GAME DESIGN: THE MIRROR OF ONE'S SELF
He who knows his aspirations knows his future.
- 01/15/2017 02:55 PM
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A sad fact about the world is that more times than not, people grow up not hearing key things that will affect whether or not a healthy and lifelong relationship is something they're capable of committing themselves to, hence the staggeringly high percentage of divorces. If more mothers would be willing to sit down with their sons and tell them that it's not all about them and that they honestly need to be sensitive and listen, more couples whose relationships stand a fighting chance would likely stay together.
If you will allow me to talk your ear off for a moment, I can help you in ways that can possibly and positively affect the rest of your life. Now, you may not want to hear this, but game design isn't just about one thing. If you're only focused on some of that "sweet graphics", or how easily you're able to work within the gameplay without giving it something in return to ensure that you're making something worthwhile, you'd be better off simply making games for yourself.
And if we can be honest, teenagers typically aren't subtle or wise enough to know how to handle game design properly, as they've played games and think that it's just that simple without focusing on what lies below the surface of each experience, that something special that grabbed their attention and left them feeling utterly satisfied. This lies in their tendency to be hasty, selfish, and unfeeling; hence why this is a time for asking questions instead of simply leaping in and making countless, senseless mistakes. If you are one of these teenagers, the following may not apply fully to you just yet, so don't feel like you should force yourself to understand the subtleties of adult matters.
Those who remain to hear my words (or in this case, read), this article will attempt to argue similarities between game design and the art of proper love making, although we can all agree that it'd be foolish to say that these hold physical similarities. Instead, this article focuses more on what should be considered in creating something truly worthwhile and satisfying, that special something we've all found at one point or another that made us want to relive those moments that sparked warm memories in our hearts.
For your convenience, I'll be dividing the following points into groups pertaining to the following: making games, playing games, and handling critique; the last of which will be intentionally brief, but potent all the same. Understand that even with these distinctions, what makes one game work for someone relies on many variables that collide at every second throughout the experience, and as everyone has preferences that they respond to greater than others, the creation of a "perfect game" or a theory that argues these exact points is simply impossible. I will only be covering the foundation of what makes a compelling journey throughout.
As it was implied, this is where your creativity and endurance will be put to the test as you attempt to fulfill the desires of your audience that will be taking the time out of their busy schedule to see what you have to offer. Don't, and I mean DON'T, waste their time! And above all, don't rush.
Have you ever played a game made by a novice that attempted to jump directly into the gameplay with no subtext as to the nature of your journey you're about to embark on? Yeah; jarring, isn't it? This is why a proper introduction is absolutely mandatory, to ease the player into the various aspects that make up your game.
Some will argue that an intro should be no longer than perhaps a minute as you should be able to get into controlling your character ASAP, but to them I say nerts! If done correctly, you could have an intro that lasts much longer (though it is possible to overdo an intro and lose your audience's interest, that much is true) as long as you are able to stimulate their curiosity and bring them into your world in a way that makes them crave to explore more. Of course, you should avoid info-dumping at all costs during the intro as, no matter how deep your world is, no one at this point will care about what all those pretty acronyms stand for and how many random percentages you can toss around.
Remember, your intro is there to establish an initial connection between the game and the player; further, more important details can be thrown in during later parts of the game when they become relevant. And for these things, you can establish their own beautiful introductions through cutscenes that show as much as they tell (a wall of text typically won't suffice). Don't be afraid to throw these later introductions into the "valleys" of your plotline to ensure interest is either maintained or piqued again.
During and after the intro, the visual scope of your game will begin to influence your audience and will act as a gauge to how interested they may be in exploring the storyline deeper. It always helps to give adequate attention to all venues of game design, but if the game is simply off-putting visually, this may discourage the player from giving their full attention into exploring this new world.
