Play specifications are a means of examining the core play of a game. Abstract, subjective and informal, they can be used to analyse the play of an existing game, or to specify the play of a new game concept. Perhaps an even more useful aspect is their potential to teach new game designers a basic game design method.
This piece looks specifically at a lexical play specification, although numerous other approaches are possible.
This post follows from the following previous posts:
- A Game Design Grammar, in which I explored the application of categorial grammars to game design, and thus devised what I am now terming a play specification. Some of the text here is raided from this post.
- Grammatical? Lexical? Functional? in which I debunk my use of categorial grammar by observing that I made modifications to the calculus which rendered it ineffective.
- Language Games contains the philosophical roots of the approach, drawing from the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein on the philosophy of language.
What is a play specification?
Any form of play specification focusses on expressing the elements of the play of a game in a simplified form. It is thus a kind of abstraction. It is also a form of notation, in that it sets out a method for recording (and thus communicating) the key elements of play. The goal of the approach is to provide a means both of expressing the play of an existing game in a form suitable for discussion and criticism, and also to provide a method for guiding, exploring and teaching the game design process.
Although it is conceivable to define highly formal systems for play specification, I do not personally believe this will be helpful - although I cannot dismiss the idea that it might prove useful. Play specifications can be informally constructed, and still yield considerable value.
I also do not believe in the inherent superiority of atomist or reductionist approaches to the analysis of game design. This is not the same as suggesting that these approaches have no value - different people have different focusses; different methods produce different results - but I believe attempts to objectively identify the atoms of play must eventually face insurmountable problems. Play is a subjective experience. Psychology accepts subjectivity in its remit, and any complete analysis of play would perhaps be wise to do the same.
Lexical Play Specification
The notion of a lexical play specification is to express the play of an arbitrary game in terms of lexical elements (or keywords), that is, through the creation of a miniature lexicon that describes the play of the game. The specific play specification I am presenting here has descended from my categorial grammar of game design (and the specific notation I referred to as Bast).
The short form of this specification is as follows:
The play of any game can be considered in terms of the Nouns, Verbs and Adjectives that can be used to describe it. Nouns refer to the game entities, Verbs to the actions that can be taken, and Adjectives refer to the properties of entities and actions.
The primary elements are the Nouns and Verbs. To understand what is meant by this, consider the following examples of expressing the Nouns and Verbs of certain games:
- In Snakes & Ladders (Chutes and Ladders in the US - what's the matter with the US; are they afraid of snakes?) the Nouns are the Counters, the Board, Ladders, Snakes and the Die. The Verbs are Roll (the Die), Move (Counters along the Board), Climb (a Ladder) and Slide (down a Snake).
- In Magic: The Gathering the Nouns are Permanents (Creatures, Enchantments, Artifacts and Land) and Instants/Sorceries and the Verbs are Lay (a Permanent), Tap (a Permanent), Attack and Play (an Instant/Sorcery). There are two additional Nouns - Mana and Life - which are special types of enumerated Nouns we can consider Resources.
- In an arbitrary basic racing video game, the Nouns are Cars and Courses, the Verbs are Steer (a car), Accelerate (a car) and Brake (a car).
- In the game of Sink (played by Discordians, and people of much ilk) the Nouns are The Float, the water, and the Junk. The Verb is Throw (the Float into the water or the Junk at the Float).
- In a tabletop RPG (in a general case), the Nouns are infinite and the Verbs are infinite. I knew there was a reason I used to enjoy playing them!
In terms of analysing games, the advantage of this model is that it focuses on the game objects or entities (the Nouns) and the player actions (the Verbs). Notice that it does not express elements that some people would consider essential to a game - such as a goal state. I consider this quite healthy. The most interesting thing about a game is its play, not its goals - and indeed, when game design is focused purely on the player's goals (as it is in many shoddy video game designs) the result is often an abysmal wreck because the play is ignored. It would be trivial to expand this specification to include goals, if so desired.
Also note that in videogames we have an extra player - the Computer - who may have its own set of Verbs, but that we need not specify this hidden layer unless we feel specific motivation to do so.
In terms of teaching someone how to design a game, the lexical play specification approach allows a game to be judiciously constructed from components - although wisdom and intelligence are of course needed to do this effectively. For instance, if we want to make a card game, we know one of our Nouns is (a) Card, and that all or most of the other Nouns will be comprised of multiple cards - these Nouns will often include a Deck, Hands and a Discard Pile. From there, we just need to consider the actions the player can take - the Verbs of the game.
When we are dealing with games more complicated than card games (and I advocate all new game designers should begin by learning to make card games) we need to add a few new categories to our specification. We need to define the properties of Nouns (and potentially of Verbs) - that is, we need Adjectives (or Adverbs). Since the grammatical distinction between an adjective and an adverb is largely irrelevant to our play specification, I suggest we only need to employ the term Adjective to describe the attributes and parameters of a particular game.
Examples of Adjectives in games:
- In Snakes and Ladders and in Sink there are no Adjectives.
- In Magic: The Gathering, the Adjectives include Tap Effect, Power, Toughness, Counters, and Casting Cost.
- In an arbitrary basic racing game, the Adjectives include Top Speed, Acceleration and Traction (Super Sprint, anyone?)
- In a tabletop RPG, the Adjectives describe the mechanics of the game; Attributes, Skills etc.
Although I have been using something akin to these lexical game design principles for many years now, it is only very recently that it occurred to me to employ them in videogame design. The inspiration for doing so was listening to Toru Iwatani and Keita Takahashi talk about game design - they were focused on verbs, because verbs describe what the player actually does. (As Ernest is fond of saying: "Yes, but what does the player actually do?").
There are three key areas of application for play specifications:
- Critical Analysis of Play: as a tool for the analysis of the play of a particular game, I consider play specifications to have considerable worth. We lack a critical tradition in games (game reviews are intended to guide purchasing decisions, they are not part of the critical tradition); play specifications provide one route to such an approach. Consider this analysis of the Katamari games - but note that reference to grammar in this piece refer to play specifications. (See the roots of this piece for an explanation of the disjunct terminology).
- Focusing the Game Design Process: I suggest that beginning the game design process with a play specification allows the game design to focus on what the player actually does in the game (the verbs), as well as ensuring that the developer has a better idea of the scope of the implentation requirements for the design. The more Nouns and Verbs that are included in the specification, the more time consuming (i.e. expensive) the game will be to develop.
- Teaching Game Design: we currently seem to lack a starting point to introduce new game designers to the process of game design. Indeed, although many people have written on game design, we still haven't developed identifiable schools of game design, perhaps because much of the discussion thus far has been too vague; too discursive. Play specifications can demonstrate to a new game designer where game design can begin. (Since many students of game design confuse the narrative of a game with its design, this could be a significantly positive step forward).
I encourage other people to experiment with this lexical play specification technique and, if they find the need, to develop new play specification notations. It is possible that the approach I provide here is general enough for there to be no need for alternative notations; it is too soon to tell. I certainly don't advocate creating alternative notations for the sake of it.
Please feel free to contribute to this approach by analysing games in terms of their Verbs, Nouns and Adjectives (remembering always that there can be any number of different ways of doing so!), by experimenting with beginning the design process with a play specification, and perhaps also by teaching students of game design this technique as a stepping point to understanding the complexities and subtleties of this unique and fascinating field.
With especial thanks to the regulars here at Only a Game who have encouraged me and helped clarify this approach, in particular Ben Cowley, Jack Monahan, Chico Queiroz and of course Patrick Dugan.
The opening image is Glass of Beer and Playing Cards, by Juan Gris, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended, and I will take the image down if asked.