Archive for the ‘Thoughts on game design’ Category

Presenting a work in progress

October 19th, 2009 No comments

The first step to take before presenting parts or the whole of your game, should be checking whether it is in a presentable shape. This may sound overly obvious but it is not. Depending on your audience and the state of your product, different levels of polish are required. At any point feedback can be very useful, so make sure that your audience is aware of the state of the product to avoid misunderstandings and useless comments.

conceptBefore presenting a game concept one has to make sure it is at least interesting at some level. If you believe in a certain concept you have to try and get others interested as well. This mostly requires a clear presentation with some material to visualize your concept. If you are not able to capture your colleague’s/client’s imagination or fascination, you won’t be able to get them motivated for your idea.

Presenting a prototype is a slightly different story. Depending on what you are showing/testing you need to focus your audience’s attention on that aspect. You don’t want to hear feedback on you placeholder art if you are testing a game mechanic or menu flow. Still it can be important to have a certain level of quality in other aspects of the prototype to make it work. You can’t judge the menu flow if you don’t understand the button art for example.

Beta versions should be at least fully functional portions of the product. At this point all the different aspects of the game start coming together and they will be judged on how good they make a whole. Make sure to point out what parts are still under construction to avoid misunderstandings about the final look and feel of the game, don’t be defensive and try to gather lots useful feedback at this point. You will need it to see what fixes are needed before you can call your game completed.

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The path of least resistance

August 31st, 2009 1 comment

climberA player enters a room with three doors. Only one of the three doors is the right choice, entering the other two will result in a game over animation and place the player back to the entrance of the room. The player can find out which door he should enter by solving a puzzle in the room.

If there are only three doors in the room and making the wrong choice only places them back a few seconds, many players will simply open all the doors to find out which is the correct one. The harder the puzzle is the more likely it is that players will take this easy way out, even if this undermines the game experience. A player will blame the game for being too soft on him if it does not punish him hard enough to discourage this kind of behavior. It is very unlikely for a player to force himself to play a game the way it is clearly meant to be played if the game allows game breaking actions. Take for example games in which enemy AI’s reset if you move out of the room they are in. Many action games have this problem and players will exploit it every time they are on the verge of losing. And why wouldn’t they. Why would a player punish himself by staying in the room and be beaten, if it is much more practical to move out of the room and survive?

Games should not be practical in nature, on the contrary, they are build to challenge the player with in-game problems. If those problems can be circumvented they are not really challenges and the game fails to be what it should be. Unless the game is about circumventing in-game problems, in which case evading the problems is the challenge.

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Internal cohesion

May 24th, 2009 No comments

Most games have a setting in which the gameplay takes place. It helps the player immerse in the game and if executed right, it explains and supports the gameplay mechanics. Take Sonic for example. The world of Sonic is filled with brightly colored robotic enemies that pop open if you destroy them, only to reveal a cute little animal that was trapped inside, encouraging you to do it again. The world itself is comprised of pitfalls, loopings and bounce pads that launch you into the air. None of these elements really make sense by themselves but take into account that the player is constantly running, jumping, dashing and rolling and the world starts to make sense. The setting is comprised of various illogical elements, but they work very well together and they are internally consistent.

Games like Sonic, Mario and Megaman create their own worlds that make sense internally. They make up whatever elements they need and integrate them into the worlds logic. Games that use more conventional settings often run into problems when trying to explain some gameplay elements in their setting. Just think about platformer games that have more realistic super-mario-world-2characters and settings yet still have endless amounts of highly impractical structures to scale and tons of conveniently placed handholds scattered around the “natural” environment. In a game like Megaman this would not be a problem because almost every element in the game only makes sense within the bounds of the game. In a more realistic setting, picking up some bandages to heal yourself time and time again, stops making sense really fast and so do double jumping, surviving long falls, carrying tons of weapons and ammo, etc.

Creating the right setting can take a lot of time and one should not underestimate this. A well designed setting can make an average game feel good, just as a flawed setting can utterly spoil the players experience. A setting doesn’t have to work by itself, just look at Super Mario. The important thing is that it works well in tandem with the gameplay.

