Having designed games since 1977, I have a few things to say about the subject. I prefer the academic approach to design even if I live my life more like a wacky cartoon character. These ideas have stood the test of time and several projects. I have confidence that I am right but I’m not so foolish as to suppose that there aren’t other ways or even a few tidbits I may have missed.This is an introduction to what I feel are the most essential “rules” by which good designers should measure their creations. With these “rules” it may seem like you have enough to insider information to go off in a dark closet and create a million selling game. I doubt seriously that it would ever be made. First and foremost, a design is a living document prepared with the development team in mind. Without the synergy and buy-in of the team any design is incomplete.
What is a Game?
Definition: Two or more people interacting using a set of agreed rules. This can mean a lot of things in different contexts but fundamentally that is why games can be almost anything.
If during the development of a game you see the elements of the game becoming more like the props and characters revealed in a story or movie with little motivation other than moving the story along you have made an interactive story but not a game.
In games each prop is part of a larger economy that changes the balance in a system. The characters are the other players or their agents (simulated or not), or they are “signposts” intended to assist or reveal secrets. The two or more sides of players are negotiating the “board” trying to gain advantage so they can beat their opponents.
Many “adventures” boil down to a story cut into chunks revealed by solving puzzles. It is important to realize this when you sit down to design. Place yourself firmly in the “Adventure” or “Game” camp before you develop further. I also have never seen a multi-player “Adventure” and probably never will. The very mechanics of an “Adventure” makes it solitary.
Simulations are reproductions of some real-life activity, usually sports or vehicles driving/piloting. Occasionally there is a game under the simulation, sometimes there is just practicing the activity which you can’t normally do unless it is on a computer. The main problem I have with simulations is that I much prefer to live out my fantasies in my games, and they don’t usually include playing sports or piloting a combat fighter. If given the choice to play Formula 1 or Mario Kart, it is Mario Kart every time.
I’ve had conversations with video game designers before that were stumped when it came to game concepts. Some friendly advice, play games, all kinds of games, real sports and board games, paper games, classic games and cutting edge console games. While I’m at it, I think you should go shopping, buy comic books and toys. Become inspired to create FUN. Think young. Play again.
What is Conflict?
At several points in my career I’ve been asked to design a good puzzle. To me a puzzle is a problem that needs to be solved. Once solved access is revealed to previously unattainable locations or items. The solution can also set off an event that will change the game state. A narrow minded individual may invent a clever lock and key puzzle, but why can’t the problem also be combat with an enemy, navigating a particularly difficult obstacle course, or seducing a character with some reward.
In games we are talking about interactivity. The possibilities are endless. Conflict arises because we are put in situations were we need something and there must be a way to obtain it. The situation may be too difficult to overcome with your current resources, which drives you to obtain the power needed to defeat it.
The game industry’s genre system means that players who like one kind of problem solving over another can readily buy games that fit the mixture of “conflicts” they like to solve best. Kids may buy more “jumpers”, “fighters” and “shooters”, while adults may buy more “puzzles”, “sports” and “adventures”. Everybody gets what he or she wants.
Places to Go, People to See, Things to Do
For almost all of the years I’ve been designing games I have also been a computer programmer. I like distilling systems into their component parts, determining the relationship between those components and simulating behaviors. The old saying “Places to go, people to see, things to do” struck me one day during a design session and has remained my object-oriented approach to game design since. One of the best side effects of this approach is that it is also easy to program when you get to that stage of development.
“Places” are the worlds, levels, locations, terrain and maps of your game. Players (simulated or not) can navigate the map using movement, or “Go” to “Places”. “People” are the avatars of the players and their encounters. The graphics and sound represent all the sensory input that the player experiences, or “Sees”. “Things” are the props, items, power-ups, etc. that the players can accumulate and use to gain advantage during the game. “Do” is the kinds of interactions the players have that can change the game state and ultimately lead to a win or lose situation. During design I like to make lists that fit these categories adding to them while building the game.
The “Things” should have simple enough economies that they are easy to learn to use. Those economies allow the designer the opportunity to dial the difficulty or drive the action during a specific section of the game play. Alfred Hitchcock called the “Thing” a “McGuffin”, a prop that drives the story. An economy is the cost to the player it takes to use those items. Some items may use forms of energy; others may be limited use or require a recharge time. The item can be difficult to find requiring more exploration than is needed to finish the game without it. The item can of coarse be the key needed to reveal more of the game.
The player’s interactions (“Do”) are usually fairly limited at the outset of the game but become more complex and interesting as the game progresses. The player makes decisions based on what they “See” and tells the game, through a controller, what to “Do”. This is called “Player I/O”. The status of the game is rendered for the player to “See” using the game map and the user interface instruments. My eight-year-old, at the time, son once told me that anything that happens in game occurs because of something the player did or a timer. All I can say is “That’s my Boy.”
Technically any game that has the player interaction aspect of the design well defined can easily move between single player and multiple players. It also makes the artificial intelligence for the automated agents much easier to develop because a simple expert system may evaluate the game state make a decision and “Do” some action. Another key component of this is the “Reaction”. Any object in the world that can have an “Action” can cause other objects to have a “Reaction”. Typically “Reactions” are processed to change a state in the various objects, colliding with a wall causes a “Bump” reaction, getting hurt causes a “Damaged” reaction.
