Game Design is a fairly new field. I've been a professional game designer since 1994, but I started making games when I got my first home computer back in 1982. The first time I even encountered "game design" as a discipline was around 1999. Those of us who have been around for a while know that we're all still learning.
I've been a design lead on a huge variety of games, from co-op action platformers to hardcore military simulations to one of the first big free to play MMOs, on a bunch of different platforms. I've made some great games and some that didn't turn out quite as great as I'd hoped. But that's how we learn: it's the pattern of growth, and how we as designers develop best practices. I'm creating a series of short podcasts to spend a few minutes talking about just that, on Play Patterns & Practices.
Podcast #1: Whittling vs. Puttering Mechanics
There are two different concepts in gameplay that often get conflated: whittling vs. puttering.
There’s a certain zen to repetitive motions and patterns. There have been a bunch of studies showing that they soothe, calm, and even help people enter a flow state. That’s whittling gameplay: it’s about the moment-to-moment activity. It’s engaging and fun, but also has that zen-like quality. You get into the flow of the action and stay in it as long as you want. And here’s the important distinction: while you might get a reward for doing it, true whittling gameplay exists because it’s enjoyable and relaxing to whittle.
Puttering gameplay is all about a goal structure. You have goals that require aggregate effort, and you’re building up that aggregate toward the goal. You choose your own pace, and often choose (or even set) your own goal.
It’s an important distinction–it has a powerful effect on how your game feels and plays. Designers need to have clarity that the difference exists and which mechanic is most important for their game. If you don’t create clear designs and calls to action for what comes first–whittling or puttering–you end up with a directionless mush.
This podcast episode walks through the concepts of whittling vs. puttering mechanics, with examples for each, then discusses how to balance and prioritize between the two to create more clarity for players.