Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Defying Conventions

Conventions and tropes affect the creation of all forms of media, from literature to games.  Following norms can be helpful for guiding users' experiences, but norms can also get in the way. Max asks a new year's resolution from designers: whenever your design conforms to a trope, make sure you are doing it intentionally, and not by default.

Conventions and tropes in games (and in other forms of user consumed media) are a force to be reckoned with.  On the one hand, conforming to these norms allows new games to be learned and understood easier by their players.  On the other hand, following these conventions can stifle  creativity and innovation in a designer's games.  So what do we do?

Unfortunately, this is a question with no easy answer, and people have been struggling with it in every field as long as mass media has existed.  Conventions exist at several levels in game design.  They can exist at the extremely micro level, like individual graphic design choices.  They can exist at a medium level, for example in the way the mechanics function.  Conventions also exist at the highest level: the genres to which the game conforms (or doesn't).

Why Follow Conventions?
The main reason to choose to conform to a trope is to allow players who are familiar with that norm to learn the game more quickly.  This is pretty straightforward - for an example, I want to use Magic's "card cost" convention.  Because Magic: the Gathering is such a popular card game, many players have been exposed to its conventions.  Magic prints the (mana) cost players must pay to play cards from their hands in the upper right corner of the card.  There're actually two conventions in this example: one mechanical one (the fact that players must pay a cost to play a card from their hand), and one graphic design one (the location on the card where that cost is printed).  Both of these conventions are interesting, but I'm going to be dealing with the latter.  Because Magic prints the cost in the upper right corner, many players look to that corner to find cards' costs in other games.  Games that print their costs in other corners of the card can confuse players who are familiar with Magic's conventions, especially if they have something else printed in the upper right corner that could be confused with cost.  If you've played Dominion, you've probably watched players be confused about the cost of a treasure card versus its value, as seen below:

The value of the card is printed both in the center, the upper right, and the upper left.  The cost, however, is printed in the lower left.  It doesn't take too long to learn the distinction, but by having the cost printed in the bottom left and another number printed in the upper right, Dominion adds confusion to the learning process, because players are so used to the Magic conventions.  It might have been a good idea in this case to conform to the Magic conventions (or at least to keep them in mind when laying out the cards).

Why Defy Conventions?
Designers always need to understand that conventions are not laws.  Choosing to follow a convention is perfectly alright, but it should be a conscious choice, not by default.  This is important because, unfortunately, many conventions achieve their status not by being well thought out, but instead by simply coming first in a popular game.  The Magic card cost example also works here.  Go ahead and pick up a handful of any kind of playing card, then fan them out.  Chances are, you fanned them out something like this, with the card on the right on top of the hand:

I've not studied this, but in my experience this is how most people hold hands of cards.  This behavior makes the Magic convention of printing important information (cost, but also power and toughness of creatures) a suboptimal graphic layout, because as you can tell in the picture above, the card costs of all but the right-most card cannot be seen when the cards are fanned.  If you are designing a card game with card costs, you should consider the benefits versus the drawbacks of moving that cost.  Many more recent games have found a happy middle ground by printing the cost (and other information) on the left-hand side of the card, and not printing numbers in the upper right to avoid confusion with the Magic trope.  When fanned as above, these games' cards all show most of their important information to the player at once.  Here are a few examples, and while not all of them have stellar graphic design (I'm looking at you, Race for the Galaxy), they have together created a new convention for costs on cards:

 The usual engine-building suspects: Citadels, 7 Wonders, Race for the Galaxy

Although I believe that some conventions (like the one above) can actually achieve their convention status by actually being a best practice in design (or at least, better than the alternatives), most conventions exist in areas where there can be no best practice can exist (for example, there can be no "best" genre).  When a convention is asserted to fall into this camp it's often by players or designers who are blinded by thinking the way things are now are the way things must be, which can lead to stagnation in design.

This is particularly poignant when it comes to mechanical and genre-level conventions.  For example, if designers working on cooperative games only followed the genre conventions for currently popular cooperative games like Pandemic and Arkham Horror, we would end up with games where players are fighting the system towards a climax where either the system destroys them and they lose, or they overpower the system and win.  If this were the case, we would never see innovative games like 2013's Spiel Des Jahres winner Hanabi, where players work together not to achieve a pass/fail with against a system with ever-increasing difficulty, but instead fight the system to beat their own previous records in score.  While beating one's own score is a popular motivation in other forms of games (cross country and arcade games are two examples), this motivation has been underutilized in board games until now because designers have conformed to cooperative board game conventions.  This is, of course, a catch 22 - designers don't defy conventions until a different designer begins to establish a new convention.

I've been enjoying Hanabi immensely.  It breaks some new ground in design, but unfortunately it's not for everyone.

This all leads up to one question I continually ponder: how much does knowing the basics of a field hurt your attempts to innovate in that field?  Famous innovators (Picasso for one) have stated that before you can innovate you have to have mastered the state of the art.  I don't think this is true; I think many break throughs from left field come from people who don't understand the tropes and conventions.  The trick is, without understanding the norms I think those people likely won't be able to replicate their innovation.  When you understand the tropes, you can play with those since know what norms to twist and what conventions to violate. The challenge is not getting sucked into thinking that those tropes are the way things are and must be.  Being able to do this is much more easily said than done.  You have to teach yourself to come at design with fresh eyes, no matter how well you understand the state of the art.


Nick said...

Of course, Hanabi also breaks the convention that says you hold a hand of cards so that you can see them and the other players can't.