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If it was my game: Game design theory


If it was my game!
Game Design theory by Chris Watts

I love the title. What a selfish and overstated comment to begin with.

Ok, to be fair. Not my game, my games design. Because in truth a game is not done by 1-10 people anymore. It takes a dedicated team of men and woman and of many varying skill sets to create a quality game. But we all know this already.

Ok. Consider this a theoretical situation. And coming from a man with no inside experience try your best not to laugh too hard at the mistakes I?m probably going to make.

The crap has been dealt with:
To prelude the game and game design. And because this will probably be the first thing that will be shoot down. The team of 30 in my imaginary studio are a solid and a mostly experienced team [save 5 junior newbees] We have enough money to develop one game for now. The publisher is already found and giving support. In other words: The company is well enough established to be given the trust to produce one game that will go on main distributors selves. But doesn?t have enough reputation to make games with ease.

So. This team has been given its big chance to make a mainstream game? Well the first thing to ask is obvious. Before even the game idea is put onto paper.

What are you going to develop on?

PC seems to an answer. And it's good when you?re just starting up and making simpler puzzle games and ?quick play? games. But anything mainstream now on a PC has to be a MMO or highly multiplayer of some sort. [Exceptions given to blizzard games] And lets face it; this company nether has the money or time to make one of those. [I find this one of the real life pitfalls of aussie wannabe designers, Their all hell bent on making an MMO of some sort thinking they can make millions on it. Guys, Just focus on growing.]

So PC is a bad idea for this company. And for out team size it's not a good option to develop on the PS3 ? XBOX360 ? Wii for the obvious reason that you just don?t have the time or money. Developing on current systems is also a risky no no. Even if we got the game out in 12 months the next gens will take the spotlight.

The answer then is obvious.

Make a game for the PSP. The PSP is your best option to go in most aspects. With near PS2 graphics you have quite a few advantages; the experienced artists and programmers on your team will find working on this platform familiar and feasible. The game in question can be made much cheaper and quicker then your PS3 game. Also with the focus on the PSP being more your cleverness of design and code then just being an eye candy fest consider the PSP to be the best option.

The Nintendo DS can be considered as well. And if your company is more geared towards it then develop on it. But remember in the western sector it doesn?t hold a candle of popularity to the PSP. If your going to make a DS game it better be bloody brilliant or appeal to the eastern sector.

So we have decided on making the game on PSP. But what would make a fun PSP game?

There are many factors. Consider the hardware. A small handheld device that can be played on the most battery guzzling game for around 3 hours. Also your gamer is casual. He/she will probably be only playing your game at most 2 hours at a time and usually a lot less. To this end the PSP game should be able to be played in at most. 30min segments and the player should have the ability to save when he likes.

Reply value is also a key factor. Home console games have the luxury of unlimited player time. A home console game could be as long as 20 hours without the need to reply things.

PSP games are different. Take the game Daxter for example. A great game, many well designed and fun to play levels. But none the less you can finish this game in almost half the time it takes you to finish Jak3. It's value lies in collecting red orbs to unlock features and secrets.

Those developers played the game design card of ?Possession.? And you should to when designing a game for this platform.

Possession is when the player is able to finish the game with limited upgrades and equipment. But if he is offered incentives to explore the levels thoroughly and reply them once he has new skills and items that allow him to do things he couldn?t when he played the level the first time around, then if it's worth his interest of course he will go back to play the level.

The key for that design principle is to give the player a rightful reward for collecting and being so kind as to reply those hard worked on levels. This means not giving him the best gun at 50% item completion and a crappy alternative credits at 100%

The pace of a PSP game varies. But the popular selling ones seem to be played at a fast pace. Weather it be a puzzle game or a hack and slash or a racing game. [Please for the love of god don?t another racing game for the PSP. 5 came out in the first month.]

Make the game ?Arcade Style? You can still give the game a deep story and customization features that make a game more in-depth. But say you have characters killing enemies. Well. Give him a score and points for each enemy they kill. Convert the score to money/credits so he can buy new weapons with. It's not all that complex.

As a designer. You got to be able to think not just logically. But be able to improvise as well. Take the PSP and analyze it as a controller opposed to the PS2 design. Your missing 4 buttons [L2, R2, Analog stick button Left and right] and an analog stick. In other words and this might hurt some of you. A first person shooter isn?t going to go down well on this system. You need 2 analog sticks for that. The Game ?Coded Arms? Attempted it and failed badly in terms of control.

