Lessons from Game Designer Raph Koster

I am going to be reading game designer Raph Koster’s book Theory of Fun pretty soon. For a preview, I listened to an old interview on the Think Like A Game Designer podcast with Justin Gary.

Link: https://www.thinklikeagamedesigner.com/podcast/2018/10/25/think-like-a-game-designer-5-raph-koster

Raph’s 25-year-old blog is a monument to design knowledge — it includes his writing, talks, and links to projects.

Raph is a creative force of nature. And this interview gets behind the madness. As always with my recaps, this is just what I wanted to write down for my own future reference but so much more is covered (there’s an especially great section about the use of simulations)

The Studio | London Art Classes

Ideating from scratch

When designing a game Raph will have a starting point. On one end of the spectrum might be a particular loop or mechanic the game hinges on. At the other end of the spectrum, he might start with the type of experience he’s looking to design. His approach to tabletop games tends to start with the mechanics and for video games from the experience. I excerpted the following because he decomposes the act of swimming into game mechanics off the top of his head in the interview. It was a neat example of how native this thinking clearly has become for him:

In my board game work, I find myself biased towards the mechanical. It’s unusual for me to start from the other end of the board games. But in video games, I often start from the experiential end. My goal is to establish what I know at one end and then use it to jump to the other end to draw conclusions. For example, if I start from the experiential end and I want to make a game about swimming, I think about the experience of swimming for me. There are different strokes. There’s the fear of drowning when you start to learn. Rhythm is crucial to swimming, as is breath management. The concept of a breath might be a resource. It could be something consumed periodically, but there might also be an exhaustion meter that decreases over time, limiting your breath. Different strokes might have different breath expenditures. If I decide to create a tabletop game, I think mechanically. I could set up a board with a race structure appropriate for swimming, perhaps with themes like sharks chasing or diving challenges. I’d play a game of resource management to get the necessary strokes, maybe using cards or tokens. If I were designing a digital game, I’d focus on rhythm, possibly incorporating a timing aspect and still manage resources of breadth and endurance. Different strokes would offer varied trade-offs. My aim is to establish two foundational ideas and move inward, paying attention to both. Ideally, they meet in the middle. If I have an abstract idea, like a deck of cards that “moves” me, I might not end up with a swimming game. It could fit another context but remain mathematically sound. It could be rules for moving cavalry in a supply chain. It’s crucial to consider both ends because it helps generate ideas that lead to a cohesive design.

Having a wide array of influences and skills

I’m always fascinated by and strive to understand the universal principles that apply to the creative process. It doesn’t matter whether you’re making games, poetry, art, or a movie, I believe there are common threads in how you approach creative work. You have such a polymath background, maybe you can speak to that.

My education and background is eclectic, with a consistent focus on the arts. I took studio art classes beyond the college level and I’m a musician. I play multiple instruments and studied music theory and composition in college. Interestingly, the one thing I do but never formally studied is programming. I have a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and draw on all of these disciplines regularly. It’s challenging for me to imagine not being a jack of all trades or how I’d approach games if I weren’t integrating all these skills. I also frequently use Excel. A primary reason I enjoy game design is because it allows me to utilize various skills in one project.

Getting better — what does it mean to practice?

What’s the equivalent of “practicing scales” for other creative work?

I consider the practice of all those things I do as being very similar. I use the same habits for all of them. I made a list of them once in a blog post, which I think was called “practicing the creativity habit“. First was, whatever the activity is, do it regularly and make it a habit. So part of that is having the tools near you at all times. In the room I work out of, there are about 20 musical instruments within five feet, a complete art studio, a recording studio, and a game design reference shelf. Not actual games, but books about games, economics, interface design, and other topics related to games. For board games, I have a prototype kit with hundreds of dice, wooden bits of different shapes, and about 30 or 40 different decks of cards. The first thing is to make it a habit. Second, have the tools close at hand always.Third, give yourself constraints. I try to do that regularly. If it’s guitar, I might find five jazz chords and learn them, then write a song using those chords until I understand them. I picked up this habit from studying art and poetry. There are traditional poetic forms like sonnets, Villanelles, and haikus. In a writing workshop, we set ourselves the challenge of writing a poem using every single traditional form. In game design, it would be trying different game types. I haven’t succeeded at it for games, but that’s not the point. It’s about understanding design patterns. This approach applies to everything I work with, be it music composition, writing, or drawing. It’s a common underlying principle. It’s like working out — you need to rotate through the different muscle groups. 

