People who know me well enough are usually aware of my obsession with a Rogue-like game called Crawl. It’s said to be one of the most fiendishly difficult offerings from an already fiendishly difficult genre (victory is a mixed bag of “holy crap, I’ve finally won!” and “holy crap, what have I just wasted years of my life on?”), and stands alongside the likes of ADOM and Nethack as a popular activity on any masochistic gamer’s schedule.
What fascinates me most about the game is the documentation outlining its core design philosophy. Everything in the Crawl world is purposefully designed to be affected (and used) by the player in some way, from subterranean plants and mysterious altars to smoke clouds, water puddles, and even ordinary dungeon walls.
Better yet, every interaction is meaningful. Deciding how you’ll attack an enemy or deal with a dead body is never a straightforward process – the game is built in such a way that you’ll never have ridiculous quantities of any resource at your disposal. Even the most potent spellcasters will occasionally need to conserve mana and attack weaker enemies in hand-to-hand combat, while shop prices are structured in a way that forces careful spending of gold.
This is one of the secrets of absolutely awesome game design. Yes, a lot of games depend on rhythm and figuring out sequences through repetition, but other games inspire us through their lack of order – the idea that no matter how good you get, you’ll always have to pause and think about your next move and how it will affect you.
Some developers consider “obvious” decisions to be anti-game moments. If players know from the word go what needs to be done, the challenge is rendered moot and it becomes a matter of grinding one’s way to the finish line. The puzzle is solved in advance, the tactics have been figured out, and the intrigue is over with before a situation even begins. When victory is assured in such a manner, time investment becomes the only obstacle. And while steady progression and raw achievement accumulations are effective psychological hooks in themselves, the issue of meaningful gameplay can make the difference between a nice game and a truly great game.
If you’re designing a game (particularly a turn-based or puzzle title) remember that half of its value for a player will stem from making meaningful decisions. If there’s an obvious and one-dimensional way to approach all situations, consider designing instances and levels that force a rethink or even turn rules on their heads. When you add something to your game, make sure it has meaning and significance. Carefully consider every single element that you add, and try to give it depth – either on its own, or in the way it interacts with everything else. This doesn’t mean that you have to make a game as difficult and complicated as Crawl: far from it, in fact. The concept of meaningful design goes hand in hand with minimalism, and is especially important for indie developers who can’t afford to waste any resources on padding and weak concepts.
Do this, and you can turn your gaming experience from a routine chore into something that will engage and interest your players from beginning to end.