Game Design Process: The RPS Method

“I get this whole training games idea, but I don’t really get how I can just come up with so many games so easily.”

This is something I’ve heard a few times in regards to doing CLA-games training (CLA = Constraints Lead Approaches). While I feel honored that people think that I can come up with good games easily, the truth is more like:

Like anything, it takes practice. And like anything, you need experience and failures to build off of. But there is a process I have adopted to help me come up with games to address tricky skills that I find helpful. I call it the Rock-Paper-Scissors method of game design. (I’ll have case studies at the bottom for further clarification.)

Step 1: Determine The Goal

This can be a skill, tactic, desire to watch them do something silly for your amusement, whatever. Clearly identify what is important, and possibly what is not important. You’re not going to be able to factor the complete experience into the game – that would just be free sparring. But some parts make no sense when they’re taken out.

Step 2: Identify The Affordance

What offers the affordance of using the skill successfully? Or, in slightly more colloquial terms, what are the enabling conditions for the goal to be realized in Step 1? Why should they be doing the skill? Presumably their opponent has done something where the correct execution of the skill will lead you to victory. But what exactly is that?

Usually the sources say something like “when they cut at you from above”. But that is sooooo far from helpful, it isn’t even funny. Are they doing a big swing that is barely in measure to hit you? Are they doing a quick snipe extension from close range? Each of these affords different options, and you have to identify what situation you want to create.

(This is the part in a paired drill where you give the ‘feeder’ their instructions on what to do. But at a much more detailed level.)

What should you do if you have ideas but are not completely sure? First of all: gold star for being self aware enough to realize that you aren’t completely sure. Unlike everyone else who only thinks they have a complete understanding. Second of all: make an assumption and continue on. This is constantly an iterative process and you have to try it out and see.

Here is the promised gold star. But no enjoying it unless I said you deserved it above.

Step 3: Create The Affordance

This is the hardest part. Now that you know what type of things that the opponent should be doing to create the affordance for the technique you want, how do you get them to do it? Because if doing something makes them lose to the technique you want to promote, why on earth would you ever have them do it? (This is the classic Kote Dilemma, something that in my mind is kind of the bedrock of why you should be doing games based training.)

This is where the Rock-Paper-Scissors part comes in. (Except I lied to you and you end up needing at least 4 options.) If the 1st “action” is the skill we want, and the 2nd action is the affordance for action 1, then we need a 3rd action that they are using the 2nd action to beat. And so on, as explained in the chart:

In general you need at least 4 to close the loop. Another way to think of it is to look at either of the two parties and ask “why would they do this and not something else?”. Until all of those threads are tied up into a closed circle you’ll end up with something that is unrelated to what you were intending to start with. 

This is where the “constraints” in Constraints Lead Approaches come in. By adding a constraint to the game, we limit the possible actions/approaches and force people into this nice little loop we’ve created. This is not easy at all, and I can’t give you any magic solutions. The RPS is a tool to help you think about things, not a magic process for answers. I’ve spent weeks trying to get a game idea into a functional prototype, just because I couldn’t figure out exactly how to incentivise exactly what I wanted to incentivise.

Why Not Mandate Technique?

When you start looking at the million loose ends of the loop approach it’s going to be really tempting to start adding explicit restrictions like “the attacker must engage with a shillhau”. DON’T. The purpose of doing a game instead of a rote drill is that we want the initial attack (a shillhau in this case) to be as representative as possible. If the attacker knows that the defender is expecting a shillhau, and is prepared to counter a shillhau, why on earth would they throw an earnest shillhau?? What they are likely to do instead is throw a false edge cut forward that isn’t designed to do what the shillhau is good at, but one that is most robust against being countered. They know they can’t win, so they don’t try to play.

If you want to train people to beat shillhau, you need people attacking them with shillhau that are thrown because their opponent thinks a shillhau is going to work and is committed to making it work.

Artificiality Isn’t A Problem

Also keep in mind when we say “game” it just means winner and loser. It doesn’t mean “free sparring with goofy rules”. Things like Circle of Circles, Hang, Don’t Suck, and Ripping Game are very artificial settings, but are meant to retain just enough of the representative elements to make them useful. (Also some things may work better if you can figure out some non-game CLA activity.)

Step 4: Look For Edge Cases & Broken Strats

So you finally made it through the horror of Step 3. Time to see what you didn’t think of. Put yourself in the place of someone doing this and try to think as laterally as possible. If you’re working with your students you can assume a decent level of good faith, but ultimately the goal is that they explore possible solutions. And if there is a dominant strategy that is not one you intended, it needs a patch.

Sometimes you can do this with constraints. Maybe you want one person to be the attacker and one the defender. But then you realize that the attacker can do some extraordinarily dumb things on the approach, and the defender has no recourse. Then maybe you switch to priority rather than explicit ‘only attacker attacks’, which makes it so the defender doesn’t really have a chance to attack if the attacker keeps the pressure on them. But if the attacker approaches in a dumb manner the defender can still force them to be honest with a quick snipe.

