Game Planning/Design – Pt. 1: DESIGN OF A NEW GAME
Upon searching for resources on the subject of video game production and game project management I came across a little blog, by the name of “Game Design Concepts“.
Now, not only is the information on the topic of Game Production Management well summarized and coherently written on this blog, but even better, it’s extremely easy to follow as examples are so far very clear, and the material is well organized into a lecture/”course” format like many of us would expect from a class which we may have taken in post-secondary education.
That being said, let me get into what I’ve been taking out of it so far by summarizing some of the most critical points which I would like to remember and believe are critical to getting a strong foundation for jumping into the realm of Game Production / Project Management.
※Let’s keep in mind that this resource is from 2009 and therefore methodologies may be improved upon, and most recent software may be more applicable/optimal. General knowledge and fundamental theories should be still very applicable though however.※
Introduction & Basic Information
“What is a game?”
“A play activity with rules that involves conflict.”
- Players: 2
- Objective: to collect a set of exactly three numbers that add up to 15.
- Setup: start by writing the numbers 1 through 9 on a sheet of paper. Choose a player to go first.
- Progression of Play: on your turn, choose a number that has not been chosen by either player. You now control that number. Cross it off the list of numbers, and write the number on your side of the paper to show that it is now yours.
- Resolution: if either player collects a set of exactly three numbers that add up to exactly 15, the game ends, and that player wins. If all nine numbers are collected and neither player has won, the game is a draw.
Game System Creation
Approaching Game Design: A Simple Creation Progression
- First, draw a path and divide it up… it could be linear, it could be non-linear, it could move forwards and backwards like a stock chart, it should just be heading towards somewhere.
- Second, make a theme/goal. The player should be “running away” or “running towards” something/some goal. What are the players representing? What is their goal? Whatever the objective is, and a lot of rules will fall into place just from that.
- Third, definite how players progress/move; do they move with dice, progress by completing “main story quests”, or by acquiring/meeting new characters along their journey? Keeping this in mind, it will be easy to define rules which can help create boundaries which do not hinder the fun of the player, but just simply keep them on track/lightly guided along the way. Similar to golf, there are rules and boundaries which prevent the player from getting too far off the course, but at the same time, there’s plenty of room available to allow the gameplay to vary each time.
- Finally, conflict is a great addition to keep things challenging and to test the player as well as make them take longer to clear goals and feel even more rewarded as they do progress. “Games tend to be more interesting if you can affect your opponents, either by helping them or harming them. Think of ways to interact with your opponents. Does something happen when you land on the same space as them? Are there spaces you land on that let you do things to your opponents, such as move them forward or back? Can you move your opponents through other means on your turn (such as if you roll a certain result on the die)?”
Game Design Methodology
The Iterative Approach: + Rapid Prototyping For Inclusion of QA/Debugging
Iteration and Risk
Games have many kinds of risk associated with them. There is design risk, the risk that the game will not be fun and people won’t like it. There is implementation risk, the possibility that the development team will not be able to build the game at all, even if the rules are solid. There is market risk, the chance that the game will be wonderful and no one will buy it anyway. And so on.
The purpose of iteration is to lower design risk. The more times you iterate, the more you can be certain that the rules of your game are effective.
Successive Layering of Constraints Within The Game World
“Every new rule you add, every resource you define, is just one more constraint on the players. At the start of the design process you may have nothing, and the players could do anything at all; by the end, the player experience is sharply defined and heavily constrained in a way that is fun.”
Some examples of this can be noted when looking at the extremes on the scale: Open World MMORPGs vs. Strictly Controlled Linear/Handheld RPGs with Turn/Command-based Battle Systems.
They are both great when the gameplay suits each type of restrictions and rules, however in a world which makes the players eager to explore it or customize characters, being overly restrictive with rules on customization and world exploration could leave an unfulfilled taste in players’ mouths.
Idea Generation For New Games
- “Core aesthetics” — what do you want the player to feel? How do you want them to react? What should the play experience be like? Then work backwards from the player experience to figure out a set of rules that will achieve the desired aesthetic. Think about the best experience you’ve ever had while playing a game; what game rules led to that experience?
- “Rules or Systems” from real-life; particularly one that requires people to make interesting decisions. Look at the world around you; what systems do you see that would make good games?
- Start with an existing, proven design, then make modifications to improve on it (the “clone-and-tweak” method). This often happens when making sequels and ports of existing games. Think of a game that you thought had potential, but didn’t quite take the experience as far as they could; how would you make it better?
- Start with Technology, such as a new game engine (for video games).
- Materials from other sources, such as existing art or game mechanics that didn’t make it in to other projects. Design a game to make use of them. Do you have an art portfolio, or earlier game designs that you didn’t turn into finished products? What about public domain works, such as Renaissance art? How could you design a game around these?
- Start with a narrative and then design game rules to fit it, making a story-driven game. What kinds of stories work well in games?
