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May 02, 2004


Mark Nau

Let "game" be an inclusive word. But a problem with inclusive words is that it can invite over-generalizations. So I'm going to disabiguate a little bit here.

A Game1 is electronic entertainment. It is divertion, escapism, amusement.
A Game2 is an invitation to delve into a complex system, and engage it as deeply as you are able and willing to.

Chess is a terrible game1, but a great game2. I would expect to find almost nothing good in a game1 design sense about chess.

Chess is so horrible at game1 features that it would get almost no mind share if it weren't for the fact that it is so deeply entrenched culturally. As support for this assertion, note that really fabulous 2-player abstract strategy games like Zertz or Dvonn are almost completely unknown. If you doubt that a terrible game can coast along on cultural support alone, look at cricket. Or baseball, for that matter.

The main game1 attraction to chess is that playing it is a way of feeling that you are doing something smart. It's like reading Time Magazine in that way. It can be an easy way to "feel like a hero" as long as you don't try to take it too seriously. Because the minute you do, you are going to get crushed under the full truth of your mental flaws.

Chris Busse

Mark's comments have helped me to crystalize my thoughts more.

It takes WAY too much effort to play Chess well. For that amount of investment, it should be paying you off in other areas of your life.

Most games (Poker included, though it will take 70,000 hands to confirm your hypothesis that you are a good player) can be played decently well with significantly less time to play well. They don't need to improve your life, because they are not your life.

MMOs fall into the chess category. And some people do establish friends, and even find mates through MMOs (probably at a much higher rate than Chess brings people together).

Jamie Fristrom

There's got to be a fallacy in what Chris is saying somewhere...
If you're defining playing chess "well" as "better than most people", then all you have to invest is more time than the average person has invested, which isn't that much.
If you're defining playing chess "well" as "playing at the master level", then yes, it's out of reach for almost everybody. But no, say, golf amateurs expect to be able to play at the professional level, so why should chess amateurs expect to be able to play at the professional level?
Perhaps (one of) the problem(s) with chess is that the ranking system defines your lack of skill SO clearly - knowing that Mark will beat me 15 out of 16 games and that Kasparov will beat me 99,999 out of a 100,000 is pretty humbling...(and Mark's not giving me a chance to catch up, either. Neither is my brother, but at least he only beats me 2 out of 3 or so.)
Or maybe it's that a 1200-ranked person like myself needs to set ChessGenius on "Easy Level #2" to win...(Easy Level #3 is too hard...there are 10 easy levels...after that you go to "Instant"...and then the computer is actually allowed time to think about the moves...)


"Perhaps one of the problems with chess is that the ranking system defines your lack of skill SO clearly"

I wasn't aware that a game should be responsible for bolstering a player's self-esteem. Is that another one of those common rules of good game design?


Jamie, I have to say I think that, in the context of competition, it's a really good thing for a game to always represent the better player as the winner. It's surely better a measure of skill (whatever the skill of the game is) to regard the same winner every time than to introduce too many random elements so that the outcome of one game may as well be decided by the flip of a coin?

Obviously, this question must be seen in context, as Mark mentioned. If you're making a kinda "rollercoaster ride" of a game, which cares more about the overall experience than the epistemic results of the game, then sure, adding randomness might add a bit of superficial joy. But this is hardly the aim of chess's design!

Strongly fair games (like chess) can very often be quite dry. I think the reason this is sometimes true is because you can always count on your strategies working - you're never perplexed by random events (at most, chaotic events occur that you perhaps didn't consider, but it's easy to see why they happened after the fact). And that's why you're able to think deeper into the game - there are no unexpected suprises, so you can take the success of your strategies for granted. And because you're able to think deeper, you pretty much HAVE to think deeper, because all your opponents will be.

So, saying chess defies game design rules is a little like saying cheese defies film making traditions. Most of these rules merely mark convention, and using them without massive pinches of salt is just a bad idea.

Chess probably is a bad "entertainment product" in that it wouldn't sell well if it were released today. But that's no yardstick to use for the quality of a game.


Chess isn't a game as much as it is an extraordinarily complex algorithm. It's absolutely precise (there is no randomness except the mistakes of the other player). They call it the King of Games, and I used to be attracted to the precision and disdain any other "games" which included elements that didn't rely upon pure skill. That was until I hit the ceiling of my own ability. Then it became psychological punishment. I also realised the game's true nature - the ultimate game of tic-tac-toe (ie. two players with infinite knowledge of the game would draw every time). That removed the romance for me, and I stopped playing.

If you study enough Grandmaster games, you eventually realise that 1. You will never play at that level no matter how hard you study 2. The ability to play at that level seems to have an inverse effect upon your ability to function as a nice human being. I have never met as many dysfunctional people as I did in chess clubs, and through chess books. Skill in chess, even more so than in sport, seems to make/attract something not so nice in people (generally).

MMO's reward effort proportionally. That may be a slavishly unimaginative dynamic, but it is at least fair. Noone likes a game they can't win ;)

Nathan McKenzie


If it's not a rule, it's at least something to consider if you have any interest attracting more than a meagre audience to a new game (and then eating food and having a roof with the money you earned). So maybe it's not a rule for making "pure" games that don't have to be accessible (and can still be fantastic games of course) - but as a rule for people who want to reach broad audiences, I think there is a lot of wisdom to it.

Player self-esteem matters. Getting people into a new game is hard, especially games that people can get really good at. Every so often I have a brief urge to try playing Counterstrike again (I only tried it a bit a few years back), but the knowledge that I will have the living hell beaten out of me online so badly that I'll barely have time to understand what I'm doing wrong is enough to keep me from bothering. It sounds way too much like work or punishment. So is that a failure on the part of Counterstrike, or on the part of me? If it's on the part of me, but there are enough people like me, what does that mean? I ran into this same issue with Quake1 - sure, it's a very skill based game... but that didn't make me any more interested in investing the time I'd need to get good at it when being utterly maimed by random people with too much time on their hands. On the flip side, I have a very hard time finding new people to play Street Fighter against or Pokemon Puzzle League. The clarity and disparity of skill differences is on some level a real problem.

All of these issue were not present when I picked up Metroid Zero Mission, played through it, had my self-esteem boosted, and moved on :) I think that's why I find Jamie's idea about the single player chess quest really enticing. It's a lot more fun to learn things while feeling like a clever person than to learn things while fighting the urge to break the game in question physically (as my recent embarrassing attempts at learning go point towards).


"If it's not a rule, it's at least something to consider if..."

Absolutely no argument. I was just being obtusely bitchy about citation of "game design rules", which I'm honestly sick of hearing about.

For what it's worth, "pure" games that also happen to be very accessible and simple to understand are a keen interest of mine. Chess is only "harsh" if you play against someone who is vastly more skilled than you, otherwise it's a very easy game to learn and play. The goal-oriented single player chess challenge is a good way to ease people into a deeper understanding of the game.

(goes back into exile)

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Jamie's Bragging Rights

  • Spider-Man 2
    The best superhero games of all time Game Informer
    Top five games of all time Yahtzee Croshaw
    Top five superhero games of all time MSNBC
    Top 100 PS2 games of all time Official Playstation 2 Magazine
    1001 Games You Must Play Before You Die Nomination for Excellence in Gameplay Engineering Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences
  • Schizoid
    Penny Arcade PAX 10 Award
    Nominated for XBLA Best Original Game
    Nominated for XBLA Best Co-Op Game