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  • On Game Design: The Designer

    [05.29.07]
    - Jason Weesner

  •  References

    In order to effectively use reference materials in relation to video game design, we have to retrain aspects of how we look at reference. In high school, most of us were given book report assignments where we had to read a book and then provide analysis based on the author's intent. For example, in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, what is the significance of East and West Egg in relation to class struggle and the cultural differences in the period of American history that the book took place in? If you can answer that question, then I'll award you extra credit points! The point of the example is not to grouse about the fact that you can't just ask Mr. Fitzgerald what the significance was, but, instead, to take his work and analyze it in order to form a cohesive interpretation. The same analytical skills can be used with all sorts of different reference. I'll provide three different types of reference and examples of how a lot of other designers analyze them for useful elements.

    DVDs: The video game industry adopted various parts of the movie industry production model around the introduction of the CD as a game media format. Games like the Seventh Guest and Myst were some of the first games to feature cinematic style composition and lighting while the original Prince of Persia and Out of This World featured life-like animation. Games today feature advanced real time environments with real lighting and motion captured characters which are approaching a cinematic level of fidelity. All of this means that DVD's are a near indispensable source of reference in relation to scene composition, sound, level layout, lighting, character progression, etc. In addition to the ability to instantly access any part of a film or television show, one of the greatest things about most DVD releases is the staggering amount of bonus material available on just about any aspect of production. Director's commentaries, behind the scenes footage, production diaries, and effects breakdowns are just some of the many resources that are often available on a DVD. In most cases, we no longer have to ask the questions, but, rather, soak up the expertise of the professionals who created the movie or television show. By taking advantage of the bonus materials, we can see why creative decisions were made and how complex elements were created with the input of multiple departments.

    DVDs can also be used to help convey complex design ideas in visual terms that everybody can understand. For example, a nature film like BBC's Planet Earth could be used to describe complex creature behaviors or elements of environments that can be used in level layouts. Robocop inspired entire generations of ED 209 clones (also known as the chicken walker), the Fifth Element (just edging out Blade Runner) set the standard for flying traffic, and Alien presented one of the first truly alien creature designs. Designers and artists have used these movies as reference examples during the design process and many of these cinematic elements have actually formed a common language where by simply naming the movie provides instant recognition of an idea.

    Video Games: Just about any video game can give you valuable insight on why something works really well or why something is virtually unplayable. When we get further on in the series, you'll be able to generate a more refined list of questions to ask when looking at any aspect of a game, but for now we can start with a couple of basic questions:

    What are the core mechanics? Core mechanics are the basic game elements (player actions, interactions, and world dynamics) that form the foundation of the game. Well designed core mechanics fit together like a puzzle with each piece dependent on adjacent, related mechanics in order to form a complete picture. When you play a game, try and identify these mechanics and then think about how the game would change if any of the mechanics were removed.

    Are the controls responsive? Are they intuitive? Control responsiveness is a key issue in game play. How long does it take a game character to respond to a button press? For example, compare Prince of Persia to Tomb Raider Legend. The main character in Prince Of Persia is animation driven which means that the player presses a button and the Prince commits to an animation, which (largely) can't be interrupted. Other button presses are queued which means that player input is read and stored for ensuing actions. Tomb Raider Legend bases its control scheme on "fluid movement" which ensures that player input results in immediate response. Judging which system is better is purely subjective based on the player's enjoyment of the game, but it also brings up the issue of intuitive controls. Intuitive controls are a very simple concept based on two elements: the required player input (how many buttons are used on a controller and which buttons the actions are assigned to) and player response (how does the on screen character react to the input).


    Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones

    Does the game flow feel good? So what exactly is "game flow"? Level progression (level layouts become increasingly challenging and often follow a narrative), weapon progression (the player and opponents use increasingly powerful weapons), enemy progression (enemies become harder by displaying new behaviors and requiring different player strategies), etc. If a game flows well, then all these things work in concert with the core mechanics and produce a satisfying game experience. If a game doesn't flow well, then it should be relatively easy to pinpoint where it feels wrong.

    In addition to the games I'm personally interested in playing, I keep a list of games separated out into two categories: games recommended by colleagues and games that are popular and / or have sold a ton of copies. Games recommended by colleagues give me access to game genres that we may share a common interest in as well as exposing me to game play elements that they've enjoyed which may be mutually beneficial to us if we ever work together on a project. In the case of popular games, even if I don't particularly care for a game or a genre, it's important, as a video game designer, to play those games in order to figure out why they were so successful with the consumers. You can also play a game for competitive analysis. This is where you play a variety of games that are related to the genre of game you're making and compile a list of competing features.

     

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