CAP 211 - Interactive Design and Game Development

On Game Design: Chapter 2


This lesson discusses material from chapter 2 of Rollings and Adams On Game Design, which meanders around several disjointed concepts. Objectives important to this lesson:

  1. Getting ideas
  2. Elements of a game
  3. Understanding your audience
  4. Game genres
  5. Type of game machines
  6. Design influences
Getting ideas

This section of the chapter may be one of the more useful parts to you. It proposes that you should actively pursue new ideas for games, wherever you happen to be and wherever you can imagine going.

The authors suggest getting ideas from games from daydreams. Think about this as an exercise in lateral thinking. When you let your mind go in any direction you want, use part of it to consider what parts of your daydream could be developed into a game concept.

They authors also suggest that you can get ideas from other media, like books, movies, and television. They are careful to advise you not to steal someone else's intellectual property. Make sure you do not. When you develop an idea that was inspired by something you saw, heard, or experienced (as most ideas are), make sure you think about what you can to do make this version of it your own. Ask yourself how you can do it differently, better, and more entertainingly.

Sometimes you can see an idea in something new by thinking about what comes next. For instance, look at some technology articles on engadget, or news items on boing boing, and think about spinning them into game ideas. What if you had a version of a device that did more than what the device in a technical article can actually do? How would it be used in a game? What kind of character would use it? What kind of story would it fit into? What conflicts would the character have to overcome? What goals might there be in the story?

Sometimes it helps to see a movie or read a book that you don't like, because you can more easily decide that it should have been done differently. The authors suggest this may happen when you play someone else's game. If a game frustrates you, think about what the designer should have done to avoid that feeling. This takes us to a point the authors do not make, but you should consider. You must begin to experience games differently as a designer than you did as only a player. You must consider the experience that the designer is giving to the player, often while you are trying to play and enjoy the game yourself.

However, there is a problem with playing a game and trying to analyze the experience. It is related to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which means, in this case, that the act of observing your experience of a game will alter that experience. This should seem likely to you, even if you have not studied physics or heard of the idea before. Jesse Schell offers some techniques to work around the problem:

  • analyze memories - This idea says have the experience first, then analyze it afterward. If you have ever compared your memory of an event with that of another, you know that each person remembers different features of an event, so several players should analyze their experiences together, as soon as possible after a play session, to avoid loss of detail. Of course, this also leads to the blue camel problem. Never heard of it? It's a reference to an Arabian Nights story. I give you a magic carpet, and tell you that it will fly anywhere you command it to go, but you must never think of a blue camel while trying to use it. You will find it impossible not to think of a blue camel (the analysis) while standing on the carpet (having the experience). In the same way, you may find it impossible not to analyze your experience to some degree while you are having it.
  • two passes - play the game once to experience it, and play it again to analyze the experience. This may make it easier to enjoy it (or hate it) first, then figure out the details second.
  • sneak glances - if you find a blue camel (the analysis) on your mind, push the camel to the side while you are having the experience and pay it a little attention now and then during the experience. This means to think about the analysis a little during the experience, to make it easier to mostly experience the experience.
  • observe silently - you may find after practicing the techniques above that you can think about what is happening while it is happening. All the techniques above take practice, but this takes the most. It is as Holmes told Watson in A Scandal in Bohemia, "You see, but you do not observe." Most of us do not observe (analyze) the world around us. As designers, we must become like critics, who analyze experience for the rest of us.

Rollings and Adams are writing about analyzing your game, someone else's game, and the experience the player is having with your game. Mr. Schell also wrote about understanding the experience that you want to put into your game. This is an early stage design concept, compared to the one Rollings and Adams are talking about. Mr. Schell asks us to examine the experience we want the player to have. What are the essential aspects of that experience, and how can I convey them to the player? This is something you should deal with early in your design process.

I once took a film criticism class, in which a student asked the instructor about the loss of innocence he was feeling, leaving the audience and joining the ranks of critics. The instructor replied that it was a necessary aspect of becoming more aware of the craft of filmmaking. He hoped that, in the long run, what we gained by learning more about our experiences would more than replace what we would lose. In the same way, examining our experiences (gaming and otherwise) can make our appreciation of them greater, and enhance the chance of our creating a greater experience for those who experience our work.

Before closing this section of the chapter, the authors consider two more useful ideas. First, that the purpose of a game should be to entertain someone else (page 33). Note that they do not say that the purpose is to entertain yourself. You can make a game for yourself, but this book is about making games that will be sold to players. You must make it entertaining to them, or you will not sell many copies of it. Sales are one goal, but pleasing your audience is a related goal that should be pursued first.

Another idea is that a game must communicate information to the player about the environment, the world in which it takes place. It is easy to set the stage for a game that takes place in a world the player already knows. It is harder to set a stage when the player has no expectations about the game world: more stage dressing is necessary for a new world than for a familiar one. The authors make the point that the less the players know about your game world when the game starts, the more they need to be told about it as the game develops. This does not mean that you need to explain everything that they see. It does mean that you need to integrate giving them this information with teaching them to play the game.

Elements of a game

The authors present several useful terms that will help you examine games and game designs. These definitions are operational ones. They are the definitions that are used by these authors. Other authors may define the same terms differently.

  • toy - a toy is something you play with, and it does not have a set of rules about how to play with it, unlike a game
  • puzzle - a puzzle is typically fun once: it is like a toy or a game, but once the single correct solution is known, it can't be played again. In game play terms, a puzzle has a dominant strategy, a single way to play it that leads to victory every time. You must be able to explore possible solutions and to discover the correct solution to enjoy a puzzle.
  • game - a game is an active form of entertainment, that has rules about how to interact with/play it; potentially, you can play a game any number of times

The authors observe that a computer based game may have many rules that are hidden from the user, if the computer simply prevents the player from breaking them. Game boundaries may be visible or not, but they exist whenever a player is prevented from going beyond them. Players may be intended to discover all the ways they can manipulate objects in a game, leading to alternate successful strategies, but the computer should be given rules about what the player may and may not do in the game, to prevent breaking out of the game logic, or crashing the program.

