At the 2001 Game Developer's Conference, Hal Barwood gave a talk called "4 of the 400". He presented four rules of thumb for game designers, out of the (arbitrarily) four hundred or more rules out there. As a friend and former co-designer of Hal's, I was intrigued enough to suggest we should put together a project to try to glean more of the 400, and this new column represents the first time the results of that intention see print.
Our objective is to compile a list of practical rules that can be applied to help create better games, not just abstract observations of similarities among designs, or academic theories with no basis in the craft of game design. For each of these columns, in the words of Jennifer Olson, we will include "some kernel of design knowledge that people for whom it is applicable would be able to implement right away and improve by some measure the design of their game."
The format for a rule is shown below, with a sample rule to get us started. Until there is an existing database of these rules it will be hard to list rules that it trumps, or is trumped by, but over time those cross-references will become easier. For now, to prime the pump, I've referenced some rules that should be pretty obvious just by their names.
So here is a sample rule, with the five italic sections describing the components of a rule.
1. A concise, imperative statement of the rule, both as a sentence and paragraph
Provide Clear Short-Term Goals
Always make it clear to the player what their short-term objectives are. This can be done explicitly by telling them directly, or implicitly by leading them towards those goals through environmental cues. This avoids the frustration of uncertainty and gives players confidence that they are making forward progress.
2. Its domain of application (both its hierarchy, e.g. a rule about rules, a rule about the development process, or just a rule about games themselves, and genre, e.g. Applies only to RTS games or Online games.
This is a basic rule of game design, and applies to all games directly.
3. Rules that it trumps (over which this rule takes precedence):
It trumps the rule "Emphasize Exploration and Discovery" because the player should not have to discover their short-term goals. If discovery is warranted, it should be to discover the tools or information needed to achieve the clear, short-term goals, not to discover the goals themselves. It also trumps "Provide an Enticing Long-Term Goal", as it is more important to have the player know what to do next than to simply know that they have to Kill the Evil Wizard/Save the World/Rescue the Princess.
4. Rules that it is trumped by
It is trumped by the rule "Make the First Player Action in a Game Painfully Obvious". However, often that first obvious action in a game - read the paper, click on the wise old man, shoot the monster - should trigger an explanation of the first short-term goal beyond that.
5. An example or two from well-known published games, if applicable
When Hal Barwood and I designed Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis we gave the player explicit goals throughout the game by having the supporting characters guide the objectives. The initial theft of an artifact by a Nazi agent led the player (in the role of Indiana Jones) to Madam Sophia, who in turn presented Indy with his next objective, and so on. One short-term goal, like "convince this character to give you an artifact", often triggered conversation with the character that led to the next goal, like "find the lost dialog of Plato".
Shigeru Miyamoto uses clear short-term goals throughout all of his games. In Mario 64 he uses explicit goals like characters or signs that tell you how to move, jump or swim, adjacent to appropriate obstacles. Other goals are implicit ones, as when you're left to explore the landscape at the beginning of the game with a large castle dominating the landscape and a drawbridge leading right to it. He also uses strings of floating coins to pick up as implicit goals that help lead the player into attempting jumps and using catapults or cannons pointing toward the coins.
More recently, Halo from Bungie does an admirable job of using the landscape itself and suggestions from both an AI companion and fellow Marines to channel you towards the next short-term goal.