When it comes to game design, we’ve seen a few interesting aberrations over the years. Especially since the rise of the computer, though many of the more recent oddities predate computers. One of these aberrations is the vertical game design.
In a vertical game design, the core concept is one of linear, upwards growth within the game. In the majority of cases, this growth is conceptualized through the growth of an in-game avatar. As a player plays the game, the goal is to increase themselves to better reach a goal or challenge. Probably the leading characteristic is the significant change in power as a character plays the game, making serious competition between players at different “heights” virtually impossible.
In contrast we have a much older tradition, that of horizontal games. You could probably site Chess as an excellent example of this. The basic idea being that all players are theoretically even on the board, it is the decisions they make and the tools they choose that differentiate them.
So which is the better system? I could beg off responsibility and say there isn’t, but that would be unprofessional. The simple fact is that despite their having different strengths, horizontal design is, in my opinion, simply better design. With proper implementation, a horizontal design can be flexible and reactive, light on it’s feet, and allows you to focus your time on the game’s design, rather than on the content’s design.
While the current standing argument is that vertical is more appealing to the masses, I don’t particularly subscribe to that. Our teeming masses are still people that play poker, and the occasional game of monopoly or trivial pursuit. What each of those games has in common is that they are all horizontal. Each was designed to be accessible and fun, simply succeeding at those two points will do more towards collecting the masses than making it vertical ever will.
After all, if vertical game play were really that great in and of itself we wouldn’t be swimming in an ocean of dead mmos, would we?
Do we really have to choose one or the other though? Personally I rather like what I call pyramidal designs. Designs in which players can either expand their options or power up. Some things that I would consider key to this are, first do not invert the pyramid the bottom should have more options than the top not the other way around, and second, get used to working with graphs, most of your design decisions are going to have to be made in a way more similar to plotting along a graph than feeling it out.
Personal notes aside, as game designers we need to focus on the strength of a core design. Horizontal design lives or dies by how well you design the core system, but because of that it is infintely extensible and scalable. Vertical design has built in hard limits that require your content designers to be the people responsible for making or breaking your game. I don’t know about anyone else, but personally I don’t feel very comfortable with that.