- Start with market research: perhaps you know that a certain demographic is underserved, and want to design a game specifically for them. Or maybe you just know that a certain genre is “hot” right now, and that there are no major games of that type coming out in a certain range of dates, so there is an opportunity. How do you turn this knowledge into a playable game?
- If the basic, core rules don’t work, then adding extra rules on top of it will generally not make it work. Get the basics working first, before you start adding complexity.
- If you build extra rules on an unstable foundation, the real underlying problems in your design could be obscured! Something might seem wrong, but if there are a lot of systems and resources and game objects it can be hard to tell if you’re experiencing a problem with the core mechanics, or the balance of a particular resource, or the design of the map, or something else.
“Combinations of several of these. For example, starting with core aesthetics and narrative at the same time, you can make a game where the story and gameplay are highly integrated.”
Play lots of games! But… play as a designer and not just a player. Don’t just play for enjoyment.
Instead, play critically. Ask yourself what choices were made by the designer of the game, and why you think those choices were made, and whether or not they work. Play games in genres that you don’t like or have never tried, and try to figure out why other people find them fun.
Also, published hint guides can be useful to read — they are basically glorified design documents that detail all of the systems of a game!
Systems Implementation: Start Simple and THEN Get Unique/Advanced
“As mentioned earlier, our First-Person Shooter prototype is just begging for extra features, such as health and ammo. Why not start with all of these extra systems already in place, as opposed to starting with just the simple core system? There are a few reasons to start with a simple, core rule set and then add on one rule at a time, instead of trying to design the entire game in one big effort:”
Does the player get rewarded each time they achieve some type of goal?
This can occur in different forms, such as:
- Beating the game once and unlocking a NewGame+ mode with new side-quests and additional skills/items/bosses/systems.
- Getting a bonus set of items for each 5 levels you gain from 1-50, each time rewarding the player while also encouraging more play.
- Being able to get new items/skills/abilities which let you accumulate resources quicker.
While the first two examples can be great for lengthening the amount of gameplay a game has to offer as well as increasing engagement/determination to reach the next goal, the 2nd and 3rd examples can lead to the game getting unbalanced and actually decreasing the amount of time it takes to progress (due to “power-ups”). Therefore these should be either counterbalanced with new goals which REQUIRE/DEPEND ON the player having access to these newer power-ups (at least for awhile) which will decrease the rate at which a player progresses.
Mario Kart as an Example of Feedback Loops
“In racing games, play is more interesting if the player is in the middle of a pack of cars rather than if they are way out in front or lagging way behind on their own (after all, there is more interaction if your opponents are close by). As a result, the de facto standard in that genre of play is to add a negative feedback loop: as the player gets ahead of the pack, the opponents start cheating, finding better power-ups and getting impossible bursts of speed to help them catch up. This makes it more difficult for the player to maintain or extend a lead. This particular feedback loop is sometimes referred to as “rubber-banding” because the cars behave as if they are connected by rubber bands, pulling the leaders and losers back to the center of the pack.
Additionally, the reverse is also true: If the player falls behind, they will find better power-ups and the opponents will slow down to allow the player to catch up. This makes it more difficult for a player who is behind to fall further behind.
Negative feedback loops also have three important properties
- They tend to stabilize the game, causing players to tend towards the center of the pack.
- They cause the game to take longer.
- They put emphasis on the late game, since early-game decisions are reduced in their impact over time.
Player Decision Making: How To Make Decisions Meaningful & Progressive
What Makes Good Decisions?
In quick summary: Tradeoffs!!!
- Resource trades. You give one thing up in exchange for another, where both are valuable. Which is more valuable? This is a value judgment, and the player’s ability to correctly judge or anticipate value is what determines the game’s outcome.
- Risk versus reward. One choice is safe. The other choice has a potentially greater payoff, but also a higher risk of failure. Whether you choose safe or dangerous depends partly on how desperate a position you’re in, and partly on your analysis of just how safe or dangerous it is. The outcome is determined by your choice, plus a little luck… but over a sufficient number of choices, the luck can even out and the more skillful player will generally win. (Corollary: if you want more luck in your game, reduce the total number of decisions.)
- Choice of actions. You have several potential things you can do, but you can’t do them all. The player must choose the actions that they feel are the most important at the time.
- Short term versus long term. You can have something right now, or something better later on. The player must balance immediate needs against long-term goals.
- Social information. In games where bluffing, deal-making and backstabbing are allowed, players must choose between playing honestly or dishonestly. Dishonesty may let you come out better on the current deal, but may make other players less likely to deal with you in the future. In the right (or wrong) game, backstabbing your opponents may have very negative real-world consequences.
Dilemmas. You must give up one of several things. Which one can you most afford to lose?
Keeping The Game Fun
Balancing the difficulty of challenges along with the amount of skill level required to complete them is essential to keeping everything fun. Designing contents which demand as much skill level as they are intended to be difficult is essential.
