Why You Need the Clockwork Game

Let’s start from scratch. You’re a game designer. How can my work help you?

If you’re the kind of designer who wants to tell a good story, create a lush immersive atmosphere, express a social value, or just embrace the latest in graphics technology… this article – and most of my game design-specific work – isn’t for you.

But there’s a ton of designers out there who want to make a little “fun machine” – an interactive system where the player is doing stuff, gaining mastery, and being otherwise entertained for reasons other than atmosphere, story, social values or those sorts of things.

There’s a ton of game designers out there who want to make an interactive system that is engaging and interesting by the merit of its interactivity itself. Here’s a few examples.


These are just some examples of systems which are primarily played for their interactive qualities – how their rules are arranged creates an interactive environment that’s interesting and entertaining for people.

Some other examples would be Tetris, most designer boardgames (Puerto Rico, Bohnanza), most competitive videogames (Starcraft, Street Fighter), most sports (American football, baseball), ancient abstracts (Chess, Go), and most card games (i.e. Poker, Go Fish). Actually, most of the things that we would call games tend to fall in this category.

Some of these systems – particularly the most abstract ones, like some card games, Tetris, or Chess – you could say are played almost entirely for the sake of the quality of their interactions. It’s safe to say that most people are drawn to Chess because of the strategy, the tactics, the planning, etc. Of course, even in the case of Chess, there are those who are drawn to it for external reasons – feeling superior over another person, enjoying competition, or, maybe they just like how the little pieces feel in their hands.

But what I think it should be easy to agree to is that interactive systems can have interactive merit.

Let’s take a quick counter-example: Final Fantasy.

final fantasyIt’s pretty safe to say that Final Fantasy has less interactive merit than, say, Threes or Civilization. Certainly it has less than a highly-rated designer Eurogame. Even less interactive merit would be something like Heavy Rain.

heavy rain

Much of the interaction in Heavy Rain consists of binary QTE inputs and just walking around. If you were to remove the fancy graphics and story, it’s highly unlikely that many would play with this system for its interaction.

Please note that, at the moment, I’m not making an overall value judgment on any of the systems I’ve mentioned so far. I just want to make the distinction clear between “things that are designed to have interactive merit, vs. things that are designed to have other merits”.

I’m also not (at the moment) making any declarations about “purity” – plenty of existing interactive systems have all kinds of non-interactive value as well.


So You’re An Interactive Merit Designer

text2Let’s say that we agree: you want to make a system which people will play primarily for its interactive merit. Now what?

What almost everyone does, especially in digital games, is start with a genre. We’ll make a first-person shooter. Or we’ll make a Tower Defense game. This approach is the easiest, and the worst, both for the same reason. The problem with starting with genre is that genre tends to be an entire game design ready to go. That makes for fantastic scaffolding, but it also is highly restrictive and explains why so many videogames kind of end up feeling like the same thing over and over again.

Maybe you’re OK with that! If so, that’s perfectly fine. But I think a lot of people feel the way I do – that we want to know what new kinds of interaction are possible. Do videogames always have to be about jumping, shooting, walking, and collecting? Or are there entirely new whole genres just waiting to be invented? I think there are, and if you’ve gotten this far, I’m assuming at least part of you feels the same way.


What Do We Do Without Genre?

Let’s discard genre and start looking at some of the possible interactive-merit-y ways that things can work, in a bigger way.

I think most people get the idea of a “sandbox” – something like Minecraft or Dwarf Fortress or Garry’s Mod. Something you can kinda “play with” – it doesn’t have goals, and you just kinda mess with it, maybe make some stuff, and that’s pretty cool.

But I think most of us feel that having some kind of “goal”, something to work towards, is kind of important for long-term engagement with these kinds of things. What am I trying to do? Yeah, I can just mess around with it, but can I do something more than just mess around?

I suppose I could create my own goal. Maybe in Garry’s Mod, I’ll make the goal of “making a hovercraft”. That’s fine, and that works decently well as a goal.

The problem is that it’s hard to come up with a goal on the fly that isn’t too hard or too easy. It’s also pretty tempting to change goals on the fly, while I’m playing, which makes it all kind of feel like “what am I even doing?” Also, once I reach my set goal, then I have to come up with another goal.

