The AAA “Design Pillar” Methodology

Modern AAA Games tend to follow an approach in their development process called Design Pillars. The creative direction for the game picks out distinct pillars for how the game will work, and this serves as a guiding beacon for everyone below them. A common problem in game development in the past was that design documents would spiral out of control, no one would read them, and and all the different people involved in development have their own vision of what the game is, leading people to make conflicting choices about how to implement different parts.

Design Pillars help orient everyone towards a common goal, creating a unifying vision of what the game is, so that everyone will hopefully make game design choices oriented towards the same goals. Design pillars help keep massive teams of people on the same page in a way that older game design practices didn’t.

Here are some examples of Design Pillars used by real studios:

  • Combat/Stealth/Hacking/Social (From Deus Ex: Human Revolution)
  • A World Players Want to Be In/A Bunch of Fun Things to Do/Rewards Players Care About/A New Experience Every Night/Shared With Other People/Enjoyable By All Skill Levels/Enjoyable by the Impatient and Distracted (Destiny)
  • Combat/Father & Son/Exploration (God of War)
  • Replayable/Intellectually Challenging/Creativity/Form follows Function/Accessible/Nerd Out (Paradox Games)
  • Approachable/Powerful Heroes/Highly Customizable/Great Item Game/Endlessly Replayable/Strong Setting/Cooperative Multiplayer (Diablo 3)

The trouble I’ve seen with design pillars however is that they can promote an atomistic view of the game design, instead of a holistic view. When you orient your vision around discrete parts, it can lead to you thinking of those parts as being segregated from each other when you design content for those pillars, instead of attempting to design content that mixes pillars together.

My theory of depth prioritizes connections between different elements. One implication of this theory is that designing different sets of mechanics that are segregated from one another leads to you effectively needing to build multiple games, and all of them needing to have enough elements, connections, or nuance to independently create depth. If you have a driving minigame, a combat minigame, and a stealth minigame, you need to separately invest in all 3 of these being good, when you could have worked harder on making one of them really good. Productions in the indie and AA space usually don’t have enough budget to devote to multiple styles of gameplay, and tend to be made by less people, and thus are less likely to follow the design pillar methodology, and less likely to segregate their different styles of gameplay.

AAA Games tend not to go as heavy on one style of gameplay as indie games or smaller budget games tend to. AAA Games tend to have a sense of “pacing” to them, similar to a movie, where you get lead through a series of intense content, then have some milder content to catch your breath before going back into the more intense content, with some cutscenes woven in along the way. The different discrete styles of gameplay tend to get named as design pillars, which then promotes a development process that devotes specific attention to these styles of gameplay instead of a more integrated approach.

Japan vs The West

A lot of Japanese productions and indie productions don’t necessarily share this sentiment, and due to their production process, it’s possible that creative control is in the hands of less people and design pillars aren’t a part of their design process, but it’s hard to say for sure without hearing from the developers themselves. Design Pillars and their effect on game development should be viewed in a similar light to the Waterfall, Spiral and AGILE development methodologies, not as a critical lens for viewing games that may or may not have used design pillars at all. It’s easy to break a game down into pillars, which I’ve seen some people do, but this is like 3 Act Structure for stories, trying to apply this to a game post-hoc is a Rorschach test of what the observer thinks is a design pillar, rather than a structurally identifiable truth about the work. Fundamentally design pillars exist to help orient large teams of people around common goals.

Because of the language gap between Japanese and Western productions, it’s difficult to know what development methodologies Japanese studios use. From what I’ve read, Japanese productions tend to have design work sit primarily with the director of a game. Even in the west, we often know the names of directors for successful games, such as Shigeru Miyamoto, Hideo Kojima, Hidetaka Miyazaki, Hideki Kamiya, Shinji Mikami, and so on. We tend to know the names of even less prestigious japanese directors, such as Keiji Inafune, Hideaki Itsuno, Yoshiaki Koizuimi, Tomonobu Itagaki, Kamone Serizawa, and Yoko Taro, which I think is an indication of either the way our fan community works, or the strong influence of directors on their respective games. I’ve even written an article on how I noticed that game quality at Platinum Games was dependent on who was directing that title.

