Now that we’ve covered the basics, here’s some of the things in REMA that have made me a better designer.
A Common Lexicon
REMA gives us a common lexicon to talk about why some games are designed differently and play differently. That’s a big deal on a dev team – often one designer wants to make an Experiment game and one wants to make a Rollercoaster game, and they just talk past each other. Understanding REMA, these debates can be resolved.
It is useful for players and critics too. Players play different games. When expectations are wrong, confusion ensues. If developers use REMA language to communicate genres with audiences, rather then the meaningless “Action”, “RPG”, or “Sandbox”, it matches the right audience to the right game, and players can happily embrace each genre’s uniqueness.
Once you know what genre you’re in, it’s much easier to understand what’s inside and outside your game. The traits serve as a guideline to what has worked and what hasn’t, and give insight into how the audience thinks. This can be particularly helpful for developers who are new to their genre, and need something to relate to.
REMA can also help you find useful game references. If you’re making a competitive multiplayer game, you already knew to look at Starcraft and Counter-strike and Chess. But you might not think to explore Minesweeper or 7 Wonders or Demon Souls.
The traits create powerful trait dynamics, areas where each traits has evolved to be different between the modes. For example:
- Choices: Rollercoaster and Mastery games have few choices, but Experiment games have tons. And the choices change nature and get more complex as you walk from R to E to M to A.
- Length: Rollercoaster games are short, Experiment games are long, and Mastery games are extremely short.
- Replayability: Rollercoaster games are played once, Experiment games 2-3 times, and Mastery and Application games over and over and over.
- World Size: Most often, Rollercoaster games are journeys, Experiment games are sandboxes, and Mastery games are arenas.
- Goals: Rollercoaster games and Mastery games have designer-specified end goals, and Experiment games and Application games have player-specified end goals.
You’ll see these dynamics throughout the traits I identified. Study why they exist. They are the most powerful part of the whole REMA model. Pay special attention to games that successfully manipulate or break them. Understanding these trait dynamics is key to making a good design. If you make a Mastery game that’s a journey, you’re in risky country, so try and nail that part of the design early.
Improve the Experience
Most games are going to have parts that are Rollercoaster, parts that are Experiment, and parts that are Mastery. It adds depth and variety to the game. Identify these places and guide the player through the transition between them – setting the tone, changing the mood, providing rewards. Otherwise, you’ll leave players frustrated.
In more procedural games, layer the different parts of REMA play at different time scales (eg 1 minute, 15 minutes, 1 hour). Make these secondary REMA modes infrequent, easy, and optional. For examples, look at the cutscenes and loot game in Diablo 2, or the battles in the Total War series, or the town/wilderness/boss timing in Pokemon. The larger arc of Diablo 2 (Normal/Nightmare/Hell) and Pokemon (Journey/”Catch them All”/Arena Fights) both brilliantly encourage R->E->M transitions over hundreds of hours.
REMA also helps predict when you might need more of one particular mode. For example, many Mastery games lack any safe space to Experiment, which means many players fail to transition to Mastery play. One of the my favorite features of Starcraft 2, the Challenges, addresses this problem. The Challenges were short puzzles that teach you a skill that you need to compete in the multiplayer game. The Challenges gave players a safe space to Experiment with key parts of the game and then Master them, making the Mastery transition significantly easier in Starcraft 2 then Starcraft: Brood War.
Once upon a time Metroid was an Experiment game. What would a game look like that went back to those roots? Or a game that combined Metroid’s Rollercoaster nature with Application play to make a metaphorical game about surviving cancer? REMA teaches us a lot about how players learn, and by playing with the model and its traits, we can discover new directions that haven’t been fully explored.
Break the rules. REMA is a model, not a law. Roguelikes broke the rules of Mastery games and created a game that was about mastering the average game, not an individual game. Braid built a new sub-genre of Rollercoaster games by sending a message that could only be heard through play. REMA predicts that you’ll lose some percentage of frustrated players when you break the model. But no game is for everyone. Most of the time when you do something new you frustrate 80% of players, but the other 20% become your biggest fans. If you didn’t want everyone to begin with, that’s a great deal.