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On the fly

April 28th, 2009 No comments

The three warriors decide to take the enemy head-on, they are outnumbered five to one but they are convinced they can take it. For some reason they don’t see that their basic weapons have no possible chance of doing sufficient damage to their heavily armored opponents. If they stand their ground here, they will die.

In a pen and paper RPG the players have a character sheet that describes their characters’ strong and weak points plus a description of his/her personality. One of the players is appointed gamemaster, which basically means that player comes up with the story and controls everything except for the player characters. This does not mean the gamemaster has complete control over what happens. Things like social manipulation, combat, feats of strength etc. all have a certain combination of statistics associated to them. Die rolls are required to see if a players succeed in their actions. This is also true for any NPC’s actions.

Creating a campaign for a pen and paper RPG is like level design with on the fly tweaking. The gamemaster tries to come up with a story and situations that will be interesting to be played with the characters in his player group. Also he will try to come up with situations that will appeal to his players, the players are after all his target audience. The better you know your players the better you can predict what they will like. Since the gamemaster will always be present when the game is being played, he will always know the results of a session and be able to tweak the next session with those results in mind. Feedback is almost immediate and changes can be made at any point during the game. Of course the preparation of a game session takes some time, but most of what will happen during the actual game is made up right there. If an encounter goes horribly wrong and players stand their ground while they should be running for their lives, a gamemaster can manipulate the outcome to better fit the current situation.

If the players die because they misinterpreted the situation, everyone will be disappointed. Since there are no continues to be used the player characters will be gone and all the character development with them. At this point in a pen and paper RPG a good gamemaster will give subtle in-game hints or in some cases even subtly change elements of the encounter. The situation can for example be altered by reinforcements that suddenly appear to help the players or the enemy soldiers can suddenly start infighting over some internal conflict. When done right the players won’t even find out that the predetermined situation has been altered. In computer games this kind of on the fly tweaking is impossible. Everything that can happen has to be designed and developed in advance, which makes planning and testing essential.

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Searching for triggers

March 29th, 2009 1 comment

While playing Killzone 2 I was once again reminded of how important feedback is in games. In most parts of the game, feedback was clear and effective; bullets had an impact, when taking damage the edge screen was splashed with blood to indicate the direction of attack and vehicle damage was visible in the form of smoke and fire. It was strange to see that at some points the feedback was suddenly flawed.

wrong feedbackAt a certain point in the game I am told to breach a beachhead held by the enemy forces. They are well fortified and have a heavy gun emplacement. Storming ahead doesn’t seem wise so I start picking off enemy soldiers at long range. Every time I take out some units, reinforcements seem to arrive from behind enemy lines so I decide to try and storm the gun emplacement. It doesn’t take long for me to be flanked and shot by the next wave of reinforcements so I respawn and try to take out more soldiers before charging ahead. After many kills and several respawns I decide to try and kill the soldier behind the turret. After taking him out the reinforcements stop and I am no longer stuck in the same situation.

Since it was not clear to me that the gun emplacement and the reinforcements where interlinked, I felt no satisfaction for solving that situation. Several such situations occur during the game and they make me feel powerless. Sometimes spawns stop after a certain amount of kills or a set amount of time has passed, sometimes I have to reach a certain point on the map or complete a given task. At such points I have to start searching for what triggers the reinforcements to stop instead of playing the game. Destroying a passage to stop forces coming from that direction makes sense and can be logically deduced. Solving such a situation can feel rewarding, while searching for triggers that are seemingly unconnected elements of the game feel random and break the flow.

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The illusion of freedom

March 22nd, 2009 No comments

A simple fact is that every game has a scope; some things are within the games premise and many other things are not. One cannot (and should not want to) put everything in one game. When you put more content in a game, you need more polish and balancing for it to work properly. Even if you choose to create a massive world filled with diverse content, you will have to draw a line somewhere. Bumping into that line can be a game breaker for players. Especially the immersion in game worlds simulating lifelike environments, can suffer badly if awkward limitations are encountered. But how can such a confrontation be avoided?

As many games have relatively lifelike setting, it is not surprising to see that many different boundaries have been employed:

-The player character does not want to go beyond a certain area because he has something important to do in the current environment.

-The world is wrapped, which means that leaving one edge of the playing field will have you enter on the other side.

-Leaving the defined game area will deplete your health until you eventually die.

