oday's article is about an important element of game design: synergy. I'm going to talk about why it's important and how one creates it in game design. Before I get to that part, I'm going to begin with a little detour. I promise it will circle back.
One day, in one of my college creative writing classes (I minored in creative writing and majored in broadcast and film at my communication school, with an emphasis on screenwriting, for inquiring minds who want to know), my professor made a bold statement. "If you take the works of any famous writers and look at them all as a whole, you will find that there is one unifying theme that runs through their work. Deep inside, there's just some basic theme that they care about that they will hit, often in different ways, again and again, throughout their writing career. The reason this is important is that this is true not just of famous writers but of all writers. Which means that each one of you also has a major theme. Perhaps it would be worth your while to figure it out."
I took a deep look at all my writing and I figured out my internal theme. What is it? This: People try so hard to run their life based on their intellect but, in the end, we are ultimately run by our emotions. My internal theme, it turns out, is quite red. But that's not exactly my topic for today.
Today's article came about because, a number of years ago, I formed the following hypothesis: If writers all have unifying themes of their writing, game designers must have unifying themes of their game designs as well. I set about to figure out what mine was. Now, writing and game designs are different things. Writing is about exposing, while game design is about instructing.
Let me elaborate. Reading and game playing are both about personal growth, but they approach it in different ways. Reading is about being exposed to ideas, expanding your horizons, and finding new ways to view the world. Game playing, in contrast, is about testing one's self and growing through skill acquisition. You play games on the most basic level to test yourself and improve.
That's the key. You read to learn, you play games to improve. That means writers have to create themes because they are presenting ideas. Game designers, in contrasts, create tests because we are building skills. So, if I was going to find my internal drive as a designer, I needed to figure out what skill I'm most trying to teach.
A quick aside. Note that writers can stretch beyond their core theme and game designers can stretch beyond their core teaching. The hypothesis at work here is that something drives your work, not that it precludes you from branching out.
That made me step back and ask myself: What skill am I most interested in teaching? When I phrased it like that, the answer was pretty simple. I am obsessed with creativity. Where does it come from? How does one improve upon it? What exactly is it? I have spent a great deal of time on this topic. My favorite book, as I often mention in this column, is A Whack on the Side of the Head by Roger von Oech. (If I somehow haven't yet convinced you to read this book, I urge you to give it a try. It's a fast read and I guarantee you will finish the book having learned numerous things.)
How much do I love creativity? Enough that I already wrote an article all about it called "Connect the Dots." (Go read it if you haven't had the chance yet.) The important take-away from that article for today's discussion is my hypothesis on what I believe creativity is. I believe creativity is the ability to find connections between two things that are not normally connected. I also make the claim in my article (borrowing some ideas from A Whack on the Side of the Head) that it's a skill that can be worked on and improved. You want to be more creative? Learn how to get better at finding connections. How do you do that? Aha! Now we circle back to today's topic.
If creativity is a skill that I highly value and feel can be learned, then that is probably my drive as a game designer. The skill I seek to help players improve upon is the skill I most value. When I examined all my work as a game designer (both published and unpublished), that theme came shining through. When players sit down to play a game I create, I like to help them learn how to be more creative. That is the skill I most enjoy fostering in them.
All of this was a lead up to today's topic—synergy. How does one teach creativity? If my hypothesis is true, I need to help players learn how to find connections between disconnected things. How does one do this? By making the game value finding disconnected elements to join together or, in other words, by adding synergy to the game design.
I believe synergy is one of the best tools to learn creativity and something I feel greatly enhances game play. I am going to talk about why synergy is important in game play and give some tips on how I use it as a designer to craft my designs.
Let me start by defining what exactly synergy is. Dictionary.com defines synergy as "the interaction of elements that when combined produce a total effect that is greater than the sum of the individual elements." In other words, synergy is connecting things such that they produce something more potent in aggregate than in isolation.
Why is that important? Let me explain.
Synergy Creates Discovery
I've talked often about how Magic is, at its core, a game about discovery. It turns out that all games are about discovery. What sets Magic apart is this: for most games, discovery comes during the early part of playing the game and lessens over time. Early chess, for instance, may be about discovery, but later chess is about memorization and pattern recognition. Magic's discovery, though, never goes away because, by design, it keeps evolving.
Synergy is great for imbuing a game with discovery because it hides a resource that players have to find. If the game has enough pieces, it can sometimes hide for a long time. For example, if Magic has roughly 13,000 unique cards, that would mean there are more than 84 million two-card combinations. How many different sixty-card deck options are there? More than the number of grains of sand it would take to fill the universe (i.e., a lot).
Added discovery means added play value, as the game can go for longer before getting repetitive. It also leads to a more dedicated player base because there are rewards for spending time examining the nooks and crannies of the game. Finally, it helps bond communities because it creates found information to be shared.
