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Level Two: A Travel Guide to Motifs
As announced previously, this level will walk you through theme and motif examples across all four dimensions of the Ludotronics map. Thus, it is not merely a travel guide to motifs, but a four-dimensional travel guide to thematic unity.
In fact, it’s a demo level. For each example, we will rehearse and recapitulate all the steps from the Preparation phase and then attach a theme and generate motifs based on that theme. Thus, we will draw on everything you’ve accomplished so far, from your core element and research conclusions right up to your target market, value set, and USP.
Beat 1. Points of Origin
To recap from the Preparation phase’s Level Two: Panning for the Core, your core element could be a rule or a set of rules, a type of interaction, a setting, an emotion, a character, a plot point, a story idea, or similar. But whatever it is, it resides in one of the four dimensions of the Ludotronics map: Game Mechanics, Ludology, Cinematology, or Narratology. Back then, we took the core element “elimination” as an example and cycled it through all four dimensions. In the following four beats, we will expand on these examples, only in reverse order this time, attach everything accomplished so far, and create four sets with suitable themes and motifs, one for each dimension.
There are two popular assumptions that we need to address up front. Translated to our model, the first assumption is that motifs for a dimension can be skipped if that dimension is empty. For example, a game concept that doesn’t include a story doesn’t need any motifs for its narratological dimension. The second assumption is that for games with a game-mechanical or ludological core, all other dimensions amount to irrelevant padding. Both assumptions, by and large, are wrong. They’re related, of course, but let’s address them one at a time.
Chances are that every dimension contains at least a rudimentary element that needs to be taken care of. This is even true for Pong. Pong’s dimensions are famously bare-bones, but they’re there. All four of them! The game-mechanical elements can be represented as a simple hierarchical token set, as Andrew Rollings and Dave Morris call it in Game Architecture and Design. The types of input these mechanics facilitate for game/player and player/player interactions fall into the ludological dimension. The audiovisual representation of the game elements belong to the cinematological dimension. Finally, the narratological element. Pong certainly doesn’t have a story. But playing Pong generates, in real-time, the narrative of a contest with a narrow set of dramatic arcs like “glorious win/crushing defeat,” “tough match between equals,” “comeback story,” and a few others. So if you have a game concept that doesn’t include a story, ask yourself what kind of player narratives your game should generate. If you have your theme and one or more motifs for this dimension, you will be able to tweak this narrative or range of narratives much more precisely and much more imaginatively than without it and create a better playing experience.
The second assumption seems well-supported by historical examples where games have shed their theme and theme-related elements over time and been reduced to their game-mechanical or ludological core. This often happens when a game becomes “professionalized”—with an infrastructure of core devotees, competitive tournaments, and increasingly standardized rules, requirements, and conditions. Think chess, for starters, where elaborately furnished and sumptuously decorated chessboards and set pieces, once credibly and effectively supporting the fiction of imperial or feudal warfare, existed throughout history and still exist for collectors and connoisseurs, but are rarely if ever used for professional tournaments. Think Tetris, which was originally released in the U.S. and elsewhere with a Russian theme that dominated its look-and-feel through sound, music, graphics, and background graphics, less and less of which are to be found in versions aimed at professionalized players, up to and including the Classic Tetris World Championship. Or, as a final example, think of first-person shooter tournaments where all the visual candy supporting the underlying fiction is toned down or switched off, and tournament players go on a rampage when the host demands that they keep their own guns visible to provide spectators a better experience. (Which indeed happened, back in the early days of e-Sports.) But here’s the catch. You cannot market your game to professionalized players when, at release time, such players do not yet exist for your game. And to target professionalized players in general isn’t such a good idea either because they are professionalized players! Why on earth should they abandon their favorite games, into which they’ve invested huge amounts of time and energy on a daily basis, through which they belong to an evolved and often tight-knit community, and have, accordingly, gotten really good at playing it, for your game? At release time, you need to market your game to a broader audience by way of a broader appeal, and that’s why you need a theme and theme-related elements in all four dimensions. Would Tetris have become such a staggering success without these elements? Probably not. Its look-and-feel and especially the music were instrumental in enthralling and mesmerizing non- or not-yet-professionalized players. This is what you should aim at in principle. If the mechanics of your game are well-designed, it might create its very own professionalized infrastructure over time with its very own dedicated player base—which is a substantially more reasonable endeavor than to go and pry long-established games from dedicated players’ hands.