So this kind of “toy” play works OK, but there’s gotta be something better, right? Can’t we as designers choose a really great goal for players that will guide their play in a good way and alleviate them of the responsibility of having to create their own obstacles?


Prescribing a Goal

Alright, so let’s say we have a sandbox application, kinda like Garry’s Mod or Minecraft, and we want to add a prescribed goal – a goal that the rules say the player is supposed to pursue, and that the game enforces.

How about our goal is to build a tower that’s… 200 feet tall. That’s tall enough so that it should be a challenge, but not so tall that we shouldn’t be able to do it with some effort.

This is great, because now we can organize our other game rules around reaching this goal. Maybe you have to dig up dirt to get clay, and you can convert clay to bricks to create walls. Also some limitations, like your shovels break and you have to find new ones, and maybe walls crack if you put too much weight on a single one, etc.

All of these values can be tuned around that 200 ft goal, and that’s the really great thing about goals. Without a prescribed goal – if we just allow the player to come up with goals – we, the designer, have no idea “how durable a shovel should be” to make it balanced for the player’s house-rule goal.

The player plays our game, and they’re enjoying it – making decisions, building a little bit of mastery, and yeah! I think we’re pretty much established interactive merit! Hooray!

But then, something terrible happens. The player reached the goal. Now what? Well, they could play it again, but assuming things are the same, they can just do exactly what they did last time and reach the goal again. That’s far less interesting than doing it the first time. Is that the best we can do – a system whose value drops off dramatically after just one play? Civilization can be played thousands of times! Even Klondike Solitaire, which came with Windows 3.1 can be played over and over again without getting boring.


How Do We Get “Replay Value”

text1There’s a class of interactive systems called puzzles which don’t need to have replay value. Puzzles actually embrace their “one-shot” setup and are designed to be as interesting as possible in one play.

Similar to “designing by genre”, I think that actually people “get” puzzle design, though. Having your interactive entertainment be a puzzle is a safe route to making something that will have an audience and generally be regarded as “solid”. But first, I think puzzle design is pretty well understood precisely because it’s really just trying for less. It’s massively more difficult to design a “play-forever” machine than it is to design a “play-once” machine. I think it’s therefore reasonable to also believe that there’s a similar difference in value – or “interactive merit”.

This is not even really a knock against puzzles – it’s just that things with truly high “replay value” are just so incredibly high in value. I mean, I’ve been playing League of Legends for a little over two years, about 1-2 games per day on average (and I’m certainly NOT playing that for its “story value“, I can tell you that much for sure). So that’s a massive amount of interactive merit!

By the way: systems that are really high in replay value often are referred to as having “depth“. It’s kind of a synonym for “high replay value” or “high interactive merit”.

So how do we get this elusive replay value? There are actually a lot of ways to do it. As is a theme in this article, the understood ways are the easy ways, and the easy ways have problems. Here’s a few well-known methods for creating replay value:

  • Hard Puzzle – This is actually the most common one and it describes most single player videogames. The old Castlevanias, Half-Life, and even the beloved Super Mario Bros. all qualify here. Problem: it’s still a puzzle. It might have a bit more “replay value” because it’s hard, but you still have the “only fun once” issue – after that, players start treating it as a toy and prescribing their own goals.
  • “Skinner Box” – You can create a system that exploits bugs in our mammalian software by offering rewards on a random schedule. Examples would be loot drops in Diablo or gambling systems like slots. Problem: it’s not actually fun, it’s just compelling you to keep playing the same way that a gambler can’t stop pulling the lever.
  • Uhhh… well, forget the goal, then! – You can also revert back to being a toy. Actually, a lot of single-player “interactive merit” systems do exactly this. Systems like Tetris and Threes offer a “high score system” which is often confused for a goal, but is really just a mechanism that the player can use to prescribe his own goals. Either way, we’re back to square one at a toy if we use this method. Problem: we already described the problems with toys above.
  • Super-Random – It’s actually pretty easy to design multiplayer strategy games and have them seem to “work” if everything is just… extremely random. The reason for this is that people have a pretty hard time knowing the difference between “oh cool, my strategy paid off”, and “a random event” (related). Randomness typically comes in the form of dice rolls or card draws, but also can come in the form of massive complexity (Magic: The Gathering) or high execution (Starcraft). Quick note: randomness is an important part of a good game, but not all randomness is equal! Problem: Kind of related to the Skinner Box issue, but you’re just not getting what you think you’re getting. Super-random games are mostly based on deception.

