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DESIGN PRECEPTS FOR COMPUTER GAMES
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How do we translate an understanding of these strengths and weaknesses of the computer into a set of guidelines for game designers The characteristics described above imply a variety of precepts.
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PRECEPT #1: GO WITH THE GRAIN
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(Introducing our idiot cartoon hero. A rocket lies on its side. A wheel-less baby carriage lies nearby. Our hero is walking from the baby carriage toward the rocket, carrying some baby carriage wheels and a hammer.) The first-precept can be summarized with the aphorism: "Work with the grain of the machine, not against it." Too many game designers set out with unrealistic goals. They attempt to force the machine to perform tasks for which it is not well-suited. In saying this, I do not excuse lazy programming. We must remember that the computer is the servant of the human; the convenience
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of the computer is not of interest to the designer. Our goal is to extract maximum performance from the computer, to make it work its best. We can only do this by making it perform functions which it performs well. Case In Point: Hexgrids An example of this principle might be illuminating. Board wargames are traditionally executed on maps that use a hexgrid system. This regularizes movement and defines positions. Hexgrids are preferred over rectgrids for several reasons. First, rectgrids have diagonals; two units can be diagonally adjacent. This situation can be very messy; rules to cope with it are always burdensome and confusing. Hexgrids have no diagonals, so they eliminate the problem. Second, hexgrids allow a player a choice of six directions in which to move, while rectgrids offer only four directions. The greater range of choice allows the player to control more finely the movements and positioning of his pieces. It therefore seems natural that designers of computer wargames would also use hexgrids for their maps. Indeed, most computer wargames do so ---but it is a terrible mistake. The hex does have advantages, but it imposes a penalty on computer wargames that does not apply to boardgames. You can print anything you desire on a piece of paper, but the graphic display of the computer is not so accommodating. The display system of the television set is fundamentally rectangular in its architecture. Horizontal lines are stacked in a vertical sequence. Such a display can very easily handle rectangular shapes; hexagonal shapes just don t work very well. To draw a hex the program must draw four diagonal lines, each one composed of a set of staggered dots. To make the hexgrid recognizable the lines must be surrounded by an exclusion zone at least one pixel wide; this consumes a large portion of the screen area if the hexes are small and dense. If they are larger, less screen area is consumed by the gridwork but fewer hexes can be shown on a single screen. Moreover, joysticks cannot be easily used with hexgrids because joysticks are set up with rectangular geometry. I do not wish to imply that hexgrids cannot be implemented on personal computer displays; on the contrary, they have already been implemented on many personal computers. The problem is that they are clumsy to display, lacking in graphic detail, and difficult to use. They just don t work smoothly. A topologically identical solution has been used in a few games: horizontally staggered rows of squares ("bricks") are used in place of hexes. This system retains the flexibility of hexes while imposing fewer display problems; it remains very difficult to use with a joystick. For these reasons I went back to rectgrid for EASTERN FRONT 1941. My decision was not based on laziness or unwillingness to tackle the problem of hexgrids; indeed, I had already solved the problem with another game (TACTICS) and could easily have transported the code. The experience I gained in working with the earlier code convinced me that hexgrids weren t so important. The success of EASTERN FRONT 1941 seems to indicate that the lack of hexgrids need not impose a handicap.
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