In Praise of Messy Design

Or, in search of surprise and delight: the Shaggy, the Baggy, and the Craggy

Tanya X. Short is the Captain of Kitfox Games and game designer of Boyfriend Dungeon, Moon Hunters, Shattered Planet, and more. She also co-edited two textbooks on procedural design in games.

In every field of design, be it product, graphic, game, or interior design, you will find a hallowed glade in which razor-minded producers and visionary aesthetes meet called “elegance”.

Elegance is a popular place. Dieter Rams, a massively influential product designer and successor to Bauhaus, popularized the functionalist school of thought, invoked famously in the designs of Apple products. In his Ten Principles for Good Design, Mr. Rams states rule number 10 is “Good Design is as little design as possible”, explaining it’s “less but better”:

“because it concentrates on the essential aspects and the products are not burdened with inessential”

Sorry Herr Rams, but I am here to disagree. Let’s throw down.

Threes, a game of perfect elegance

Certainly, elegance can create beautiful games. Threes, Mini Metro, Triple Town, Chess, Tsuro — these are memorable specifically for their ability to achieve greatness with deceptively clever minimalism. The whole mobile game industry has embraced the “Minimum Viable Product” mindset, which, when executed skillfully, is elegance with a coin twirling between her fingers.

Elegant, functional design is how you know which end of the toothbrush to pick up, or how to turn on an iPhone. Nobody wants “creative” alternatives to their toothbrush handle. Only elegant design wins design awards. Indies also deploy elegance often out of necessity — mess creates waste creates higher costs.

Even the adjectives typically applied to elegant designs sound appealing. Clean. Perfect. Coherent. Cohesive. They are aerodynamic bullets, piercing in their focus, their function intuitively obvious. When you see one small piece, it is a microcosm, fractaling outward; to understand any piece is to begin to understand the totality.

Manifold Garden, an arrestingly fractally-coherent game

This implies that inelegant design must be imperfect, incoherent, or incohesive… or, to put a finer point on it, undesirable.

Games and their players benefit from ‘messiness’.

Yet, when I meet with other experienced game designers, we find ourselves admitting to fascination with decidedly inelegant game designs, and envious of those designers that permit themselves this kind of latitude.

Maybe we are jaded or lazy. Maybe we’re just too far on the Openness to New Experiences axis of personality. But I don’t think so. Perhaps elegance has reigned supreme for too long, and it’s time for inelegance to get some time in the sun. As much as elegance also has value, I believe that games and their players benefit from ‘messiness’.

There are probably many ways for a design to be interestingly messy and increase system suspense, but here are my top three: Shaggy, Baggy, and Craggy*. Individual mechanics can be tight or loose, but this is more about the game’s structure, the way a sub-system contributes to or take away from a central focus or experience of the game.

Note: I didn’t coin the terms Shaggy, Baggy, and Craggy alone — I co-created them with at least Dan Cook, Jake Roberts, Adam Myers, and Jonas Bötel back in 2019.

These terms can apply to narrative and content design, but for purposes of clarity I will stick to more “mechanical” system design examples.

NieR is theoretically an action RPG, not interactive fiction, a bullet hell, or a farming game.

Shaggy Design

A shaggy game design is one that forces the player to experience wildly varying systems and gameplay along the journey of the game. Rather than the smooth predictability of an elegantly cohesive experience, a shaggy game is jagged and perhaps even shocking. It’s less of a smooth ‘arc’ or power curve, and more of a wild ride.

An excellent example of shaggy design is NieR. In changing genres along the way, players have memorable moments of feeling bewildered and ambushed by the design, rather than the more typical increasing sense of mastery and control.

Some might say Hideo Kojima built his career and notoriety on shaggy design through the entire Metal Gear Solid series, surprising and delighting players with surprising gameplay twists that spread among his fans like wildfire.

Grand Theft Auto is theoretically a game about stealing cars

Baggy Design

A baggy game design is one that has a wide, some might even say excessive breadth of systems. Imagine a pair of cargo pants, each pocket brimming with goodies. It not only allows the player to wander off the critical gameplay path, but rewards doing so, and in fact the player might forget what the supposedly “core” gameplay was at all.

The Grand Theft Auto and Yakuza series trade on this breadth as their primary selling point. It’s not just stuffed with content and story to find — you will be shocked to discover mini-games, optional interactions, and whole missable systems. Fly a drone or eat a sandwich or get drunk or collect toys — or don’t! A new delight might be around any corner, if you bother to look.

