Game Design Notation

Danc at Lost Garden posted Creating a system of game play notation, which attempts to create a notation to document the game play of any game. Lost Garden has had previous posts that strongly emphasize the importance of regularly occurring rewards for the player’s actions. The description of the notation seems to be geared towards such designs.

It starts with a history of musical notation. Once it was possible to record music on paper with accuracy, it was easier to communicate the music to others. Also, it was easier to identify and fix bad compositions. You could analyze a composition on paper rather than require the music to be played over and over again. It also allowed more complex and sophisticated music to be created. I think it is like the idea that the human brain can only handle so much at once, but if you were to write down your thoughts, you could free up your mind for higher-level thinking.

Danc argues that game design language is currently in the same situation that music was before the invention of the musical staff. The idea of a language for game design isn’t new, and some attempts at providing a vocabulary exist, but I don’t know of anyone who has tried to codify it as extensively as the description at Lost Garden.

I think one of the coolest parts is the application of business information visualization to game design. Danc refers to it as making complex game data “glance-able”. The science behind it is that the human eye can take it huge amounts of data at once. Present someone a paragraph of text, and it might take some time to read and understand. Present that same person with a bar graph, and they can instantly tell you that one bar is bigger than another and by how much.

My favorite quote:

What we do get is the ability to describe a game using well defined terminology. Instead of saying “This is boring”, you can point to a period of 5 second in buzz graph with no rewards and identify the events leading to that situation.

Can we get that precise? It would be amazing if we could; however, some people would argue that game design involves much more art than science. The idea of codifying game design might be similar to “An Introduction to Poetry” from Dead Poets Society: “I give American McGee’s Alice a 42 but I can’t dance to it.” Rather than help with improving game design it would actually result in a bunch of games that look and feel exactly the same.

I personally think that it won’t be the case. For one, without such notation the game industry has already been accused of stagnating. It can’t hurt to form a common language. Once you can identify the chords, you can learn to put them together in different combinations to make your own great music. Once we can speak in a standard way about game design, whether with Danc’s notation or the 400 Project, we can piece the different parts together to make great games.

2 comments to Game Design Notation

  • This needs to happen, and inevitably WILL happen if the medium is to reach maturity.

    I think the musical notation thing is barking up the wrong tree – music is highly structured and a much more limited form of expression than games (or movies, etc.) We ought to respect the fact that SO MUCH VARIETY has been accomplished within these limitations. You might not appreciate it if you only listen to top 40 pop music – just like the range and potential of videogames has only scratched the surface and most of the “top 40” games of the year tend to look and play alike.

    But we need to evolve a useful language to describe action in games, which I predict will resemble the language used to describe literature, theater, and cinema. Right now our language tends to be sort of a self-referential (“The camera is like in Tomb Raider”), though we have evolved a few terms that have entered common language to describe categories of games (FPS, RTS, Side-Scroller, etc.) It’s still a long way off, but it’s slowly getting there. It’ll make things a lot easier.

    I’m pretty much for anything that can shrink AND clarify a design document at the same time.

  • I’m sure that game design elements can be broken down into abstract parts that either could be placed on a staff-like structure or analyzed like grammar and literature.

    One day, will we have school lessons like, “Take Super Mario Bros, Black & White, and Final Fantasy 7, and break down the structure of each game into their basic parts”? Will children get frustrated about the tediousness of doing these exercises just like they do today when breaking down the elements of a sentence? It’s hard to say right now, but if we can get to that point without losing the creativity, it could be a great time for game development.

Twitter: gbgames