Click the link for the button layouts.

You can still have a shooter. Just not in the first person view. And levels in first person shooters are usually long and detailed. Not the best idea for a PSP game.

Also keep the graphic specs of the PSP in hand as well. Games on this system allows less ploy count then a PS2. But gives more room for textures and effects. The game you design will have to take advantage of this. Also the UMD disc is not as big as a DVD by any stretch of the imagination.

You have one advantage graphically though. The screen is on your controller. Not on a TV so keeping that in mind if your smart about your art style and effects you can make an impressive looking 3D game.

Wow. 1,100 words and I haven?t even got to the game idea yet. Let this be a measure of how much you really need to prepare and think things through before you put pen to paper on your design.

So then. What kind of game to make?

The team is important for this. You should really have the same kind of likes in games. If your all sporting nuts make a sports game. If you?re all into fantasy games. Make one. I know it doesn?t always work this way but if I can be helped?

Not only will you enjoy making it more, but also you, being an avid fan of the genre will know much more about what it is and what makes a good game.
You can still be just as versatile as ever in designing on different genres. Just don?t work on a football game if you have no care or knowledge of the sport. While admittingly not everyone on your team will work on the same wave leanth try to sort out something that no one will loathe to make.

For me. I want to make something a little different. It's hard to explain but if I were to sum it up it would be pitched as.

?Tactical isometric 3D adventure with Arcade style play and multiple playable characters.?

The game will be fully rendered in 3D with pixel art only being used for icons and the Heads up display. The focus artistically is to be colorful and to show action in a dynamic kind of way. A kind of 1980s dark style cartoon. Textures and effects are to be utilized as much as possible and LOVs [level of detail] will be put in place to manage processor performance.

If your still having trouble visualising. think of fallout or X-com. That kind of style but more fast paced and realtime.

[img] map.jpg[/img]

The main focus on this game however is its gameplay. Fast paced but also utilizing characters with different skills, the game is both a blast-em-up and a tactical thinker. The main issue is to let the player play how he would like to. Ether to be stealthy or go in guns blazing. A good game is a game where the player can do more then you can conceive to predict. We are in the business of entertaining. So if he wants to cheat his way through. Give him a means to. However. Offer rewards to those who do things all the way through.

This game has 4 controllable characters. Each one having an important purpose to the gameplay. Each one is controlled by one of the 4 main buttons on the right pad. To that end their Logos and colour style is in tune to that of the 4 buttons on a PS controller.

It's simple. The games main character is an assault rifle user. Her purpose game wise is to be your grunt. Able to take out enemies with her rapid-fire weapon you?ll be using her in both the battlefield and in close quarters. Her logo is the pink square.

The Mole is your demolitions expert. His weapon is ether a rocket launcher or Bazooka however you look at it. He also carries a nice assortment of grenades. He is your heavy weapon character. Able to take out many at once and obstacles here and there. But he can only carry so many shells of ammo at once. And his ammo hard to come by as well. So he is your ?blow shit up? character. But doesn?t have unlimited ammo like your assault rifle character. He is the Green Triangle.

The bat character. The red circle is your scout character. Armed with two blades that also double as two silenced pistols he is used to sneak up and take out enemies with minimal detection. His other skills is the ability to fly for a while giving a bigger line of sight. And later on in the game he gets sonic vision that is basically X-ray vision. Good for when inside buildings.

Lastly the mouse that holds the blue X symbol. She is your technical character. While weak in armor and not having a very good weapon her strength lies in her skills. Battle wise. She is able to drive vehicles and mechanized battle bots. The other 3 characters tag along as she can use the vehicles weapons systems.
She is also able to use consoles and access locks to open doors and gates.


Each one of these characters is important to the game play value as they all do something the other characters can?t. This makes the player have to learn and think about how to approach each level and situation. Does he use stealth to take out the guards at the gate control? Or does he blast them away with grenades, coursing more to come. Does he want more to come to get a higher score? Or does he want to complete the secondary objective of not being detected?

This is for the player to choice. We as designers have to let the player have their options. The storyline might be linear. But that doesn?t mean the game play has to be.

Stories are vitally important to today's adventure games. But does not take prescient over game play. Remember this. Making dialogue and animated sequences come much later into production then making a game play prototype of a level to show to a publisher or the press.

Stories are vitally important, but game play is the start and end of the game. It's what the player ?plays?

