Game Design 102

Let’s talk theory, mostly because I got to talk about these things recently and they’re fresh on my mind.

I was asked, “What is the most important thing about a game,” and what could I do to make a game less fun. The obstinate answer I received was Balance. The concept is that without Balance, the game is either unfair or too easy. Finding the middle ground between too challenging and too easy the Holy Grail of game design. This is, I think, wrong. Balance is a virtue of a mechanic. An individual Mechanic or Feature has Balance both within itself and within the confines of the game system. Important? Yes. The most Important? No.

To wit, fighting games try to be as balanced as possible and try to keep everybody even to ensure quality play. Every other game ever made is not made this way. The game is unbalanced by design, and still works. In Pac-Man you’re always fighting 6 on 1 and they’re faster than you. In Space Invaders its little you versus dozens of them. Halo, Gears, Zelda – they are all out to get you. So Balance of a game is impossible and not the point. Instead, it’s another feature of a well crafted mechanic.

Further, another thing to consider are the 3 “C’s” They are Control, Camera and Characterization. These are design concepts used by some of the bigger firms. I’ll tear into them thus:

Control – Yes, control is the one that gets away. Without consistent controls with consistent outcomes the game does not work. For example, someone once posited that the jump height of The Thief should be variable to add flavour. Any Designer in their right mind would cringe at the thought because it would break the game. If the input of the player is nothing more than a suggestion you have failed the Control aspect.

Camera – No, not camera. Maybe that’s the term used in 3D spaces, but what is meant is View. Not every game has a camera, but they all allow you to see. Well, there are a couple that only have sounds, but we’ll ignore those for now. Without the ability to see, you cannot play. The trick is being able to always see, regardless of what is going on in the game. Don’t make a feature that takes away from this. In the new Prince of Persia the bosses have this attack where they spit black duke on the “screen,” making it impossible to see while fighting. Um, yeah, don’t do that. It’s stupid then and it’s stupid now.

Characterization – Fail. There are so many examples of how this particular word isn’t correct for what is wanted that I could skip them. Won’t though, Tetris, Bejeweled, Centipede, Snake, Gradius none of them have characters that you see or give a crap about. This is not a pillar of gameplay. What is meant is “Representation.” Gamers do not want to play as a character, they want to relate to that character and be that character. Master Chief works so well because you never see him, he could be anybody. Some Designers refer to this as the”Vessel.” Miyamoto went so far as to call this connection “Link.” The Connection is the correct “C” word here, the space for the player to be involved and given the option to do what they want – a safe haven when the rest of the game is out to get them. Do games need a story? No because without it (or within the confines of it) the player will create narrative with the tools that they are given.

Of course, all of this is just Theory and it holds up until code is actually written. So where does “fun” happen? What is the magic that has to happen for a game to click and become enjoyable? I don’t know. There isn’t any one thing that can work. Game Design is still the Wild West, nothing is set and everything is possible. There is no hard and fast rule for anything and while someone can learn the theory, that doesn’t mean that they can create the fun. The same way that a painter can learn technique, but not know how to create beauty. That’s one of the reasons I do not think that “Game Colleges” work – the methodologies are still too liquid to be nailed down. The catch 22 of it all is if fun is ever proven as a theory, it will stop being new and stop being fun. The ever elusive spark of fun avoiding the theory like a rabid Saint Bernard.

So, make your game but understand that you are not the target audience of your game. Find the part that’s fun to you, and see if it is still fun to other people and work from there. Do a thousand prototypes, write a dozen design documents, draw a million pictures, have a hundred dreams, whatever works for you. Don’t let the theory of it all stop you.

-Cord incoming, and I may have some new art on the way. Those will be posted when I have them.

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