So far, we’ve discussed two “forms” of interactivity: the “toy” (no goal) and the “puzzle” (a one-shot goal; you could call it a solution). But there’s one more easy way to create replay value that I haven’t yet mentioned, and that’s the contest.


The Contest


In a contest, you take some hard task, preferably one without a “ceiling” (i.e. one that you can kind of get better at indefinitely, not like a binary “solution” type of goal), and then you have two or more players do that task, and compare their results. Another way to look at it is that you have players doing an activity for some fixed amount of time or turns and then measure what they were able to do.

Classic contests: the pie-eating contest. The weight-lifting contest. The 30 yard dash.

How about Chess – is that a contest? Well… technically – you are “measuring” who’s better at Chess in a Chess match – although for some reason, we don’t usually refer to Chess or other “strategy games” as contests. There’s a reason for that, and we’ll get back to why in a bit.

I think most of us understand that contests are great for figuring out who is the best at something. They can also be entertaining to watch and for some people, engaging in them can be pretty fun. However, I think that pure contests aren’t really something that most people want to get super into. I mean, how many friends do you have that are “into” a contest?

What is it exactly about contests that’s kind of limiting their value? And why don’t we usually call Chess a contest?



The answer is “decision-making”. That’s the thing which contests generally don’t have, and it’s the thing which really kind of defines “strategy games” like Chess against something like a contest.

Decision-making is actually a pretty special thing – it only happens when a person understands the system enough to do something better than just make a blind guess, but also doesn’t understand it so well that they basically just have the solution. Here’s a little graphic I pulled from my book, Clockwork Game Design:

Untitled-4So far I’ve talked about toys, puzzles and contests. Now, we’re talking about the fourth and final interactive form, which I call “the game”, which is a contest of decision-making. Keep in mind this is a prescriptive definition – I know that the word “game” gets used for all kinds of things in normal every day speech. If it bothers you, or for clarity, I recommend using the expression “Clockwork Game” to refer to this prescriptive form.

The problem is that human beings are really, really smart, and yet, they have limits. So you can’t just give them insanely hard decisions – picture checkers with a 100×100 grid or something – but if you give them something reasonable, most of the time they’ll just solve it pretty quick.

Keep in mind that we’re not doing all of those classic videogame things. Our system isn’t a super random skinner box thing. It’s also not a toy – it has a goal (so no “high score” model – if it’s score based, there needs to be a binary win/loss condition!). It’s not a puzzle, because even though technically every game with a goal does have a solution, puzzles are designed to get solved, and games are designed not to get solved.

# Article Text

A Clockwork Game is not just like any other videogame or strategy game. It is a single, elegant system, built around a core mechanism, with nothing but the necessary supporting mechanisms and a carefully chosen goal. Through the careful use of this design pattern, we can achieve elegant, super-deep, novel, and super-fun interactive systems.


Designing Clockwork Games

What I’ve just walked you through is actually the super-quick version of the journey I’ve taken as a game design theorist over the past decade. Over the years I’ve been honing in on some essential thing about interactive systems and trying to figure out how to bring it out in the most effective way possible.

I believe that the Clockwork Game form is not only the best, but as far as I can reason, the only way to produce high-depth, elegant, efficient interactive-merit-based systems. Clockwork Games have the potential to not just match, but be vastly better than the systems we’re used to.

So how do you go about designing clockwork games? This article has already achieved its goal if you agree to the project of designing clockwork games.

Well… that’s what I write about at this site! AFor a quick starter, I’d check out my 3 Minute Game Design video series. If you like that, consider purchasing my book, Clockwork Game Design. Also, don’t forget about the countless articles on this very site, or my podcast, the Clockwork Game Design Podcast.

Also: designer European board games were a big inspiration to me; I think they are knocking on the door of coming to the same conclusions I have, so I’d recommend checking as many of those out as possible if you haven’t already.

Thanks for reading, and please let me know if I’ve convinced you or not in the comments!


If you’ve enjoyed reading this article, please consider supporting my work by becoming a patron at Patreon.com.

  • Ryan Rothweiler

    I really needed this. Seeing Undertale, Fallout4 and Life is Strange on so many 2015 top lists was getting me down.

