Why Seven?

Yesterday I was getting some feedback on the Siboot novel from a fellow in Oakland. He pointed out that the story is rather hard to follow, and he asked one of those simple, obvious questions that makes you slap your forehead and cry, “Why didn’t I think of that?”:

Why do you have seven species? Why not a smaller number?

Yes, Siboot is too complicated, and it certainly needs simplification. One of the easiest ways to simplify it is to reduce the number of characters. It now seems a simple and obvious solution. So the next question is, why didn’t I think of this before?

The assumption of seven species was so deeply set in my design conception that it simply never occurred to me to use another number. This raises a principle of profound importance to all designers. 

Every design is composed of literally millions of decisions, many of which are never consciously considered. This concept is exemplified in the unconscious assumption on the part of many game designers that the game must include a mapped space through which the player navigates. Few designers ever ask why a game must include such a component; it is so deeply woven into our thinking that we never even give it a thought. That’s the kind of thing that constrains our creativity. The valuable lesson here for designers is that you must make a determined effort to unveil and question your unconscious assumptions.

Having done so with the number of species, I must now carefully consider my options. How many species should the game incorporate? There are two opposing drives: the gain in simplicity by lowering the number, and the loss in play variation imposed by lowering it.

Obviously, the smaller the number of characters, the easier it is for the player to grasp exactly what’s going on. But fewer characters make for fewer possible interactions. With just two characters, it’s impossible to have gossip, and with three, opportunities for gossip are limited. Here’s a set of diagrams that make the relationships clear:

Interaction polygons

So it boils down to a choice between 4 actors and 5 actors. My prejudices are all in favor of 5 actors, but I must remind myself that most people will be utterly befuddled by the complexity of this game; that argues for 4 actors. The player will need to learn only about 3 other characters. There’s still enough room for gossip and other third-party interactions. I always aim too high. For once, I’m going to lower my sights just a little. 4 it is.

This will require a great deal of work. I’ll have to completely rewrite the novel. I’ll have to throw away some of the code. Alvaro will have to throw away some of his work. This will be hard, but sometimes throwing away work is the best way to improve your design.