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  • On Game Design: The Designer

    - Jason Weesner

  •  Essence of Video Game Design

    Good game design skills are not only critical to creating fun games, but also in helping to ensure that the development process is smooth, iterative, and efficient across disciplines. There are many different flavors of video game designer: spec (technical specifications) writer, scripter, level designer, lead designer, senior designer, combat designer, etc. Regardless of all the variations, at any given time, every designer gets called upon to come up with an idea whether it's in relation to pure creative design or specific implementation.

    At the risk of sounding a little highfaluting, I like to think of this as the essence of being a video game designer: coming up with ideas. If that definition of essence seems a little simplistic, it's not. There's no right or wrong way to come up with ideas, but there is a natural window of opportunity for the birth of an idea as well as an order of steps which can be executed in any way a designer wishes. For the purposes of this article, I'll go with a fairly tried and true process of steps used by many designers in the video game industry: inspiration, formulation, documentation.


    In simple terms, all ideas are inspired and inspirations, in turn, are conscious or subconscious responses to a variety of stimuli:

    Sound: The urgency of a baby crying (a primary game mechanic in Yoshi's Island), a slowly turning windmill (Ico), the crackle of radio static (Silent Hill), etc. A good exercise in understanding the importance of sound is to play just about any game with the sound muted. Other than the obvious lack of sound, how is the gaming experience actually different without sound? What game mechanics are partly or wholly dependent on sound effects? As a budding video game designer, learn to listen to the world around you: the way the beat of a song matches a car's turn signal, the wind blowing across a lawn of unkempt grass, the complicated din of conversations in a crowded restaurant, crickets chirping at night until you get too close and they go quiet. If you want an interesting experience and have the urge to go searching on EBay, there's a great PlayStation 1 budget shooter called Gekioh Shooting King where there's an option to change the sound effects so that you can get a laugh track to replace the regular explosion sounds.

    Yoshi's Island

    Music: Music best inspires mood, but can also provide thematic structure and flow for an idea. Have you ever danced around to a song? Cried to a song? Think about how different types of music inspire different moods in you. Like a great song, a great game mechanic depends a lot on rhythm and tone and the way they're sequenced. Shigeru Miyamoto used music in the Ocarina of Time as a game mechanic analogous to a traditional magic system. Rez uses a pulsing electronic soundtrack that builds in complexity and themes as the player's performance improves and they move further into the game. The next time you listen to a piece of music, see if you can discern the different elements of the song (chorus, verse, rhythm, etc.) and how you can associate mood with each element and the way they flow together.

    Sight and Vision: The artistic direction for Sega's Rez was inspired by creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi's love of the art of Wassily Kandinsky. Both Ico and Shadow of the Colossus depend on the play of light and shadow in the environments to get across thematic game elements. For example, the barren expanses that represent the world of the Colossus bring emphasis to the grandeur of the huge beasts and the sadness of killing them and making the world feel that much more abandoned. From your own personal experiences, what have you seen in the world that would contribute to a great element of game play? A desert sky at night with a million stars, a double rainbow, a beautiful painting, a cityscape reflected in the windows of a skyscraper, a neat special effects shot in a movie, etc.

    Emotion: On a more personal level, ideas can be the result of humor or sadness, love or despair. Parappa the Rapper uses humor to inject urgency into Parappa's misadventures. Aeris' infamous death in Final Fantasy VII (sorry for the spoiler if you haven't played it!) is an especially moving moment that leverages sadness and loss as emotions to drive the main characters' final battles with Sephiroth.

    Environment: Miyamoto Shigeru's Zelda games featured environments that were largely inspired by his childhood adventures in the woods and caves near his home. Okami uses the environment to convey character development in relation to the ongoing rejuvenation of the game world. A large part of video game design is level design which is the art of creating game landscapes that abide by a set of game rules while also establishing an appealing setting. Don't ever pass up an opportunity to explore your surroundings!

    You can consider all the examples of inspiration I've give so far to be intrinsic. By this, I mean that they are forms of inspiration based on personal reaction, experience, or background. There are even more abstract forms of this sort of stimulus. For example, synaesthesia is a condition where two or more bodily senses experience a crossover. For example, it's entirely possible to perceive sound as color or spatial distance between mathematics (like the proximity between two numbers). Take a look at games like Lumines or Rez or Vib Ribbon to see examples of synesthesia in action. In relation to Rez, Tetsuya Mizuguchi says, "You need to make enough fuzzy space in a game for the people who play it. If you make the details too real, there's no space for the player to feel. Maybe this is the state of art: a game can be entertainment, but feeling something is art." If you play Rez (which I suggest you do), see if you can feel this fuzzy space and pay close attention to how sound, color, and light bridge this space to connect with the player and the game play.

    Ellis Goodson is a great concept artist I've worked with on a few occasions. Ellis has the unique ability to capture an idea (whether it's his own or someone else's) and turn it into a concept sketch (an art asset used for the later development of game assets or game play). Ellis answered a few questions for us in relation to the topic of ideas.


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