Dev Blog october 19, 2020

The Unsung Hero of Video Games

Welcome back to the Little Squid Dev Blog!

We’ve received requests to do more design topics, so we wanted to get onto our soapbox and dive into one of our FAVORITE facets of game design; what we believe to be the true, unsung hero of video games, the puppet master, the fine line between life & death, the oracle of your player experience, the watcher on the wall, and the fragile thread of existence  – ✨ SYSTEMS ✨

- sounds pretty important, yeah? IT'S CUZ IT IS.

Ever wondered why some games keep pulling you back in day after day? Why leveling up and getting rewards gives you a sense of accomplishment and progress? Why some games feel so cohesive and like every piece within has its place? Or why games are just so dang fun????? BRO THAT'S SYSTEMS.

iSn'T tHAt JuST gaMePLaY? - shut up.

Sorry, didn't mean to lash out..

If you haven’t heard of “systems design” as a concept, you’re probably not alone. From a consumer perspective, it doesn’t get talked about all that often unless talking about one specific innovative system in a new game that hasn’t really been seen before. What does get called out is a game’s visuals and graphics, its story, or just its “gameplay” in a general sense.

Even if you’re a follower of the industry and like to keep tabs on developers and get a look behind the scenes, there’s a chance you haven’t specifically heard of systems design. Companies often don’t call it out as “systems design” publicly and the labelling of jobs regarding systems is either very broad or very specific. In broad terms, you could see jobs listed as “gameplay design” or just “game design”. In specific terms, you could see jobs like “systems design” or “investment design” and they’d be in charge of specific things like player retention or rewards.

In reality, systems design is a swiss army knife of a discipline and is pretty all-encompassing. It handles all (or most) of a game’s rules, and a lot of the nuance that comes from how those rules interact with each other (which is why it's our favorite).

So what exactly do we mean by rules?

There’s a common framework for designing and studying games, called the MDA framework, that boils games down into 3 components: M = Mechanics, D = Dynamics, and A = Aesthetics. All three of these apply to systems, but Aesthetics is the least pertinent to what we’re talking about. So, we’ll just talk about Mechanics and Dynamics for now.  

Mechanics essentially are a game’s rules. What can and can’t be done by a player, what happens behind the scenes when a particular action takes place, etc. Dynamics are the play experiences that arise from these rules. For example, if a mechanic says that "a level has a countdown timer", a dynamic is created that the player feels time pressure and stress. If there is also a mechanic in this level that says "when a player loses a life, the countdown speeds up", then an additional layer of the dynamic is created that the player would also need to be very careful and precise with their decisions.

In the most basic sense, Systems Design is a combination of Mechanics and the Dynamics they create.

The interactions created between the Mechanics and the Dynamics are where systems design really shines. To us, these interactions are what contribute the most to making games fun and is why systems design is truly the unsung hero of video games.

But don’t just take our word for it. Let’s look at some examples of systems in popular games, what they’re doing, and why they’re so great!

Among Us - Heavy Dynamics

This game blew up, huh? Why is that? Most people agree it’s because of the social interactions with friends (or strangers), and accusing or betraying people you would normally trust in any other context. For those who don’t know how Among Us works, you play as a crew member on a spaceship. The crew needs to finish tasks around the ship to depart but alas, a twist! Some of the crew mates are Impostors, with a goal to kill and sabotage the crew. As the game unfolds, players call meetings and discuss what has been happening around the ship, trying to deduce who among them is an Impostor, ultimately trying to eject the Impostors from the ship.

cred: Inverse

When it comes to systems design within Among Us, it’s not super intricate. Let's look at the task system. The Mechanics of the tasks to complete are simple enough, and the crew just has to complete a set number of them. The impostors have the Mechanic that they can't complete the tasks, but can sabotage the ship. What these mechanics create are complex social Dynamics. Since the impostors can’t actually do the tasks, they need to fake it like they ARE doing them. They also need to be careful not to give themselves away when sabotaging the ship. A crew member taking a little too long on a task can look suspicious even though they aren’t an impostor. Things like that.

Minecraft - System Interactions & Emergent Gameplay

A quintessential game to look at when talking about systems design. We could talk forever about all of the cool systems that are in this game, but what Minecraft does exceptionally well is create “emergent gameplay”. This is gameplay that wasn’t specifically designed and just “emerges” through the interactions of the game’s various systems. For example, a player could dig all the way underground and find a cavern, build a super cool base™ down there, then break through a wall and suddenly release lava into their new area. Then they need to react and build some way of diverting the lava before it destroys their super cool base™! While diverting the lava, an enemy spawns behind them and starts attacking! Now the player has to deal with the enemy and the lava, and that whole encounter was completely random and not designed to happen at that moment in that location.

