Design: General and Specific

Today I want to talk about the relationship between specific and general elements of games. It’s something that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. But first I should define what I mean by specific and general.

On the most basic level, general could refer to mechanics, and specific would refer to content. But that’s oversimplifying it. Specific vs General is a sliding scale, and there could be rules which are specific, and content which could be generalized (for example, levels which area created procedurally rather than by hand). And, in many ways, a piece of content could just be seen as a very specific rule (if you have [specific item], then you get [certain benefits]).

Okay, let’s break this down a bit further. In the original Legend of Zelda, a general rule would be “press the attack button to swing your sword” or “hitting enemies with your sword damages them”. A more specific rule would be “if you swing your sword while you have full health, you fire a projectile”. An even more specific rule would be “if you use the bomb on a certain tile, a hidden passage will appear” (and this rule could also be considered a part of content, since it’s a part of the level design. See how rules and content can start to blend together).

Another example would be a scrolling shooter. A general rule would be “press the attack button to shoot horizontally”. A more specific rule would be “if you get a powerup, your attack pattern changes”.

(This also plays in to my previous article about Mechanics Puzzles vs. Narrative puzzles. Mechanics Puzzles are based on general rules, while Narrative Puzzles are based on specific rules.)

Now that we’ve gotten the definitions out of the way, let’s talk about the relationships between general and specific elements (or, as the case might be, more general and more specific, since, again, it’s a scale and not a binary).

At the most basic level, games need some general rules, if only to provide the structure for the specific rules and content. In other words, content needs some sort of hook within the general rules of the game. Magic: The Gathering has general rules for how you acquire and play the cards (which are specific packets of information, and often contain their own specific rules). In an adventure game, how you move, talk to people and present items is driven by general rules, but the outcome of presenting a particular item to a particular person is driven by specifics.

These hooks can come in two forms: dependent and independent. In other words, does the mechanic require content/specifics in order to function, or do the specifics only modify a set of rules which can function on their own. On the one hand, you have something like Magic the Gathering, where would be impossible to play without the actual cards; The rules leave gaps which the cards fill. On the other hand would be a SHMUP, where you could play without powerups; The rules provide openings for the powerups to work.

Take the example of Super Mario 64. You’ve got the general rule of “you need stars to open doors”. However, instead of having a general rule for how to get stars, each of the stars in the game has it’s own specific challenge connected to it. However, the challenges all get converted into the same general reward: the stars. If you need 30 stars, you can do any combination of specific challenges that you currently have access to.

Going the other way, you can create hooks in specific content to take advantage of general rules. Take the game Depression Quest as an example: in each event, you have a prompt and a specific set of choices. However, if your depression value is high enough (the depression mechanic being a general rule) then one of the (specific) options might become unavailable.

Or, going back to the Magic the Gathering example, there are many general mechanics such as flying and protection, which individual cards can take advantage of. There are also cards which have effects that are based on the current state of the game, which is governed by the general rules of the game. Things like the number of cards in the player’s hand or their graveyard.  How the (specific) card will behave will be dependent on the (general) values in the game.

Let’s see how multiple layers of generality and specificity can work together.

I want to take the example of the monster breeding system from the Game Boy Color game Dragon Warrior Monsters (aka Dragon Quest Monsters). At it’s core, the game was very similar in concept to Pokemon. You’d capture monsters (in this case stock monsters from the Dragon Quest series) and have them fight other monsters. However, one element it added, which Pokemon didn’t yet include, was a breeding system. Any two monsters above level 10 could be bred to produce a different monster.

There are general rules at play. For example, the parent monsters will pass on their abilities to the new monster. However, the monsters that go in are specific monsters, and the monster that comes out is a specific monster (modified, as was just mentioned, by general rules). So how does the game determine which monster is produced? It could have a specific rule for each possible combination, but considering there are hundreds of monsters, that would be tens of thousands of specific outcomes that would need to be designed.

You could go one level less specific: each monster has a type. You could have it so that each combination of types produces a specific monster. This is a much more reasonable solution, but possibly goes a bit too far in the other direction. There wouldn’t be enough variations to make exploring the possible combinations interesting.

What the developers ended up doing was a little of both. They created a table of type combinations and what monsters they would produce. Then they also created many specific monster combinations. Any two monsters that didn’t have a specific result would default to the type table. And, again, the monster would become even more unique in that it would inherit moves from its parents using the general breeding rules.

As a final point, you can use specific rules to add more of a story component to a general system. You could have specific story events occur if certain interactions occur between general rules. For example, in Fire Emblem: Awakening, there is a system where characters who fight along side each other a lot will form a better relationship. This is a general system, however, when their relationship improves, you get a specific scene based on which two character’s are involved, and what level their relationship is becoming.

Thinking in terms of general and specific, and moreover thinking of general and specific as a sliding scale rather than a binary, can be a helpful tool in your game design arsenal. Thinking about how your general and specific components interact can give you a higher level of granular control over the experience.

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