Thematic unity, for all these reasons, works best if it’s manifestly at work everywhere, and this is equally true for games with a game-mechanical or ludological core aimed at creating a professionalized player base.
Beat 2. From a Game-Mechanical Core
In the Preparation phase, in Level One: Spawning Ideas, we had an idea about an elimination/survivor game, and we panned down this idea in Level Two: Panning for the Core to a core element that fell into the Game Mechanics dimension. To recapitulate, the abstract description of our core element reads like this:
Imagine that, among the many game concepts you brainstormed around this core element, there was one option about a mobile puzzle game that appeared most promising, and in the Preparation phase’s Level Four: An Army of Avatars you found a potential primary target audience that was a great fit for that option. Your motivation statement for that target audience read like this:
From there, you created your value matrix, value set, and USP in Level Five: Enter the Value Matrix and Level Six: Capture the USP, respectively. Let’s assume that the most promising way to differentiate your game from similar games on the market would be to focus on value characteristics from the Cinematology dimension, and that the best pick for your USP would be some unusual or exceptional audiovisual style.
Let’s also assume that your research in Level Three: Tough Investigations revealed a media trend toward the macabre, among them extensive Day of the Dead–scenes in a major blockbuster action flick and a resurgent interest in Grim Fandango among players. Therefore, an audiovisual “macabre” style seemed to be a good direction, which would also unlock an attractive secondary target market for people with a general interest in that kind of aesthetics. For a “suspendable puzzle game with mathematical challenges for recreational players” you need to keep it light, so you concluded that a very imaginative and compellingly quirky “lighthearted macabre”–style would serve your game concept best. (Among artists, you will often hear the term “themed,” as in “lighthearted macabre–themed.” But against our theme and motif terminology, this would be confusing, and “style” is an excellent term that is universally understood.)
All this, we assume, became the game concept you decided to pursue, and it became your ticket to the Procedure phase.
At this point, it’s tempting to slap skeleton skins over your “champions” and have them somehow dispatch each other bloodlessly with a eccentric choreography and comically bone-shattering audio effects. But design by whim is precisely not how you should proceed, and that’s why this practice level exists!
Instead, we need to establish a theme, based on the core element. Possible themes like “survival” or “glory” come to mind, but these are too obvious and not very exciting. Parsing our core element once more, there’s one rule that says: “One piece can eliminate another piece if it has the same value at the moment they meet.” This makes the game’s core mechanic connect intimately to sameness or, in other words, identity. So we decide to make “identity” our theme—which we already worked with in Level One: The Enchanted Theme. What a coincidence!
Now we will go and demonstrate how motifs are generated and applied. It’s done in two steps.
The first step is to brainstorm associations around our theme without any mental restraints. For identity, we already listed a handful of possible motifs in Level One: The Enchanted Theme, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. If you get serious, your list of possible motifs might look like this after an hour or two:
That’s more than enough to kick off thought processes. The second step, now, is to go through all four dimensions and assign motifs from that list to each dimension. As remarked at some length, all four dimensions should have motifs, but you should equip those that are the most important ones for your game concept more lavishly. The dimensions that are of particular importance are the dimension of your core element and the dimension of your USP, which sometimes fall together. In this case, it’s Game Mechanics and Cinematology, respectively.
