Natural Game Design: How to Birth Games Without Cloning
An exploration of methodologies for innovative game design. A presentation at Casual Connect USA/2015
Published on: Mar 3, 2016
Transcripts - Natural Game Design: How to Birth Games Without Cloning
Natural Game Design
Casual Connect 2015
As Markets Mature, They Become
But Cloning is a Mug's Game
• Market Leader Has Great Data
• They've Tuned Their Game Carefully
• They Have a High LTV
• You are Competing for the Same Players
• Your Customer Acquisition Costs: Sky-High
•“Genre is the name we give to one hit game
and its imitators.”
•– Dan Scherlis
New Play Patterns Create Hits
Our Usual Methods Don't Innovate
•As designers we:
• Tweak numbers in spreadsheets
• Document stuff
• Iteratively Refine.
•...none of this will get us there.
•...for blue-ocean innovation.
1. Agile Design
•We pretend to be agile, but…
• Set budgets.
• Set time frame.
• Develop to spec.
•Actually, it's waterfall, with a bit of agile
Stage 1: Find a Novel Core
Dream up a
Is it fun yet?On to Stage 2!
Does it have
Stage 2: Is the Possibility Space
Build more stuff
On to Stage 3!
Does it have
Stage 3: Scale Up
• Tiny team at start.
• Stages 1 & 2 take as long as they take.
• Don't be afraid to throw away work.
• Gear up only when you've found the fun.
This Seems to be How These Guys
Pros & Cons
• Likely to work best for mechanically simple
• Casual, ahem.
• No guarantee of success.
• But then… nothing guarantees success
2. Recombinant Game Design
•“...patterns are simply conventions for
describing and documenting recurring design
decisions within a given context, be it game
design or software engineering.”
•– Bernd Kreimeier
Game Design Patterns?
• Essentially, mechanics or
• Staffan Björk & Jussi
Jussi was my boss at
Games in a Genre
• Vary in theme and detail, of course, but
• ALL adopt the same game play patterns.
• With almost never any deviation.
Real-Time Strategy Patterns
• Fog of war
• Resource gathering
• Building & unit construction
• Two or more races/civs/whatever with
asymmetric capabilities and differing dominant
• Early game build up/end game battle
• Speed & interface mastery key to victory
• Taking play patterns that haven't been used
together before and…
• Figuring out how to put them together in a way
that feels fun.
• Levels always fixed.
• Platformer with algorithmically
• generated levels
• Infinite replayability!
Mario Bros. + Rogue =
Quake + weird physics + puzzles
• It's an FPS
• Where you don't kill things.
• Instead it's all nav puzzles...
• With bizarro-word physics
• FPS, physics, puzzles:
• All well-understood play
• Never seen together before.
• Sandbox world-construction
• Typically single player
• Survival horror elements
• A new genre: survival crafting.
Second Life + Legos
Pros & Cons
• You're starting with proven mechanics.
• We know they work in some context
• But not everything works with everything else.
• Less whole-cloth innovation than agile design
• … but maybe better suited to more complex
• games (ahem, midcore).
My current game is a mid-core build & battle game that
3. Trope Inversion
• Take one aspect of a genre that everyone
knows is core and essential to the form.
• Do exactly the opposite.
• Defy the common wisdom.
“Player cooperation is essential in
Paranoia: A light-hearted game of terror,
death, bureaucracies, mad scientists,
mutants, dangerous weapons, and
robots, which encourages players to lie
to, chat, and backstab each other at
edition backcover copy
“Permadeath in an MMO is Always
• Die? Start over from level 1,
• The game ends. MMOs
• never do that! And then –
• it resets.
Pros & Cons
• It's so simple!
• And you're leaving everything else
unchanged, pretty much, and you know this
play pattern works.
• But…. Conventional wisdom exists for a
• You may utterly fail.
Get Out of Your Rut
• Yes, making games is hard (even without
• Yes, being innovative is hard.
• But it's not THAT hard
• And there are proven ways to do it.
• No more excuses, please. Just do it.
That's Three Ways to Innovate
•I'm sure there are more.
•“There are four and twenty ways
• Of writing tribal lays
• And every single one of them is right.”
• – Rudyard Kipling
Sadly, you may never get the
Game designers and suits are class enemies, I fear.