On game design

It’s recently become apparent that as I am doing a lot of game design, and seem to have loads of opinions on the subject, that I should acknowledge the fact, at least to myself – that my interests in games go further than programming.

I’m also very wary of ‘design practices’ as it’s been my casual observation that, at least in the fields of creative or programming work, they seem to be invented with the object of selling books and brainwashing management to ultimately sell even more books, rather than really helping in any tangible manner.

HOWEVER, I can get over this stick in the mud attitude and describe two design practises that we’ve been using lately:

User centred design

This one I was taught at a design workshop by Ylva Fernaeus, Sara Ljungblad and Mattias Jacobsson from SICS, but I recognise it from elsewhere, and it was good to have it explained in full.

One part of ‘UCD’ (as I’m sure it’s abbreviated to to confuse the initiates) is called user stories. You make up a fictitious person who might play your game, and describe who they are, why they are playing and what their motivations are etc – you can get quite carried away with this, and within sensible margins, it seems to help.

Then you describe the experience of the game from their point of view. This means you can leave out all the details and focus on what you want them to feel – from the inside.

You do this for a handful of people with different backgrounds. It obviously helps if you have a little bit of experience with the sort of people you are imagining the reactions of. We’ve been using our family members as inspiration, which makes it a bit easier.

The result of doing this is thinking about the players rather than the game, and while it sounds simple, forcing you to think like this can reveal some surprises.

Vertical Slice

This one sounds terribly technical, and I picked it up at Sony. It comes a little later, once you have a clear-ish design and you start to write the code. The idea is that you implement only enough to have a single full experience of your game. For instance, if you can choose between a variety of characters – in the vertical slice you only implement one, and implement it fully. When it’s finished, the vertical slice should show you one possible path through the game, but no more.

This is generally used to persuade publishers that their money is safe, and that the game is a winner with the minimum of development expense required.

However, I think it can also fit with the user stories, if you take one of your fictitious players (perhaps the one who represents the strongest demographic you are interested in) and implement the vertical slice as if you were making it for them, you are forced to face some of the most important decisions first.

Then, and this is really the key thing – you can deal with these decisions while the game is still malleable, both in terms of code, and in terms of your understanding of it in your head, and you are in a much better position to come up with the solutions needed.

3 thoughts on “On game design

  1. Not quite the article I was expecting with that title (not a complaint). I was expecting something on the design of the gameplay; things like “match three” (Bejeweled,etc), “rock-paper-scissors with unequal payoff” (Street FighterII, etc), “get as close to the edge as possible but not over it” (Ring of Red, Castle Shikigami).

    In the past decade or so “games” (as products) moved towards being “interactive narratives”. With some exceptions like FPS’s the incentive to play on is much more in following the story (Final Fantasy) and collecting stuff (Farm Ville) than it used to be. Back in the days of the NES there was hardly anything on offer but exploring the gameplay and engaging the difficulty level. Back then a game that took a hour to play from start to finish could give months of entertainment, now there needs to be enough content to make playing the game once last that long. I’m just observing trends here, there are many many exceptions in all directions.

    Clearly this has affected the way in which games get made, that’s only logical. I’m not claiming this is a bad development either; it has brought us gems like Silent Hill2 and Shadow of the Colossus; games as a method of presenting a narrative in a engaging way can be a amazing thing.

    What I wonder about though is where this leaves the oldfashioned enjoyment of *playing*. SH2 as a narrative is absolutely amazing, IMHO, but is it actually a good *game*? To what degree is the actually playing still relevant to the more recent (say post PS1) versions of Final Fantasy? Perhaps we should focus on integrating gameplay with this narrative but is there even a market for that? Ikaruga might be a example of a game that raises the flow of the gameplay itself to a ballet-like level that essentially forms a sort of abstract narrative but it demands a dedication from the player to experience this that’s beyond most people.

    As the medium goes through this “puberty” these might be the big questions. Developer teams get larger and larger, yet the “cult favourite” games seem to invariably be made by exceptionally small teams. Perhaps this is because those teams are able to integrate gameplay, visual design, sound design, narrative and code into a coherent single unity more easily?

  2. I think that small teams are easier to maintain a coherent vision in, without either resorting to a committee approach or needing a singular dictator ego who can keep their vision intact and communicate it to all the people involved.

    I’m also not that sure I agree that all that much has changed. In terms of narrative and story, sure games like the Metal Gear series push the narrative to extremes – a ‘string of pearls’ approach where game play becomes a linear series of mini games themed to the main story. And very enjoyable they are too, much better than the games in the 90’s where story ruled completely and gameplay was reduced to choosing from two or three options with a well timed mouse click. :)

    In more recent times the Sims games have been some of the most popular ever, which are really about giving players tools to make up their own stories. The rise of games like Little Big Planet, push this even further too.

  3. Yes, good examples.

    Perhaps I do take the word “game” a bit literally and what we have is more like “interactive rule-based entertainment”. FarmVille is exceptionally popular but might even fall outside of what I’d still call a “game”.

    Perhaps old-school games focussed on games like “playing soccer” and less on games like “playing house”. This is probably a good development; something like Gradius might be a great game but it’s hardly emotionally engaging. I maintain that attempts at merging these elements is a big question these days. I think that those “press X to not die” things during cut-scenes things hint at this. Sadly that’s a example that’s so clear because they seem so clumsy and bolted on.

    Then again the current age also brings us stuff like Patapon which I feel succeeded extremely well in joining narrative, graphics, sound, gameplay and strategy into a single coherent thing. I do feel that one works so well because the centre of the overall design is in the gameplay but then again, maybe I just like it because that’s the element I look for in games? From that perspective I might call the most basic gameplay element a “slice” and demand that this be fun on it’s own (I think Nintendo used to start from that). This too has weak points as from that perspective SH2 is really starting to look like a bad game, while it looks great from your “vertical slices” perspective above.

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