Are there motifs on our list that would be a good fit for the Game Mechanics dimension? To start with, “Law of Identity” seems like a no-brainer. Then, how about “eigenvalue,” to build a shrewd (and probably quite demanding) under-the-hood rule set for advanced players? Next, there’s “identity theft,” which could govern the special abilities of joker pieces! That should suffice. If you run out of motifs later in the Process phase, or even during development, you can always come back to this point and assign a few more.
For the Cinematology dimension, which is equally important, “metamorphosis” and “assimilation” are a great fit, not least because both are susceptible to the uncanny, which translates well into our theme regarding the macabre. Add to that “identity markers,” possibly for dress, behavior (animation), and sound.
For the Ludology dimension, there’s “recognition” and “matching,” which we can modify slightly toward (mathematical) “pattern recognition” and “pattern matching.” For Narrativity, “oneness” will be enough because that’s what the game is about. There won’t be much in the way of storytelling in any case, and without a multiplayer or coop mode, the pursuit of oneness will cover most of the possible player narratives that the game will provide.
To summarize, our motif distribution looks like this:
From these motifs or subclasses, in turn, you will be able to create all kinds of game elements and assets and details later during the Process phase, which will then populate the four territories of the Ludotronics map toward a unique, coherent game world where every element has its place.
Beat 3. From a Ludological Core
In the Preparation phase’s Level One: Spawning Ideas, we had another idea about a very different elimination/imitation game whose most promising core element, in Level Two: Panning for the Core, turned out to be a player/game interaction that fell into the Ludology dimension. Again, let’s refresh our memory what this core element was about:
Again, to execute our two steps to assign motifs to each dimension, you need your target market, research data, value set, and USP. Let’s assume the most promising game concept you generated around the core element was a party game, and in Level Four: An Army of Avatars, you also found a promising primary target audience for that idea. The motivation statement for this target audience read like this:
Your detective work in Level Three: Tough Investigations revealed a trend toward whimsical, over-the-top cartoon worlds. In Level Five: Enter the Value Matrix it became clear that the best way to differentiate a party game from other party games would be to crank up value characteristics from the Narratology category. So in Level Six: Capture the USP, you decided that your USP focuses on a combination of story and strong, player-generated narratives, and you went with that. Taken all these elements together, we assume that your game concept sketch evolved into a preposterous mystery/treasure hunt plot, whereby the “treasures” are the player characters’ own bodies, stolen at the beginning of the game. The primary challenge, for every player, consists of reclaiming one’s body. To accomplish that, they must “occupy” a series of increasingly wacky minions by successfully imitating them through quick perception and body control, both against time and against all other players.
To everyone’s surprise, “identity” would serve again as the most promising theme, so we can use our list from the preceding beat. This time, we need to keep a close eye on Ludology, home of our core element, and on Narratology, home of our USP.
For the ludological dimension, we can instantly tag “imitation” and “impersonation,” as well as “mirroring” and “matching.”
For the narratological dimension, “identity crisis” and “identity theft” are obvious candidates, but we will also add “self-discovery” to give this dimension more depth and more opportunities for narrative hooks.
The game-mechanical dimension would be best served with “matching.” For good measure, we’ll add “identity switch/body-swap” for an option where players can end up in another player’s body instead of their own, perhaps deliberately, perhaps through spectacular fumbles. Productive motifs for the cinematological dimension, finally, would be “distinctness” and “uniqueness.”
Summing it up:
Granted, “distinctness” and “uniqueness” do not sound like effective constraints for design decisions. But in this case, it’s not a bad thing. For this game concept’s whimsical, over-the-top cartoon world, it might be an advantage to give artists free rein, or almost free rein, for imaginative and more varied characters, character animations, and level designs.