Another person who heads up design responsibilities under the director is often called a Planner, and they tend to carry out their work by very directly assigning specific people specific tasks, as implied by the job title. For example, Woshige Ogawa was Street Fighter V’s Battle Planner, and was given a lot of responsibility over that game’s battle system, where Yoshinori Ono was more of a lead for the overall direction of the game.

Given this is the case, it seems unlikely that Japanese productions follow a Design Pillar development methodology, or that the people involved in Japanese game development contribute as much to the design of the game as the director or planner, where people in western game development tend to have more input on design through their implementation decisions. Perhaps another unifying factor for Japanese game design is the way games are pitched tends to be very brief and mechanics focused, where a lot of western pitches are very broad and setting/story focused. Japanese tends towards a high concept pitching style focused on mechanics, where the west trends towards a low concept pitching style focused on narrative.

Deus Ex Human Revolution

(For those wondering, yes, this article was inspired by Hbomberguy’s recent DXHR video)

I have a suspicion that the design pillar philosophy is a symptom of a broader problem with western AAA game design patterns, a trend of very functional design instead of design intended to create depth and integration between elements. When you orient your game around design pillars, your process has a tendency to get oriented into thinking about designing elements as a means to an end on accomplishing design pillars, rather than as an integrated part of a larger system of interactions. We can see a lot of this crop up in the design of Deus Ex Human Revolution. Their pillars are Combat, Stealth, Hacking, Social, and to that end we see these modes of play as very segregated from one another. The augmentations in DXHR tend to trigger cutscenes and consume energy in 1 bar increments, such as takedowns, icarus, wall punching, and typhoon. In the original game, the electric prod could knock out enemies if it was used on their back while they were unaware, where in DXHR the takedown button was just a generic contextual use button on enemies. Many of the augmentations have an approach to bypassing obstacles that is very binary.

Where the original game attempted to have many different “keys” to unlocking an obstacle gating your path (unlock a door by: hacking a computer, pressing a hidden button, lockpicking, explosives, or stack crates to get past), DXHR instead decided to have a bunch of different obstacles that each accept a different “key”, such as a heavy object that must be lifted with the strength aug, a long fall that requires icarus, a wall that needs to be punched down, a door that must be hacked (or opened with the code), a ledge that needs to be jumped up to (or in rare cases, the strength aug lets you use a crate as platform), and of course ever-present vents that bypass obstacles if you go looking for them. While I think DXHR is a better game, because it succeeds more at its core gameplay styles of combat and stealth than the original did, the original Deus Ex certainly represents a mechanical design holism that we don’t really see in Human Revolution, at least with regards to progressing through levels.

Crysis Warhead

Another good example of design holism for comparison to Deus Ex Human Revolution is Crysis Warhead (and the original Crysis, but not really). Crysis Warhead shares core design pillars of Combat and Stealth, and shares a lot of the same core mechanics as well, such as using your nanosuit to power up your combat, jumps, speed, and stealth. Crysis Warhead is designed with levels that suit both combat and stealth, however critically, its AI does not know where the player is after they disappear behind cover, and cannot track an invisible player until they do something to reveal themselves. So any time you disappear behind cover, you could go invisible, run behind the enemy, and shoot at them from another angle.

This means that Crysis Warhead is capable of mixing stealth and action gameplay in a way that Human Revolution usually doesn’t. In Human Revolution, stealth and combat are usually segregated from one another, and messing up stealth means you’re stuck in combat or more realistically, reload a save, whereas in Crysis Warhead, stealth and combat blend together fluidly into one cohesive system (this is also true of Far Cry games, which share some of the same engine and AI code).

Some differences between DXHR’s implementations and Crysis’s are that you can regenerate your entire bar for invisibility in Crysis, silent walking isn’t a separate power that causes your energy to drain at a faster rate, levels tend to be outdoor areas filled with cover objects, and enemies don’t get stuck in alert mode so you don’t have the same incentive to reload from a save when you fuck up stealth.

Admittedly, there is also some difference in direction, Crysis isn’t really a pure stealth game like DXHR can be treated and you can’t bypass every encounter undetected, and at times you do need to fight enemies, so you don’t have the same pressure to do a ghost playthrough as with DXHR. Additionally, you don’t really have many options to silently dispatch enemies (you could strength punch them, but you’re likely to end up noticed by other enemies anyway). When you’re completely undetected, Crysis Warhead tends to treat this as a way of planning your direction of attack, rather than a goal in-of itself.

