The History of the “Lowest Common Denominator” concept.

Years ago (2001-2007) I was heavily involved with the design and running of a Live Action Role Playing game called The Imperium LARP.  You can see what we worked on by pointing the Internet Wayback Machine to http://www.imperiumlarp.org.  While working on the project the creator drilled the idea of the LCD into our heads…  And made us better game designers because of it.

The guidebook that existed when I started the game hurt to read.   Sentences made no sense, terrible paragraph structure, bad spelling, and plenty of typos plagued the book.  It was my goal in those days to clean up the grammar, spelling, sentence structure, and clarify the rules without actually changing or developing the rules.

We had a couple hundred players at the height of the game.  This generated a lot of feedback about who like what rules, who thought what was fair, etc.  The games co-creator William Terry Armstrong knew from his years of gaming experience that taking on all feedback would kill the game.  He dubbed this the “Lowest Common Denominator” effect.  He took a firm stand against it.

The lesson being that designing any game for the LCD player, or across a large player base, leads to boring game design.  It is the weird rough edges that makes a game interesting.  Smoothing out those edges removes what makes the game distinct.  Our constant refrain was “Don’t dumb the game down to the LCD.”  Back then we didn’t have alt-dev-blogs about ‘core audience’, ‘target audience’, no gamasutra articles to help guide us.  Nor the more positive spin of today’s phrasing.

But we did have one hard-nosed game designer, who had 20 years of experience getting LARP players to do something they do surprisingly little of: Role Playing.  Designing a game with a set of constraints creates art.  Designing by metrics for a broad a group as possible creates bland palp.   What Terry failed to mention was that the audience for bland palp is actually really large.

Metrics Driven Game Design

Zynga has defended the idea that designing a game heavily based on metrics input is a winning strategy.   Although no one likes the idea of what the output is after that process.  The popular trope around the indie game world is a general feeling of distaste for the kind of game that gets produced by putting in more numbers based feedback rather than human based feedback.

So when the company is game design, it makes sense to track as much information as possible.  And not use it inside the game.  Games have to be fun.  Making games mechanically for the “lowest common denominator” among hundreds (hopefully thousands) of players does not make a fun game.  This LCD effect of designing for very large audience prunes out errors and issue, quirks, of the game.  You get something with pretty art that plays like Farmville.

Metrics are still necessary; especially for a game design start-up company.  But I want to argue that they are not important in the same way.  Metrics are best used to design the company around the game, instead of the game itself.  As the ‘business guy’ I can tell you it’s hard to run a company without metrics.  Every company tracks something about itself.  Old companies track income and expenses.  Newer companies have a whole host of company metrics.  Running a company would be impossible without tracking data about how that company is run.

Games should be fun.  They should have quirks.  They should not be ground out of huge player bases but should be made with devotion by passionate developers.  Avoid the “LCD”, lowest common denominator.  Go ahead and collect the metrics for the game.  Use those metrics to build the company, not to drive game development.