Holistic Game Design

One thing that keeps popping up throughout this long and rambling document is the idea that "This thing doesn’t work unless these other things also work."  This interrelationship of elements in a system can be considered "holistic," and is a good thing to keep in mind when designing, tweaking, or patching your system.  Everything affects everything else.

Somehow, established professionals in the game development field forget this idea all the time, or perhaps never considered it.  As a direct result of thinking about game design in a non-holistic way, elements are introduced into the game for seemingly decent purposes and wind up destroying whole areas they were never meant to impact.  However, because designers of all types tend to be stubborn, proud people, these mistakes are often left there to fester, and the game is never quite as good as it was before.

This, by the way, is one of the reasons this document is so long and sprawling.  Whenever I think of an idea to tack onto it, there are three or four corollaries to that idea that cry out for explanation, and therefore these need to be added as well.  For instance, a PvP+ environment with no switch can be an excellent element of a game world, but it has direct impact on almost everything else.  It requires careful weapon balance, character potential limits, class balance, a robust justice system, legally sanctioned benefits for non-criminals, etc. etc.  Introducing an element that is unbalanced from the PvE standpoint (i.e. the sword that does 9000 damage so players can easily kill a boss monster) demolishes PvP and must be disallowed before it ever gets into the game.

It’s easier to show how ignoring holistic philosophy ruins games than trying to provide examples of good holistic design, since (a) holistic design is far too uncommon in the industry, and (b) if a game is largely holistic and balanced, but there are a few stupid ideas thrown in, they eclipse everything else.  Therefore, here are some theoretical examples of how ignoring the holistic approach can destroy other elements of the game:

Implementation Reason What It Ruins
Sword/crossbow/spell of mass destruction It seemed like a good carrot for high level players Every other method of attack, and all content below the level of content the superattack is geared for.  Also wrecks PvP.
Hooded faran robe (AC) They look cool Because the team forgot that players could cast overpowered protective spells on garments, robes become the #1 choice for armor.  This ruins almost all other armor, any class that is unable to cast these spells, and any content geared towards players wearing standard armor.
Monsters with really good loot Player base whining All other monsters besides uberloot monsters, the item economy, the cash economy, and any character type not specifically outfitted to deal with uberloot monsters.
Easy XP farming areas Player base whining, or a desire to power players up to meet unbalanced content All content below the highest level, all quests below superquests, all characters not optimized for powerleveling, etc.

On the other hand, here are some of the considerations presented within this document and the other game elements required to make sure they work (assume that "robust server and code" is included for all elements, of course):

Implementation Additional Required Systems
Off-hours (logged off) activity system Strong timekeeping, learning by doing skill system.
Historically accurate weapon system Modifiers for weapon reach, reasonable player power range, good pre-implementation research.
PvP+ environment Player power limitations, zero sum balanced combat system for all possible attack forms, working justice system, reasonable sanctions agaist criminal lifestyles, reasonable death system, etc.
Reasonable cash economy Taxation system, reasonable rewards for all moneymaking activities, sufficient cash drains that are either unavoidable or else worth the players’ while to use
Player character nobility and rule Monarch menu, robust NPC engine for dealing with the movements of peasants, etc., reasonable economies, large scale combat engine including NPC’s for territorial incursions and defenses, dynamic construction engine, diplomacy engine, robust justice system, taxation, siege, supply considerations, etc.
Trade skills Every other aspect of a balanced economic system, all aspects of combat that relate to crafted combat goods, use-based skill gain system
Non-static human and monster populations Dynamic construction engine, off-hours activity engine, ability to hire NPC’s of many types, logical migration algorithm, frontier for new monsters to come from

Naturally, every element that is tied to a particular implementation has its own ties to other elements that make it work, ad infinitum.  This seems daunting at first, but after a long time considering these things, one’s brain can start to make the connections and references automatically, and with a little effort, all elements of the game become tied together in a complex web of relationships which are more easily navigated.  Congratulations:  you are now designing holistically.

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