To touch back up on "giving adequate attention" to things, one should always make sure that their world is pleasant to look at, and that each town, dungeon, field, et cetera gets enough focus in terms of layout and purpose to justify their inclusion in the experience. Unfortunately, excessive or unfitting attention to detail may not be appreciated, so avoid clutter for the sake of saying "look at how interesting all of this is", as this will just come across as distracting and hard to move past. Graphical inconsistencies and geographic improbabilities can also create a rift in the enjoyment of the game, as there should never come a moment where the immersion is lost due to something that screams "out-of-place". Imagine, if you will, being someone who isn't too keen on tattoos or piercings finding one of questionable nature on a questionable spot. It'd be distracting, right? Of course it'd be.
Music and Sounds:
Without the inclusion of these two, emotional cues would go unnoticed, ambiance would be all but non-existent, and a clock ticking anywhere in the room could lead to a catastrophic drop in immersion. While graphics are good at making the player comfortable in exploring the world, well-timed and clever choices of music and various sounds help complete the sensory nature of your game. Some might argue that these are even more important than visuals as these are what will truly inspire the player to care, if not feel, about the direction the game takes.
With such importance, you must understand how to establish consistency in sounds to eliminate the possibility of a strange chirp escaping which might worry the player and break their concentration on the experience your game is helping convey. I suppose what I'm trying to get at is that all audio choices should add to the experience, not take away from it.
One thing that may take away from the experience is repetition. Sure, it's important to find a rhythm and maintain it, but if you only sing one or two songs, all music application will be for naught as each town or dungeon that should feel like its own separate entity will instead feel like some distant section of a previously-visited area. Oh, and before I forget, you'll want the player to understand that your game is unique and special, so I'd steer away from using music that's already part of everyone's playlist whenever possible.
Ah, detail and rhythm in harmony; this is where the RPG gets its mojo (it's important for all games, but you know...). Along with gameplay, this is the other half of the gaming circle the player will have a hand in not only experiencing, but influencing. Lengthy exchanges and new revelations, a blossoming of the world's nature, life bursting into existence and new opportunities abound to keep the player involved. If you can't handle this correctly, then well... perhaps this kind of thing isn't for you.
A rich storyline should bring life to the world and purpose to its features, open doors to memorable events and historical relevance, and if handled correctly, can lead a player to want to fight for a game, instead of against it, but we'll cover that later in the "games worth investing your time into" section. For this section, however, understand that careful planning and execution to ensure proper pacing are key in not just writing a story, but telling one. And at all costs, avoid any sort of story-relevance dry spell if you're making an RPG, as typically these kinds of games are slow enough to not require any sort of "cooldown" between actions, and any valley thrown in for its own sake and perceived necessity will likely do little but damage the flow of the story and the player's interest.
Also understand that subtlety is a beautiful thing when telling a story. You should never have to bash details into your player's head, and sometimes, intentionally leaving out details that aren't essential to understanding the story might encourage your player to fill in the blanks, ask their own questions, and desire more of the game even when they're away from it.
If you've ever played any game ever, you'll know the importance of giving all characters some manner of personality to make them unique in their own world and establish sound reasoning for their place in the plot. Though, simply having just "some sort of personality" doesn't quite cut it with the more text-heavy RPG, so going the extra mile to not only give sound reasoning for their actions but also for their dialogue is typically priority number one. Diversity in the characters the player will get to know throughout the experience will not only help establish that only-too-important initial attraction, but also aid to maintain interest in the overarching story and what these people mean for your quest as party arrangements shift during key scenes, such as a hero going their separate way after a dispute, or a divide-and-conquer tactic during a siege on the enemy fortress.
A good personality will only get you so far, unfortunately, and some talent may be part of your saving grace. The characters of this story should also have different stats and abilities to ensure that, even given the chance to increase stats/learn spells through special items, they maintain their personal significance and therefore allow the player to "find their own rhythm", as it were. As this is the case, extra steps taken to decrease the likelihood that your audience will utter the dreaded line "I've played this RPG before" can make all the difference in making your game stand out amongst the masses. Steal, Scan, Blue Magic, and all other sorts of add-ins are a good first step, but you can definitely do better as these still fall nicely into "been there, done that" territory. People appreciate creativity, so scramble your brain and pull out a winner!
After this is all said and done, there is one piece of important information I feel I should drop here. Ahem...
