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  • Playing to Learn

    - James Portnow
  •  The camera. Every game has a camera. Even Pac-Man has a camera, though it's the world's weirdest camera (if you think of it as a top-down camera, imagine what that means Pac-Man and the ghosts really look like).

    When you're playing to learn you should always be conscious of the camera. Do you have control of it? If not, why? The Silent Hill series exemplifies both the merits and perils of implementing a camera system that is meant to foster immersion rather than give the player the maximum amount of control.

    If you do have control of the camera, how does it interact with the environment? Does it stop when it collides with geometry or move smoothly along it? Can the camera clip through things? If so, what things? Can you get the camera stuck inside an object so you can see it from the inside out? The camera in EverQuest was once notorious for ending up inside other characters or getting stuck behind things that kept you from seeing (though lamentably, I think you'll have to find another game with "interesting camera implementation" as I'm sure the developers have fixed it by now). First generation 3D games are the best place to find glaring camera artifacts. Dig through your PlayStation collection; I'm sure you'll find plenty of examples.

    Pacing and interest curve. Pacing and interest curve are topics for a whole other article, but I want to cover it briefly.

    Try to always measure the game against itself. Is this a better than average moment for this particular game or worse? Keep a rough mental chart of these points.

    In well made games, you usually find two things:

    1. The overall trend is up with a spike at the beginning and perhaps a drop off at the end.
    2. The graph will be jagged because every "level" or segment of the game should follow this same pattern.

    Next, ask yourself what the pacing is like, how much of the player's time is spent thinking and how much reacting? If the pacing doesn't fit the game, the interest curve will be horribly thrown off.
    Try and keep note of both the pacing and the interest curve when you're initially playing through the game, as they are both very hard things to judge adequately while you're doing all the other playing to learn activities.

    Math. All games that involve digital logic can, in some ways, be reduced to math. Try and figure out as much of the math as you can. You don't have to be specific, just get the general forms of the equations and see how they interrelate.

    Try doing this for a game you think is very well balanced and a game that is very imbalanced. Also try and follow the logic statements behind the game actions. For example: If I shoot at that enemy, then he will wake up and become aware of me. If an enemy is awake, then it will attack anyone it is aware of. Therefore, if I shoot at that enemy then that enemy will attack me.

    If you want to really challenge yourself, try and parse the logic that determines the pathing in Warcraft II; then try StarCraft.

    Backstory. What can you find out about the development team? What do you know about the hardware you're running the game on? It is important to always keep this information in mind.
    Why? I'll tell you a sad truth about game design: it's rarely a lack of imagination that produces bad games. More often, it's the inability to keep a design within scope, either for the hardware or for the team.

    This story is probably apocryphal but it's such a good story that I'm going to tell it anyway. When City of Heroes was in development, the team was behind and over budget. NCsoft was about to pull the plug. All the time and effort the developers put into it was about to disappear as the project got canceled, so they called a meeting to figure out what they could cut in order to get it to ship. After hours of meeting and a lot of little cuts, they were nowhere near cutting enough to save the project. Then someone stood up and said, "Let's cut the inventory system." Yes, that's right -- they axed the entire inventory system right there, making City of Heroes the only MMO without inventory. Moreover, as results show, they were successful. They developed a fun and engaging project despite the fact that budget limitations kept the player from having items.

    Here's another quick story. Mass Effect is a beautiful game. It's gorgeously rendered, painstakingly animated, it makes full use of the Unreal 3 engine. So why all the unsightly texture pops? The answer to this question lies in the hardware. What system is it for? Xbox 360. What's an oddity of the 360? You can buy one without a hard drive. This means that Microsoft requires all games developed for it to run without storing information on the hard drive. When you run Mass Effect on your Xbox 360, it first has to search for any of its uncached textures on the disc, leading to a lag that causes texture popping.

    Another good question to ask when playing a game is "Is this game part of a franchise?" or "Does the publisher plan to make a franchise out of this?" You'll find that if the answer to either of those questions is yes, you'll see its effect reflected throughout the game design.

    One More Thing
    Hopefully this article has given you a solid groundwork to build on when playing to learn but, of course, you'll learn a lot more by doing. With each game you study, you'll adapt the system and find new techniques to uncover the principles of game design.

    There's only one more thing I want to say before I cry "havoc" and release you to countless hours of stick flicking and button mashing: Don't forget the past.

    There's a reason games are the way they are today, why they have the level of polish they do, why they have the level of difficulty they do. Take some time to go back and play the old games. Learn how games evolved. It will teach you about the industry's missteps and give you insight into how video game conventions came to be. Older games also tend to be easier to break down, making them a good place to start practicing playing to learn. Nothing will teach you faster than history.


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