I mentioned yesterday how I'd just read this. Will Wright has an introduction to the book where he says that he doesn't like the title but despite that it's an okay book. There's an important word in the title, and that's "A". If this book was called "The Theory of Fun" or, simply, "Fun", I would have probably thrown it away in disgust when Raph gets to his definition of what makes a good game.
Trying to define what makes a good game is a fruitless task, and yet so many people try to do it. All you can do is define what makes a good game for some people at some time.
Still, Raph Koster admits that it's just "a" theory, and when viewed in that light, it is a useful lens for looking at games. I've always known that games have an abstract, formal core and dressing on top; the kind of chess pieces you use to play chess do not affect the underlying game, and the look of your character in a fighting game does not affect the underlying game. But I've never dwelled on the fact. One of Raph's most important points, that he keeps coming back to, is this fact, and after I read the book, I did find that I was looking at games in a new light. For example, in my mind, a fighting game is no longer a fighting game, but a game of realtime tactical rock-paper-scissors with a whole bunch of different kinds of rocks, papers, and scissors and a handful of other bells and whistles thrown in as well.
Raph discounts the "dressing" as just "dressing", which is a strange stance to take for someone so heavily into role-playing. Story and simulation are both parts of this dressing, after all, and role-playing wouldn't exist without them.
Actually, I'll go out on a limb and say any game wouldn't exist without them. Thought experiment: you can get closer to the formal abstract game part of your game if you take the names of your units and replace them with significance-free letters and numbers. Instead of moving pawns, knights, and bishops you're moving A Units, B Units, and C Units. Instead of playing a fighter or thief you're playing Class A or Class B. The dressing is so deeply marbleized into gaming I'm not sure it could exist without it. I like the feeling of a wooden chess piece in my hand, I like to see my character do a gory finishing move in Mortal Kombat, I'm not just increasing a stat, I'm earning experience. Etcetera, etcetera. Not to mention: why did I find *Alpha Centauri* boring but not *Civilization* - they're the same game, but one has dressing that appeals to me and the other does not. Oh yes: when *Grand Theft Auto* went into three dimensions it's still essentially the same game as *Grand Theft Auto II* - at the formal, abstract level - but the dressing changed. And that made all the difference.
Just yesterday, as we were meeting about the new combat system for our yet-to-be-announced project, I suggested (probably because I'd just read this book), that we could get started on working on it even though our animator is busy on another project. "We could use our old animations in new places, just to see if the basic system works." Tomo and Mark disagreed: the animations are such an integral part of how the combat system plays and feels that it wouldn't be a valid or useful test. (I still think it would be a valid and useful test of the underlying game mechanic--we could check for exploits, see how deep it is, look at the learning curve, for example--although I agree that it would not be a valid test of how people will respond to the system.)
Raph Koster does admit that dressing is important for mass market games. Which is what I make for a living, so maybe his book--a bit like Chris Crawford's--just isn't for me?
Okay, so enough dissing on his book. It really is valuable to separate which parts of your game are game and which parts are dressing. Think of all the game design rules you either explicitly or implicitly apply as you design: how many of those rules apply to the dressing and how many to the game?
Here are some of my game design guidelines:
"Make The Player Feel Like A Hero": dressing, although a well-tuned game that always teaches the player something when he's ready for it can at least make the player feel clever. "Have a Sniper Mode": although the mechanics are formal and could apply to a camera game, the reason it's fun is because you shoot somebody in the eye, right? "Find The Emotional Heart": dressing. "Don't Simulate a Simulation": dressing. "Make things behave as you'd expect them to in the real world": dressing. "Immerse the player/ suspend their disbelief": dressing.
So, while I have a lot of guidelines that apply to the abstract game-game-type-game as well: "meaningful choices", "keep it simple", "perceivable consequences", "intermittent schedule of reinforcement", it seems like most of the time I'm thinking about the dressing rather than the underlying game, and it may be high time for me to change that.