-The game has clear boundaries that are visible in the game world. (poison gas, impassable water, mountains, debris, closed doors, force fields, etc )

-Outside the designated gaming area players can keep moving but there is nothing of interest there (an endless ocean all around the playing field for example)

-The player is warned and killed when staying outside of the playing area for a certain time.


To avoid a confrontation between the player and the boundaries of the game, one has to convey a clear motivation why the player should not be heading for the boundaries and opposed to that a good reason to go somewhere else.

When a player is stimulated to explore every corner of an open world game and runs into an invisible wall at the edges of it, the player was motivated to get there. Without a clear reason why he should not be heading there, the player will feel his freedom awkwardly limited in a seemingly open world. In contrast; when a player tries to walk through a poison gas cloud while his party members ask for his support behind him, the player has no real reason to keep going forward and a good reason to turn back to the game-world.

Finding the right boundaries for the game premise can be a big challenge. A game with a relatively small scope but expertly placed boundaries, can feel larger in scope then a huge game with boundaries in the wrong place. Moments of freedom in a game are only interesting if the limitations and rules that guide them are good.

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No more base building

March 16th, 2009 No comments

No more base buildingSome might say that RTS games are all about base building, which some recently released games have proven not to be true. Take Endwar, Dawn of War 2 and World in Conflict for instance; none of them incorporate base building, but all of them are solid games. Does this mean that base building is an antiquated concept that will not be missed?

Endwar has got voice commands and some light micro managing. The army size is relatively small and units move in squads to keep this console title manageable. The player is constantly cycling through different units on different locations of the map. Since there is no base to check up on and the player views the battlefield from a third person perspective through his units, this gives the game a very mobile feeling. Depending on the amount of control you have over the battlefield, more units can be dropped at a specified location. Lost units can be replaced after a certain amount of time.

In Dawn of War 2 the player has got only 4 squads under his command. Directional and destructible cover keep the player on his toes. Micromanaging the various abilities also requires the player to be aware of his squads at all time. A typical mission takes about 14 minutes to complete, which stands in stark contrast to the typical RTS map that can take more than an hour. Units cannot be build in the single player campaign but are selected and outfitted for each mission. Lost units can be reinforced at specific locations and healed in various ways.

World in Conflict gives the player command over a reasonably sized army. Units move in squads and some have an ability that can be activated. The general combat procedures are comparable to a typical RTS, but since the player has no base to defend or units to build, the game has got a distinctly different feeling to it. Missions will have you move around from one objective to the next; completing various tasks. Additional units can be acquired through mission triggers and some units can be dropped into the battlefield.

In the titles mentioned above the focus of the gameplay has been shifted heavily towards strategically commanding troops, and away from the mechanics of unit production. With the exclusion of the moment to moment decisions that a base requires, these games ask for a different approach, from designer and player alike.

While I never missed base building in these games, I do not think it is an aspect that will disappear entirely. The building and managing of a base is far to addictive to be discarded completely, and interesting enough to be the primary focus of a game. I am convinced that shifting the core gameplay in that direction may yield results that are just as refreshing to the genre as the games mentioned above.

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Everyone can do this

March 1st, 2009 No comments

caught before the fall

Since the success of the Wii has unveiled a huge new audience of casual players, other platforms have started to cater for that same considerable amount of people. Next to the titles that are specifically aimed at these casual gamers, some IP’s that were previously labeled hardcore, are also trying appeal to it. While this is an understandable step, it is one that must be taken with care.

Drawing a casual audience to a previously existing IP or genre has the basic difficulty that it did not appeal to them in the first place. The appeal of a game can be divided into many different parts like; visual appeal, difficulty, theme, learning curve, etc.

An existing franchise that lowers its difficulty to be accessible to a larger audience runs the risk of losing its appeal to the original audience. Changing the visual style of a game might make a game more appealing to a new audience but that by itself will not keep them interested if they dislike the core gameplay.

A clear example of a game that fails at some of the points mentioned above is the latest iteration of Prince of Persia. The visuals and theme of the game have been polished and will most likely appeal to a broad audience but the core mechanic is still platforming, which is a genre that many find too hard and/or just don’t like. In this new version of Prince of Persia the difficulty has been lowered so much that the game almost doesn’t feel like a platformer anymore. A minimal amount of player input is required to execute impressive moves and jumps and some of the sections are so simple, they can literally be played with one hand behind your back. Furthermore there is no skill development throughout the game. The moves you start out with are the same ones you will use from beginning to end.

