Game Development Reference
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gods, or stingy shopkeepers? A wizard's rod implies a universe of possibili-
ties in a fantasy world. Limiting it to goblins loses most of them.
A more elegant game would allow all of these interactions, creating
many more play situations without much more learning burden. But this
creates a challenge for the designer. Now that the wizard's rod is con-
nected to so many other parts of the game, changing it changes all those
relationships. Powering it down might balance it against goblins but make
it too weak against orcs. Giving it an area of effect explosion may create
exciting field combat but make the rod too dangerous to use near allies.
These kinds of problems can get very thorny as the number of relation-
ships increases into the hundreds or thousands.
This is why simple, elegant games are so uncommon. Crafting a
system of relationships is much harder than authoring a series of one-off
gimmicks, but it's the only way to get a lifetime of play experiences from a
handful of game mechanics.
I Love the Smell of Elegance in the Morning
When I was in university, one of my first-year math courses involved a lot
of work with grids of numbers called matrices . One property of matrices is
that some can be inverted—transformed into a new form through a series
of numerical operations—while others cannot. The trouble was that there
is no easy set of steps that could determine whether a matrix was invert-
ible or not. You just had to try it and find out, and that took a lot of time.
But my professor taught us another way. He said that one could learn
to “smell” invertible matrices just by looking at them. You wouldn't know
exactly how you knew, but with training, your unconscious could tell you
the answer.
Sensing elegant mechanics is much the same. A designer can't pre-
dict every outcome that an elegant game will create. They are too numer-
ous and too fuzzy. We can implement the mechanic and test it heavily, but
this can take a lot of time. We need ways to spot elegance on the drawing
board. And the only real way to do that is to smell elegance the same way
my professor smelled invertible matrices: by using trained intuition and
mental heuristics.
Smelling elegance is a skill that comes with experience. But I've found
that there are some simple rules of thumb that can help.
Mechanics that interact with many other mechanics smell like elegance.
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