Join Brenda Romero for an in-depth discussion in this video What's a system?, part of Game Design Foundations: 2 Systems, Chance, and Strategy.
- [Narrator] Have you ever been to a big event like a wedding, or a graduation, or a conference? Consider everything that went into the planning of that event. All kinds of moving parts were necessary to pull it off. From the moment you walk into the door until the last person leaves, everything is planned, it is, in effect, a system. Looking up system in any dictionary you'll probably come up with a definition involving an interconnected group of facts, components, or parts, which form a united whole.
Sometimes a system is also defined as a means by which something works like a monetary system or a system of government. Other times a system is defined as something which produces an end result like a school system produces graduates. In games, our definition of a game system is a bit different and more precise as it relates to our field. I define it like this. A game system is a player-organized or designer-created collection of game mechanics which can be understood mostly in isolation from other systems and that control a significant group of related, non-trivial behaviors of gameplay toward a specific outcome.
Wow, what a definition. Now a game system is one of the most important concepts of all game design so I'm going to unpack the words in that definition the way one might unpack a suitcase. This might not be the most riveting way to spend four minutes but your understanding of game systems is critical to your success as a game designer so let's go piece by piece starting with a collection of game mechanics. Now, a game mechanic is the name we give to a particular rule or set of rules which produces a particular outcome.
For instance, taking turns is a mechanic. A system uses a set of mechanics. As an example, think of every rule in a game that has to do with a game character, what they can wear and not wear, what weapons they can equip, how fast they can move, and so on. All of these mechanics are collected to form what we would call a character system. So, that's a collection of mechanics. Next let's take a look at this part which controls a significant group of related non-trivial behaviors.
Let's take a mechanic like opening a door and assume there are three ways to open it. Opening it like normal, unlocking it with a key, or bashing it down. Now, in the game industry, we'd never refer to this as a door system, it's trivial and it's not significant to the play. If I said, "Oh, in this game you can, wait for it, open doors." Your answer would clearly be, "So?" It doesn't make sense to make it a system all on its own. Now if opening doors was a super significant portion of play and if the game were somehow about the opening, closing, and using of doors, having a door system absolutely makes sense.
This is a tricky issue, really, at what point does something go from collection of mechanics to system? Well, it's a gray area. However, generally, if it's big enough to write a design doc on it it's big enough to be a system. For what it's worth I normally put door functionality in with the environmental or world system which includes all the basic things that one might encounter in the world including traps and so on. Next let's take a look at, can be understood mostly in isolation.
What on earth do I mean by that? Well, game designers usually work on a single system at any given time going back and forth, of course, making changes in other systems, but for the most part you're focusing on one specific thing. This is particularly true of triple A games that have very large design teams. Normally a specific team of designers will be dedicated to focusing on a single system at a time working with other teams who are also focused on other systems.
Well each of those teams has a clear understanding of the core of the game and the basic functionality of the world how people move, for instance, and the high goals for the other systems, that team, or that person, is primarily focused on their one system alone. They can understand it mostly in isolation from the other systems which is necessary in order to build it up. Another designer may be focused on character progression in the game or on the game's economy. And while they may be working mostly in isolation on their systems all designers on a project need to know what's happening with the other designers.
Next, let's take toward a specific outcome. This is a particularly important part of the definition. We could just throw a bunch of mechanics together, but for what? All systems have a purpose. A combat systems purpose, for instance, is to negotiate conflicts between players and other players or creatures in the world and provide a resolution for them. What is the point of the character system? Well, it's to create characters. What's the point of the economic system? To control the flow of money or other resources through the game.
All systems are like clocks, a bunch of gears designed to work together to do something. Okay there's just one last piece of the puzzle and it's this one. Game systems are a player-organized or designer-created collection of game mechanics. Designer-created collections of game mechanics we can get our head around. For instance, if I design a character system, and you later play my game and create a character, we can all understand what's happening there. Player-organized systems, however, are a bit more interesting to understand.
We call this emergent gameplay. It means players have figured out how to make the game do something using existing mechanics that the designers never intended it to do. One of the most famous examples of this is rocket-jumping which happened in the original Quake. Using a rocket, players could propel themselves all around the world. This ended up being a significant component of the game's strategy. More commonly, however, are the emergent social systems that develop in games amongst players.
In some games there are millions of players and these players develop communities, rules, and social expectations of one another. These player-organized systems exist within the framework of the game but they were created by the players themselves. And that's a game system. Now let's take a look at the whole definition again just to put it all back together. A game system is a player-organized or designer-created collection of game mechanics which can be understood mostly in isolation from other systems and that control a significant group of related non-trivial behaviors of gameplay toward a specific outcome.
This definition is core to what we do as game designers. I've heard systems described very simply as a collection of rules. But, into these definitions are built in understanding of all the principles I outlined above. Believe it or not, to get this definition, I went back and forth with four other game designers with significant experience before arriving at the definition above. Far from being tedious, it was actually fun trying to unpack what the meaning of a system was and how a system is determined, and what they mean to us as game designers.
A car is a good metaphor to drive this point home. So, these are car parts. And when we put the car parts together for a specific reason related to a specific outcome they produce a system, such as an exhaust system. When we put multiple systems together, hopefully we'll have a car. When we add a player to that car we see the dynamics of the systems in motion. Likewise, these are game mechanics or rules. When we put related rules together in a meaningful way they produce a system like a combat system, for instance.
Some games put multiple systems together to make a game and when we add a player, we see dynamics of these rules in motion, that is gameplay. Games are composed of systems. We break a game down into systems, each of which controls a specific element of gameplay.
- What's a game system?
- Common game systems
- Exploring a character system
- Mechanics of chance
- Mastering skill in games
- Tradeoffs, dilemmas, strategy, and tactics