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  • Playing to Learn

    - James Portnow

  •  Opening It Up
    So you've played the game, now it's time to do the work. Let's assume you've already dug into the interesting parts of the game. You've tested all the best features in every way you can, but you haven't gotten what you'd like out of it. What should you do now?

    Why, start at the beginning of course.

    As you go about playing to learn, it's important to remember that a game is not just the sum of its parts. A game is more like a living organism with all its systems interacting, working together, and affecting each other. It's impossible to look at any mechanic in isolation.

    Go back to the beginning. What happens when you turn the console on? When you first boot up the disc? Is there an intro movie after the company logos? Is there a start screen? Is there a gameplay demo?

    How the game begins sets the tone for the user's experience. Plus, as a game designer, even something as simple as the start menu is a tool you have in your bag, and it's a lazy designer who doesn't use all her tools.

    Start screen and options. Look at the start menus for different types of games. How are they laid out? What are the different choices? How are they presented? Are they themed or "gamey?" If there's an option's menu, one of the first things you should do as a designer is go to it and check out what the developers let the user set. Take note of what's set as the defaults. The defaults tell you a lot about how the designers view their game and whom they think their target audience is.

    Some start menus I think are interesting are:

    • BioShock (the sound it makes when you move between options)
    • Indigo Prophecy (completely themed)
    • Call of Duty 4 (shows players how much they have yet to unlock).
    Introductions. The introduction sets the tone for everything. I could name a thousand great introductions, but I'd say look at
    • Metal Gear Solid 2
    • Silent Hill
    • Final Fantasy X
    • Kingsfield 2
    • Suikoden 3
    • Call of Duty 4
    • Katamari Damacy
    • Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
    • Gears of War.

    Each of these games preps the player for the rest of the experience by setting the tone and giving clues as to how to enjoy the experience. Remember, the introduction isn't just the opening cutscene or the first level. The introduction of a game ends whenever you (the user) think it's over. For example, I think Final Fantasy X's intro ends when Tidus is swallowed by Sin, but I know many people who think it continues on until Tidus gets to Besaid. Like everything else in games, the introduction is about the user's experience, not the author's intent.

    When you're going through these introductions, note the genre of game you're playing and see how each correlates to the pacing of its intro. How soon does the player get to take control? How much of the "core gameplay" is enabled when the player does get control? How soon does the game get to the action? If the game has major thematic elements, are they introduced here? What's the music like?

    Here's another thing to take careful note of after the intro is over: Are the next X minutes of gameplay as good/engaging as the X minutes of intro? In most games, they won't be (the same is true of movies, by the way) but that's intended. What you really want to focus on is how much difference there is. How much quality drop makes you feel that what follows is a let down, and how much just leaves you with the feeling that the intro was amazingly cool? God of War is a good title to look at in this regard.

    Playing the Game
    Basic movement. Once you are past the intro, the tedium begins. Press every button on your controller. What do they do? Can you figure out why the designers placed them where they did? Can you reconfigure the controls? Do buttons do different things under special circumstances or are they always the same? Does the button have a different effect depending on how you press the button (for example, pressing and holding versus tapping the button)? Does the sequence of button presses matter at all or are all the buttons independent?

    After you've thoroughly dug through that question, it's time to begin testing movement. (Ignore this step if you are playing one of the rare games where nothing moves; Relentless Software's Buzz! series, for example.) Try moving in all directions. Now try rapidly moving from one direction to the opposite direction. Press the buttons as you move. If you're playing a game with avatars, watch them closely; note how they move from one place to another. Do you retain momentum? Do you instantly change directions when you tell the character to do an about-face? If yes, what's the character doing to make that believable? If not, how much gameplay lag is there -- how much time passes from when you tell the character to reverse directions and when he actually does it?
    It's also important to note which actions take precedence over other actions. If you can tell a character to do two things simultaneously, which occurs? This will give you a big clue to what the designers intended their core gameplay to be.


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