Edit: Article now up on Gamasutra.
I’m not usually a fan of short, snappy phrases that sum up design concepts because more often than not they end up being reductive and misleading. A Razor however, while not being entirely guilt-free in this regard, is a simple concept that I’ve seen used consistently enough for it to be worth covering.
The name comes because it helps you identify and cut unnecessary features. It is however a slight misnomer because it also helps you design them, and generally keep the creative team on track.
In short, it’s a phrase that serves as a small reminder about the core of your game.
Using this Razor for your game design
Often in design you find yourself paused, not by creative block or because you’re unable to see a solution to a problem, but because you have a variety of seemingly equal and interesting solutions in front of you that you have to choose between.
The idea is simple - you think of a way to define the core of your game, a summary of the experience, and then you encapsulate that in an easy to remember phrase. For example “You are a swashbuckling pirate”. From that point onwars you then make sure every part of your design validates this phrase. If you think of a feature you like, but it really doesn’t help achieve this feeling, then you cut it.
Of course, it works both ways - the realisation of your game’s true core helps you to think of gameplay that will further help you evoke this feeling in the player.
It’s a tool designed to keep your game lean, focussed and consistent. It’s meant to produce something where everything works together to push towards one overall feeling. Game mechanics, music, art, story - all should be working towards one goal.
To use a more relatable example, let’s imagine that the Razor for Uncharted 1 was “you are Indiana Jones”, not only can the design team use this as a reminder for their mechanic design, but the level designers too can use this to remember the heart of the game, and how they should be thinking about movement through their spaces. Animators too can refer to this, and remember that in combat Drake is not supposed to be a master of the martial arts, but rather someone who comes off as a scrappy street fighter - untrained but experienced.
Now it’s important also to point out that it’s not some magical phrase - really it’s an understanding the whole team has to come to. A true understanding of what the game is about at its core. The phrase is merely there to remind you of it, so don’t be too beholden to the words you’ve chosen - it’s the idea behind them that’s important.
Things to watch out for
It’s important that this phrase encapsulate the feeling the player should have when playing the game. It should not describe something the game should do - this is a common mistake. You may be tempted to use a phrase such as ‘everything is a weapon’ because this might remind you of one of the core tenants of your game, and in some ways can help other aspects of the game’s creation, but it doesn’t help you make decisions, and more importantly, it certainly won’t help an animator decide what style to choose when blocking out a new animation.
It’s the overall feeling that you’re trying to convey - “You’re a ragtag group of mercenaries.” “You are inside a Grimm's fairytale.” “You are a scared civilian in a war with absolutely no training.”
A small, simple thing that should not be overstated, but a useful trick nonetheless.