In this game design. The focus is put into objectives. The primary objective is always the event that will complete the level. Secondary objectives will give the player extra score points which in turn turns into money that the player uses at his base to upgrade and fit new weapons, tools and armor to the characters. However it's important to let the player be totally able to finish the primary objective without even considering the second.

Objectives can very from level to level [and so they should. Doing the same thing at the end of every level quickly gets boring.] It can be as simple as getting from Point A to Point B. Blowing up something. Obtaining something, Clearing the area of hostiles, Save prisoners and civilians. Guarding a curtain area for so long.

Variety is important to. But don?t try to make the game a chore to play. For example: The levels primary mission is to guard a small child in a building from enemy troops. You can play this out in two ways.

? Bad idea:
To have the characters walk the child to a waiting APC vehicle. Making your objective a ?walking target.? In my experience these levels in games are a chore to play. Mostly due to the fact that enemies pop up from everywhere and get at lest a hit on your target before you can take them out. Worst-case scenario the player repeats this segment of the level a few times. Wasting his time [this is even worse for a handheld!] And frustrating him. Making him feel like an idiot.

? Good idea:
Have the child stay inside the building and have the four characters guard her until an APC arrives to pick her up. Giving the characters a multiple Varity of position points. From guarding the door to the balconies to shooting from the top of the roof. Give the player a lot of choice and make it fun. When the enemies start to get laid on thick have the APC come from nowhere and saving the day. Bring doom to the enemy and getting your objective into the door. [Imagine the back of an APC smashing into the doorway into the building and giving the child no way to get shoot at.]

Difficulty of the game is also a factor of importance. Make the game to easy and no one will bother to play it as it's ?below? him or her. [Them being our intended target audience, which is 15 ? 30] And if the game is to hard to fast then the player feels belittled and stupid. Which is the pitfall of any design. [Design is to make things functional and in games, fun. If your game only customs for the elite you?re not making a game. You?re making a power trip.]

For a game like this where the player will be doing many small missions where the max time should be no more then 15-20 minutes play on one level. Difficulty can be managed from easy to challenging in the way of ranks.

Say your team of four characters starts of with an ?E? rank. E ranked teams only get called out for defensive missions. Each time the player completes a level he is given ?rank points? and these points go towards moving into a new rank. New ranks open up new styles of missions and different objectives. And each new rank can take the player to a different area of the battle zone

The rank system would be like so:

?E? rank
No points needed
Training difficulty
: Home front defense
: Keep the enemy out of the defense outposts.
: Clear the area of enemies.

?D? rank
10 points needed
Easy difficulty
? Clear the area of enemies.
? Destroy the enemy outposts.
? Destroy enemy equipment.

?C? rank
40 points needed
Moderate difficulty
? Clear the area of enemies.
? Destroy enemy outposts.
? Capture enemy outposts.
? Guard a curtain area for so long.

?B? rank
100 points needed
Moderate/intermediate difficulty
? Clear the area of enemies.
? Rescue prisoners and civilians.
? Capture enemy outposts.
? Guard a curtain area for so long.

?A? rank
160 points needed
Hard difficulty.
? Rescue prisoners and civilians.
? Sabotage the enemy's outposts.
? Capture enemy outposts and bases.
? Scout/Recon the unknown areas.
? Take out enemy resourseing operations.
? Take out influential enemies.

?S? rank
230 points needed.
Very hard difficulty
? Take out influential enemies.
? Take out generals and big bosses.
? Take out fortresses and strongholds.
? Rescue important allies.
? Destroy the main head base [final mission.]

With this in place the player gets an ongoing variety of levels but also cradled into the varying degrees of difficulty. Experienced players who get extremely high scores will be able to jump from rank E to C. As rank D is easy to handle.

The enemies are an important part of gameplay as well. The enemy is what the player must identity as the negative force. Whether this is the ghost from Pac-Man or the terrorists from black. They are what you?re fighting.

For this game. I don?t think blasting fellow flesh bags would be the most capital idea. We want to take advantage of the particle systems and use as little polygons as possible. The answer for this is easy enough.


Machine solders. Rigid and menacing looking wolfs. Emotionless and calculating beings that want nothing more then to comply with their given orders. This fills a few holes as well game wise. Their AI doesn?t need to be elegant enough to backup that their alive, because their not. Being robots polys can be lower as smooth surfaces aren?t needed. No need for these robots to bleed. And there removal from the map can be instilled via explosion effects.