The drastic change in difficulty within the franchise displeases many fans. Though even a player that has not played a platformer before will be able to successfully play this game within a few minutes, most do not want to, simply because it is a platforming game and platforming doesn’t appeal to them.

Making a game more accessible is a good thing, just make sure not to lose the appeal of your core gameplay in the process. If saving the world by fighting monsters and making incredible jumps is so simple that even your little sister can do it with one hand behind her back, why do it at all?

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Finding the balance

February 22nd, 2009 No comments

While making a game one has to strike a careful balance between content/features and polish/balancing. Flaws in the game´s AI and graphical glitches can be overlooked when a game has just been launched but if they are persistent throughout the game, they will eventually break the user experience. This of course is something you don’t want to happen. The problem can only be remedied by further balancing and tweaking the game, which takes time. And time is money. That brings us to the core of the design challenge. As a designer it is essential to take into account the time required to polish, balance and test every important aspect of the game. A well balanced and polished game can still be playable long after its launch, while a flawed game will eventually lose its appeal.

Some games are balanced and tweaked to perfection while others strike a delicate balance between content and tweaking. If done right both can be successful in their own way. Take for example the games Gears of War 2 as opposed to Fallout 3.

Gears of War 2 is in essence a heavily polished and tweaked version of Gears of War. Every aspect of the previous iteration has returned in this title in a more polished way. The sounds have more impact, the cover system works much better, the graphics are much more varied, the level design is much more interesting etc. As a result the game is very solid and replayable.

balanceFallout 3 is stuffed with content and therefore also filled with bugs/glitches. In Fallout 3 the player has tons of areas to explore, quests to complete, conversational options, non linear gameplay, etc. The sheer amount of content results in weaker balancing and some bugs will keep haunting you throughout the game. Even though the bugs damage the overall experience, the sheer amount of gameplay and overall atmosphere keep many players interested for dozens of hours.

As you can see from the example above; there is no fixed and perfect balance that one can use in every design. What can be said however is that a balance has to be found. A small, well balanced game can be fun to play for a long time and a massive game can fail on its outset. It is not the size or polish that is the most important factor, it’s what you have in mind for the game. Ask yourself what the game is supposed to achieve, make sure you have the required amount of content and balance it accordingly.

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Co-op vs just playing together

February 8th, 2009 No comments

If you look at most so called co-op games with a critical eye, you will be aware of the fact that most of them are in essence just single player games you can play together. The core mechanics, level design and controls are single player oriënted. So in essence those games are not really co-op games at all, not even if you work together.

A good example of the above are games like Metal Slug. In this game the player navigates through a level and shoots everything that comes his way to progress. Drop in as a second player and you can both shoot everything in sight to progress.

A more subtle case of the above is Army of Two. This is a third person shooter game that was designed to be played as a two player co-op game. While it is true that the game is only enjoyable if you play it together, this does not make it a co-op game. The game has several co-op elements that are designed to facilitate a co-op experience. These are dragging your buddy when he is wounded, helping each other onto higher ground, an aggro system, the possibility to swap weapons in the field, co-op parachute jumps and co-op vehicle sections.


With so many co-op aspects one might think the above must be a co-op game, yet at the foundation of the game the mechanics are still single player oriënted. Also most of the mechanics mentioned above are not core mechanics and therefore used/encountered sporadically. As a player you will spend most of your time in the game running around shooting enemies and grabbing ammo along the way, just as you would in any other third person shooter.

Then what does it take to make a game truly co-op?

To really be a co-op game working together has to play a central role in the game’s core mechanics. Also the levels and controls should reflect this. Just splitting up a single player action, into pieces that must then be executed by more players, doesn’t cut it. The game’s design has to stimulate and require cooperation and preferably also communication. Players should constantly be thinking about how to solve game situations as a team. This most likely creates completely different design challenges, opportunities and player interactions then those of a single player game with added cooperative elements. Also the result will be a true co-op game as opposed to a single player game with tacked on co-op.

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