If players are required to have a high-level of skills to clear a quest but the reward isn’t worthwhile, or the player simply is too low level, it becomes a “future challenge” (similar to side quests) at best, but it becomes frustrating for the player in general.
Conversely, having a player who has high-leveled skills and abilities, however the challenge is too simple, leaves the player feeling bored.
Finding Ways To Challenge The Player As They Become More Knowledgable: “Balancing Fun & Challenges”
- Increasing difficulty as the game progresses (we sometimes call this the “pacing” of a game). As the player gets better, they get access to more difficult levels or areas in a game. This is common with level-based video games.
- Difficulty levels or handicaps, where better players can choose to face more difficult challenges.
Dynamic difficulty adjustment (“DDA”), a special kind of negative feedback loop where the game adjusts its difficulty during play based on the performance of the player.
- Human opponents as opposition. Sure, you can get better at the game… but if your opponent is also getting better, the game can still remain challenging if it has sufficient depth. (This can fail if the skill levels of different players fall out of synch with one another. I like to play games with my wife, and we usually both start out at about the same skill level with any new game that really fascinates us both… but then sometimes, one of us will play the game a lot and become so much better than the other, that the game is effectively ruined for us. It is no longer a challenge.)
- Player-created expert challenges, such as new levels made by players using level-creation tools.
- Multiple layers of understanding (the whole “minute to learn, lifetime to master” thing that so many strategy games strive for). You can learn Chess in minutes, as there are only six different pieces… but then once you master that, you start to learn about which pieces are the most powerful and useful in different situations, and then you start to see the relationship between pieces, time, and area control, and then you can study book openings and famous games, and so on down the rabbit hole.
- ※Allow the player to change the difficulty level while playing based on their actions. Are you bored? Dive down a few levels and the action will pick up pretty fast. Are you overwhelmed? Run back to the earlier, easier levels (or the game will kick you back on its own if needed).※
NOTE: This system can be seen in the .Hack series which allows for players to venture to randomly generated worlds, and gives a vague report of the strength of the area before players enter; by making side-dungeons for grinding, and main missions/areas for progression, both systems can be taken advantage of.
Achievements For Each Type Of Player!!
Types of Players
- Achievers/Masters Of All Contents
- Social Butterflies
- Destructionists – ex. griefing, destroying towns, killing key bosses, killing other players/PVP
Achievement Catagories For A Wide Variety Of Players
- Social – Talking to a lot of different NPCs
- Fantasy: Misc. catagory for fun and interesting achievements for lols withing the game world
- Narrative: Story progression
- Challenge: Side Challenges/Sidequests
- Fellowship: Recruiting new units, unlocking new characters/jobs
- Discovery/Exploration: Visiting New Areas and Towns, Finding New Dungeons, etc.
- “Coliseum/PVP Master”: PVP related achievements
Story-writing/Direction For A Game
Quick Summary of A Simple Story/Stage Direction and Creation
- Plot. The narrative that describes what actually happens.
- Theme. What does it all mean? Why does it happen?
- Character. As in, a single role within the story.
- Diction. The dialogue, and also the actor’s delivery of that dialogue.
- Rhythm. This does include “rhythm” in the sense of music, but also the natural rhythm of human speech.
- Spectacle. This is what Aristotle called the “eye candy” or special effects of his day. He often complained that too many plays contained all spectacle and nothing else – sound familiar?
Game Story Progression
While there are many ways which a game’s story can progress (ex. Linear, Related [Decisions/Characters affect eachother], Threaded [Character/Decision leaves the path, and eventually returns back into the main progression path with altered views/aspects due to the other path it was on], Dynamic [a mix of all of these elements all together].
Character Creation & Development
Flags: checkpoints within a character’s data/personality which change depending on various areas of the story, interactions with other characters, finding items/learning abilities, etc.
Character Personality Design
Round characters – they have many facets to them, a deep character with many layers, and are highly detailed and developed over the course of the story.
Flat/Shallow characters – they are very simple, don’t have a very deep personality (at least, not that the audience can see), and do not develop or change much (if at all).
Are flat characters always bad in stories? I don’t think so; not all characters need to be complicated, deep, or well-defined. Minor characters are often flat, but the main protagonist and villain at least should be round.
A rule of thumb is that a character should develop over time as we seen them through the story.
As a corollary, minor characters with very little “screen time” can be flat since they don’t have much time to develop anyway; the characters who we see the most often (generally the main characters) should develop a great deal.
Archetypes versus Stereotypes
Here’s a question I was once asked in a job interview: describe the terms Archetype and Stereotype and the difference between them.
McKee says that story is about forms, not formulas. Archetypes are forms; stereotypes are formulas.
“Villain” is an archetype. The Snidely Whiplash-esque, mustache-twirling, top-hat-and-black-cape-wearing, purely-mean-for-its-own-sake bad guy is a stereotype.
“Thief” is an archetype. A ragged robed, scruffy-looking individual with a dagger with a manipulative personality and is known to tell more lies than the truth tends to be it’s associated stereotype.