So game play wise you have a direction on where you want to go with game. Its main feature is to keep being entertaining through fast passed action yet having a slight tactical flavor.

So then. What about the story?

You think to yourself sometimes, how important is a story to a game? Does it need to be complex with multiple directions and paths to take? Or simple and stupid that no man on earth couldn?t relate.

The answer is this. Games aren?t stories. But stories are a useful enhancement tool to compliment the game IF the game needs and allows for it.

Some games need no real story. Katamari Dynasty is immensely fun but its story is so half assed and half-baked that it merits really nothing to the game. But nonetheless, the game is quite fun.

On the other spectrum. Final Fantasy 7 was made popular through its storyline and adventures. It was really the first game of it's kind to try so hard to compel its audience. And it did just that.

For this game design. There is indeed a compelling storyline. It focuses around the main character. The pink gunner. Jess Cudi and her quest for revenge against the enemy, which has no real face to her.

Quick Backstory:

Jess Cubi was a very unlucky child. At the age of seven she and her family, like a million others on that day fell victim to the event now known as the ?great bombing.? Without a second of notice the entire capitol city of Lappi was bombed to the ground by a new and unknown enemy later to the identified as the wolfs from the north.

Jess barely survived the nightmare. Found a few days later barely alive by a rescue and recovery squad. She has been injured so badly that she would spend the next 2 months in intensive care. Losing half of her left hand to infection and her left eye. Her parents where killed and no one claimed her as a relative.

Once out of the hospital she was moved in deeper into the country, deemed that the war to come wasn?t for the eyes of the young to behold. Placed into an orphanage she was greeted by the owners with open arms. They where supportive. But lacked love.

Years would slowly trickle by. At first the young bunny was optimistic that a new loving family would replace and fill the hole in her heart. But no one ever choose her. Their where sweeter, nicer, and in tact children for the couples to take home. Who would want a broken little girl?

The hole in her heart grew. Jess would accept at the age of 14 that happiness was not for her. She would stop speaking to others.

At 16 the depressed and dark girl decided that it was time for her to leave this world. That there was nothing left for her to give and that she would end her pain. But, to honor her old mother and feather she would visit the area she used to live. The area she was to scared to ever go back. It didn?t matter now. It was to be her last act.

Arriving at the site. The clouds polluted and dark from the by-product of the bombs. No one has dared rebuild over this city. It stood in total ruin like the bombs has only fallen yesterday. The air was filled with death. Reaching down into the earth she would hold ashes that still seemed to burn in the one hand life had spared her with.

It was strange. For the first time in her life a new emotion filled her. It was strong, cold and raw, blinding to the senses. It was Anger. Anger and hate as she looked around the ruins that was once a city. So many died, and for what? nothing?.

The Anger and hate was new to her. No longer did she feel sadness inside. The lupine woman knew what she had to do.

Now at almost 10 years into the war the nations where taking anyone they could. Males, females, ages where lied about as 16 year old men looking for adventure passed as 18 year olds. And most of all. They started to take in victims. Claiming that if you where willing to give your life to the Nations then you would have your body rebuilt to useable standards. And that's exactly what they did to Jess.

After intense surgery and 3 months of healing the young woman had a new left eye and a mechanical left arm. And now started an almost 2 year long training program. Being so easy to co-operate with instructors and following orders Jess wasn?t send out into the war after initial training. Chosen to be a ?pink gunner? one of only a few elite women who had the skills to kill without hesitation.

Now at 18 years old she stands on the battlefield. Her heart and soul devoid of love. She would hold her weapon tightly in her hand. For now it was her only friend.

Game Storyline Synopses:

The prelude story sounds very dark. Visually not as much. Violent and gory scenes aren?t displayed and simply isn?t my style. We know she loses her eye and arm, we know she goes through surgery pain. We don?t need it to be visually illustrated and in fact it would probably serve well not to.

The games ongoing storyline has a large-scale story and a personal story that intertwines. This is done to give the player a sense of both change in the people that he plays and the world around him. As all things do. In real life nothing stays the same. And events shape our world. The players? efforts and events outside the player control should affect the game world as well.

On the whole game world level story. The allied Nations of animals are fighting these machine like wolfs. But they are yet to know the identity behind these machines. It was conceived at first that the machines where somehow sentient. But through examination and analyzing it came to realization that the wolfs where always remote controlled from somewhere and someone. So the question arose to where these wolfs came from and who was their puppet masters?