Intuition is pattern-matching against experience subconsciously

This is illustrated by an example from one of the cognitive science books on my shelf: the firefighter intuitively knows a structure is going to collapse. If you ask them why, they often have trouble explaining. I believe the process of conducting formal analysis of numerous games or seeking NP hard problem categories or compiling a pattern library and trying to internalize it helps strengthen our intuition. The exercise of building games around patterns serves as practice for honing this intuition. I may not always explain why I opt out of a conflict early, but I just intuitively sense it won’t work. The key is recognizing this earlier. I still believe 90% of ideas are shit but now, I discard them even before jotting them down, often when they’re just scribbles.

Nuance about the role of games in education

The changes over the years have involved the “chocolate covered broccoli” concept, where something fun is wrapped around an academic task. It’s clear this approach wasn’t effective. We’ve come to understand that games teach in specific ways that are well-suited for certain subjects but not for others. Games motivate players best through intrinsic motivation. Players choose to learn and take on tasks because they want to, with the game guiding their objective. For instance, instead of making a game to directly teach math, you create a game where players have a goal they wish to achieve. This might lead them to discover that understanding a certain type of math is the solution. They then learn it out of their own motivation. This is a realization that educational game design has recognized over time. As for games with broader themes, they can reflect social structures, human interactions, economics, politics, and other vast topics. While there’s an abundance of narrative-driven or viewpoint-based games out there, game systems can be informative as well. For instance, Sim City faced criticism for presenting an overly optimistic view of public transit and its associated challenges.

You can bias your game systems to convey specific lessons. It’s important to recognize that your game systems inherently teach lessons, intended or not.

Game-playing trains your “systems thinking”

Finding real world systems and abstracting them or boiling them down to their essence isn’t actually a very common skill. Games can teach people how to do this. The idea involves setting constraints, modeling real systems, and allowing people to experience them within a game context to understand them deeply. It provides an opportunity for individuals to experiment with these systems, unlike in real life where, for example, you only get one shot at lifetime earnings. Playing a game that emulates this system offers lessons. This is applicable to various scenarios, such as political engagement. There should be games that allow players to experiment with political engagement methods, helping them discern more effective strategies. This principle holds true in many areas.

Kris here…yea, I’ve made this point repeatedly over the years.

In Let Your Kids Play Boardgames I said this of the game Quacks of Quedlinburg:

Quacks is a bit like a deck builder. It’s known as a bag builder but with a don’t-bust-press-your-luck mechanic. To most of you, that means nothing but for the remaining, you should know this an outstanding game. It’s fun, and while seasoned gamers won’t like this necessarily, it has enough luck to allow a first grader to compete with an adult. I found myself thinking quite a bit about the value of the “options” (they’re actually chips representing ingredients in a potion recipe) in the game and their respective costs. The concepts of theta, volatility, and vega would be visible to someone with a finance background if they looked past the game skin.  An engineer would see this game as a very pure simulation (most likely AI) based problem especially since the game has no trading interactions.

In Practice Second Gear Thinking I write:

We must identify second-order effects. In the options world, the “greeks” are sensitivities. Delta is the option’s sensitivity to the underlying. Gamma is a second-order sensitivity that describes how an option’s delta changes with respect to the underlying.

But this topic is everywhere. If a company sells more widgets it makes more profit. But second-order effects mean attracting more competition or saturating a market. Every satisfied customer is one less customer that needs satisfying. So if I build a model of profitability based on units sold, when does the function inflect? When does opportunity fade into unsold inventory?