Beat 4. From a Cinematological Core
The third game idea we had in the Preparation phase’s Level One: Spawning Ideas again centered on elimination, but this time with a focus on elimination/assimilation. In Level Two: Panning for the Core we panned it down to an aesthetic core element that belongs into the cinematological dimension. Which, to repeat, read like this:
Let’s assume the most promising game concept based on this core element turned out to be a cinematic, experience-focused first-person single-player adventure where the main character discovers, explores, and struggles to preserve—and defend—their specific “otherness” against assimilation by an all-encompassing mainstream culture. In Level Four: An Army of Avatars, you found a good match for this concept with a target audience defined by the following motivation statement:
Not unintentionally, this description uses the label “emerging core players” from the core-to-casual range as discussed in Level Four: An Army of Avatars, and we have to remember to qualify this label and state exactly what we mean. To recap, we defined emerging core players as experienced players with moderate to serious skill levels who might need some guidance for certain kinds of games but not for others; who tend to be open to new experiences because they haven’t yet developed strong core preferences; who are probably already investing noticeable amounts of time and money into games but are often hesitant and quite unpredictable about when and where to do it; and who tend to be focused on having meaningful playing experiences. While these characteristics are important and should be expressed in sufficient detail, they shouldn’t overshadow the other characteristics from the motivation statement.
Next, we assume that Level Three: Tough Investigations pointed you toward a trend where players can communicate with each other within the game world, but only indirectly and without actually playing together. This trend reinforced your findings in Level Five: Enter the Value Matrix that the best way to differentiate the game—especially against “coming of age” and “find one’s true self” adventures—is to put the pedal on the metal in the Ludology category. Hence, your USP in Level Six: Capture the USP became an interaction that picks up on this trend. While exploring extant artifacts and practices relating to their culture, players face artistic challenges to create artifacts themselves, like microfiction, poems, sketches, tunes, or, similar, which can be discovered by other players in their respective single-player games as extant artifacts in turn. (This USP, it should be mentioned, comes with a truckload of copyright issues from hell that have to be sorted out during development.) All this, of course, would not preclude plenty of action and adventure.
Naturally, “identity” cries out to be used as theme for this game concept again, as ethnic identity or cultural identity or both. So we can again consult our trusty list for matching motifs! This time, Cinematology and Ludology demand our full attention, as these harbor the core element and the USP, respectively.
For the cinematological dimension, “identity markers (dress, language, sound, behavior, space, etc.)” is a good fit. Then we can use “uniformity” for the necessary contrast. For all the things in between, those that become blurred and hard to distinguish, “boundaries” could take care as a motif.
Suitable motifs for the ludological dimension would be “identification (finding out)” and “self-protection.” But that covers only the action-adventure part. For the object-creation part, we need something else, and “imitation” and “mimesis” seem to be good choices.
The motifs “distinguishability” and “assimilation” could take care of the game’s principal conflict in the game-mechanical dimension, and “stigma” and “identity formation” could serve the narratological dimension.
The cultural identity at the center of the game could be an existing culture or a fictitious culture or something in between. Owing to the high abstraction levels of the theme and its motifs, you can make decision to that effect later in the Process phase.
Beat 5. From a Narratological Core
Our fourth and final game idea in Level One: Spawning Ideas also had an elimination angle, this time toward elimination/termination. We panned it down to a narratological core element in Level Two: Panning for the Core like this:
We further assume that, in Level Four: An Army of Avatars, you found this promising target market:
Based on the core element, the best conceptual fit for this specific target audience seems to be—in an accumulation of traditional nomenclature—a narrative-driven stealth/martial arts action-adventure game, probably third-person, probably with a multiplayer option. In Level Three: Tough Investigations, you observed a resurging interest in evil corporation–narratives and an equally resurging fascination with brands, branded environments, and branded experiences (of which the Academy Award winner Logorama for Best Animated Short in 2009 is a venerable example). In Level Five: Enter the Value Matrix, you decided that the best differentiator for a stealth/martial arts game is to give the Cinematology dimension a boost. For all these reasons, the USP you settled for in Level Six: Capture the USP is a unique audiovisual world design where practically everything has the look-and-feel of company logos, brand messages, jingles, and advertising slogans, and in which the player character, a celebrated martial artist and interplanetary brand ambassador for an all-powerful sports equipment conglomerate, tries to evade or void their very literal “cradle-to-grave” sponsorship contract.