It’s also worth noting that the Crysis team didn’t use Design Pillars for the original or Warhead; Instead they had more of a design vision of player freedom and “wide linear” levels. Their approach to the original Crysis was more disorganized, and then Warhead was a response to many of the criticisms of the original game, built in the same engine, with the advantage of hindsight. Crysis Warhead had a holistic view of all the mechanics they created and wanted to let players engage with any of them at any time, rather than an atomic view of individual mechanics and giving each of them a place to shine like DXHR did.

Functional AAA Design

We see similar types of “functional” design in AAA games pop up in a lot of places, such as open world games that are segmented between open world scavenger hunts, quests tracked with quest markers, and more linear missions that take place in handcrafted levels/scenarios (Many Ubisoft games do this, as well as Just Cause, Prototype, Infamous, Nier: Automata, and Grand Theft Auto). Some Japanese Open World games have a less clear delineation between the open world and specific content, such as Breath of the Wild, and Elden Ring (especially Elden Ring, which never locks you out of exploring other parts of the world, and lets you return to the main “dungeons” of the game at any time).

The rebooted Doom games have a similar level design contrast with the original Doom and Quake games. Original Doom and Quake had labyrinthine level design, interspersed with enemies placed in order to threaten the player relative to the level geometry, and with ammo and powerups scattered to create an economy of ammo over time. Enemies usually didn’t need to be defeated in order to progress, but they’d physically block your path, creating an interesting choice between wasting limited health/ammo on them, and trying to run past, but risking being damaged. Rebooted Doom instead created arenas that lock you into them and spawn enemies until a condition has been cleared, while relegating the rest of the level to a scavenger hunt for collectibles. This is also true of the change in the melee and chainsaw abilities. Melee attacks changed from a weapon you could wield, into a contextual mini-cutscene like DXHR’s takedowns.

Another example is the way a lot of games will make an ability into something with an icon and a cooldown that sits on a hotbar, and when the button is pressed, something very limited and specific happens, such as DXHR’s takedowns, or Typhoon ability. They’re not a move with an animation that has nuance depending on your distance, timing, or aim. They’re a use button that snaps to a target and applies an effect in a mini-cutscene where either time is frozen, or you’re invincible, so it can’t be interrupted. Mechanics in many western games are designed to accomplish a very specific purpose and nothing else. Contrast that with Breath of the Wild’s focus on multiplicative design, and trying to create as many interactions between different game elements as possible using their “Chemistry Engine”. Many western AAA games use paired animations or snap-to-point for many mechanics, instead of allowing a range of possible outcomes based on variance in the player’s input.

A Better Approach to Pillars

Design Pillars are not a bad design methodology. They’re very helpful and practical for keeping a team oriented around a common vision for what a game should be. The trouble I see with Design Pillars is that they can promote mechanical design that is segregated across pillars instead of a holistic design that integrates pillars into a cohesive whole. Design Pillars are a functional approach to creating a coherent final product, but they can’t replace foundational game design knowledge, which needs to inform the implementation of those pillars. It’s unlikely that western studios are going to fall into a more Japanese model of directorial control, so our processes need to be more informed by design principles and generalized rules of thumb in general.

One of the more successful examples I’ve found is the design pillars Paradox Games uses across their different games, cited earlier. Paradox’s approach to design pillars doesn’t include specific segments of the game design, instead focusing on core values that are meant to be shared across the design. Paradox games are typically city builder games with tight system integration (admittedly not my genre, but I can see the appeal). If pillars are meant to filter new ideas and team decisions, then pillars focused on the specific articulable values of a game might be a better way. Destiny and Diablo 3 both had poorly received initial releases, and you’ll notice their design pillars are a lot less specific and value-oriented than Paradox’s. They contain features rather than values, and they’re fairly generic feature sets which almost any game would want to live up to.

You could say that Paradox has a two-pronged approach, establishing a vision for a specific game, then filtering it through their studio’s values for what one of their games should be, instead of segregating the game idea itself into different modes of gameplay then asking everyone to try to deliver something pertaining to one of those modes until they feel like they have enough features and content to ship the game. Admittedly, I’ve never played a Paradox game, but this seems like a reasonable approach.

I’d like to see future western AAA games approach their mechanical design more holistically, trying to connect as many elements to as many other elements as possible, instead of segmenting the game into different modes of play.

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