The question should always be: does formalisation of this subject matter actually increase our understanding? And is the increase in understanding worth the effort?
These questions naturally arise upon reading John Kirk's Design Patterns of Successful Role-Playing Games. (See the accompanying Forge thread here.) He introduces intricate schemata to speak about RPG systems, including such wonderous entities as 'conflicted gauges' and 'feedback loops'. Does this increase our understanding of roleplaying games enough to be worth the trouble? Does it help in designing better games?
The answer is: yes, it helps. It is a vary valuable piece of theory indeed.
I am currently involved in playtesting Paul Czege's new game, and he asked John to perform an analysis of the mechanics. I won't go into the details, but this formal description of the game brought us at least four things:
- It showed where the rules of the game where unclear. By looking at John's diagrams, which are entirely non-ambiguous, I could see where he and I had a different understanding of the rules. The differences where so subtle that they probably wouldn't have been noticed otherwise, and the unclarity in the current rule text would have remained.
- By showing the feedback loops and balancing loops in the conflict-and-reward system, the analysis clarified the ways in which the character's stats can 'run away' and the ways in which the system inherently balances failure and success.
- By making explicit the difference between normal gauges and conflicted gauges, the analysis allowed John to estimate the tactical variety of the game. (The more conflicted gauges, the more meaningful tactical decisions the player can make, because those represent trade-offs.)
- By making explicit the reward system of all the conflicts, including which player is rewarded when, the analysis provided a good way to estimate player interest in each scene. (If you cannot meaningfully participate in any way, interest is bound to wane, especially if several such scenes follow each other.)
There are also more general benefits. There are a million ways you could formalise game systems, most of them utterly unproductive, but John has already chosen some good categories. Conflicted gauge is an important concept that every game designer should understand. Dito with feedback loops and balancing loops. This is good stuff. Yet it can almost certainly be improved upon - so theorists, go forth and do thy job!
Is formal analysis of your system a substitute for playtesting? Obviously not. But it can teach you things that playtesting might not easily reveal, and it can help you understand the issues that your testers come up with, and help you find the best solutions to those issues.