GD Column 5: Sid’s Rules

The following was published in the January 2009 issue of Game Developer magazine…

Most game developers are familiar with Sid’s dictum that “a good game is a series of interesting choices.” In fact, my co-columnist Damion Schubert started his recent article on player choice (October 2008) by referencing this famous quote. However, over the course of his career, Sid has developed a few other general rules of game design, which I heard him discuss many times during my seven years (2000-2007) at his studio, Firaxis Games. As these insights are quite practical lessons for designers, they are also worthy of discussion.

Double it or Cut it by Half

Good games can rarely be created in a vacuum, which is why many designers advocate an iterative design process, during which a simple prototype of the game is built very early and then iterated on repeatedly until the game becomes a shippable product. Sid called this process “finding the fun,” and the probability of success is often directly related to the number of times a team can turn the crank on the loop of developing an idea, play-testing the results, and then adjusting based on feedback. As the number of times a team can go through this cycle is finite, developers should not waste time with small changes. Instead, when making gameplay adjustments, developers should aim for significant changes that will provoke a tangible response.

If a unit seems too weak, don’t lower its cost by 5%; instead, double its strength. If players feel overwhelmed by too many upgrades, try removing half of them. In the original Civilization, the gameplay kept slowing down to a painful crawl, which Sid solved by shrinking the map in half. The point is not that the new values are likely to be correct – the goal is to stake out more design territory with each successive iteration.

Imagine the design space of a new game to be an undiscovered world. The designers may have a vague notion of what exists beyond the horizon, but without experimentation and testing, these assumptions remain purely theoretically. Thus, each radical change opens up a new piece of land for the team to consider before settling down for the final product.

One Good Game is Better than Two Great Ones

Sid liked to call this one the “Covert Action Rule,” a reference to a not-altogether-successful spy game he made in the early ’90s:

The mistake I made was actually having two games competing with each other. There was an action game where you break into a building and do all sorts of picking up clues and things like that, and then there was the story which involved a plot where you had to figure out who the mastermind was and what cities they were in, and it was an involved mystery-type plot. Individually, each part could have been a good game. Together, they fought with each other. You would have this mystery that you were trying to solve, then you would be facing this action sequence, and you’d do this cool action thing, and you’d get out of the building, and you’d say, “What was the mystery I was trying to solve?” Covert Action integrated a story and action poorly because the action was actually too intense – you’d spend ten minutes or so of real time in a mission, and by the time you got out, you had no idea of what was going on in the world.

In other words, even though both sections of the game were fun on their own, their co-existence ruined the experience because the player could not focus her attention on one or the other. This rule points to a larger issue, which is that all design choices only have value in relation to one another, each coming with their own set of cost/benefit trade-offs. Choosing to make a strategic game also means choosing not to make a tactical one. Thus, an idea may be “fun” on its own but still not make the game better if it distracts the player from the target experience. Indeed, this rule is clearly the reason why the Civ franchise has never dabbled with in-depth, tactical battles every time combat occurs.

However, sometimes multiple games can co-exist in harmony with each other. Sid’s own Pirates! is an example of a successful game built out of a collection of fighting, sailing, and dancing mini-games. However, these experiences were always very short – a few minutes at the most – leaving the primary focus on the meta-game of role-playing a pirate. Each short challenge was a tiny step along a more important larger path, of plundering all Spanish cities or rescuing your long-lost relatives.

Another example of a successful mix of separate sub-games is X-Com, which combined a tactical, turn-based, squad-level combat game with a strategic, real-time, resource-management game. As with Pirates!, what makes X-Com work is that the game chose a focus – in this case, the compelling tactical battles between your marines and the invading aliens. The high-level, strategic meta-game exists only to provide a loose framework in which these battles – which could take as long as a half hour each – actually matter. One doesn’t fight the aliens to get to manage resources later; instead, one manages resources to get to perform better – and have more fun – in future battles.

Do your Research after the Game is Done

Many of the most successful games of all time – SimCityGrand Theft Auto, Civilization, Rollercoaster Tycoon, The Sims – have real-world themes, which broadens their potential audience by building the gameplay around concepts familiar to everyone. However, creating a game about a real topic can lead to a natural but dangerous tendency to cram the product full of bits of trivia and obscure knowledge to show off the amount of research the designer has done. This tendency spoils the very reason why real-world themes are so valuable – that players come to the game with all the knowledge they already need. Everybody knows that gunpowder is good for a strong military, that police stations reduce crime, and that carjacking is very illegal. As Sid puts it, “the player shouldn’t have to read the same books the designer has read in order to be able to play.”

Games still have great potential to educate, just not in the ways that many educators expect. While designers should still be careful not to include anything factually incorrect, the value of an interactive experience is the interplay of simple concepts, not the inclusion of numerous facts and figures. Many remember that the world’s earliest civilizations sprang up along river valleys – the Nile, the Tigris/Euphrates, the Indus – but nothing gets that concept across as effectively as a few simple rules in Civilization governing which tiles produce the most food during the early stages of agriculture. Furthermore, once the core work is done, research can be a very valuable way to flesh out a game’s depth, perhaps with historical scenarios, flavor text, or graphical details. Just remember that learning a new game is an intimidating experience, so don’t throw away the advantages of an approachable topic by expecting the player to already know all the details when the game starts.

