Unification in Game Design

Magic experiences.

I think this is worth talking about before going on with the last series of post.

Unification is roughly defined by Jesse Schell in his book The Art of Game Design as the effort a designer and his team make to reinforce the theme of the game they are developing.

Once a theme is declared, every resource of the game has to be used to reiforce it. That’s why it is so important to pick a theme from the very beggining of the development cycle. It could be an art piece or style, a word; an idea, a feeling, a technology, but a theme most be there to clarify any doubt while developing.

When facing the question “Is this necessary for the game?” look at the theme and how that action you are about to make is reinforcing it.  If it’s not, that action is not necessary.

How could I explain to anyone what unification actually means?

With his help.

That guy is Shawn Farquhar, two times World Champion of Magic (whatever that means).

See, I like magic, like a lot. Since I was a child I was fascinated by the trickery and the subtlety of magic. My mother never let me think that people had actual magic powers, but instead she always told me that a trick was behind and the real power of magic was in enjoying the mastery of its execution.

Sounds a lot like a game design. Not every player knows exactly how a game is made, but they can enjoy the mastery of its execution.

And the similarities don’t stop in that very general statement.

That is the subject of another post, but I like magic a lot more now because it is highly related to game design. And for the same reason I like Farquhar.

Farquhar is a very humble but talented and funny man who specializes in card tricks. You can see below one of his most impressive tricks right in front of other marvelous magicians I love, Penn & Teller:

The simplicity and genuinity of his execution and humor is quite remarkable and amazing. At least to me. As a close-up magician, I believe Farquhar is unique.

When Farquhar won one of his championship in 2009 a lot of people were disappointed. They said the trick he made to earn that championship was stolen from another magician. Among those people were the magician Farquhar supossed to stole the trick from, Russ Stevens. You can read here a forum entry where Stevens himself accuses Farquhar of stealing the trick.

I’m not here to judge the situation: I’m not a magician, I have no knowledge whatsoever in order to judge what happened. If Farquhar stoled the trick or just got inspired by it is none of my bussines. To be honest, I really enjoyed both routines and that’s enough for me to leave that subject right there. But I’m a game designer. As a designer your real job is to create experiences. The game is just a tool to deliver that experience. Magicians aren’t that different, they create experiences and use their tricks in order to drive and deliver those experiences.

Unification is one of the things that could make those experiences great or not, whether you are a magician or a game designer.

I’m here to compare two similar experiences, where one (at least to me) is better crafted than the other because of unification.

In both cases the trick is known as Shape of My Heart, the title of a popular Sting’s song that Stevens and Farquhar use as a subject for their acts.

Here’s Stevens’s performance, from 1993:

And here’s Farquhar’s, from 2007 (I think, I’m not sure enough of the date of the performance):

I enjoyed Farquhar’s better. A lot.

I think that even when both performances are great, Farquhar’s is unified with the general theme at hands.

Every single move executed by Farquhar is reinforcing the lyric of the song. Every single trick is telling what the song is telling. Even the intimacy suggested by the camera is related to the intimacy the song is about (besides having Farquhar just in front of them, the audience is also watching the trick exactly as you did with the aid of a screen behind him). On the other hand, Stevens is not reinforcing the theme quite enough.

Farquhar uses the very same cards in the chorus of the song; Stevens doesn’t. Farquhar invest each second in delivering a sequence of card tricks that, as said, tell the story of the song; Stevens lost a lot of time between one trick and another, losing the general sequence. Farquhar marks the card from the very beggining of the performace, therefore stating a goal the audience can follow; Stevens doesn’t do that until the trick is about to finish. There are a lot of things that show Farquhar did a better job staging his performance.

And last, Farquhar imprints a lot of his humor and personality into the trick, which is a signature in all of his acts. That makes him more carismatic a lovable than Stevens, at least to me.

Of course you can disagree, but I think Farquhar’s version of the trick is better because is totally unified.

I insist, is not about the technique. I don’t know which kind of tricks are harder. I discovered myself how to make a couple of tricks Farquhar does just by watching (a lot of times) the video. I have no idea how Stevens did his. No idea whatsoever.

Is about staging and unifiying the experience that have to be delivered.

I think you have to look about unification in every single thing around you. If you can tell why unification is working or not on a subject, whatever the subject is, then you are becoming a better game designer (or game developer, in general).

Unified things provide us unique experiences, and that’s what we are looking for in game development.

Look for unification everywhere.

Here’s Farquhar performing in Ellen DeGeneres’s show. Enjoy!.

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