Realism in Game Design

A big part of my philosophy is this: Looking to real-life research actually solves a lot of game design problems. Numerous times I've been stuck looking for a design solution. When I finally asked, "Wait, how would they deal with this in real life?," I found my elegant, simple game mechanic. Here are some examples:

(1) Racing Games. In a prior life, I worked as a computer-game engineer at Papyrus Racing Group (part of Sierra On-Line, then Vivendi) on stuff like NASCAR and Grand Prix Legends. I wound up specializing in race-control issues. Q: What UI should we use to warn NASCAR players about crashes in places they can't see? A: Use audio from the radio "spotters" that the teams station on top of the grandstands as lookouts for just that purpose. Q: How can we do the same thing in a historical game before radios were used? A: Use men waving colored flags at points around the track, as was (and is) actually done. Q: How can we efficiently record the standing of cars for possible playback in a replay? A: Use a "lap sheet" as is done by real race control, simply recording the time each car passes the start/finish line, from which it's easy to back-calculate the positions on any given lap.

(2) Model Castles. For quite some years I was really interested in modelling castles out of simple cardboard, and finding some really slick procedures & materials to put them together quickly and at the right scale. The major problem I had was putting roofs on the various towers and buildings, which had to be inside and slightly beneath the level of the parapet/battlements. I tried making little tabs on the roofs to attach them, I tried capping the towers and then adding a wrapped battlement on the outside, etc. Everything turned into a hideous gluey, sinking, lopsided mess. Then one night in bed I asked myself, "Wait, how would they deal with this in real life?" Duh, start with big cross-beams that support the roof. The next day I took some toothpicks and poked them through my tower tops. Now the roof sits nicely, with no special cutting, almost no glue required, and I get realistic cross-beams jutting out of the top of the building and strengthening the whole structure as a side-effect (see detail in picture above).

(3) D&D Encumbrance. The calculation of encumbrance has always been a huge pain in the ass. So many of us have tried to avoid it or look for ways to wriggle out of having to deal with it. My attitude is that the only thing wrong is that the numbers are scaled too large; they should be single-digits like everything else in Original D&D. Something like:
  • 4 for plate mail
  • 2 for chain mail
  • 1 for leather, shield, pole arm, halberd, etc.
Then you could just do it in your head with a glance at the PC sheet, no problem. I mean, it's not like anyone in real life ever measured load weight in "coins". So one day I asked myself, "Wait, what did they measure load weight in?" And the answer for a medieval European-type region (English? Because I speak, you know, English) would be something like the "stone" measure, i.e., a 14-pound unit or so. In fact, the numbers above are the OD&D weights having been converted to "stone" (dividing by 140 or so)... that's how medieval peasants would gauge load weights, it's necessarily a bit coarse, and that's exactly what we want for our game. Kind of a general approximation for weights, totally ignoring the smallest items, and with only very small numbers to add up. The beneficial side-effect in this case is that you get additional old-timey flavor in your unit-of-weight language ("I'm carrying 5 stone"). But the most important thing is this: A short table with very small numbers.

Now, obviously not everything in the gaming universe can be solved this way. Spells and dragon-killing and fantastical chimerae are not so susceptible. What are the strategic and tactical implications of a land army half of whom are 3 feet tall? Well, we've got no precedent for that. But when you are dealing with something that's quasi-mundane, I continually find that the real-life solution to the same problem provides an exceedingly elegant mechanic, has additional unforeseen beneficial side-effects, and also teaches a person something about the greater world in general.


  1. And the beauty is that even in the latter, fantastical cases you mention, reality can be a guide, you just get to be more selective.

    How much of a spell can be based on physics? As much as you want, and let fantasy fill in the joints like magical bondo!

    Killing dragons? You got plenty of real world animals you can extrapolate from, same as with fantastical chimerae.

    A little bit of realism is like the Mass component Einstien's equation, with E being the resulting power of imagintion!

  2. Wow... I can't believe I used "power of imagination!" with a straight face.

    I need to get more sleep...

  3. For Encumbrance, you should take a look at Mazes & Minotaurs-a free RPG you can download. Its encumbrance system is similar to what you describe.

  4. Why would I pick up a whole new game for a sequence of 3 numbers that I already have?

  5. That's a very elegant solution to the encumbrance problem.
    In play my DM generally starts getting concerned about encumbrance when he realizes someone is carrying a bow, a sword, a spear, a shield, a ten-foot pole, and a week's worth of food & water. We did have a player once who carried a polearm, a great-axe, a large shield, a war hammer, and a crossbow. He was a dwarf so he was strong to enough, but ... you can't "sling" a halberd over your shoulder. This would probably work. Great idea!
    I also like the castle picture. If I ever make another castle I'll definitely add cross beams.

  6. Hey! You worked for Papyrus!?

    I want to extend my heartfelt thanks for *many* hours of fun I've head with your creations! GPL is my all time sim racing favourite.

  7. Andreas, thanks so much for the kind words. Papyrus was a great place to work at in its heyday.

  8. I had no idea you were a videogame developer. Rock on. I love your site even more.

    Your encumbrance system is great.

  9. Your encumbrance rule is pretty clever!