Synergy Makes Players Feel Good About Themselves
Here's where my personal theme as a writer pops up in my work as a game designer: People try so hard to run their lives based on their intellect but, in the end, we are ultimately run by our emotions. Let me tweak it slightly for game design. Players think the intellectual pursuit is why they play games but, in the end, what makes us most enjoy a game is connected to our emotions.
What do I mean by this? If you are a regular reader of my column, you'll notice a strong theme of psychology and emotion in my game design. Why? Because I believe strongly that what bonds a game to players is not how it makes them think (although it can help) but how it makes them feel. Note how the three player psychographics are all about emotional fulfillment. Note how I always explain what emotional response I am trying to evoke each set. Note how I keep explaining that fun is emotional, not intellectual.
The reason this all is important is that synergy does a great job in one aspect of emotional fulfillment. When playing a game, players want to feel good about themselves. The reason for playing is partially to test themselves, so it feels good when they can get a sense of accomplishment. Discovery leads to accomplishment. "Hey, look what I found!"
Another of synergy's benefits is that it makes players feel good about themselves because the act of discovering synergy is itself emotionally rewarding. Remember that good game design allows your players to take claim for their own advancement. (And blame luck for their failure.)
Synergy Hides Complexity
I've talked before in this column about the idea of something I call lenticular design. (Lenticular cards, in real life and not Magic, are the ridged cards that have different pictures depending on which angle you look at them.) Lenticular design are cards that look simple to a beginner but look complex to the advanced player. The idea behind lenticular design is that there are certain aspects of the game that are invisible to beginners and thus cannot create complexity for them. Lenticular design is important to Magic because it allows us to sneak complexity into New World Order.
I bring up lenticular design because synergy is a great tool to create it. Card A is simple. Card B is simple. Using Card A with Card B creates something stronger than either can do in isolation. Until the beginner is ready, he or she is not going to be looking for the interaction between Card A and Card B. The advanced player, on the other hand, starts evaluating Card A by figuring out what cards will be synergistic with it.
Synergy creates game play that hides between the cards. Until a player is ready to seek it out, it's invisible. That is important if you are trying to make sure your game has a low barrier to entry to enable new people to learn to play. (As I explained in this article, this is probably Magic's greatest problem.)
Synergy Increases Skill and Strategy
By hiding the complexity, synergy allows it to exist. To a point, the added complexity increases the importance of skill. I say "to a point" because there is not a straight correlation between complexity and skill. As complexity rises, it becomes harder to understand what to do. That unto itself is not skill, but comprehension, and having a game that requires a giant barrier of comprehension is not inherently fun.
Where complexity can interact with skill is that, in measure, it can provide more options to the player. Knowing which of these options is best, strategically, does require skill, provided the options are layered and worked into the greater design.
This now brings us to strategy. In my article, "10 Things Every Game Needs," I talk about the importance of synergy in a game. Synergy is the thing that rewards a player for investing time in a game. Players want to feel as if there is growth available for their time commitment. Strategy is the game element that helps make this true.
The trick to making good strategy is imbuing your game with knowledge that must be discovered through game play. Synergy does this excellently. As players play with the cards, they start finding the connections between the cards. This improves their decks and gives them the satisfaction to continue to play.
Synergy Increases Game Depth
Do you remember when you used to play tic-tac-toe? It was fun. But then, something happened. You slowly realized that there was a way to play where you couldn't lose. Once you made this discovery, tic-tac-toe stopped being fun because it had been solved. While most games don't get as solved as tic-tac-toe, players often walk away from a game once they have figured out too much about what makes it tick.
The key to the longer-lasting games is that they have what is known in game design as game depth. Game depth is a measure of how long before players have learned everything they can about a game (and note you don't need to learn 100% before you grow tired of a game). Core games—that is, games aimed at people who game as a hobby and thus spend a lot more time and resources on them—need deep game depths.
Synergy is valuable to game depth because it allows a lot of material to nest in between the components. Then, as players mix and match the components, new material can be acquired, which adds to the game depth. Magic, with its ongoing expansions and new cards, does this quite well.
Synergy can do a lot for game design. So how exactly do I add synergy when designing Magic cards? Here are a few ways:
Build Dependencies Into the Structure
Magic, by its nature, is pretty open-ended. The game forces you to combine cards together to make a deck. The trick here is to make sure the key components you are resting your design on lend themselves to wanting other things. For example, let's look at the five mechanics from Gatecrash:
Battalion: This mechanic requires you to have two other creatures. It also wants spells that can help keep your creatures alive and/or win in creature combat.
