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Good Rules Make for Good Fun

Right now, most of you are playing a game. The game is that you have to make enough money to survive and be happy. The rules: limited resources, limited time, and limited energy. And you can’t choose what attributes you start the game with. You get X amount of points in strength, charisma, intelligence, and so on.  Let’s add permadeath to top it off. Now that’s one hell of a game.

Off the top of our heads let’s think of some people that have won or are winning this game. Notch. Kanye West. Oprah. The creators of Google (I’m using Google Docs to type this). Your rich friend’s parents. Maybe you are that rich friend with the rich parents. Maybe you’re surviving just fine and are happy right now.

Yeah, the rules of life are hard. They make life nearly unbeatable. The guy that made these rules probably made Space Invaders too. But these limitations are what make the little achievements in life that much more amazing. How’d you feel when you made your first paycheck? Maybe you faced one of your fears and came out alive?

That’s what good rules do. They make games challenging. They make games fun.

My Simple Game

A Castle Crashr making a guest appearance during Zombocalypse's beta session (2011)(A Castle Crasher making a guest appearance during Zombocalypse’s beta session – 2011)

I was making a game called Zombocalypse. Naturally, a zombie shooter. The game is very limited. You move left and right and you kill whatever comes your way.

Then beta testing for Zombocalypse started.

Why can’t you carry more than one weapon at a time they said.
Why can’t you jump they said.
Why does each zombie killed only count as 1 point they said.

What are you, born in the 2000s? I could’ve just said my world, my rules, but today I’ll explain why.

What Are Good Rules?

Essentially, game designers introduce rules to emphasize everything else you CAN do in the game. The focus is now what you CAN do and not what you CAN’T do (in real life that’s called being positive). Good rules:

  • leave room for innovation

  • emphasize other mechanics in the game

  • make the game challenging

What Games Do This?

In Halo, you can only carry two primary weapons at a time. Because of the players’ limited arsenal, they must now compare the strengths of weapons on the fly that pertain to the situation they’re in. The focus is now the best weapon, and not the number of weapons.

In Super Mario Bros, all you do is move from left to right and jump. Simple yet revolutionary. Because of this minimalistic approach, all the other aspects of the game are emphasized. The player must now focus on the terrain and be aware of the patterns and functions of each enemy they come across. After all, they call Mario games platforming games and not jumping games.

In modern Chess you can only move a pawn one space forward. When our medieval ancestors were beta testing the game, I’m sure peasants left and right were asking why does the pawn only move one space? Why does the king only move one space? Why does the knight move in an L shape? The focus is not on what each piece can do, but what they can do in tandem with your pieces, your opponent’s pieces, and the estate of the chess board itself.

Back to Zombocalypse

I limit the player to one weapon, left and right movement, and one zombie kill = 1 point, to emphasize 4 things:

  • Resource Management: Your inventory is severely limited. You can only pick up one weapon at a time. This simple rule emphasizes the player’s ability to distinguish the strengths and weaknesses of weapons.

  • Movement: I wanted the player to be focused on the action. I even omitted the player from jumping, an unnecessary mechanic for a game NOT about platforming. Just like chess, because movement style is limited in both the player and the enemy, players must focus on how their character moves in tandem with enemies and the limited gameplay area itself.

  • Kill Count: Zombocalypse rewards the player on how many zombies they kill, not what type of zombie. This is meant to emphasize the utility of the kill combo streak — rack a streak of 25 kills to call in a missile strike or 100 kills to call in a chopper, giving you an edge when you’re in a tight situation. The player subconsciously aims for a high kill count and not a high score, making the Kill Combo even more relevant.

  • Accessibility: Zombocalypse is simple to play. Move left and right, shoot left and right, look at your kill count, wash rinse repeat. This was the main governing law in creating this world. If a mechanic made the game too complicated, I would throw it out.

Although not as complex and grudgingly devastating as real life, each rule in Zombocalypse serves it’s purpose.

And What About Life?

Life itself is proof that even a game with ridiculous rules can still be fun and satisfying. And with these rules humanity has done some incredible things. We made steel boxes fly. We went to the moon with the power of a calculator. We made video games.

So when you make your next game, make those rules with purpose, leave room for the player to innovate, and make it challenging. And just like life, any game worth beating is never easy.

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This blog post is part of the new series on Game Design