Through the exploits of Jess and her team and the help of others the Allied Nations realize that the beings controlling the wolfs where not of this earth. Pale and furless creatures with immense technological and telekinetic powers, referring themselves to be ?Who-min? through best translation.

As Jess's team digs deeper and deeper into this mystery they find out to their shock that the world they live on was not made naturally and that they where nothing more then part of a greater experiment. That with a sway of the Who-mins hand their planet could be wiped to ashes. That this war and how it would play out would decide the fate of the entire world.

With Jess and her team reaching the main headquarters of the wolfs metal empire the attention of both sides are focused on the sole four. The Allied nations knew failure would mean destruction from the aliens. And the Who-mins have keen interest. Seeing how strong and how far these mortal beings will go to save their world.

They secured and destroyed the main telepathic array. Cutting the link off to the wolfs. An airy silence is around the world. This must anger the aliens above their world. But nothing happens. And the Who-mins seem to never make contact with the world again. Jess and her team knowing they had earned their right to exist in the universe. Whether or not they where created from another plan.

The personal story is far less epic. It revolved around Jess's perception of the world around her. When the game starts she is nothing but a cold killer. Saying very little and executing her orders without hesitation. Almost madly eager to take out any who get in her path. In her second mission the Pink Gunner regiment gets ambushed by advanced wolfs. Most get killed. Jess is barely able to escape the hellfire and once again is trapped under rubble. But she wakes in friendly hands. A regiment of privates and low grades had rescued her from capture and took it upon themselves to bandage her wounds. Never feeling such compassion towards her she smiles faintly for the first time. But suppresses herself and stays cold. Accepting to follow them around until she meets up with more elites to join with.

It's in this group that she would meet with the other 3 members. A cocky and confident bat. A timid yet brilliant mouse. And an easygoing and almost mystical mole. All professional and experts in their field even though considered ?lower class? due to order and personality issues. Jess would find that they would make a great team. And with the general seeing this in action to he would have them created into a specialty group.

The team of four would do many great deeds for the nations. Retaking areas that where deemed impossible to enter. Rescuing captives and refugees. They would become a popular role model and poster-men/woman for the Nations Armies.

But for Jess. Something else was happening. The hardened woman's cold heart was starting to melt away. From both the assistance of her new friends who she came to depend on now and the emotions brought out of her from seeing other victims of war.

Through these exploits Jess comes to realize that her new team is her family now. They support and care for her, and in turn she starts to care for them deeply.

From start to finish of the game Jess Cudi turns from a conditioned killing machine to a real mature and caring woman. She learns what it means to live for tomorrow and for others.

The story starts on a low and ends on a high. Which are the way most comic stories apply them. The tragedy and sorrow begins at the story. And personally I think running sorrow and ?the hell of war? through out the entire game is just depressing. He have enough real life issues that get us down. We don?t always need it imitated.

Game design is a complex process. While a lot is up to the imagination of the designer and how well they can make the design work. A lot of the process requires knowledge of the many different disciplines required to make a game. A suss of what will and wont work while still trying to be highly innovative.

Designing isn?t easy. Nether is any other job in the industry though. So the feeling of difficulty is probably mutual. Everything stated here is very vague. But none the less I wanted to give an idea of what things should be considered when making your first store distributed game. Although with no experience the validity of some of this material is probably bogus. But I?m going on what I know.

Anyways. Hope you enjoyed the read.


Submitted by Soul on Fri, 16/06/06 - 12:40 AM Permalink

Wow, that was a long post - good effort.

Firstly, may I suggest that story is not so distant from gameplay as you might think. In fact, story has a great influence over gameplay - it has the power to motivate the player, and shape their decisions, so as a designer you should be aware of this and exploit it.

Some small gripes with your interface - I would suggest that the Square button also pauses the game and brings up a targeting reticle, as the player will probably not always be facing the right direction. This is more consistent with the rest of your control scheme. Also, you may want to ask WHY your character has to run out of ammo....

Also, and this is a personal preference, your Stance button is taking control away from the player in terms of shooting accuracy. A good game should try to avoid "dice-rolling" as much as possible, as it is difficult for the player to perceive the result of his/her actions.

Lastly, it would be good to see some descriptions of levels and actual game segments, so it would be easier to understand how your systems interact (as it stands, the actual challenges the player will face are a little undefined.)

OK, that's enough from me for now... hope I've given you a little bit to think about. Keep up the good work - you're certainly on the right track with your design work.