The arcane arts of game design, busted open to reveal the patchwork of guesses, intuition and gut feeling they really are. This is written from my uninformed but totally correct point of view, that a game should be good. If you wanna go design 'barbies playhouse' then feel free to ignore this. It'll sell anyway.
Seeing the Board
Bonus points to anyone who knows where I stole the title from.
Don't sweat the little stuff. Don't have pretensions to 'vision' and 'experience' People want to have fun, and they all have different ideas of what that means.
You have to try and see the game as the players see it. And they all see it different ways.
In short, you're screwed. Luckily, other people have been screwed before you, and we can look at the things they did right (and wrong) and try and learn from them.
Be careful about buying into a single philosophy of game design too deeply. They all approach a way of making a game - but none of them are the only way. Simply because an idea belongs to a different school, doesn't mean you shouldn't steal it.
This is kinda an old school way of thinking, but it made a BIG comeback with fps games.
Basically, the rules are set out - and then you have to be better than something. Often the computer player (who isn't always bound by the same rules you are) or the game designer (who makes up some fiendish puzzles) or another player. Another player is kinda popular right now.
The philophy here is that people will try and try and try again, getting a little bit better, a little bit further, until they finally win. And then they move on to another challenge.
Old school (8 bit) design said "that's a bad thing" and so made the difficulty ramp up to an unacheivable goal, and have been vindicated by a very few players who still acheived it.
Some games tried to combine multiple challenges into the same game - so after finally ramping up to defeat the big boss in the shoot 'em up section, you could then move on to a different boss, who used different tricks. FPS games borrow from this, by giving you an infinite range of human opponents to choose from.
Some problems of this philosophy (which have largely lead to its decline, with the notable exception of multiplayer FPS games) are:
- If the game is too hard, people don't feel rewarded, and so won't play. The initial learning curve is especially bad for this.
- What one player finds 'hard' another find 'impossible'
- The skills are often shallow, a computer can execute them perfectly every time - this leads to having to force the computer to dumb things to give the player even the slightest chance.
- AI sucks. It tends to be repetetive and stupid. And when one player finds a loophole, everyone can exploit it.
- The game presumes a steady learning curve on the part of the player. What happens when real life intervenes, and they go away and don't pick it up again for a month? The player has lost some measure of their skill and knowledge of the game, but the game doesn't compensate, thus leading to frustration.
This design philosophy utterly rejects 'never give a sucker an even break' It intends to make every top level choice equally 'correct'
The appeal of this philosophy is mostly aesthetic. Clearly, if the player has three characters they can choose from they should be balanced against one another.
Now, this theory is currently in application in most large MMORGs - where you can see the point. Most players don't want to remain disadvantaged against other players for a single decision they made early on. There are difficulties in applying this - especially that different kinds of statistics are very hard to balance against each other. (An obvious example, you can't just add together speed power and health - the 'middle' character always ends up the worst while the 'fast' character can usually more than compensate for low health by dodging, and for low power by dealing out the damage more rapidly.
Frankly, this philosophy is bull. Not all players want to be 'balanced' - most want to be more powerful, and some want to be underpowered for the challenge. It has value as a butt covering measure (but see! We aren't evil, you've all got the same chance!) while being unable to 'balance' the larger part of the game experience, the unmeasureable bits (Sure, it's powerful - but its head looks like ass!)
It is a good idea to grow in your facility with the numbers - you WILL have to justify some of your decisions (and knowing things like damage over time is sometimes what matters, not damage per hit) but it's certainly not the end of your design.
The place that DOES have advantage for this design is the deep internals of your game. The numbers that your players should never see, yet still have to be completely correct. And the more complex those numbers, the less chance your players manage to reduce your 'fun game' to a number crunching exercise.
And, of course, wargames. Like the new starfleet battles games - some players RELALY enjoy diving into oceans of numbers and tables, and working out optimal numbers for themselves. Be aware that you will have players who enjoy finding the turning points of your functions, and can do simplex optimisations in their heads. If you don't like playing the game of maths, then stay well away from this theory.
Two extremes. On the one side, repeatedly bashing the buttons, and wondering "what's the point" - and at the other, sitting down and watching a movie.