  • Van

    I’ve noticed that in the comment section of your videos/articles, people frequently say stuff like “that’s not how games are made, don’t tell ME what to do!” and I always thought that they just had unclear, unrealistic or just different game design goals. I.e. I remember someone saying “I think you’re overthinking it, some of us just want to shuffle two M:tG decks and see what happens”. I can’t imagine an extremely complex fantasy/rpg equivalent of Uno surviving as a successful COMPETITIVE STRATEGY game for more than a week. I also can’t imagine a game being less fun for those people, just by having more aptly and elegantly designed mechanics.
    I realize that if you start by saying “tbh you should pay attention either way”, that would make you sound like a game design fascist, but I think that there are useful concepts to be learned either way. I can imagine someone applying these principles in order to make a replayable story-driven game for example…
    Or do you think that a QTE or a text-based story-driven game should avoid this Clockwork design? Like in the same way that a contest should avoid decision-making and a toy is better without a goal slapped onto it?

  • Dasick

    “Uhhh… well, forget the goal, then! – You can also
    revert back to being a toy. Actually, a lot of single-player
    “interactive merit” systems do exactly this. Systems like Tetris and
    Threes offer a “high score system” which is often confused for a goal,
    but is really just a mechanism that the player can use to prescribe his
    own goals. Either way, we’re back to square one at a toy if we use this
    method. Problem: we already described the problems with toys above.”

    I’ve mentioned this before in the forums and i don’t remember reading the answer, so sorry if this is a repeat. The objection to the “score attack is just a toy” problem:

    There is no practical difference between “getting the highest score you can” and “going for a goal you don’t currently see a way to achieve”

    Let’s take three games for example. Regular Threes!, Threes300 and Threes700. Threes! has the highscore system, Threes300 gives you win when you get a 300-something tile, Threes700 gives you a win when you get a 700-something tile. When you compare the first few moves you make in all three of those games, given the identical seed, the same moves are the best ones regardless of the goal. Same strategy, same decisions. Only when you start approaching the goal the strategy might become different. The human mind can’t comprehend all the moves necessary to go from first move to winning move. In all three cases the strategy is developed with an abstract “play well until X” goal – in case of Threes, you play well until you run out of space, in case of Threes300 and Threes700 you play well until you can make a 300 or 700 piece in less than 10 or so moves.

    Therefore a highscore system does provide a valid goal to work towards, and it is not a goal-less toy where the player just prescribes a random high value to shoot for. Rather, a goal that is not immediately available is always an abstract “random high value to shoot for” until you approach the game end condition.

  • I think what you’re saying here is actually about games being purely tactics games (having very small arcs) and yet the match going on for a long time beyond the longest arc. So like in Threes for instance, the game state is pretty static from turn 1 to turn 10 to turn 100; there aren’t a lot of long arcs. That’s why you don’t have to do a lot of “planning”, and it’s why you feel like Thress300 is the same thing as Threes700. My answer to this is that all games should be basically the length of their longest arcs. (I know this is something Auro struggles with, btw; we’re working on it).

    Another thing – I agree that if the player can’t reach the goal (i.e. I’m good enough to get ~100 points on a good day but the goal is like 10,000 or something) is equivalent to having no score goal. That’s why you need balanced difficulty.

  • >Or do you think that a QTE or a text-based story-driven game should avoid this Clockwork design?

    If something is story driven, it probably shouldn’t be a “game” in the Clockwork game sense. I don’t think people should really bother making interactive stories. Their time would be much better spent making a strong story (in a linear medium) or making a strong interactive system, rather than trying to do something that is fighting itself.

  • Vegedus

    I’m generally not convinced of your value judgement (which you do start making as soon as you’re done prefacing you haven’t done any yet :P). I don’t believe Clockwork Games will ever be inherently better than the other forms. I see pros and cons for every form, not a rising order of “goodness”. I don’t believe in one-true-way-isms. There’s just design that works in the context of what it’s trying to do, and for it’s demography, and design that doesn’t.

    But I’m absolutely convinced of the validity of Clockwork Games as something to be sought after and refined. I am convinced that we should be making more of them, play more of them, that they are underserved. I love your techniques and thoughts of how to pull of that design. I’m completely convinced this is the road to more elegant, more decision-borne kind of gameplay.

    And even as I shake my head in disagreement with a lot of things you write, your musings are always interesting and has transformed my thinking quite a bit. So, thanks and good luck with the next decade of honing your craft and sharing what you find!

