hero, a game with no decision whatsoever. The whole game is about doing exactly and precisely what you’re asked to do and nothing else — and it’s a lot of fun. It proves that not all games are a series of interesting decisions. Another sacred cow slain.

My point is not that those principles are worthless — they apply to a great many games and are useful tools — but rather that they’re not universal. What other sacred cow of design can be slain? I bet that’s where the next great new game will be born…

One Response

  1. leo Says:

    Deprecated: preg_replace(): The /e modifier is deprecated, use preg_replace_callback instead in /home/public/wp-includes/formatting.php on line 82

    bloody cow slayer you are!
    Nice article. Long time no see, how is your trip to Tokyo?

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