Story is important to most gamers. Heck, most reviews for a game include a category for 'story' Don't be fooled by the category for 'gameplay' being seperate - the two are intrinsiacally linked.
On the one hand, your gameplay has to support the story. On the other, the story has to support the gameplay. Make the link intuitive, and you have a winner.
There is a LOT of deep philosophy here. Talk about 'feeling' and 'interaction' and 'decision responsibility' - I'll go into this philosophy deeper later. Suffice to say, no one really has any hard and fast rules, and they're all making it up as they go along.
The central concept here is to make the player subservient to the story. Sometimes this can work well - with the player feeling that they have a real role in pushing the story to its conclusion. And sometimes it can work badly, with the player feeling teamrollerred under a huge plot that will get to its destination whatever they do.
The real trick is to try and guess what the players are thinking at any point, and to try and draw them to think what you want them to think as you progress.
Be aware that a large number of players have watched the same movies that you have. They will guess your plot twists, and use meta-game logic (Grab the crystal and prepare to fight, because it's dramatically appropriate for a big fight now - right after the bad guy rants a bit) This can work well - usually in a comedic fashion, or you can try and betray their expectations. Or you can just stun the players so hard that they never quite manage to rise above the game to look at it.
One big problem with this design theory is that it becomes hard to sell and review the game without giving away 'the plot' - and replay value is also damaged.
Another is that it tends to give the designer a big ego - it's THEIR plot, and the players cannot be allowed to spoil it. Try to avoid this way of thinking - you're making this game for them, and if they don't like it - it's your fault.
If you expose all your secrets, then they aren't as special. This is the magicians rule - and it is fraught with danger.
If players feel that the game is lying to them, then they will often scream "It's not fair" and quit. Even players that like a challenge much prefer an honest one. Players that prefer a story are often more flexible on this - unless the STORY lies to them - they don't mind plot twists, but after the fact they MUST be able to say "Doh! Of course! I should've seen that coming!"
The problem is that if everything about your game is exposed, then playing it becomes robotic. There's no real point in playing, you know what every action is going to do.
You can get around this by having elements of randomness - but be careful here. Random acts that are seen as such will just annoy 'story' players - and if, randomly, they are too easy or hard, will annoy 'challenge' players too.
Some amount of lying to the player can cover this up - but you've got a balancing act to maintain.
One place where this can be really useful is during 'unimportant' scenes. You usually want these out of the way ASAP - but maybe they have to be there for the story (or, often, just to pad the game out)
Well, the player often gets lazy during these. It can be well worthwhile lowering the difficulty of them, or 'forgetting' to do as much damage, to soothe the players ego. And the lazier the player gets, the easier it is for a 'real' encounter to be hard.
One important word - if the player catches you being dishonest, there'll be hell to pay - so lie about that too.
5. You're special - just like everybody else
Remember that there is more to you game than just that which is happenning inside your code. People talk about your game, swap strategies, plan grudges, try to outdo one another.
The 'trading' games are a BIG example of this. They did a lot of things right (and a lot of things oh so wrong)
If every player has exactly the same experince inside the game, then the out of game experience tends to be limited. But if every player had a totally different experience, then there would be no scene at all.
The concept of 'secrets' comes in here. Each player finds a number of them themselves, and feels chuffed about it. They tell other people about them, and find still more from those other people.
Again, a balancing act. Too many 'secrets' and players will get confused, or start to feel that they aren't important. Too few, and they will soon be documented, and everyone will know about all of them.
Adaptive games can come in here - you don't need to define everything in advance, it can learn from the player. The problem is that out of game information sharing can then become incorrect, quickly uncovering the difference between a 'real' secret, and one the game made up on the spur of the moment.
If you can keep this difference hidden (or expose it and let the players know, and give them some other sharing mechanism) then it can work well to enhance lifespan.
Nothing is perfect. And I don't know everything. But I do have a good idea. I'm going to take you, step by step, through a process of designing a game. Note I said 'a' process. This is MY method alone. And it's for real. This isn't some 'after the fact' design - I'm gonna design a game, with you, right now. You'll be able to see what I consider and don't consider.
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Edited by Vitenka at 2001-04-30 11:18:23