Bloodrush: This mechanic has the simplest needs: it requires creatures that can attack. Certain creatures with power-matters abilities (i.e., trample, first strike, etc.) have a little synergy, but this mechanic has the least dependencies built in.>
Cipher: This mechanic encourages you to have creatures with evasion. It also favors one-shot cards that can help you sneak a creature through.
Evolve: This mechanic requires you to have other creatures with high power and/or toughness. It also likes cards that care about +1/+1 counters in some way.
Extort: This mechanic encourages you to have cheap spells to allow you to cast them and pay for the mechanic. It also encourages cards that stall, as this mechanic strengthens over time.
As you can see, each guild has needs that have to be met. That forces the players to scour their cards looking for ways to meet those needs.
Create Answers for Your Dependencies
This is part two of the above plan. Once you create the need, make cards that fulfill that need. It's important to attack the problems from different angles. Don't keep solving the problem in the same way. Branch out. Give the players different options.
The key to making this work is being creative yourself. If you want to inspire creativity in your players, you have to be creative in finding answers for the problems you've created. Note that I don't try to solve problems one for one. I make clear dependencies and then brainstorm the different ways that might help. Playtesting then reveals which ideas work and which ideas don't.
You then find the successful strategies and start riffing off of those. With proper iteration you can create a wide net of working solutions.
Crisscross Your Solutions
Once you have a bunch of working solutions, the next step is to try and solve problems with cards made for other problems. Using Gatecrash as an example, start using blue cards designed for Dimir to help Simic. Start using red cards for Boros to help Gruul. As you shift focus, you will find that you can tweak the cards you have to still help with the first problem but now also help with the second problem.
As you get better with this, you will find that you start designing cards from scratch to address two different dependencies at once.
As an example, Knight Watch was designed specifically because it has a use both for Boros and Orzhov. Boros is trying to reach a threshold of three (or get additional creatures to maintain the threshold of three). For Boros, Knight Watch is a means to get two creatures while only using a single card. Orzhov, on the other hand, cares more about slowing down the game. It also has a subtheme of sacrificing creatures. For Orzhov, Knight Watch is a means to help slow down the opponent while also providing more creature fodder.
The end result of making cards that crisscross solutions is that you increase the amount of potential synergy. As a nice side benefit, you also lessen repetition in game play as you allow players more choices in how to customize their strategy.
Layer Your Solutions
For many years, I made Magic puzzles in a puzzle column called Magic: The Puzzling in The Duelist. (You can read about how the Magic puzzles actual led to me getting hired by Wizards R&D here.) I was often asked how I made them. What was the secret?
The key, I would explain, was to find one clever moment and then build backwards from it. As I expanded upon the puzzle, I would layer in new challenges. That is, I would make a new puzzle for the player that had an end state that was the beginning state of the next part of the puzzle. I would slowly build a scaffolding where each dependency rested on the last. By puzzle's end, I created a solution with a nested series of interesting plays.
Designing Magic cards is a lot like how I made Magic puzzles. You start with the core of your set. You then find the dependencies that the core creates. As you solve those dependencies, you build in new dependencies based upon the solutions to the initial dependencies. Thus, you create a shell of layered dependencies. This allows your players to continue looking for more answers. Another way to think of this is making sure that each solution creates new problems to solve.
For example, the extort mechanic in Orzhov wants you to be able to cast your spells and still have mana left over to extort with. There are several solutions to this problem (the two biggest being playing cheap spells and using a defensive strategy to get to the point in the game where you have enough land in play) but each one comes with a host of new problems to solve. Those solutions create new problems and the cycle goes on.
Create Resources That Can Be Harnessed
One last trick is to take advantage of the resources you build to make your mechanics work. For instance, evolve requires +1/+1 counters to function. That is a resource. You are then able to make cards that care about the resource of +1/+1 counters. If you use that resource on multiple elements of your game, this allows you yet another way to join together disconnected parts of your design. This will best be seen when Return to Ravnica is played with Gatecrash (when Dragon's Maze comes out) and the +1/+1-matters cards will be able to interact not just with evolve but also with scavenge and unleash.
That's all I have for you today. I hope this column has helped you see both the value of synergy in game design as well as some of the means game designers use to help create it. As always, I am eager to hear any feedback on today's column. You can email me, respond to this thread, or contact me on any of my social media (Twitter, Tumblr, and Google+).
Join me next week when I'll be Gruul to be kind.
Until then, may you realize that sometimes 2+2 can be 5.
Drive to Work #22—The Trading Card Game Genre
I have talked numerous times in my column about something I call the Golden Trifecta. This refers to what I feel are the three genius ideas Richard Garfield came up with when he created Magic—the trading card game genre, the color wheel, and the mana system. My next three podcasts are each dedicated to a different part of the Golden Trifecta. First up, the trading card game genre.