Microdesign and the Second Wave

Yep, it’s yet another post about videogames.

I’ve had a notion kicking around my head lately that I haven’t really seen given a name or discussed anywhere else.  Playing Undead Labs’ State of Decay has got me thinking about it again, and I thought it might make a good subject for a blog post.

The idea I want to talk about is something I’ll call “microdesign”.

To explain this concept, let’s consider The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim.  Skyrim is a game with a vast amount of features and systems.  The player can engage in countless activities (combat, exploration, romance), and the world is populated with hundreds (thousands?) of detailed environments and “unique” NPC’s.

But none of Skyrim’s features are very deep.  Combat is shallow.  Exploration is shallow.  The romance mechanics are pitiful.  Don’t get me wrong, Skyrim is a great game that I’ve poured hundreds of hours into, but it succeeds through quantity, not quality.  It’s why fans joke that a Bethesda game is only half-complete on release, and why Bethesda pours such attention into its modding community.

Now let’s consider something smaller and more focused.  Say, Ridiculous Fishing.  By contrast, Ridiculous Fishing is a game with a very narrow scope, and a tiny list of features: casting, sinking, reeling, and shooting.  But each of these features is meticulously-designed from top to bottom.  Every single menu, every single screen, every single aspect of Ridiculous Fishing has been tailored as meticulously as possible.  There are no “phoned in” design decisions here.  Every feature in the game is, from the ground up, tweaked to suit the core thesis of the game.

This is what I call “microdesign”.

But it’s not something restricted to casual games.  Microdesign is something I see pop up in more complex games as well.  Dark Souls is a game that’s heavily microdesigned.  Even features as commonplace and straightforward as equipment menus see a thesis-supporting twist put upon them.   Open a menu in Dark Souls, and the game DOESN’T pause, as most other games take for granted that it should, and as a player would expect it to.  Why?  Because that design choice supports Dark Souls’s thesis: to create an immersive, unsettling action-rpg where the player never feels safe.  And EVERY design decision in the game, no matter how small, is given that degree of consideration, to make sure it conforms to the thesis.

Team Fortress 2 is a microdesigned game.  In this case, the thesis is to create a fast, fun, objective-based class shooter where all the classes are perfectly balanced with one another.  This manifests in countless minute design decisions, from how fast a scout runs, to how long it takes an Engineer to build a turret.

Fighting Games are almost categorically microdesigned; their highly-competitive nature and community force them to be.  Ditto for RTS games or roguelikes, whose number-crunchy stat systems almost guarantee they must be built from the ground up, rather than lazily accepting some standard default design.

Chris Hecker’s Spy Party is practically a love-letter to the concept of microdesign, where the scope of the game is so small that you can see every feature the game offers in five seconds of video — but every feature is hand-tailored, tweaked, designed and redesigned to support the thesis of the game.  There are no phoned-in health bars, skill-trees, or XP systems.  Everything that doesn’t fit isn’t there.  Anything that doesn’t work never was.  All design which doesn’t support the thesis is excised.  And the end result is that one can tell, just by looking at the game, that every aspect of it has been agonized-over by its designer.

That’s microdesign.

State of Decay is a game which butters its bread on microdesign.  There are no new systems here: we’ve all played games with base-building, third-person shooting, melee combat, stealth elements, loot, etc.  The game can be very easily dismissed as “Grand Theft Auto with zombies”, and that’s not an unfair assessment.  The core mechanics of the two games, and what a player will likely be doing at any given time (running, driving, shooting) are almost identical.  State of Decay doesn’t succeed by new ideas; it succeeds through excellent microdesign.  It succeeds by conceptualizing an idea of what the experience of the game should feel like, and then taking systems we’ve played with countless times before, and tweaking them just-so to support that envisioned experience.

What did Megaman do that a dozen other forgotten NES jump-and-shoot platformers didn’t?

Nothing at all.

Megaman just had better microdesign.

We might liken the relationship between design and microdesign to that of story and prose.  Two authors can tell the same story, but one might succeed where the other fails, through  well-written prose.  Microdesign is practical execution of an overarching design principle.  It’s attention to detail at a microscopic level.  It’s conceptualizing a game’s design from scratch, and taking nothing for granted.

In his article “High Noon For Shooters“, critic Michael Abbott discusses the history of the Western: that at a certain point, straight-up heroic John Wayne Westerns didn’t work anymore, and it took reflexive “second wave” Westerns (the likes of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah) to poke, prod, and revitalize the genre, by toying with familiar ideas to produce fresh results.

In his book “Killing is Harmless“, writer Brendan Keogh calls “Spec Ops: the Line” a “second-wave shooter”; a “shooter about shooters”.  The game does nothing new, he says, but works from the very start to toy with ideas we hold about third person shooters, and question each aspect of such games’ design.

As studios collapse and lay off employees, big-budget games fail and indie games take wing, I think ideas like microdesign are already starting to gain traction.  Small teams, lacking the money or resources to build entirely new mechanics, are instead seeking to redefine old genres; to tweak and rebuild existing ideas to achieve new experiences.  The second wave is coming — and microdesign is what’s roiling under the surface.

And if games like State of Decay are any indication of what’s to come, I can’t wait for that wave to hit the shore.

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