Thursday, 15 March 2012

elements of game design

I’ve always thought that the best way to divide games into categories is to look at why we play them. I’m a bit of a Solitaire addict, but I’m still surprised that, on reflection, since Christmas the amount of time I’ve spent playing Klondike on my phone is probably comparable to the total hours I’ve spent hiking around Skyrim.

Surprising? I’ve been eager for the fifth Elder Scrolls game ever since it was nothing more than speculation and vague, cryptic comments hidden in Bethesda interviews. I suppose it’s because of how quickly I can get into the game. I won’t play a PC game like Skyrim unless I know I’ve got at least an hour to spare, and if I have that much free time, I’ll often have some other outstanding task that I can’t justify ignoring for that long.

It’s not just a matter of the time it takes to start up my computer and the game itself – there’s a certain amount of mental involvement too. If I haven’t touched the game for a few days, I’ve probably completely forgotten what I was doing, and it’ll take a while to get my bearings. Neither do I want to play for a short time. I’ll say this now; Skyrim does not have the best quests I’ve come across, or the best controls – but the huge world and gorgeous graphics make it extremely immersive nonetheless, and to get the best experience you need to play for a long stretch of time. 

Solitaire, on the other hand, is just something I play at two in the morning when I can’t sleep. It’s kind of addictive, true, but I can sum up everything I have to say about it in a few sentences. It’s hard to objectively describe a card game in terms of video game mechanics, but the controls themselves are so simple I could pick it up and start playing almost immediately. While there’s’ definitely quite a lot that could be said about the strategy, the basic mechanics is just the absolute minimum of what is needed to be playable.

I don’t play games because I like the combat mechanics (although they have a direct impact on my enjoyment of the game) or even because of the graphics – although the art direction often has a direct impact on whether I’d play the game in the first place. 

It’s about the story.

I don’t mean the long overarching plot of the game, either. I’ve played games with elaborate plotlines and fully fleshed out backstories for every area in game, and then I’ve completely ignored every cut-scene and lengthy charactermonologue because they haven’t contributed anything to my enjoyment of the game. Sometimes all I really want from a game is enemies to kill and puzzles to solve, and I don’t care why other than that the former are attacking me, the latter gives me better items, and overall there’s a general sense of progression.
In a game demo I played years ago, one character option starts the game in a dungeon. The first thing you have to do is kick down a loose part of the wall, sneak through the sewer and kill the sleeping guard to get a key. This whole series of steps is just a way of teaching you the basic game mechanics – targeting objects, kicking, killing enemies, picking up objects. It’s just a series of buttons. There’s no choice in what you have to do – escaping that cell is the only way to progress the game. 
Yet it’s immersive; the only prompt that you get to start off of how to aim and kick, you have to work out that the wall is loose. The only way you know that is that one of the blocks on the wall looks wonky. The controls and graphics work together to tell that small story of how you get out of the cell, and there’s a great sense of achievement the first time you get it, because the character didn’t work out how to escape – you did.

However, that one experience is hardly enough to base an entire game on. It’s the final product of gameplay, and – like CGI in movies - if the person in front of the screen is constantly aware of the mechanics behind it you’ve probably screwed up.

 Explaining how a game will work, while also conveying the experience of playing it is not an easy task, but that’s what design documents have to do. Most of us have probably played a game where there’s been some quirk of the controls we’ve hated, that if we had designed the game we would have done differently. After you’ve played a game for a few hours these things seem obvious, but if you’re just reading the mechanics of the controls, it would be near impossible to pick these things out.
This is an example of why game design should not be a one way process; the design document needs to evolve to overcome problems. However experiments of any kind are expensive and time consuming. That’s why, I suspect, most games seem to have nearly identical controls (speaking as a PC gamer); game producers know what works and seldom stray from it.

That’s one of the reasons I applaud assassin’s creed. When I was following the production of the first game, my enthusiasm was for the setting and the character design, and my only interest in the game mechanics was that there would be platforming, somewhat similar to that in Prince of Persia. The first time I played Assassins creed was actually on a playstation while at a friend’s house. I played it for… maybe an hour or two. Bearing in mind that I hadn’t used a controller for at least a few years, it’s amazing how quickly the controls became second nature, even if I was zigzagging all over the place because I can’t get the hang of aiming with the thumb joystick thingies. 

The point is, even though the mechanics the game uses – having different “modes” of movement – was something relativley new, it quickly became instinctual, to the point where I still occasionally try to sprint with the mouse button in other games. If I see a piece of a building ingame, expect to be able to grab onto it, and find that I can, then as far as I’m concerned the game has successfully created an immersive experience.

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