Game Design: Behavior Framing
Updated: Apr 14, 2020
Reminding myself that Combat Design is about “Behavior Framing” is sometimes mentally clarifying, but I’ve never heard anyone else use that term...
I was recently asked “What is a good skill for a Combat Designer to have?” The first thing that came to my mind was that a Combat Designer should develop a sense for “Behavior Framing.” While this answer might be perfectly good, it seemed to me equally unhelpful because this is a term I’ve never heard anyone else use. The idea is simple, Behavior Framing is the product of Combat Design. A quick note: Combat Design is a specialization of Systems Design; some of the language I use below will reflect that fact. Also, some of these ideas should be applicable to non-combat systems. We often think that when we are designing combat systems we are designing gameplay, but that is only partially true. It would be more accurate to say “when we are designing combat systems we are creating a space for gameplay to happen”. We are designing potential gameplay. The gameplay we want to create won’t be realized until the player engages with the specific challenges of the game. For me, Behavior Framing is my way of talking about the potential gameplay created by Combat Design. Consider a simple moment in Super Mario World.
This naked Koopa won’t defeat himself so Mario has a fight on his hands. How the player plays may lead to results that are good or bad for him, but all of his actions are either determined, influenced, or constrained by the systems driving this particular moment. His movement is defined by running and jumping systems. He can attack the Koopa using his stomping ability. or avoid the Koopa by jumping over him. The enemy has his own movement rules and ways of reacting to the payer. The reason I call Behavior Framing the product of Combat Design is because it creates a picture in my head that is something like this:
In my mind, the game’s systems form a perimeter around the player and frame the player’s possible behaviors. In this example you can see how Jumping, Running, Stomping, and Enemy Systems provide the shape to the player’s experience. Like many designers, I often approach the act of design instinctively, but sometimes I find it helps me design richer gameplay if I stop and remind myself to pause and look at the task through the lens of Behavior Framing. Understanding Behavior Framing also helps shine a light on how your best gameplay system should offer a range of outcomes. Let’s look at another example from Super Mario World.
The player, as Mario, wants to pass a Swoop and a Buzzy Beetle. They have a cape, a jump, and a stomp to do it. Mario’s combat system might appear simple, but it shows how, when these systems are brought together, there are a range of plays. Let’s consider how the player might navigate through this encounter.
In these examples all the systems I have highlighted come into play. Jumping and Running are how the player aims the attack and the interaction between the Stomp system and the enemy decides how things resolve. The first thing you notice is that even in this trivial example, there are a bunch of ways this encounter might play out. Second, you will notice that the systems allow for the player to leverage different levels of skill. Finally, you can see how the higher skill plays are more valuable. These three elements (variety, skill expression, and tying challenge to reward), are the fundamentals of Combat Design. Having a range of outcomes is pure Behavior Framing. Providing different levels of incentive for different levels of play is what makes it good. The challenge for a combat designer is being able to imagine these variable outcomes while they are designing the framework around them.
In fact, some readers might notice that my example has been radically simplified. I have left out Mario's Grab and Kick systems. I did this to offer a simple set of examples that can be easily followed. However, a designer trying to understand the full range of play should consider how those systems increase the depth of the encounter.
I realize this post is a little bit basic and abstract. I am sure many designers do these things on intuition. However, I still believe that reminding myself of the fundamentals from time to time leads me to better results. And I hope this kind of mental model will help other designers as well.
 Super Mario World might be an unconventional example to highlight combat. However, I believe that universal principles can be observed in basic cases. Also, I like it as an example, because all the combat can be thought of in 2D positional terms.
 For action systems we are usually thinking about skill in terms of maneuvers, finesse, and difficulty of performing an action. For non-action systems, skill is usually about finding optimizations and min-maxing. A single game can clearly have both.
 The reader can also imagine replacing the two enemies with different foes. Key differences between Mario's enemies will lead to new possible outcomes.