That kind of emergence is all thanks to the systems in Minecraft. Systems like how and where enemies spawn/live, how different elements like lava interact with the world (it destroys it yo), and the entire crafting and resource management systems that led to the super cool base™.

Animal Crossing - Granular World Rules

We’ve been playing Animal Crossing again lately because of the fall update – check out these pumpkins!!

Animal Crossing is another example that’s full of different systems interacting with each other to create a fun and cohesive experience. A crafting system, the neighbor interactions, etc. Our personal favorite is the whole critter system, involving the critters you can catch on your island...because bugs and fish are cool. There’s a whole suite of bugs and fish and sea creatures that you can find and put into your museum and there’s interesting systems design behind them all. Certain species of animals only appear on the island at specific times of the year and even then, at specific times of the day. And each animal also has a rarity associated with it that determines how likely you are to find it when it’s supposed to be active.

So many bugs!
Each with their own seasonality & times they're active to catch

These are cool Mechanics that promote interesting Dynamics like rushing to find a specific type of bug in the wild before it’s December and that bug won’t be active on your island anymore. Or being a little more careful at night because a scorpion or tarantula might be out and sting or bite you.

Destiny - Player Retention & Rewards

Let's go a little bit deeper here because this part of systems design is what I (Mike) really get excited about and I could talk about Destiny’s systems in particular for hours. It also helps that I was able to work on the game and really dig into the systems first-hand 😉

A well designed system can function as its own entity, but what really sets games apart are the ones that have systems flexible enough to work and interact with other compounded systems - not just stand on its own.

Stick with us here because Destiny is a great example of a game with a multitude of systems all working together to bring you a cohesive player experience. This is also what makes it very difficult to focus on just one or two examples because they're all so intertwined, but they weren't thinking about one guy making a blog post on a thing no one talks about, so here we are.

What Destiny 2 excels at, from a systems design perspective, is player retention and rewarding players for their time. Seasonal battle passes, seasonal items, rewards for certain activities, weapon and gear improvements - there’s too many to name here, but what they all share is the sense of progress. No matter what you're doing as a player, you're always chasing at least one kind of reward or set goal that keeps you coming back for more.

Let's break down a simple loop that happens all the time in Destiny:
You want a specific gun, and once you get it, want it to be as powerful as possible. (Obviously there are many things at play here to even get to this "simple" scenario, so we're going to ignore other factors like raid access, player level, experience points, and every other compounded system that would allow you to access a particular reward for brevity's sake).

If you successfully complete an activity, you'll have a chance at being rewarded with the gun you want. There’s math behind the scenes that determines the likelihood of that gun dropping, but outwardly it seems like luck. If you don't get the reward, you go back and try the activity again with the hopes of it dropping.

But here comes another rule – you only get a chance at this reward once a week. If you don't get the reward you want during your first attempt, don't worry - you'll still get a bunch of other cool rewards that could be helping you progress towards other goals. Maybe you have a bounty or quest that you're working towards, or maybe you leveled up and got a sweet ship. Plus, now you have incentive to come back to the game the following week to try the activity again to get that gun.

Yay! You got the gun! Now you want it to be as powerful as possible. That requires specific materials to upgrade the weapon, but luckily those materials are fairly common and can be found from a few different sources. Next, you play all the activities that could reward you with those materials, eventually gaining enough to upgrade your gun. While you're at it, all those same activities also helped you progress those bounties & quests from earlier.

This kind of loop is the core of Destiny’s gameplay experience and it’s all driven by the systems design that encourages you to keep playing with cool rewards. This really basic example alone touches the Raid reward system, the material and resource system, the gear upgrading system, and the bounty/quest system. The MDA framework in this case includes: the Mechanics like “Gun X is attained from Activity Y” and “Activity Y rewards are limited to once a week" plus the Dynamics created from these kinds of Mechanics such as “I’ll complete this activity every week to give myself the best chance” and “I am progressing multiple goals right now because I know this reward isn’t guaranteed."


There are so many more examples that we could go on all day, but it's always really fun for us to break down these ambiguous concepts & hopefully gives you a little BTS context when you play your next game! 

Leave us a comment on some of your favorite systems design in games you've played, or ask us ALL the questions because we love dis shtuff.

See ya on the internet! 

- 🦑

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