A fun way to think about second-order sensitivities is playing “engine builder” boardgames like Dominion or Wingspan where synergies between your cards lower the marginal costs of later actions2. In essence, the cards have gamma based on how you stack them. Every time I use a card it might increase my odds of winning by X. That’s the delta or “benefit per use”. But the delta itself increases with synergy, so as the game progresses, you get more delta or benefit/use ratio, from the same card

In Greeks Are Everywhere I write:

One of the reasons I like boardgames is they are filled with greeks. There are underlying economic or mathematical sensitivities that are obscured by a theme. Chess has a thin veneer of a war theme stretched over its abstraction. Other games like Settlers of Catan or Bohnanza (a trading game hiding under a bean farming theme) have more pronounced stories but as with any game, when you sit down you are trying to reduce the game to its hidden abstractions and mechanics.

The objective is to use the least resources (whether those are turns/actions, physical resources, money, etc) to maximize the value of your decisions. Mapping those values to a strategy to satisfy the win conditions is similar to investing or building a successful business as an entrepreneur. You allocate constrained resources to generate the highest return, best-risk adjusted return, smallest loss…whatever your objective is.

Games have mine a variety of mechanics (awesome list here) just as there are many types of business models. Both game mechanics and business models ebb and flow in popularity. With games, it’s often just chasing the fashion of a recent hit that has captivated the nerds. With businesses, the popularity of models will oscillate (or be born) in the context of new technology or legal environments.

In both business and games, you are constructing mental accounting frameworks to understand how a dollar or point flows through the system. On the surface, Monopoly is about real estate, but un-skinned it’s a dice game with expected values that derive from probabilities of landing on certain spaces times the payoffs associated with the spaces. The highest value properties in this accounting system are the orange properties (ie Tennessee Ave) and red properties (ie Kentucky). Why? Because the jail space is a sink in an “attractor landscape” while the rents are high enough to kneecap opponents. Throw in cards like “advance to nearest utility”, “advance to St. Charles Place”, and “Illinois Ave” and the chance to land on those spaces over the course of a game more than offsets the Boardwalk haymaker even with the Boardwalk card in the deck.

In deck-building games like Dominion, you are reducing the problem to “create a high-velocity deck of synergistic combos”. Until you recognize this, the opponent who burns their single coin cards looks like a kamikaze pilot. But as the game progresses, the compounding effects of the short, efficient deck creates runaway value. You will give up before the game is over, eager to start again with X-ray vision to see through the theme and into the underlying greeks.

[If the link between games and business raises an antenna, you have to listen to Reid Hoffman explain it to Tyler Cowen!]

Advice for aspiring game designers [Kris: I think much of this applies to anyone whose job is to communicate — which is basically everyone]

The first piece of advice is to make games. I understand many are familiar with this advice, but it’s valid: make a multitude of games and practice consistently. The second piece of advice, especially for aspiring game designers, is to become intellectually curious. I haven’t met any outstanding game designers who aren’t. Be a voracious reader and be open to exploring different fields. Be genuinely curious. These two traits alone can take you a long way in the game design world.

Well, ok. But, given Raph’s background, it seems incomplete for me to not quote uber-successful game designer Sadie Green’s character in the novel Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow responding to a rando who asks her “How did you get into making video games?”

Sadie hated answering this question, especially after a person had told her that he hadn’t heard of Ichigo. “Well, I learned to program computers in middle school. I got an eight hundred on my math SAT, won a Westinghouse and a Leipzig. And then I went to MIT, which by the way is highly competitive, even for a lowly female like myself, and studied computer science. At MIT, I learned four or five more programming languages and studied psychology, with an emphasis on Judic techniques and persuasive designs, and English, including narrative structures, the classics, and the history of interactive storytelling. Got myself a great mentor. Regrettably made him my boyfriend. Suffice it to say, I was young. And then I dropped out of school for a time to make a game because my best frenemy wanted me to. That game became the game you never heard of but yeah, it sold around two and a half million copies, just in the US, soooo…”. Instead, she said, “I like to play games a lot, so I thought I’d see if I could make them”.

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