For the love of God, if you're going to cut a certain character out of the experience all together (or at least for a chapter or two), please don't choose the badass, high-stat, versatile character that everyone enjoys playing as, because such a moment might lead to the player losing interest in your game in general if now they're forced to make the lazy, whiny, snot-nosed character the leader.
Although a solid story and creative characters are indeed important details to consider in the overall experience of creating games, the gameplay is ultimately what's going to matter most in terms of stimulating the player through to the end and ensuring their desire to come back for more.
One might argue that simply touching up on gameplay would be enough to satisfy, but that couldn't be farther from the truth. What makes gameplay successful is how it's handled on a case-by-case basis, as swinging a whip around a la Castlevania might not fit in or feel as good inside a game with an emphasis on free movement like Megaman or Kirby (or maybe it would?). You truly have to understand the anatomy of your game in and out to apply gameplay in a way that encourages the player to proceed, even when the inevitable "hiccup" (drastic shift in motion/flow (e.g. Cid's key/weight minigame in FF9)) occurs.
That aside, there are globally "correct" things to consider in terms of gameplay. First of all, you should allow for an ease of entry and exploration to new concepts/areas while maintaining a fair difficulty throughout to ensure that the game is neither too easy (boring) or too hard (painful). Testing a player's knowledge of unique gameplay concepts against a puzzle or a boss will guarantee that they know what they're doing and that they are prepared for what might lie ahead.
Secondly, all stories will have their own peaks and valleys; if you can ride these and understand when a few clever inclusions will make the game seem more consistent in terms of enjoyment than risk making the player feel like their time could be better spent with a different game, your game will stand a better chance at keeping the player focused until the credits roll.
Battles and Puzzles:
Seeing as how this is a more specific branch of gameplay, I'll keep this as brief as possible. In a nutshell, these are testing grounds for the player's capacity to perform under pressure and should not be thrown in simply as padding to extend the length of a game.
Now, we've all played a game at one point that made these following mistakes, and I'll be taking a moment to bring specific attention to them so that we can all reflect on this later. First of all, avoid the "luck" difficulty where the player has no chance of using their skill to succeed and must instead perform the same task in the same way over and over again until, by some stroke of luck, they succeed. Seeing as how no one derives any fun out of slamming their hand in a drawer continuously, stay away from this game design "sin".
Outside of the realm of luck lies skill and honest effort. This is all fine and dandy, but please don't make it difficult or grindy to the point of tears. Remember that NO ONE enjoys it if it's too rough! Even if you believe with all your heart that your game is better for it, most people stay clear of games that are all about seeing how far you can get your arm twisted before you cry. That is, unless you're such a masochistic *word* that getting angry honestly makes you happy, in which case, you may have some underlying issues.
Before this gets dark, I'll finish this section up by saying that you should always strongly consider the use of proper balance, battle attack patterns, familiarity and setting relevance when designing these tests of dexterity, as otherwise, these battles and puzzles will likely fall flat or degrade into following the path of one of the mentioned *air quotes* "game design sins" above.
After that last section, I fancy myself a bit of a breather. This seems like the perfect time to discuss optional content, doesn't it? Now you could think "doesn't optional content just distract the player from the main objective and potentially break the game's balance?", to which I would agree but also extend an explanation as to how that isn't always as bad as it sounds.
You see, sometimes "mixing it up" is just what the doctor ordered, especially near the later parts of the game when all else has been thoroughly explored, familiarity has taken its toll, and "ye olde gameplay tedium" sets in. Throwing the player a curveball (one that still fits within the setting, mind you) can help introduce the player to new and exciting things to get them back into the game. At this point, you want your player to exclaim, "Whoa, I didn't know you could do that! That's interesting! Let's explore that!"
Even during earlier parts of the game, having the option to not follow a strictly linear path can aid to help the player feel like they have control over the path they take and allows them the time to become emotionally invested in what they're doing, instead of just what the storyline is pushing them into doing.
I hope you weren't scared away by all that innuendo-laden brain food above, because it doesn't end there. Now I'll cover in much briefer terms how this whole relationship hullabaloo can be applied to commitment and playing games, and vice versa.
