Subtractive vs additive game design

Arthur Schopenhauer (image from Wikpedia)

There’s something that has always stayed with me from my philosophy classes in high school. In my memory the idea is attributed to 19th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, whose work I still admire. But it could have come from somewhere else too.
Anyway, they idea goes something like this:

Happiness does not exist. There is only suffering. Sometimes the suffering is reduced a little. When this happens, we call it happiness.

This idea often comes to mind when I’m playing a video game.

It seems like most game designers’ strategy works through the same principle: they start by making life hard for you, and then they remove the problem. The relief that you feel at that moment is experienced as “fun”, “joy”, or “happiness”. While in reality, all the game did was take away the misery it had caused to you in the first place.

It strikes me that this method, while effective, is very different from how Auriea and I design games. If one would call the method described above as subtractive, then our method could be called additive. At Tale of Tales, we try to start from wherever the player is at the moment when he or she starts playing. And we build up from there. We like to think of our games as things that add something to your life, that become a part of it, rather than replace it temporarily. We expect the player to bring something to the game. We expect a human being, who knows what it is to love and to desire, who knows how fresh sheets feel on skin and wet grass between bare toes. We need you to be somebody, not an empty shell, or a shadow without memories. But a strong core around which the game can wrap itself.

10 thoughts on “Subtractive vs additive game design”

  1. Maybe you should re-title the post something else, when I read this I thought of the design philosphy of Ueda 😉

    Anyway, in the contex of this post I suppose I subscribe to “additive game design”.
    I think the first method isn’t very effective at all, because it only appeals to a small minority of people.

  2. Yeah, I’m not happy with the naming at all. And I do mean something else than Ueda (though I appreciate his ideas a lot). Any suggestions are welcome.

    The “small minority” that you mention is still relatively big, I think. 😉

  3. Agent Smith would agree with that guy. 😉

    Very interesting. That’s a useful thing to consider – where do you assume the player is coming from, and how are you reducing or building off that assumed experience? Your last few sentences brought to mind Dan Cook’s essay Constructing Artificial Emotions. Have you read that one?

  4. Dan “we need a chemistry of design” Cook?
    I don’t think I want to read another essay of his, after reading the rubbish he wrote in that “Chemistry of Game Design” essay.

    Not to mention he goes to Project Horseshoe- where designers somehow change the world by isolating themselves and ignoring other’s views.
    The person who runs it was even arrogant enough to say to Project Horseshoe “campers”: “You are all game design, give or take”.

  5. I started reading that essay. But it quickly sounded like a scientist trying to “reverse engineer art”. Which is just silly. But very common in games.
    Anyway, my assessment could be wrong. I didn’t get very far in the essay yet. And Eden is not doing much to encourage me. 😉

  6. just to comment about the quote you chose: couldn’t one have just as easily said, “suffering does not exist. There is only happiness. Sometimes the happiness is reduced a little. When this happens we call it suffering?”

Comments are closed.