One of the single most important decisions I make when buying a game (besides the clever box art the marketing types want me to see) is what will I be doing as the player. If the character I become isn’t interesting I will continue my search.
The role of developing a good intellectual property is not just to get a toy line and Saturday morning cartoon. It gives the player a hook. They become the hero and live vicariously through the main character while playing the game. The more interesting you make the character the more players will be attracted to your game. Simple characters may hook the players, but to hold their attention and sell sequels a player must see a relationship develop with the character. During the course of the game the player must feel compassion and empathy toward the situations the character gets into, because the player is in those same situations.
I’m not saying that every game must be a role-playing game (RPG). But as designers we can learn a lot from looking at the classic RPG mechanics and realize that all games put the player into some type of role.
Another important design decision is placing your game on the sliding scale of storytelling. At the low end is a game of just rules and scores where the player is tested against previous scores or other players. At the high end is a carefully crafted story that follows classic storytelling formulas to achieve 3 or more acts with an ultimate conclusion.
Learning the finer elements of storytelling is great for any game designer. How to construct scenes, build tension, develop characters and deliver dramatic endings is also important to good game design. I think each game designer develops these skills to some extent and uses them to make better games.
Looking carefully at the academic analyses of storytelling shows us some good tools we can use as designers. Morphology of the folktale, 36 dramatic plots, 3 (or 9) act movie structure, and the mono-myth all give practical examples of a distinct formula for developing story. Aristotle’s Poetics can easily be used in game design, and many designers do.
An important distinction I make as to what makes a great game as opposed to a great story is that the players all write the game, each one differently, whereas the author writes a single view of the story. Simply placing the elements of a story into a game will allow the players to experience them in a random fashion, like a dim sum restaurant. Arranging them carefully so that they are revealed in a time-released way, tells a strong and convincing story of the game that player experienced. It will always be subtly different than another player’s story of the same game. The trick here is to give the players the story components and let them build their own story from those pieces. Clever construction of dialog and cut-scenes means you can get more mileage from your story assets.
Mass Destruction, Carnage, Crushing Your Enemy, and Global Domination
This is wholly an observation on my part, and one that tends to cause quite a bit of controversy. I will stand on a soapbox for a moment and tell it the way I see it.
Games that sell well allow players to reap chaos and benefit from it. This may be appealing to the lizard part of your brain or just some juvenile form of energy release. But it works. Watch the top ten lists and keep a short count each week of which games have violence or any kind. Look at the revenue from these products.
As a designer you must decide where you are comfortable drawing the line. I personally believe that taking the classic Warner Brothers cartoon approach to violence is my comfort area. Mayhem occurs but the consequences are unrealistic and can be detrimental.
As a society we have been “programmed” to respond to certain kinds of violence in positive and negative ways. Football is OK, but mugging is not. The damage can be similar but the intentions are different. In games I believe that we can keep our good karma if we blow stuff up, but slamming people has consequences if done for the wrong reasons.
During design you must ask yourself what am I allowing the player to do? Have I given the player freedom to play as they wish within constraints that make sense? Accommodating every kind of player is just not practical within our game budgets. Draw your bell curve of player types and pick the biggest standard deviation. Focus test to be sure. Realize that I make games for profit, not art.
If you make games where the only interaction is “Blowing Stuff Up” you are forcing the player to follow that tactic. Try giving the players both a Captain Picard and a Captain Kirk way to solve their problems. It worked for me in the Star Trek: The Next Generation cartridge I designed for Sega. I once heard from Sega that it was the number one selling RPG of all time for the Genesis in the USA. One reviewer even said it “redefined what a good Star Trek game was”.
In any great design there is always a single life-giving heartbeat. That single shard of the design that once distilled is the essence of FUN that makes your game. Once you know what that one thing is everybody gets it. It becomes the vision of the project. The team comes together in a fascinating and synergistic force of creativity that becomes unstoppable; management sees this as the blockbuster of the year; the marketing departments “gets it” and sells the game like “hot cakes” (have you ever actually seen hot cakes sell fast? hum).
With experience most designers understand what it is. It is not easy to teach, but there is a test that can help determine if you’ve found it. Take everything else away: graphics, sound, story, and characters. If it still looks FUN to play you have found your heartbeat. With a good heartbeat the game will work on any platform, two people can develop it or twenty people and still be successful. Players will feel it instinctively and clamor for the sequels. You will be successful. I have seen it work on a design where the budget was cut, the team reduced, and the platform changed. I have also seen it work when there was no other reason to finish the product, the team had the kind of passion necessary to finish even after cancellation due to circumstances beyond their control.
Many designers suggest that this heartbeat can be a single sentence. I have always believed that ideas transcend communication so I don’t worry about how many sentences it takes, but it should be easily communicable.
Go forth and design great games. Do Good, annoy Evil. Make big bucks and buy more of my games. Thanks.
Original content Copyright © 1999-2009 Randy Angle