We've all heard that old saying about how there's plenty of fish in the sea, and the same could be said for games in the store. And just as the experienced will know what questions to ask to ensure that the time they invest in the person (or game for this discussion) isn't wasted due to "all style, no substance", newcomers will have to learn the ropes and not get discouraged if their first few loves don't branch out. Of course, no matter what side of the aisle you stand on, we're all looking for that special something that's worth opening our hearts and coming back to.
Unfortunately, the relationship you'll share with a video game will undoubtedly be a selfish one where the game does little more than take from you and leave you with nothing but memories in return, so it's important to find a game that gives you the most bang for your buck. You should always look for that special game that you can truly immerse yourself into, an experience that causes all sights and sounds around you to blur as nothing else matters but you and the game.
Nine times out of ten, you won't be able to blow through an eight to forty hour game in one sitting, so it's important to decide whether or not this game is something you'll feel comfortable coming back to on a daily basis until the path taken with it is completed. And should you ever feel like a relationship you're investing not only your own time, but your lover's time, into is going nowhere, or this time could be spent significantly better doing other things, don't feel like you have to subject either of you to dragging it out, as should you go your separate ways in the future, the longer you keep it going, the more it will hurt in the end.
The bottom line is this, when finding love (or playing these video games), every relationship comes with its own set of challenges that must be overcome to allow the love to continue to flourish. Some people might not be "up to snuff" in terms of the difficulties they may face right away, so you should be ready to fight for this love, instead of against it, as this shows that you truly want to keep this love in your life.
And who knows, perhaps one day, you'll find that game that gives you more than it takes and allows you to return to it without any regrets; and at the end of the day, I believe that's a happiness that we all deserve some time in our lives. Though with that being said, speaking specifically of relationships, all should be equal and both people should be there to extend emotional sustenance in times both good and trying, so no matter how many "games" you "play", don't EVER believe it's all about you and try your damnedest to be both selfless and sensitive. A little empathy, understanding, and a readiness to embrace goes a long way, fellas.
Now you may believe your time spent here is almost to a close, but much like skipping out on the last fifteen minutes of detention to go see a circus, only to find that it's dragging on way too long and that you probably would have been better off just taking your lumps at school, you haven't seen nothing yet! And in the immortal words of circus announcers and stone-silence of creepy clowns everywhere, direct your attention to the center ring for our next act!
Giving and Receiving Critique:
You may be asking yourself "good God, what more could you possibly have?", but as you can plainly see, we have yet to cover the art of reviewing and handling critique. The most important thing to remember here is to be civilized when giving critique, as the creation you are about to pick apart has likely seen hundreds, if not thousands, of development hours, and therefore has become something truly close to the designer. As such, don't go straight for the heart, but don't be afraid to avoid the sugarcoating when getting your point across. Honesty is the best policy, just as long as you're not being utterly vicious in your delivery.
And before you designers place all the blame of harsh critique on the critic, understand that you too have a role to play in this exchange. It is up to you to either put that backbone to good use, or grow yourself one, as the damage to your "pride" is a very real danger. No one can truly tell you how it felt to overcome the individual challenges you faced to form the game that you spent so long to bring to life, but know that even the most carefully crafted product carries with it the possibility of improvement. Don't let your ego get in the way of listening to what others have to say about your game; trust me, you'll be better off with the perspective.
As a final word on this topic, it's important to also understand that everyone has their tastes and that it is impossible for a single method to please everyone. Don't get discouraged if you find an opinion about your custom battle system that doesn't quite line up with what you believe may be its strongest trait; instead, listen to all, but put a greater focus on those details that apply to a global truth instead of personal preference when making changes to a previous game on taking into consideration things that you should implement into future works.
And thus our time together draws to a close. I would like to congratulate you, the reader, for hearing me out on this and proving to yourself that you have what it takes to apply yourself to a lengthy engagement. Now, go forth and craft your magnum opus, that game which will be remembered as something truly magnificent for years to come and will deserve whatever rewards and recognition it receives. Just remember what we covered here today:
• Don't rush
• Be considerate
• Be creative
• Listen to your audience
• Find that game which speaks to you
• Invest yourself in what makes you happy
Good day, reader, and I'll see you around the web.