  • Vegedus

    So, tabletop roleplaying, or LARPing, is a kind of interactive storytelling, right? Would you say one is better served reading or writing a (good) book, or playing or making a good game, than playing or creating a (non-video game) roleplaying game? In all cases or most?

    That’s a bit on the nose, sorry, but it seems the logical conclusion to your statement. Condemning an entire medium to death. Impro theater too, arguably.

  • I think adults generally would get more out of, yeah, reading a good book than they would from LARPing (in most cases). I know it’s taboo to say anything other than “ALL MEDIUMS ARE EXACTLY EQUAL” but I think we all kind of know that most modern adult brains are going to get more out of a good book than they are out of reading poetry, looking at paintings or sculpture, seeing an opera, etc. There are cultural reasons for that, but there are also “information efficiency” reasons – we’ve just gotten better at the technology of delivering information through craft.

    Mediums have died in the past, and they will die in the future, so I think it’s reasonable to make predictions about which will die sooner.

  • Vegedus

    The last bit is a good point I hadn’t thought about. Mediums do die of natural causes, yeah.

    I disagree vehemently in this specific case, with the notion that interactive stories as a medium will or should die. That it has lesser intellectual worth. Even as I agree it is problematic, maybe inferior, in the context of video-, board- or clockwork games. But I’m dragging this tangent too far, so I’ll leave it at that.

  • Van

    Yeah, I figured as much and I agree. I too am not keen on this crossover where games are trying to be movies or movies are trying to be games. I’m still wondering if you think that anyone who wants to make interactive stories, despite that being akin to shooting yourself in the foot, could make a reasonable use of your concepts and gradually move toward a better medium?

  • Dasick

    Please clarify what you mean by ‘arc’, because the way I understand the word, Threes does have a large arc. One one hand, you have the board slowly getting more and more cluttered with every turn, restricting your freedom to make moves and bringing the game closer to the end-game condition. On the other hand, you have the mechanic of numbers getting bigger, harder to combine and keep the board clear – tying with the long arc of the board filling up. The game’s long arc is the length of the game, since as soon as the ‘board space filling up’ arc is complete, the game is over. By your definition, what is even “the longest arc in Threes”?

    Anyways, arc length has nothing to do with what I was talking about. I wasn’t talking about “not being able to reach a goal” either. In a situation where due to either input randomness, hidden information or just plain inability to calculate the outcome of all the possible moves (ie, you have ambiguous decisions) “planning” is an impossible thing, whatever the length of the arc is. Instead, players have to rely on and discover abstract sub-goals and heuristics, which are unachievable, and yet working towards them gives a better result. In threes300 and 700 that means you get a better chance to win, while in regular Threes you simply get a higher score.

  • franklantz

    Hey Keith,

    I think it’s great that you’re looking for honest feedback on your approach, so let me see if I can give you some useful comments.

    >> “But what I think it should be easy to agree to is that interactive systems can have interactive merit.”

    Sounds good to me.

    >> “It’s pretty safe to say that Final Fantasy has less interactive merit than, say,Threes…”

    Right off the bat, you’re making a pretty contentious claim. It’s not completely obvious that if you stripped FF down to its core interactive elements – battle system, character progression, party arrangement, resource management, whatever – that it would have less merit than Threes. FF would still be a big, messy sprawling system, you’d have to do some work to figure out how to make it work outside it’s story/world context, to make it work as a game of repetition, not a game of completion. But then, who knows? I mean what are these people doing, 20 years later? Presumably, on their 500th or 600th run, they aren’t there for the story. http://www.speedrun.com/ff1

    I just don’t think these things are quite so clear cut and obvious, quite as “safe to say”. I’m not against making the claim that Threes is better than FF, but I think it’s a claim that needs to be explained and argued for, not a premise you can assume.

    >> “Much of the interaction in Heavy Rain consists of binary QTE inputs and just walking around. If you were to remove the fancy graphics and story, it’s highly unlikely that many would play with this system for its interaction.”

    But here’s the problem – whatever interactive merit Heavy Rain has it has *because* of the relationship between the interaction and the other elements. I understand that you are simply establishing that there are some games where the whole point is the abstract system of choices, but it’s misleading to paint Heavy Rain as a weak system + some other stuff (narrative, characters, dialogue, etc) because if its system has any value at all its only *because* of its integration with that stuff.