Miraculously, “identity” happens to strike us again as the most promising theme for this game concept, so we can consult our veteran list of motifs one last time, paying extra attention to Narratology and Cinematology on behalf of its core element and its USP.
For the narratological dimension, “identification (finding out)” and “self-discovery” can be employed for story reveals, and we can intensify the paranoia with the motifs “interchangeability” and “cloning” as constant threats to self-discovery and personhood.
The cinematological dimension can be populated with “corporate identity” and “identity markers (corporate),” but also with the motifs “lifestyle” and “copyright” to create a society of “copyrighted lifestyles.”
For the game-mechanical dimension, we can use “specialization” with relation to combat techniques, and also “self-protection.” For the ludological dimension, the motif “identification (finding out)” suggests itself again, this time for player/game interactions, complemented by “repeatability” and “symmetry” for combat moves.
To sum it up:
In each of our four examples, core element and USP fell into different dimensions. They can fall into the same dimension, of course, and that can make a difference. With its core element and its USP in the same dimension, a game might become a little less integrated overall, but also more focused. This can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your target audience, your game, and even factors like distribution or monetization formats.
Beat 6. Points of Departure
If you’re not used to working with a theme and motifs, all this might sound challenging, even mildly threatening. What about creativity! But creativity always comes first, and everything is really simple. The theme and its motifs are not there to guide your creative ideas, their mission is to support them. Think back to our “jealousy” example from Level One: The Enchanted Theme. Assuming you are the game designer, the plot point and the dialogue between your characters were based on your creative ideas, and the jewelry store was also your creative idea! But you arrived at the latter by browsing your theme “jealousy” and its motifs, among them “romantic love” and “expensive, beautiful things” as matters one can be jealous about. Your theme and your motifs are neither creative ideas nor design decisions. They’re structural decisions that inspire creative ideas and design decisions by providing frame and focus.
Indeed, you can see similar distinctions at work in other art forms too. Imagine you want to create a painting. The first set of decisions would determine the medium (oil, acrylics, watercolors, pastels, ink, etc. on the one hand, canvas, paper, wood, glass, concrete, etc. on the other); style (realism, impressionism, surrealism, abstract, graffiti, etc.); tools (brushes, knives, sponges, spray cans, airbrushes, etc.); and theme (idea, subject matter). The focus of the painting can be on the theme or subject matter, which is what we usually assume, but it can also be on trying out a different medium, creating a new style, or working with novel or uncommon tools.
Then, a second set of decisions informs the actual painting process. These are artistic decisions for color, shape/form, texture, and arrangement (composition, relations, patterns, etc.).
Structural decisions with regard to medium, style, tools, and theme from the first set will affect artistic decisions from the second set with regard to color, shape/form, texture, and arrangement. Does this leave the second set “less creative” in any way? No! In the same way, structural decisions from the Procedure phase with regard to core element, audience, value set, USP, theme, motifs, and overall design goals will affect design decisions in the Process phase with regard to rule design, interface and interaction design, artwork, asset design, narrative structure, and so on. In the way, it will not impede, much less obviate, your creative ideas and design decisions.
At this point, we will retire three of our four examples and won’t pursue them any further to prevent them from blowing up the Process phase beyond its tolerance. The one example we will return to in the Process phase to demonstrate theme- and motif-related design decisions in practice will be our game concept with a cinematological core, the one around “otherness.”
After Level One: The Enchanted Theme and the four exercises from this level, you can develop a strong theme and a high-potential set of motifs for your own game concept and store it in your Ludotronics inventory. But there’s one more level you have to beat in this phase, and that is Level Three: Tracing the Goal.