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  • Three Novice Mistakes in Game Design

    - David Sushil
  •  Over the past few years teaching game and simulation programming at DeVry University, I've noticed a handful of design mistakes that entry-level students make over and over again. And that's fine. Putting together a solid design for a game is difficult. It requires experience, deep critical thought, and extensive testing, among other things.

    I've compiled my three favorite mistakes here. If you are a student of game development, just knowing that these three faux pas exist (and are repeat offenders) can help you advance much more rapidly in your early education. If you are an educator, perhaps you've shared these same observations.

    Three Novice Mistakes of Game Design

    1. The impulse to cram as many genres as possible into a game
    2. The need to make everything in a game environment into a weapon
    3. Focusing on story to a disproportionate extent.

    These are my favorite mistakes because they betray an innocence and excitement about games that designers of all skill levels share.

    1. The Cross-Genre Extravaganza
    How many genres are enough for one game? The simple answer is it depends on the game, but I'd venture a guess that two is fine, and three may be okay as well, provided you know what you're doing.

    Like a great chef, you have to know what ingredients are appropriate for a particular dish. Think about each genre as a flavor. Some flavors go well together, like basil and oregano, while others don't, like garlic and cinnamon. Furthermore, the flavors you choose from depend very much on what kind of dish you're cooking. If you just slam every spice at your disposal into a pot, your final meal won't taste right.

    For example, it's fine to add action elements to a puzzle game, but adding puzzle elements to an action game can be dicey. Why? Puzzle gamers expect their challenges might be timed; adding some action is perfectly acceptable because it enhances the fun. But action gamers expect their games to be fast-paced, and the wrong kind of puzzle elements can bring any shooter or arcade game to a grinding halt. Imagine having to solve a Rubik's Cube in the middle of an Unreal Tournament battle.

    Think of how few commercial games have managed to create compelling cross-genre experiences. PuzzleQuest may be the one shining outlier. Success stories are few and far between.
    Also, players often enjoy only certain genres. A real-time strategy gamer may not like playing first-person shooters, and vice versa. So an RTS-FPS hybrid runs the risk of alienating fans of both genres.

    The Cross-Genre Extravaganza is a narrow strait to navigate. It takes a solid understanding of genres to know where they overlap and by how much.

    2. You Can Use Anything as a Weapon
    Wow, sounds great! Can I kill enemies with Jell-O? What about hairspray?

    As silly as those questions might sound, they get to the heart of why this idea is too lofty for game development. If you tell your players that they can use anything as a weapon, they'll try and use everything as a weapon, and most likely end up disappointed.

    The spirit of the idea is one of true physical realism, something that has yet to be accomplished in game design. It's a worthy goal for all game designers, but the simple fact of the matter is, for reasons both technological and monetary, we're not there yet.

    Imagine for a moment that we're going to implement such a system in an action-adventure game. Every item that could potentially be used in combat has to yield damage. The amount of damage an item can cause is based on a value stored in its properties. For every item in the game, a number has to be decided upon and rigorously tested. Every broom, office chair, vase, and milk bottle in your game must be linked to a point value reflecting how much damage it can cause an enemy or the environment. That could become quite a tall order for a development team to fill.

    What about mounting the object to the player so he or she can wield it? Well, where on the item will the player grasp it? This problem is usually solved with invisible mount points on both the object model and the player character model that work like positive and negative magnets. But again, for each item in the game, someone has to manually decide where those mount points will be.

    If that doesn't sound like a problem yet, then consider the different ways you might hold the following objects as weapons: a kitchen knife, a baseball bat, a steel folding chair, a 24-inch television set, and a length of chain. Some of these items have one mount point, while others have two. The posture of the character wielding each item also varies dramatically, thus adding to the number of animations needed for each character model. And with the television set, the weight of the item might come into play, adding even more complexity to the design process. How many times a minute can you swing a television set as opposed to a kitchen knife?

    The point is being able to use anything as a weapon is one of those ideas that looks great on paper, but is as of now an unrealistic goal.


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