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  • On Game Design: The Designer

    [05.29.07]
    - Jason Weesner

  •  Formulation

    Formulation is the process of transitioning an idea or group of ideas into a more formal format. Generally, there are three approaches to introducing an idea:

    Creating a new gameplay element. "Hey, I have a great idea for a new player weapon that allows you to pick up large objects and throw them!"

    Modifying an existing gameplay element. "That's a great idea! How about if we add the ability to charge those objects so that they explode when thrown?"

    Devising a creative solution to a problem. "We need to be able to tell the player which items can be thrown with the weapon. How about if we make those items shake slightly if the player is in a specific proximity to the object and the player has the weapon equipped or charging?"

    Once an approach has been selected, it's time to introduce the ideas to your peers! A brainstorm session is a forum for the introduction of new ideas as well as the cultivation of existing ideas. In my experience, the key to a successful brainstorm is that there are no bad ideas. It's perfectly acceptable to have an agenda for the brainstorm to help define the overall direction, but the level of censorship (self or otherwise) should be set really low. You never know where a good idea can come from and many great ideas have to be nurtured and developed over time. This means that a bad idea can often inspire the direction for a better idea. There are many ways to conduct a brainstorm, so let's go over a couple with some real world examples.

    The classic roundtable is a reference to King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable. King Arthur would seat himself and his knights at a round table where there was no position of authority and everyone could speak as equals. Whether the table is square, round, or even a bunch of randomly positioned chairs, the essence of this format is used frequently in the game design industry where one person brings up an idea and then the idea moves around the group as various people riff on it until the extent of the idea is exhausted. Many moons ago, a classic round table discussion revolved around ideas for a villain in a Sega Genesis Ren & Stimpy game. Hours of heated discussion (usually the result of a lot of creativity in one room) resulted in two camps of thought: one side wanted a sentient hot dog to be the villain while the other side wanted a crazy invention gone wrong. Another discussion about the same game revolved around the game's multiplayer mode and whether one player should be allowed to inflict damage on the other player to stay true to the flavor of the show or whether that feature would frustrate players and compromise the cooperative gameplay that was planned.

    Troy Mashburn, a senior designer at Crystal Dynamics, came up with the concept of the tea time. Tea time gets its name from the time of day that it takes place (usually around 3) and the presence of either hot tea or hot chocolate. Basically, tea time is a session (formal or informal) intended for the exploration of a specific idea. The format is roughly the same as a round table with scope being added to support the discussion topic. For example, the group could discuss different ways in which a jump could be used: object avoidance (variations on jump over or out of the way), object interaction (jump on to activate), jump traversal (interesting ways of using the jump to move around an environment), jump attack (the classic butt bounce), etc. The goal of the tea time is to walk away from the meeting with a laundry list of ideas at a brainstorm level which will later be filtered and refined to drive a feature.

    Have you ever visited one of those random movie title generators? Like the Steven Segal model for instance; it takes all the words that have ever appeared in a Segal movie title and then constructs a new, random title out of them like: "Out For Law", "Enemy Decision" or "Glimmer Siege" (kinda cool!). The same thing can be done with game ideas. At the annual Computer Game Developer's Conference, there's a fairly new panel called the "Game Design Challenge". The challenge consists of three notable designers producing their own take on a make believe game concept. It's a great idea, but you don't need to go to GDC to do it. A variation on the same exercise can be started by writing down every game genre you can think of and then sorting them out into columns (2 or more depending on how challenging you want the challenge to be). Then, you just pick a genre from each column and there's the design challenge. How about a first person shooter puzzler?

    High Riser: A man runs through the strange corridors of a massive alien city. As if things weren't freaky enough, large city blocks descend slowly from the sky rearranging the cityscape as they land. The player has to anticipate the ever-changing landscape while trying to survive death around every corner: a trapped room, a traversal challenge, or an enemy.

