My friend Douglas Underhill wrote an interesting article about game design, dealing with the frequency of an ability’s use with its reward payoff. Doug’s question comes down to, given that there are hundreds of abilities to potentially pick from in character design, and that certain abilities are either useful much more often and in a much wider range of situations, or else provide a much greater payoff than others, what can be done in designing the rules system and/or world to encourage diversification in putting a finite amount of skill points into skills that are useful less often, or which provide a lower expected payoff.
Underhill asserts that, ideally, less-used abilities should be higher in their payoff, in order to encourage players to put character building points into them at all, while frequently used abilities should be low in payoff, to offset their wider applicability and to prevent the game from falling out of balance. But it’s an inherent problem because the feedback of high reward will encourage the use of an ability.
Essentially, though, game design encourages the use of abilities that grant a high reward, and the higher the reward, the more likely the player is to use and rely on that ability (barring some other limiting mechanism that mitigates or suppresses over-use).
But beyond unbalancing the game, or making the player’s strategies predictable and boring due to min-maxing, the reward weight/use frequency of abilities in a game’s design will determine and shape what the game is about. Dungeons and Dragons is nominally about role-playing and fantasy adventure, but its rules systems make it a game largely about dice rolling and fantasy medieval combat.
Tabletop RPGs are inherently flexible, though, so a given group of players might opt to make their game (or at least a particular game session) about negotiation and barter in a fantasy medieval economy, and there’s nothing wrong with doing so. But it’s much more likely that the typical group of D&D gamers will spend most of its time fighting and questing for objects and abilities that make them ever better at fighting and surviving in exotic, hostile fantasy environments.
After reading Doug’s article, it got me thinking about how this principle applies in video game design. (more…)