Kurt Vonnegut's 8 Tips for Designing Games
Updated: Mar 1, 2020
Ok, ok, ok... I know Kurt Vonnegut never designed games (to the best of my knowledge, anyway). But he was an exceptional author who knew how to craft an entertaining experience. When I read his collection of short stories, Bagombo Snuff Box, I discovered his 8 simple tips for writing a good short story.
Reading through each point, I was struck by how relevant his advice was for game designers and I knew I had to write up an article to help connect designers with these tips. So let's dig in.
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
This is the most fundamental rule of game design, especially these days when players have a massive selection of games to play and only limited time to play them in. So make sure your game uses their time well and that you respect the time they give your game. Here's some follow up tips in this space:
Don't waste a player's time with frivolous mechanics. Seek to streamline their actions through their experience so that they can focus on the things they want to do.
Think very carefully about your target play time. Not everyone wants to play 2+ hour games.
This also applies to rulebook writing. Make your rules concise and to the point so that the player can focus on what they really want to do: play your game.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
In stories, this is essential for bringing your reader through the experience without having to drag them along forcefully. This is often done through making a connection with that character. In game design, think about how you can bring your players through your experience willingly by striving to find the things in your design that connect with players. As one of my readers pointed out, the best example of this is representative inclusion. Make sure that you have people, characters, etc in your game that the player can identify with, and avoid things that might actively exclude someone from picking up your game, such as offensive imagery or symbolism. And be prepared that you might have to go outside your personal experience to get a good insight on what that is. Other things players like might be:
Growing more powerful
Seeking new combinations
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
Characters need to have objectives, and so too do players. Make this a priority in your discovery phase of your game. What do players want to accomplish through their game? Then make sure that each player looks forward their next turn, seeking something or wanting to do something. The old showbiz addage of "always leave them wanting more" is a powerful thing in game design. Some ideas for that are:
Limited actions in a turn (don't let players do everything they want to in one turn)
Empower players to make meaningful choices
Set clear objectives in players' minds about what they are aiming for
4. Every sentence must do one of two things--reveal character or advance the action.
Sentences that do not do these things are exposition filler, like reading 19th Century American Literature. In games, make sure your rules are direct and to the point. Often I read rules that I'm sure are written to try and impress me with the writer's cleverness. I can't stand those, no one buys a game or reads rules for finely crafted illustrative wording. They are here to learn rules, not a piece of literature. Just get to the point and keep in mind that tip 1 above applies to rulebooks as much as it does gameplay. If you get lost in your own cleverness in your rules writing, you stand a very good chance of losing players at this stage before they even play your game. So in game design terms, every sentence should:
Advance the player's understanding of the game
Get the player into your game as quickly as possible
Not use assumed knowledge or terms in your writing
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
Unless you're JRR Tolkien, this is a critical piece across the whole spectrum of entertainment, from books to movies and TV shows. In the game design space, this is something that I learned early on in my career. When designing scenarios for players to engage in, I always wanted to start back from the action, letting the players maneuver into their starting positions. Phil Yates, the lead designer of Flames of War, taught me that starting close to (and right at the start of) the action means that things are action packed from the start to the finish of the game. Again, this goes back to tip 1, where you don't want to waste time fluffing about with stuff that ultimately doesn't matter. The words Vonnegut ends with are "as possible", which gives you some latitude in this space, but always make sure that:
Players start the game making meaningful choices from the get go.
Make sure that the first turn is the first step on the journey, and not a Tom Bombadil moment.
Don't make false starts (ie the action starts on turn 2)
Consider Tutorial scenarios to handle learning the game.
6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them--in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
This is my favorite one. No one likes a story where the hero starts in a solid position and is never challenged through to the end. Even Superman is faced with challenges that he must overcome. In games, this is all about setting up challenges for your players. By going through these, players go on a journey to achieve to their objectives. You want them to walk away from your game having shared in a formative experience. And the best way to do that is to make awful things happen to them in your game so that they can grow and overcome them. In your games, be terrible to your players:
Throw your players into chaos
Make them earn their way out
Allow them space to grow more powerful
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
This is another critical piece of advice. You can't be all things to all people, so don't even try. Focus your efforts and make sure that your game really hits a certain player in the feels. Establish who this person is at the outset of your game. Really think about it and make sure you understand your intended audience. In some conditions, the "person" can be a group of people, like Star Trek fans, or a limited demographic. But be very careful not to try and please everyone because in doing so, your game will become bloated, sick, and thrown into the plague pit along with the empty corpses of other generalist games. This involves:
Choosing or understanding your playtesters' motivations and preferences
Identifying your "person" in others that are testing your game.
Saying yes to and understanding playtester's feelings and reactions to things
But also saying no to suggested playtester fixes
Always, always, always keep your "person" in your mind when you're writing, playtesting, and making changes.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
This one ties into all of the above tips. If you've done your job right with the above tips, then a player should be able to know, roughly, how the next few turns are going to play out. Or at least they should think they know how things will play out. If a player doesn't feel like they have any control over the course of their experience, they are likely to feel like they are wasting their time (see tip 1). However, some chaos is good, and twist endings are always interesting. However, remember that the twist needs to be at least plausible within the game's logic in order to leave the player satisfied with their experience. You don't want a Game of Thrones Season 8 on your hands... Make sure that:
Player should need to be close to their objectives, if they have not completed them. Make them feel like "if only I had one more turn!", because that's a powerful motivation to play again.
Always have a come-back mechanism in your game so that players can have hope and a reason to play to the end.
Vonnegut finished his advice with the acknowledgement that each of these rules have their exceptions. Vonnegut concludes saying, "The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O'Connor. She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that." As game designers we are free to make our games however we see fit, however we must, above all else, remember the first rule. Because make no mistake, the time players give us to entertain them is a truly remarkable gift and we must honor it.
...but also honor the time they give you by making horrible things happen to them in the game.