RPG Design Handbook: Four Spheres of Design
Posted by Nathan P. on November 21, 2009
Note: This is a break from the overall outline. I’m not quite sure where it should go – maybe as the first part of “Why Design”? Maybe it’s almost an intro. I don’t really know.
Also, since I made the first post for this thing, I’ve (a) grown a lot and (b) started a Masters degree in industrial/product design. A lot of what I’m learning in school has cross-over meaning for game design – hence this post.
Table of Contents here.
Four Spheres of Design
In product design, there’s a vague categorization of design into four (often overlapping) spheres: Commercial design, Experimental design, Responsible (also referred to as Universal) design, and Discursive design. Similar trends occur among roleplaying games, and being mindful of which sphere you are designing in can be helpful both for deciding which other games to look to for inspiration and guidance, and for keeping your efforts focused on your goals.
For the purposes of this guide, I’m divorcing the terms from their context a little bit and remapping them to the roleplaying market and community.
Commercial design is the largest sphere, and the best-treaded. When embarking on a commercial design, one of your primary goals is to get your game into people’s hands. Whether you expect to gain actual monetary compensation, or would rather measure your success by actual play reports, a commercial design has some kind of meaurable goal. A free game can be a commercial design, for example, if it’s designed to (say) appeal to a certain demographic and the designer wants to get the satisfaction of watching a community grow around his or her work.
However, most games that are designed with the intention of being sold have a goal of gaining some return on the money invested in production of the physical product. In traditional publishing, games are expected to bring in enough return to keep the company going; in small-press and indie publishing, the goal is often to break even on the production costs of the game without necessarily paying the author a wage or enabling them to “quit their day job.”
Commercial games tend to target a specific audience, and you, as a commercial designer, benefit immensely from having an audience in mind as you design. They also tend to be designed to be at least familiar to the “average” game consumer. A commercial design wants to stand out from the competition but not be so foreign as to require a high barrier to entry to understand (and, therefore, purchase).
The majority of game publishers are embarked on commercial design, from Wizards of the Coast all the way to the self-publisher who puts their game up on lulu.com with the intent of making some beer money on his ideas.
Experimental Design is design for design’s sake, in many ways. This is where a designer takes an idea, whether it’s a clever dice mechanic or a specific way of distributing narrative authority, and pushes it to an extreme or builds a whole game around it. Many such “design noodlings” are experimental and unpublished, or are put up on the internet for others to find and experiment with.
When an experimental design is brought to market, it’s often done so in order to “shake up” the current landscape or to present a new and different way of doing things. While very few games are published in order to lose money, the success of an experimental design is often measured by how many other designers and roleplayers take the ideas from the game and keep refining them.
In the traditional sphere, games like Nobilis and Wraith: the Oblivion, while having commercial goals, also had strong experimental aspects. In self-publishing, most of Jonathon Walton’s work is expressly experimental; also any number of games that come out of contests like Game Chef tend to explore new and different ideas for the sake of it.
This category maps least easily to game design. In product design, this refers to design with the goal of accessibilty, or making things possible for people or communities who are disadvantaged in some way. In game design, I think this sphere covers games that are written with the intent of enabling a kind of play experience and making it as easy as possible to enagage in that experience.
Designers write these games out of love for whatever they’re doing, and then make them as accessible as possible, often for free on the internet. As opposed to experimental design, the intent is to engage with a community, not to push the boundaries of design itself; often these games are remixs or “hacks” of existing games, genres or properties, and the work itself is extremely open to people getting involved and adding new content. Also, many group design projects seem to fall into this category.
Some examples that I consider Universal design are the Red Box Hack, which was abandoned by the original designer but picked back up by other people who really liked it; fan-made free (unofficial) World of Darkness supplement Genius: the Transgression; and open game system frameworks like FATE and Fudge.
This sphere of design overlaps even more heavily with the others, in that a Discursive design can also have strong tendencies towards being a Commercial, Experimental or Universal project. However, the main focus of a Discursive design is to create a dialogue around a certain point, trend or set of issues that the designer feels passionately about.
This is often done by selection of subject matter or setting of the game, such as setting the game during a war or some kind of social breakdown. Many discursive games also focus on a certain theme, such as dysfunctional relationships, the nature of judgement, or how far someone will go to get what they want. Often, the setting/subject matter is chosen in order to showcase or highlight the theme, though sometimes it is actually a counterpoint.
Many of the iconic games that come out of the focused design traditional exemplified by the Forge are Discursive games with a design intent that’s hard-coded into the design. Paul Czege’s My Life With Master is about dysfunctional relationships; D. Vincent Baker’s Dogs In the Vineyard is about judgement and humanity. Some Discursive games are more open. Burning Wheel, for example, allows the players to decide for themselves what issues they want to deal with through its Beliefs and Instincts, with the rest of the design centering on challenging those traits.
As you can see, these spheres are more of a Venn diagram. Most games that are sold have Commercial goals, even if they are also pushing an Experimental or Discursive agenda; many Discursive game are Experimental as well; Universal games can be made Commercial by packaging and selling them; and so forth.
The important thing to keep in mind is that each path entails different goals and priorities, and being clear at the beginning of your process what you are embarking on makes it easier to make design decisions during the process. If your goal is to push the boundaries of (say) character ownership with your game, maybe you don’t need to spend so much time concentrating on that hyper-detailed fantasy setting; if your goal is generate some income, maybe you need to dial back the Discursive elements that will alienate your target market. Maybe you will discover midstream that the project is more important to you because of its Discursive element, so you decide to make it open and Universal as well in order to make it more accessible.
As with everything else, having a mindful approach to what you are designing and developing your design goals clearly is the important, and difficult, first stage of design.