Step 5: Try and Cry

It’s unlikely your new game works out exactly as intended. Which isn’t necessarily bad. Treat game development like you would treat the development of any fencing skill:it needs practice and experience to hone. Maybe people start doing a simple exploit right away that you didn’t think of? In that case you might be able to patch a rule on the spot. Maybe it looks completely different and you need to go all the way back to the drawing board.

Or maybe it looks completely different but is still teaching something. Just because they aren’t learning the skill you wanted doesn’t mean they aren’t learning. It does mean that you need to go back and do more thinking, but it doesn’t make the game a failure. You just need to file it under a different mental file for a different skill.

Wrapping Up

You don’t need to go through this for every game. Sometimes it’s about creating a scenario for people to explore tactically, through which they will learn and adopt new movements. These are much more of a “try and see” endeavor.

The RPS approach is what I use when I have something specific I want to make a training game for, but I just don’t have any idea of how to do it. Or when I want to tweak a specific game in a specific direction and need to flush out all the possible side effects.

Example 1: Tapping Game

Rough steps I went through to develop the Tapping Game.

Step 1: I want to develop someone’s ability to move around in a position that is ready to explode forward when an opening presents itself.

Step 2: There must be an identifiable opening created, for it to be imperative to be attacked quickly, and for it not to be executed from static.

Step 3: The opponent must be free moving and be incentivised to give an obvious opening.

The solution I came up with was to make the ability to give the opening and parry quickly the way for the defender to win the game. Because of this they want to give the opening, but also make it as short as possible. (Notice I didn’t need a full loop on this one.)

Step 4: Game breaking strat: The attacker could just crowd the defender as close as possible while waiting for the opening. 

Now this is why I chose it as an example. Steps 1-3 are pretty straightforward in this case, but Step 4 isn’t always as obvious. If you have students who aren’t crowding when they are the attacker then they aren’t really trying. 

My solution was to give the defender the opportunity to thrust so long as they didn’t step forward. This means that the attacker must always maintain a certain range, and part of the game is now moving around at a range which is as close as possible, but not so close they can be stabbed.

Step 5: This one worked pretty well on the first try. However as I play it more and more I keep getting other tweaks and ideas, such as a version where you tap the shoulder with the blade instead of the ground – in order to help recognize openings from the point moving upwards and off target.

Example 2: Finnish Chicken w/ Shillhau

I wanted to make a modification to the Finnish Chicken to help teach Shillhau.

Step 1: Need a parry that is weak enough to be cut through, but strong enough that it parries a normal cut.

Step 2: This could either be a weak parry, or an adequate parry which hasn’t had time to be fully formed. 

Step 3: I added the constraint that the parry must have the hands below the shoulder. This meant that it wouldn’t be as strong as the “fling hilt across and up” parry, and if the attacker could cut through a parry that hadn’t been fully formed they could slightly extend the available time window to land the attack.

Step 4: I hoped that Shillhau would be the game breaking strat once they figured it out. Spoiler: it wasn’t the only broken strat.

Step 5: Failure #1. The rule worked well to develop strong striking skills, but I didn’t see any Shillhau employed. At this point as an instructor you have a choice. Spend weeks designing some game to get them to do Shillhau without explicitly telling them. Or just say “you’ll note I didn’t say it had to be a true edge cut” and see what they do with the hint. (CLA doesn’t mean we can’t give feedback, but more that feedback should be considered as “giving them ideas” vs “giving them instructions”.)

Failure #2: It worked! For a couple passes. Then they figured out that if they are doing a false edge cut against someone who is parrying tightly, and won’’ attack or counter you, rotating the other way and doing a sturtzhau is an even better option….

While teaching hail-mary sturtzhau as an opening attack isn’t something I want to spend training time on, I don’t consider this a complete failure. The students were able to quickly adapt their motions to the challenge they were given, and that’s exactly what I want to develop. So while I banned the sturtzhau after the class was finished, I think it was still a good learning experience. 

Example 3: Despot In the Hole

Step 1: The goal for Despot In The Hole was to get people used to dealing with attacks that come in far quicker and more aggressively than they were used to in sparring. Because that is what they faced from opponents in tournaments.

Step 2: In this case it was more anti-affordances: this is a place you don’t want to be, and thus you shouldn’t allow yourself to slide into it. A good fencer will minimize the time they spend dealing with this situation in sparring, either by seizing the vor, or by using space/timing to create opportunities when defending. So in order to force the skill we want I have to take all the better options away.

Step 3: So I needed to make it so that the person doing the skill couldn’t attack first or back out of the opponent’s attacks. I also had to make it so their opponent was relentless and the ‘defender’ needed to make opportunities.

The latter was solved with priority. The former two were done by adapting the King In The Hole game, but with the priority conventions reversed.

Step 4: The main game breaking strat was that the attacker could just dive for the flank/legs. So I made these not get priority.

Step 5: Worked pretty well. Eventually I improved it from the defender not being able to move to the defender not being able to move until they were attacked. And then only forward. This prevented the attacker from being too cheap and trying to back out.