    So, I'm trying to make it sound like Tomb Raider meets Tetris meets Dark City. Did I succeed? If not, where did I come up short on the concept? First, we should probably identify the start of what I've got written here. It's called a High Concept and it's one of the major elements of idea formulation. A high concept is essentially a summation of the game design (or a single game element) in as few a sentences as possible. It's meant to be quickly read and comprehended. This means that if somebody can't understand your game idea from the high concept, then you've got a failure to communicate. The best thing to do at this point is to take a step backwards and bullet point out all the ideas in your head for the game. Since we're still talking about the topic of ideas, we'll just concentrate on one element: the puzzle element. To come up with the mechanic for the puzzle element, I'm going to break each bullet point down into three categories: form (the look of something), function (a system), and inspiration (points of reference for myself and potential readers):

    FORM: the alien city is made out of recognizable blocks: buildings, streets, freeways, etc.

    FUNCTION: automated transport systems (buses, cars, trains, etc.) move around the city.

    INSPIRATION: layers of old Roman cities underneath cathedrals in England.

    FUNCTION: the city keeps changing as new blocks fall from the sky and eliminate or severely damage the existing blocks beneath them.

    FORM: there are basic shapes of city blocks. Each one has its own traversal challenges and function.

    FORM: lots of physics. Buildings fall onto traffic and cause massive accidents before the vehicles are rerouted. Stairs collapse and buildings fracture.

    FUNCTION: players can look up and see the next piece falling into place.

    FUNCTION: if the player finds the lock mechanism in a building, they can lock the building into place which makes it invincible. Any other city blocks that drop on it are destroyed on contact.

    FORM: the player must continuously adapt to new routes created by the changing landscape.

    FUNCTION: if blocks drop onto enemies or enemies are inside of buildings being destroyed, they are killed.

    FORM: each piece connects up with the new piece and parts of the previous piece.

    FUNCTION: staying in more dangerous areas garners more points and bonuses. Safer areas are less rewarding.

    FUNCTION: master control panel temporarily gives the player the power over which blocks are dropping and where.

    The reason I separated them out into categories is to demonstrate the sort of thinking that goes into a typical idea. You can see that in this case, I have one main point of inspiration (a result of my reference which I mentioned a little earlier) and then numerous ideas for form and function. In future articles we'll start refining the high concept and explore the other parts of a design document using this first person shooter puzzler concept. BUT, before we get to the actual documentation phase of an idea, it's important to cover a few common pitfalls that happen during the formulation process:

    It's quite common for an idea to have too much personal bias. Let's say you have a penchant for forklifts and you've always wanted to design some game play that revolves around the use of a forklift. The forklift has some inherently cool features like the ability to lift objects and move them around for example. However, the game you're working on doesn't really have a logical place for a forklift. Part of being a good video game designer is recognizing when a game element is incongruent. Game elements that don't fit often stick out as poor implementation or even run the risk of breaking a game!

    In practice, there are no really bad ideas, just ill-conceived plans of attack and a lack of clear goals. You don't have to finalize specific implementation methods during the formulation stage, but it's important to keep implementation in the back of your mind going into the documentation phase. If you can't think of a single way to implement an idea, you need to resolve the idea into something more approachable or rethink the idea entirely.

    It's important to judge the potential audience of an idea. Some people can be too quick to judge an idea on its presentation and this can even include an idea's preface. For example, "let me run a crazy idea by you." Well, this may not sit well with a conservative audience like a lead designer under a considerable amount of stress or somebody in upper management who may not have any frame of reference for the idea. The importance of moving into documentation with a clear idea of the intended audience cannot be stressed enough because many ideas can be shot down based on presentation alone!

    Realize the scope of an idea so that you know when you've hit the extent of an idea before it becomes another idea or becomes too convoluted.

    Formulation is all about taking an idea and making it accessible to other people and the key to a successful formulation process is to keep things clear, concise, and cohesive. When I first got into the video game industry, the company I was working at had an open call for game design ideas which would be run past our producer at Sega. I helped out a friend on her concept for a side scrolling stealth game about thieves in Paris. In 2D games, side scrolling games present the game world as a connected sequence of backgrounds which scroll in multiple directions to track the movement of the player. While she was editing her presentation, she used the automatic spelling and grammar feature in Microsoft Word which changed the term "side scrolling" to "side scribbler"! She didn't catch the change, but the producer did and thought it was a really interesting idea (perhaps interesting enough to become Sega's Wild Woody). Of course, nothing else in the presentation supported the idea.

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