Monday, March 03, 2008

The Hook

In a recent discussion on the BGDF chat forum, I’ve found that some people may, or may not, know about this little trick in the game design world known as…The Hook. Since I haven’t been feeling rather design-y recently, The Hook might be a nice little discussion point worth posting about.

The Hook is a general term that we use around the office that describes the one most singular thing that makes the game compelling to the user. This is not a game mechanic or theme, or full “pitch” sentence that describes what the game is about. In fact, it is frequently under 8 words, at most, that simply answers the question:

“So, what is the hook of this game?”

Again, it is important to realize that this is NOT really what the game is about (even though, in some cases it can overlap). This is the one simple thing that a player can grasp that “reels them in” into further play, or even the interest of playing the game. This is important because, if you cannot identify The Hook, then there is a good case to be made that the game itself is pretty bland, and there is nothing much more you can do to fix it.

Conversely, if you CAN indentify The Hook, you will understand that almost all functions and systems of the game hang off of it and support it, making a much stronger game in the process. If you feel that the game is “too heavy,” it is probably because there’s a rule or mechanism in there that doesn’t support The Hook, and can easily be removed, often improving the game.

And now, the examples.

Puerto Rico’s hook is “building the most efficient machine.” That’s it. Note that there is nothing in The Hook that describes it’s theme, or it’s somewhat unique role-selection mechanism (and yes, I know there have been role-selection games before hand).

In fact, PR's hook itself is not that innovative, as many games can be thought of as “building the most efficient machine.” But this is the thing that gets player to come back and play it again; with each play, the player picks up a better understanding of the various interplay between the buildings (and to a lesser effect, the way the worker resources energize the buildings and plantations) in determining how to avoid the inefficiencies of previous games.

Some games are often harder to find The Hook in them, or have multiple relational Hooks. The Princes of Florence, while it, too is a “efficiency builder” has an additional relational Hook, which I think is the bigger Hook for a new player in the game. The big hook for PoF players is "play Tetris in a board game". Remove this element, and while you may have a nice game there, but there'd be nothing remarkable about it. In this case, the hook defines a fairly unique application of how the game works. I suppose I should note that you aren't REALLY playing Teris, but the whole puzzle solving aspect of packing in various oddly shaped pieces matches well with that description.

It should be noted that in the two above examples, there really isn't much thought given to the theme of those games, especially with regards to their Hooks. The games, themselves are fairly themeless once you remove various typefaces and graphics. I've always found it amusing that in PoF you are supposedly attracting artisan's to your little art clubhouse and having them produce their wares, but you never actually SEE or feel an artist, and their supposed "art" they are producing is merely a card with a lot of stats on it. These are effectively themeless games, with a theme attached to them.

As an opposite example from above, I present Ticket to Ride, which has a hook that is very similar to it's game description: play sets of cards to complete tracks. The Hook here is "Building a track layout to complete city connections through simple card play." As much as I tried to keep the word count down to a minimum here, I felt that the card play aspect of the game is the thing that really carries it; there are plenty of other train games out there, but TtR is the game that I think solves the solution simply for the average player "to get," and to pick up and play often enough. And in this case, some allusion to the theme is appropriate...slapping a non-train theme on to this game is most likely inappropriate.

Of course, I've applied The Hook to three Euro Designer games, but it can be applied really to any other game. In some respect, The Hooks of various games are defined by the family in which they keep.

"Trick taking/avoiding game" all share the same hook, as described by their family trait, with maybe an additional comment with regards to what defines the trick. Wargames are somewhat all similar, given that thety can be block-styled, or card driven, or action point driven, or what have you.

The important thing, however, to take from this is that once you have found a Hook, it is important to make sure this is the heart of the game, and all other mechanics "tendril out" from it and support it. Otherwise, it gets lost, and the game will be confusing at worse, or just meandering, at the least.

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Blogger Jeremiah said...

So, what would you define the hook of One Against the Dead, or Pocket Civ as?

This is an interesting topic, one that relates to so many creative productions. You need a hook in songwriting just as much as you do in game designing.

6:09 AM  
Blogger Dwight Sullivan said...

Now you are just giving away too many trade secrets!?

Nice article. Was the art done with "Colors"?

4:01 PM  

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