Sunday, February 7, 2010

Game design from a gamer's perspective Pt. 3

Loading Screens Continued

You should always keep the gamer in mind when you design your game. Always! You should never program the game for your convenience. Always program for your target audience. So, when you design your loading screens, you need to consider how long it takes to get data into memory. If it takes longer than 2 minutes, it's taking too long. If you don't have a choice in this matter and it is what it is, then design a mini-game or alternative screen that the gamer can play with during the loading period. Alternatively, use of cinematics during this time is acceptable. Do use cinematics as ways of moving the game forward combined with loading the world into memory. Don't wait through loading screens only to watch a long cinematic and then get into the game.

Health pickups

If you design a game where the character will lose health, then always design a system to obtain health on the level. Batman Arkham Asylum is yet another shining (bad) example of how not to do this. Batman's designers chose to obtain health pickups by subduing other creatures. So, as long as there was something to subdue, you could get health. The problem with this 'feature' is that there were never enough enemies to subdue (Batman doesn't kill in the game). Worse, when you did subdue enemies, they gave you a pittance of health back. Meaning, you never could fully ever replenish your health bar. Don't do this. If the character needs health pickups, put enough health pickups around the level and make them blatantly obvious what and where they are. If that means attaching a medkit to the wall, do it. Also, health pickups should come in at least two sizes, small and large. Small increases about 1/4 of your health. Large sized should fully or almost fully replenish your health. I despise playing games where my health meter is always 1/4 full because I am unable to find health pickups.


As we move more and more into cinematic games, it's now becoming increasingly important to weave gameplay together with story. Unfortunately, I've yet to find a single game that has successfully achieved this goal. The closest game was probably Oblivion. Oblivion's method was to weave each quest into its own substory. There was the 'main quest'. This quest basically starts and finishes the game. You can do this quest at any time, but because of the way it changes Cyrodil's landscape, it is best to wait until much later after completing many other smaller quests to tackle the main quest. Even still, there were smaller quests that needed to be completed before you could complete the main quest. Thus, this tied in at least exploration and completion of other goals into finishing the main story line. That unfolded other stories that helped solidify the main quest's story and ensure the gamer a much more immersive gaming experience.

A story is a story is a story. It doesn't matter whether you read a book, watch a movie or play a video game. The story is important to the entire affair. If the story is well written, has twists, feels complete and has a satisfying ending, then that's all you can ask. Games with weak stories or without stories at all are limp and lifeless like Dead Rising. Mindless games without a compelling story verge rapidly on boredom. A solid well thought out story not only keeps the gamer interested, it gives enough subtext for the gamer to become immersed in the world. That's exactly what a good story should do. Once you've gotten the person immersed in the story, they will continue to play for a long time. Games with great story lines include Oblivion, Halo 3, Halo 3 ODST and Fallout 3. A good game has great gaming elements. A great game combines the gaming with a solid story. A perfect game devises a way to marry the story and gameplay seamlessly (we've not gotten here yet).

Granted, not all game styles need a story. For example, sports games and racing games don't really need them. But, it helps if there is some kind of story involved. For example, Gran Turismo is pretty much a straight racing game. The goal is to race your way through each event and improve your car. That's pretty much one tracked. Now, if you took that gaming element and wrapped it around a person and events in their life, that would make Gran Turismo take on a whole new dimension in gameplay. You could even open up free roaming aspects to let the person walk around the cities and find things to enhance the car or their driving skills. Just think of a combination of Grand Theft Auto and Gran Turismo together in one game!


Enemy and Boss Tactics

Perhaps this should have been under the bosses section, but I also feel it needs to be under game play. When designing how a boss works, do not use an unkillable/undamageable boss simply to whittle down player health for later smaller enemy attacks. This is frustrating and annoying. If you're going to let the gamer battle the boss, then let them battle it. Don't do some intro game play where it's impossible to kill (or even wound) the boss. If the boss can't take any damage during a specific area of play, then it should not be there. Only enemies on the play field that can actually be killed or damaged should be actively engaging the player. If something can't be killed or damaged, then it should not be there... or at least, it should not be launching damage salvos at the player character. This is similar to Perfect Aim. Don't do it. Only killable or damageable enemies should be actively engaging the player character.

Here's an issue where changing controller mappings sometimes works, but most times doesn't. As a game designer, be mindful of your intended gamer audience. Between the PS3 and the Xbox 360, the controllers are similar enough that you can map similar styles to each of the buttons. For example, the analog sticks usually are reserved for camera on one and movement on the other with the buttons mapped to attack, jump, climb, etc. This is the perfect combination. Because so many games have used this style of mapping, don't mess with a good thing. If you want to design a 3D shooter or RPG, use this style. Don't think that because you decided to put the camera movement on the bumper buttons that that will make your game better. Don't do it. Stick with what works and is accepted.

If you decide to modify the usual and standard controller layout to something odd, then at least give the gamer the ability to change this mapping to a controller style of other familiar games. Don't lock the gamer to a non-standard button mapping system and force them to play the game that way. Having to relearn the controller layout for your game is just bad design and, worse, may even doom your title into obscurity and lackluster sales.

Also, don't lock gamers into using the Xbox Kinect, the PS3 Move, PS3 Sixaxis or the Wiimote motion controllers for your games. Give the gamer the option of using a standard controller to play. Simply because you, as the designer, feel the game may be better experienced by using these motion control systems may alienate an entire paying audience who can't (or won't) play games using these motion control systems. Spend the time to add a standard controller layout to your game along side these novelty controllers.


I know a lot of people are familiar with the use of fixed cameras through franchises like Resident Evil and early Tomb Raider titles. As much as Resident Evil liked this style of camera, when designing your title, don't do it. The trouble with Resident Evil becomes quite apparent very rapidly once game play starts: Enemies can hide out of the camera view and damage the player. The player can't even see the enemy to kill it. This, once again, goes back to Perfect Aim (and Perfect Vision). In game, the enemies aren't reliant on the camera and can 'see' exactly where the player is. The gamer, on the other hand, is limited by what's shown on screen by the camera. Fixed cameras prevent the player from seeing critical parts of the game playfield. Don't use fixed cameras. Always use a floating camera and let the player move the camera to wherever they need it to be. The camera is the only way to view into this game world. Don't cripple the player by imposing stupid restrictions on the camera. The camera should never be used as a challenge element. It should only be thought of as a way to peer into the world. If the player can't see the world in the way they need to see it, they will get frustrated and stop playing the game.

Recently, I've found few games that cripple the camera. However, every once in a while a game will come along and try to do something creative with the camera. In fact, by crippling the camera the only thing the developers have done with their game is doom it to obscurity and failure.

Audio and Soundtracks

Music is an important element in any game. It's what sets the mood and tone of a given level. It can swell to indicate enemies approaching. It can diminish to indicate the battle is done. There are lots of ways to use music and sound effects in creative astonishing ways. The trouble with some soundtracks, though, is monotony. Be careful to use the right music at the right time. Don't use hip-hop music when doing a medieval genre game (not that I've seen anyone do this, yet). That's an extreme example, but be aware of what you need. I prefer orchestral music in games as it's soothing at necessary times and intense at others. Heavy metal can be used in some instances successfully, but it can be out of place at other times. So, be cautious of using heavy metal in a game you design. The same can be said of techno, so be careful with this genre. The style and type of music, though, can definitely help or hurt your storyline. It can make the difference between an emotional scene or making it stupid.

Coming Up:
  • Characters
  • Computer Graphics: 3D models, textures, lighting
  • Playability
  • Easter Eggs
  • In-game Tutorials
Parts: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

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