    Whatever, let’s just say we agree that there are some games which demonstrate that abstract systems of choice and action can provide rich, meaningful, valuable experiences, and those are the games you are interested in talking about.

    >> “…genre…”

    So your first piece of advice for the system-focused designer is don’t start with genre, because genre overdetermines the design and prevents innovation. But it seems obvious to me that it’s possible to start with an existing set of genre conventions, introduce some new ideas, twist some things around, and end up with something very interesting and original and worthwhile. Hell, it’s possible to start with an existing *game* and do that. Most games throughout history have evolved this way. It’s also possible to come up with totally new games that draw on very few existing conventions.

    There’s a wide spectrum of game design approaches that ranges from subtle variations on familiar patterns to wildly novel and unfamiliar, just as there is in literature or music. Deciding where you are going to operate on this spectrum is a creative choice that resonates with its own complex meanings.

    This is a case where you breezily assume as an obvious or easily-established premise something that is far more complex and subtle than you suggest. Moreover, I think you are probably just wrong here. I think if we were actually able to test the claim that the best way to get more great examples of the types of games we’re talking about, more games like League or Smash Bros. or Puerto Rico or whatever you want, is to prohibit using genre conventions and only allow maximally novel and unconventional designs, we would find it to be false. I believe an optimal design ecosystem is one that allows designers to explore the full spectrum, allowing for tradition-preserving and tradition bashing, genre-hacking, parody, re-makes, de-makes, clones, avant-garde experiments, outsider craziness, insider hyper-literacy, bold rejection of established norms, periodic returns to timeless truths, and everything in between.

    >> “…goals…”

    I don’t really disagree with anything in this section. You seem to think that starting with a fun activity and then adding a goal is the most obvious or natural way to make games and I don’t think that’s necessarily true, but maybe you aren’t really saying that? In any event, I agree that finding the right way to *frame* an interactive system in order to reward and encourage player exploration and learning and discovery and to channel players towards the richest, most surprising and complex and interesting parts of the system is an important central design problem.

    >> “Hard Puzzle – This is actually the most common one and it describes most single player videogames. The old Castlevanias, Half-Life, and even the beloved Super Mario Bros. all qualify here. Problem: it’s still a puzzle.”

    This one is tricky. I think ultimately that the category of puzzle doesn’t carry the conceptual weight you want it to. With simple games and simple puzzles it’s easy to tell them apart, to see the difference between something you solve once and move on from vs. something you interact with over and over again. On the other hand, it’s hard to explain exactly why a game like Chess isn’t just a very, very large puzzle. In both cases you have a problem in the form of a system and you are trying find the solution. In the case of Chess the problem is so large that millions of people can explore it for many centuries without any hope of finding a solution. But there definitely is a solution (probably a draw). If we had unlimited computational capability Chess would start to look more and more like a puzzle to us, in the same way that solved games like Blackjack or Tic Tac Toe do.

    In my view the difference between game and puzzle is one of degree and framing, rather than a fundamental conceptual category that reveals something about the intrinsic nature of the system being looked at.

    >> However, I think that pure contests aren’t really something that most people want to get super into. I mean, how many friends do you have that are “into” a contest?”

    Do we want to make something most people want to get super into or do we want to make meaningful, valuable systems of choice and action? All of a sudden being widely popular is your criteria for quality? How many friends do you have that are “into” deep abstract games? Why does it matter?

    In any event, I again think “contests” isn’t as much of a fundamental conceptual category as it is a way of framing systems of choice and action.

    You have a system of rules, constraints, affordances, interactions. You can let players play with it in an open-ended way without much framing at all. You call this a toy (which is a little bit loaded in the sense that a toy is conventionally a simple material object, and a plaything for children, but whatever.) You can chop it up into little chunks of completable content (puzzles) carve it up into competitions (contests) and so on. When we frame the system as a replayable competition inside a giant puzzle that is (practically) intractable, we get the canonical, quintessential form of the traditional strategy game, what Richard Garfield et al call an “orthogame”, John Conway et al call a “combinatorial game”, and you call a “game”.

    To me it’s more mix and match and ways of carving and framing, less a steady progression of fundamental categories that clearly ascend from one to the next.

