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nth order thinking in vidogames design

hi hi hi you may have learned about this when u were like 2 years old but pls bear with me here

do you play chess?? are you good at it? what move would you make here? i suck, so id be like

"take their rook" "and then what" "i mean, then ive took their rook and they have 1 less piece" "is it a good move?" "yeah, i took their rook, they have less pieces on the board, my army is stronger, rook got buffed this patch etc etc etc"

there is such a strong pull to something that has an instantly good effect, regardless of if it leads to bad effects in future, like how junk food tastes nice but makes u feel bad later

ive seen this be described as 1st order thinking. you see the immediate consequences of the actions you're making and spend your time judging those consequences deeply, rather than digging deeper into further consequences

but, 1st order consequences are not the ones that are high-impact. the consequences of your consequences (of your consequences) are the ones that are really important, and ive seen it described as 2nd or 3rd order thinking

(from Second Order Thinking: Unintended Consequences - https://mannhowie.com/second-order-thinking)

2nd order thinking is the process of tracing down and unraveling the implications of those first order impacts

2nd order would be knowing what your opponent's response could be to your current move, then the move you'd play after that. to know if you're making a good decision, you need to ask "and then what?" a few times until you arrive at something you're satisfied with

nth order would be having a good idea of what moves will lead to positions which will accomplish your goal of winning the game

applying this to game design

this is something im not good at and want to improve, i'm writing this post to drill it into my own head. but more often i see a lot of newer game designers fall for the same trap way more often

with good intentions, designers make a barrel of kinda-cool feeling stuff. however, their focus is on the superficial mechanics, and the effects of those mechanics can be far-fetched from their real vision. the results of those mechanics can be so underwhelimg, unversatile, or confusing, that players will just become bored because there's no higher-level thinking to do, and this will surprise the designer who hadn't thought deeply about their dynamics

it's very hard for a new designer to tell if they've done this, because if ur audience thinks it's boring, you'll simply get no feedback at all. or maybe, they'll play your game for a minute or so, think it's "fine", maybe leave you a comment saying it looks cool and feels good, and put it down forever or refund it because it's just not stimulating

sometimes (since players are definitely not on ur page when it comes to ur game's vision) they'll fall into the same trap of just recommending random mechanics that sound cool. "add a rocket jump", without thinking of the larger-scale implications. you need to be a person who can judge this instantly, and understand the implications and effects of adding a mechanic like that

you can only design the causes, but you have to account for, predict or observe the effects. your game exists within the effects, not the cause

*as a sidenote, this deliberate approach to design doesn't conflict with pre-existing advice that you should just Make things using your gut instinct. you should absolutely still do that. this is the same as chess; just play the game clumsily and build up a strong sense of what's good and what's bad, so you can quickly prune bad ideas and explore ones that you know could lead to good outcomes. but, it'll always help to think a few layers deep, and you'll get better at this

mda framework

gmtk's recent video has some really great insights (thankfully it dropped mid way through our last game's development)

highly recommend watching it, the mda framework is described perfectly

How to Steal Like a Game Designer - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iIOIT3dCy5w

quick-ish overview, but pls watch the vid yourself and make your own judgement:

  1. mechanics — this is what you code, and are the real things that your player can do
  2. dynamics — the result of your mechanics, e.g. the player zips around dodging bullets
  3. aesthetics — how the player feels as a result of the dynamics, and ultimately are the entire point of your game, the vibe or vision you want to get across

this ties quite well into orders of thinking

1st order (mechanics) -> 2nd order (dynamics, where the game happens) -> 3rd order (aesthetics, pillars, the point of ur game)

mechanics are a liability; they confuse, take more dev time, are hard to maintain and juice up, are another area for QA, etc. they are literally the "cost" of your game. for any game that us bedroom indies with full time jobs would make, you want a really really small set of these which pay for themselves greatly

dynamics are where your game happens. the greater set of dynamics your game has, the deeper it is. this is the part of your game you want to think about and test the most. even if your game just needs to be fun and doesn't have a vision, it needs to be interesting to interact with and make the player do some kind of thinking.

like, controvertially, adding a grapple hook to a standard metroidvania is not interesting. BUT, designing your levels around it and making an obstacle course where you have to use the grapple hook in multiple cool ways is interesting. players are exporing a new design space and discovering interactions and Having Some New Thoughts in a topology (metroidvania) that's familiar to them

i think as indies, we want to minimise the number of mechanics and maximise the number of dynamics

and every time you think of a mechanic, you need to think deeper - not deeply judging the first-order consequences (that's just overthinking and ur getting nowhere!) but following the tree all the way down, understanding if a mechanic really does boil down to making your experience stronger or not

applying this in real life to an actual honest to god decision

just to bully my friend miredly, we had one idea during our latest jam for a mechanic;

"to lean into the makeshift theme, we could have the robot bosses drop heaps of scrap that you can take cover behind"

this idea is relatively unassuming, right? it makes sense, it accomplises a goal (realise the jam's theme better). but, then what?

then, the player could stand behind this cover and be safe from bullets. but then what?

the player is stationary, and will hide until they see an opening. then what?

the player won't have to worry about or learn the bullet pattens from the boss

this doesn't sound very "frenetic dashy time-trial bullet hell kill the boss as fast as possible and dodge huge sweeping ffxiv attacks" at all

but, don't be mistaken, it's not a bad idea. it could work in other games that are really similar, but with different visions. gungeon uses it well. try the exercise again:

the player can kick over tables for cover. and then what?

then they could hide from the huge amount of bullets, and pick off enemies one by one. and then what?

and have the option to tackle the room slowly, or to take a quick breather without any reprocussions. and then what?

we can stuff the room full of more enemies to make the opposition feel stronger, and for the player to think of more enviornmental solutions other than dodging and gunning

hm..! ok yeah that sounds pretty fine, that actually adds more ways to play the game, especially since it's optional. we can balance it by making the cover temporary too, where it breaks

the difference is reaaaaaaaaaaaaally subtle, and im not even sure i got the difference across well enough. you could talk yourself into thinking the mechanic is a good idea, but if you think deeply enough about it and arrive at rough conclusions often that take away from your game's experience, scrap it and go to the next idea. ideas are cheap and fast to make, so don't worry about being destructive!

anywya if anyone can tell me how to make fun videogames pls help me

0 cools!!
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