One of the (surprisingly) many silver linings of corona-induced social distancing is that I have SO much time on my hands. ALL of the time in the world, so much time. Time to play games, time to snack on rations, time to read books, time to question the gaping void in my life, and also… study game design!
Brushing up on game design is something I’ve been meaning to do for many months after realising it’s a thing I tend to neglect in favour of writing. You can write witty poetry and meticulous backstories all day but, on its own, it doesn’t necessarily make a game fun. And that’s what separates conventional writing from video game writing.
First up I’d like to credit and recommend some of the insightful books I’ve read: Jessie Schell’s The Art Of Game Design, Raph Koster’s A Theory Of Fun, Tynan Sylvester’s Designing Games, and, last but not least, the person I’ve learned from firsthand, Chris Hunt. This series is meant as a summary for my own reference and to reinforce my own understanding, but I hope it might be of some help or interest to other learners out there.
To begin with, I’m going to summarise exactly what a game is at a glance and what we’re trying to achieve as game designers. In the next parts of this series, I’ll cover all of these points in more depth.
What makes a game… a game?
In the below graphic, we can see what exactly makes a game different from books and movies…
Credit to Hitbox Team
Video games go beyond linear mediums by giving the player their own control, free reign and interactivity. In making our own choices, we experience freedom, responsibility for our actions, accomplishment and even friendship.
But the most enjoyable and engaging feature of games is problem-solving. We create this and in turn, all the other ingredients that make up the above experiences, by setting…
- Make it clear what needs to be achieved
- Make it within reach of the player, rather than hopelessly impossible
- Make it rewarding, either in its sheer completion or with material bonuses
- What can the player do?
- What can other entities do?
- Create problems to solve to achieve these goals, both major and minor
- Continuously create new problems to keep the player engaged
- Goals should be difficult but within reach to challenge the player. A game that is too easy leads to boredom, but too difficult leads to frustration
- Keep the challenge continuous and fresh by alternating exciting, difficult challenges with easier sections as a reward of relaxation
- What skills are required from the player? Reward the player with a feeling of mastery by giving the chance to improve their skills and unlock new ones
- Put questions and motivations in the player’s mind such as ‘can I do X thing?’, ‘what happens when I do Y thing?’, ‘what happens if I beat Z thing?’
- Add rewards for their curiosity such as different animations, treasure, sounds or dialogue
In addition to problem-solving, we also play games for the immersion. We play for the escape, for the opportunity to experience another life, another world.
- Establish the experience you want to create, for example, brave hero of a fantasy kingdom
- How will your game capture the essential elements of its experience?
- Establish the emotion your player should experience, and how you can make them feel this
- Keep the flow undisrupted by having crystal clear goals, immediate feedback to player actions and continual, well-balanced challenges
- Internal value
- Add value for the player in the form of scoring, objects or special items
- Adding gameplay bonuses such as extra lives, stat boosts, renown etc help drive the player
The basic components of a game
There are four main components of a game that are sort of like the meat and bones, or the body through which we deliver all of the above elements to make up the player experience. These are:
- Aesthetics: Sounds, music, graphics. Everything we hear and see with our senses.
- Story: The narrative and meaning behind events, setting, characters and objects
- Mechanics: The rules and possibilities of gameplay. What can and cannot be done by the player
- Technology: The materials used to play the game such as pen and paper or specific hardware.
These components should work hand in hand together: art style reflecting story, story reinforcing understanding of game mechanics, and so on. What’s more, they should all carry the game’s experience. The player’s experience is the driver behind the fundamental feel of your game and, in order to create a fully immersive experience, we need to focus all elements so that they only enhance that experience, never detract from it.
What makes a game actually enjoyable?
Here are some of the elements we find pleasurable in games:
- In beauty, art style, music and even sound (I’m lookin’ at you Skyrim and your delicious drum level-ups and crafting splooshes)
- By exploring imaginary worlds and being something we aren’t or can’t be in real life, games allow us an exciting escape from our everyday lives and problems
- To be sucked into the dramatic unfolding of events. To become attached to characters which, arguably, we have an even more intimate relationship within video games than we do through other mediums.
- Solving a difficult problem. Arguably the most fundamental element that makes a video game… well, a good video game.
- Co-operation, community and friendship. By all means, this doesn’t need to be limited to online games and can be applied to companion NPCs
- This can cover all things from world exploration to secret gameplay strategies
- Allowing the player the opportunity to design and create levels, characters and clothing
And if we break this down even further, we can add even finer pleasures and emotions such as:
- Thrill or, in other words, fear minus the very real risk of death
- Completion and the satisfaction that follows
- Delight in others misfortune, in particular, deserved comeuppance
- Pride in accomplishment
- Triumph over adversity
- Wonder, awe and amazement
- Power and the primal instinct to rise to the top of a hierarchy
We can continually go over the events in our games and use the above points as a checklist to really polish it and make every part a rich experience for the player. What pleasures are missing from your game? Can any of the above be added at any parts?
In the next two parts of this guide, I’ll talk much more in-depth about:
- Part Two – Hooking them in: A closer look at what motivates us to play; the human mind’s love of learning and the definition of fun; positive and negative reinforcement with reward and punishment.
- Part Three – Unbreakable Immersion: The importance of clarifying goals for the player; adding meaningfulness to gameplay; balancing difficulty to achieve the ‘zone’ state; methods used to influence and direct the player’s choices.