    Having said that, I do think there is some utility to your categories. I think it’s useful to look at these ways of carving and framing. And I do think that there is a sense in which this canonical form does have a special status that requires some explanation. So I don’t think we are miles apart.

    >> “Decision-making”

    Sure, I hear ya. I think it’s fine to just admit that this is the type of game you are interested in. It’s definitely the kind of game I’m most interested in. There is something special about the cognitive, the cerebral, about thought and information and *knowledge*. This is why Chess isn’t just a game for smart people, it’s a game that *represents* intelligence, iconically. I don’t think you need to convince people about this special status through argument (and I don’t think the argument you present is all that convincing), I think you can just start here and say this is what I’m interested in and people will get it. Moreover, decision-making can be present throughout the spectrum of forms – puzzles and toys and contests. There is, I believe, more of the kind of deep, cerebral, exploratory, creative qualities you are interested in in the cellular automata “toy” of Conway’s Life than there is in the “game” of Monopoly.

    What I personally am interested in is the exponential power of abstract systems and patterns and ideas and information and knowledge when they are explored for their own sake, for the experience of thinking and doing, the pursuit of meaning and beauty in thought and action themselves. In other words, the aesthetics of instrumental reason.

    I do think the canonical form of games as you define them is the most powerful expression of this thing. So, yeah, I hear ya.

    Anyway, hope this gets to a little more clarity about where we stand relative to these issues. I also have some thoughts about your recent anti-improvisation stuff, but we’ll get into that later!

  • Thanks for taking the time to write up this thoughtful response, Frank!

    It’s fair criticism that I haven’t made clear why Threes has more interactive merit than FF. I guess that’s something I should focus on more. Maybe that’s an article of its own.

    Maybe I over-stated myself on genre. I do think genre makes for a good scaffolding, but it’s more that I want people to think *less* along the lines of genre conventions, rather than “not at all”. If I over-state myself it’s because I see it as like an emergency situation.

    One thing I would push back on is this philosophy that “more diversity is ALWAYS a good thing” in interactive systems design. I hold the view that actually there are some ways of doing things that we’d be better off if no one did. With that said, I would grant that maybe right now we don’t know enough to be able to identify the good from the bad patterns, and so for now, “max diversity” might be OK.

    >>You seem to think that starting with a fun activity and then adding a
    goal is the most obvious or natural way to make games and I don’t think
    that’s necessarily true, but maybe you aren’t really saying that?

    No, what I’m saying is that there is an interactive system pattern, the clockwork game, which happens to include a goal, and that pattern is ideal for delivering value through interactive merit.

    >>On the other hand, it’s hard to explain exactly why a game like Chess isn’t just a very, very large puzzle

    Sudoku is designed “to get solved”. Chess is designed “not to get solved”. Is this not enough of a distinction? (And it’s not like an authorial intent thing; the actual properties of these systems are such that they are solvable/not solvable, in a practical way). Particularly interested in hearing your response to this delineation, which is something that I’ve been saying for years and seems to just kind of fall on deaf ears.

    I guess I could make the purely political move of not stating that my “game” form is actually the best way to deliver interactive merit, even though I believe it’s the case, and instead just say I prefer it. It is a huge hill to climb and worse, not only do I have to climb the hill, but I have to first prove that the hill even exists. Most people chafe at the very idea that there could be a “best” of anything when it comes to the humanities. So, it’s worth considering for sure.

    Thanks again!

  • Paul Davison

    Your work is perfectly brilliant as always Mr. Burgun.

    I am in 100% agreement with your views. Furthermore, I see that a huge amount of what you discuss can be applied to Education. I stand astonished that the Game Design community has figured out how to both Teach and Motivate people; while the sad sorry people in Education remain defiantly Clueless, (true confessions – I have been a High School teacher for over 28 years – so I have the right to talk smack about the system that is failing our kids).

    Again, I love your writings and your approach to getting to the heart of the issues at hand.

  • Paul Davison

    Sort of “out of the blue.” Have you ever read:
    The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia
    by Bernard Suits

    If you have, I wonder what your thoughts are. If you haven’t, like WOW; try to find time to read it. It is 179 pages. Like your books it is a lean focused look at the topic of the philosophy of games.

  • Thank you so much for your supportive comment. I really appreciate it.

  • I haven’t, but I’ll check it out. Sounds interesting!