My partner (also a game designer) very much enjoyed Yakuza 6. But after completing it, he read a guide that said the best way to make money was fishing. “What fishing?” he asked, with a touch of awe. “There was fishing? And it was an underwater first-person shooter?”

Craggy Design

Craggy design is one that has surprising, some might even say excessive depth of systems. Imagine you’re walking along a mountain pass, pretty sure you know where you’re going, stepping over small gullies, when you take a moment to look into a gully and realize it plunges down into a crevasse. Do you dare to follow it to the bottom? Will you ever make it back to the trail?

For example, see the Disgaea series, with a few optional systems that are bizarrely deep. Many feel compelled to spend hundreds of hours in a theoretically optional side-game inside weapons, rather than pursue the supposedly “main” gameplay and plot.

Dark Cloud 2 is theoretically a game about fighting monsters with swords. Not golf.

Or, consider Dwarf Fortress. It’s famous exactly because it is messily deep in its procedural simulation — cats licking their paws leads to drunken cats in taverns because the simulation is deep enough for that to happen. Why? What is the Minimum Viable Product of Dwarf Fortress? The question is meaningless because the game is all crag. The bugs in unanticipated behaviors are a large part of the game’s selling point and cult following.

Breadth and depth aren’t mutually exclusive, so a baggy game can also be craggy, when an optional side-systems gets developed beyond what you’d expect from a “side” system. Dark Cloud 2 didn’t need to have an extensive golf system or robot upgrading system to add hours and hours of gameplay, probably, but I’m glad it did. Most Yakuza games have at least one craggy system, such as hostess management, which models not just the hostess stats and levels, but also customer satisfaction, hostess exhaustion, serving towels, profits, and how their hairstyle impacts their appeal.

For Love of the Unnecessary

Messy design is the design of the unnecessary. The mess is extra cost, in the form of not only implementing new gameplay features and systems, but also added quality assurance, bugfixing, etc. So, if a producer or other budget-minded individual is in charge, these kinds of games would probably never get made at all.

Death Stranding isn’t usually a game about urination.

Every “messy” game design is a testament to a creative vision that won out over “sense” — whether that vision is actually an inspired artistic gift or a shamblingly short attention span is a separate question. Was it thematically important that Sam Porter be allowed to relieve his bladder on his long journeys across post-apocalyptic Americana, or just self-indulgent design? Either way, I’m sure an accountant would have raised an eyebrow.

Messiness also can grow naturally. Live games tend to become increasingly baggy and craggy over time as developers try to figure out ways to increase the value of the game even for those who have already spent thousands of hours in their world.

And that potential value is undeniable. Each of the games I mentioned might not win awards for elegant design, but they do have an enthusiastic cult following, which bond around their memories of being surprised, or even shocked. Shock can’t happen to the same degree in games that are consistent and elegant; consistency is also predictability.

The feeling of being bewildered (yet safe, for this is only a game) about the very nature of the way the world works is a unique power of interactive media. It’s the power of a plot twist, but amplified as the implications spiral outward and the player wonders how far or how deep this subversion can really go. A surprising design is more than just recontextualizing; it’s pushing the entire horizon of reality, when you discover the world wasn’t as rigid as you thought. What you thought was an invisible wall, or an arbitrary limitation by the author, melts away into a new dimension that begs for exploration.

Summary

Maybe I enjoy messy design because it allows for more variety. When you cut away the unnecessary and create only the ‘critical’ gameplay and systems, you are following a design path to its logical endpoint. There only needs to be one Threes because it is already perfect; you can derive variations, but you cannot improve on it (sorry 2048). There is only one perfect toothbrush handle.

Moon Hunters doesn’t have as much in its cargo pants pockets as I might prefer.

I am nearly ashamed that Moon Hunters and Boyfriend Dungeon don’t have much in the way of bags and crags. If I were to write my own Ten Principles for Good Design, I might borrow a few things from Dieter Rams, but for as long as I can afford to, I would rather pursue good design that aspires to more than the minimal.

Wherever I can afford to, I hope to carry the burden of the inessential with joy, as a wizard might carry a bag of spell components.

So take heart, messy designers! If and when you can, surprise and delight. May our players revel in our bravery, ambushed by joy on the new, twisting and turning paths we carve together.

For more on game development and design, see the rest of the Kitfox Game Development articles.

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Game development posts and thoughts from Kitfox Games. Biz dev, leadership, marketing, community management, art, game design, and more.

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Games with dangerous, intriguing worlds to explore. Currently: Boyfriend Dungeon, Lucifer Within Us, Dwarf Fortress, Mondo Museum • kitfoxgames.com

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