I deleted the post that I originally was going to put up today. The reason I did this was that the piece I wrote was on a subject that I had no real experience with. This meant that most of what I wrote was just other people’s ideas, rather than something I put actual thought into.
However, it wasn’t a complete waste. It was a post about a game I don’t play, about the game design of one particular faction, and how that faction’s mechanics doesn’t, and cannot, line up with their core concept. From thinking about what bothered me about this, I came up with two things that define how I think about games.
1.) A game is made of rules, in the same way a story is made of words.
2.) The most important thing about a game is how it makes the players act.
Rules create incentives, incentives beget actions, actions cause feelings. In much the same way a story can be about something other than what the author intends, a game can make a player act in a way that the designer didn’t intend. This is not the fault of the player; the designer simply didn’t know what they were creating. And if the player needs to handicap themselves to keep the game fun, the designer made a mistake.
I feel I should note that I excuse tabletop RPGs from the handicapping criteria partially, but not entirely, because of the function of the gamemaster. The format requires the GM to be an amateur game designer on some level, even if only to dynamically design challenges suited to the players’ characters. Also, these games are cooperative, not competitive, so I can see at least some benefit to expecting those that understand the rules to not create a character that invalidates the other players’ actions.
However, if a character or splat is expected to throw themselves into their enemies, but turns out to be much more effective to the party when they’re standing back an slowly plinking away at a monster, something has gone wrong. And if the entire game is full of such mistakes, the game is bad, and that’s the fault of the designer.
An important aspect of my evaluation is that story telling devices besides the rules (cutscenes, fluff, graphics, etc.) are only important to the game in as much as they inform the player why a strategy or technique would work, although they may be enjoyable in their own right. For example, a player can understand that a unit that’s portrayed as flying can move over other units, which is good, but may not understand why an ability called ‘True Grit’ allows a unit to use their rifles like pistols, which is bad. Beyond the basics of making a game intuitive and playable, the flavor of a game should come through in the gameplay, that is, through a player’s actions.