The Player Should Have the Fun, not the Designer or the Computer

Creating story-based games can be an intoxicating experience for designers, many of whom go overboard with turgid back stories full of proper nouns, rarely-used consonants, and apostrophes. Furthermore, games based on complex, detailed simulations can be especially opaque if the mysterious inner workings of the algorithmic model remain hidden from view. As Sid liked to say, with these games, either the designer or the computer was the one having the fun, not the player.

For example, during the development of Civilization 4, we experimented with government types that gave significant productivity bonuses but also took away the player’s ability to pick which technologies were researched, what buildings were constructed, and which units were trained, relying instead on a hidden, internal model to simulate what the county’s people would choose on their own. The algorithms were, of course, very fun to construct and interesting to discuss outside of the game. The players, however, felt left behind – the computer was having all the fun – so we cut the feature.

Further, games require not just meaningful choices but also meaningful communication to feel right. Giving players decisions that have consequence but which they cannot understand is no fun. Role-playing games commonly fail at making this connection, such as when players are required to choose classes or skills when “rolling” a character before experiencing even a few seconds of genuine gameplay. How are players supposed to decide between being a Barbarian, a Fighter, or a Paladin before understanding how combat actually works and how each attribute performs in practice? Choice is only interesting when it is both impactful and informed.

Thus, in Sid’s words, the player must “always be the star.” As designers, we need to be the player’s greatest advocate during a game’s development, always considering carefully how design decisions affect both the player’s agency in the world and his understanding of the underlying mechanics.

36 thoughts on “GD Column 5: Sid’s Rules

  1. Pingback: Sid’s Rules

  2. I believe the quote “One Good Game is Better than Two Great Ones” is backwards. Don’t you mean “One Great Game is Better than Two Good Ones”. Pretty sure I’ve seen this quote before by Sid in another article…

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  4. I always have asked for Sid to revisit Covert Action, to pull it together and to make a great game of it. I’m pretty sure he could keep both of the original parts and streamline them together.

  5. I thought Covert Action was a fun game. I wish it could be remade. Just think about using an FPS engine for the action sequences….. WOW

    I also felt the cryptography part of the game was a blast.

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  7. Great article my friend, can’t wait to get this one recorded an online.. We definitely need more insight from your camp that is for sure!

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  9. I have seen some examples of ‘two games in one’ that do work very well actually. I use to have a C64 game called ‘Space Rogue’ and a similar game years later called ‘Privateer’, where you had an adventure game mixed with a space sim. They were both among my favorite games. I’m not sure the principle is solid enough to make a postulate out of. I think that you can merge two great games and end up with something even better when you do it right. It all kinda depends.

  10. And then Soren goes on to say exactly what I said in my comment. I believe I’ve just been caught skimming. 😀

  11. Designers can have fun if we feel like it 😉 But really, enjoyability of the viewer is only one reason for creating art. Success is very relative.

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  13. “Double or cut by half” This is ironic since on a macro level he’s up there with Madden for making the same game over and over again. I know Sid doesn’t personally = Civ, but over the course of almost 20 years, 4 iterations, and multiple add-ons, Civ has added, let’s see, culture, civics, religion, and moved espionage from a unit to a menu activity. Civics are just an elaboration of the government type option, culture and religion are really external proxies for your internal development that happens anyway (temples, libraries etc). These are all good and worthwhile additions, but comparing the 2009 version to the original early 1990’s game I don’t think you could call the iteration anything but incremental.

  14. @guile : The Madden games typically tweak stats and textures every year, which has no real impact on gameplay. The changes in the Civ series, however, have huge impacts on gameplay. They fundamentally alter the game so that it can not be played in the same way. Civ is constrained to being a turn-based strategy game about world history, so sequels must have some similarities. Even so, the changes in combat and maintenance over the years would be equivalent to a Madden game allowing two footballs to be in play at the same time. It’s a big change.

  15. I disagree. Though there is more detail now, greater elaboration of certain aspects of the game, and more variation in maximizing certain factors as a route to victory, the city selection, build order, tech tree climb, warfighting, end game, whole game experience are only incrementally different from I to IV. Madden was hyperbole, but to stay with it, it would more like if in different versions a field goal became worth 4 points, a 2 point conversion was added, pass interference became a 10 yard penalty, and getting a 28 point lead gave you an automatic win.

  16. “Double it or cut it by half”.

    Or as it’s otherwise known, binary search.

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  21. Hi Soren, I found your blog today. Being a huge Sid Meier fan from the days of Commodore 64 version of the Pirates!, this post was very interesting for me. I especially found the “half or double” and “one good game is better than two great games” very interesting and new. As an aspiring indie game developer, I find the points made here very educational. I will be following your blog and thank you for this insightful article.

  22. @DW: The quote is correct as written. Sid was making the point that in Covert Action, there are two great games (solving the mystery, and various action sequences,) but they don’t integrate well and kind of compete with each other for the player’s attention. As a result, the game as a whole suffers serious drawbacks.

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  29. Really great article and thanks for sharing!
    Personally I found this quite contradicting
    “Role-playing games commonly fail at making this connection, such as when players are required to choose classes or skills when “rolling” a character before experiencing even a few seconds of genuine gameplay. How are players supposed to decide between being a Barbarian, a Fighter, or a Paladin before understanding how combat actually works and how each attribute performs in practice?”
    In Civilization 4 u are allowed to pick a faction (country) before starting the game and each faction also has different its pros and cons. Since I haven’t even start the game, how am I suppose to decide which one best fit for me?

  30. Hoisted by my own petard! My best defense is that Civ games are meant to be played multiple times, so players will gain a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of each Civ as they go. Many RPGs, however, are typically played a single time.

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