More terms:

  • challenge - when a player is given a goal to pursue, and an obstacle is placed in the way of that pursuit, overcoming that obstacle is a challenge
  • game play (gameplay) - the set of challenges and all the actions a player may take to overcome them in a game or mini-game
  • victory condition - the definition of conditions that must exist to declare that one or more players have won the game
  • loss condition - the definition of conditions that must exist to determine that one or more players have lost the game
  • competitive game - a game in which all players contend to become the sole winner
  • cooperative game - a game in which players can work together to win the game
  • team game - players work as a group against other groups to win the game
  • multi-player game - multiple players can play the same game at the same time
  • single-player game - only one player may play this game at any given time

The text points out that some games, such as The Sims, do not have victory conditions. It is arguable that this kind of game is not a game. If a game has to have a rule that says when it is over, and when someone has won it, The Sims is only a toy.

Another special case the authors describe is a game that has no condition that allows the player to win, but simply adds more challenging obstacles until the player loses, such as Tetris. A player will play a game like this until the game beats the player, or the player quits. Some pinball machines operate on the same principle: the player continues playing until they lose or quit. In both cases, the player is encouraged to play again in order to increase their highest score, or to beat the highest score of other players, which are typically displayed to encourage/shame the player. The authors believe that getting on the list of high scores is the real victory condition of such a game.

More terms:

  • setting - the world in which a game takes place
  • interaction model - the way a player interacts with and perceives the game world
  • avatar - if the player operates a single character (or piece) in the game, that character is his avatar, his representative in the game world
  • omnipresent - if the player operates many characters in the game, or can view any part of the game world at any time, the player is omnipresent, like the author/narrator of a book
  • perspective - in this chapter, perspective refers to the way a player sees the game world on a screen
    • top-down - as if you were in an invisible plane, looking down on an infantry battle
    • isometric view - this is a 3D illusion, based on looking at a rectangle with one corner pointed at the viewer
    • first person - the world is seen through the eyes of an avatar
    • third person - the player follows behind his avatar; the avatar is like a puppet, and the player like a puppeteer operating the puppet from behind instead of from above
    • side-scrolling - the player's avatar moves on a stage that scrolls from left to right; the avatar is typically seen in third person, from the side instead of from behind
  • player's role - in addition to understanding the setting of the game world, the player needs to understand what kind of role they play in the game; the game may have to teach the player about their role if it is unfamiliar
  • modes - Games can include multiple internal games, or mini-games. Some games change from one internal game to another as the game is played. For instance, a football game will switch from offensive mode to defensive mode several times during the game. In Fallout 3, a player can usually choose to open a safe by using lock picking mode or password hacking mode. Different modes typically present different kinds of game play
  • structure - the scripted flow of a game from one mode to another, including the specific conditions that determine when and how the game will transition from one mode to another

The text continues with a discussion of realism. Two alternatives are defined (realistic and abstract) but they are really two extreme points on a spectrum, not two exclusive choices. Most computer based war games, for example have a high level of realism. Most board games are abstract games.

The authors turn to the story element of games again on page 40. They have a point, but they are also missing the point, in my opinion. Their point is that a game is by nature interactive, and it must provide something for the player to do. This is their primary goal, over any concern for what to show or tell the player. Their point is obscured a bit, because they use both the word "story" and the word "narrative" in this section to mean the same thing. You will recall that they defined these words differently earlier in the text. They are talking about their earlier concept of narrative here, the tale that the game may be telling the player.

Some games, as they have told us already, have no narrative. Some games have unsatisfying narratives. And some games have narratives that touch the hearts of the players. It is these games that I think the authors are ignoring. When you are writing a sports game that is meant to be a fine simulation, full of exciting action, and lacking in narrative, by all means, leave it out. They seem to be worried about a designer who might spend too much time developing a story, and not enough time developing a game. In an ideal world, you would have a strong story before beginning to develop game play Unlike the academy award winning movie, Shakespeare in Love, you should not be trying to write a play while you are trying to teach players to act it. On this we agree. You should know where the story is going before you begin to tell it. Additionally, a game must engage the player, or it will not be played long. It must not have endless cinematic sequences that distract from playing.

We disagree in that I think some games benefit from a strong, moving story in ways that game play itself cannot address. It has been said that there has yet to be a game that tells a story as well as a movie or a book can. Perhaps it is a limitation of the art form itself, but I do not think so. Perhaps it is only the maturity of the art form: movies and books have been around far longer than computer based gaming and more artists have written books and made films than have made games. It stands to reason that there have been more great books and movies than there have been great games at this time. I think it is likely that the right story has not been told by the right game designer/storyteller yet.

Understanding your audience

The authors describe a problem that has cropped up in some games: the creator did not consider the desires of the audience. If you make a game that only you will like, only you will wind up playing it. You are not your audience, no matter who that audience is. A designer must learn that, or they will not make many games.

Some gamers like one kind of game, and some another, and they have different expectations of what a game will give them. This take us to the science of demographics, the description of characteristics of groups. The authors mention stereotype characteristics that apply to different groups at various places in the text. In this chapter, they advise that a major division between types of gamers is core gamers vs. casual gamers. Let's examine their observations:

  • core gamers play lots of games, casual gamers not very many
  • core gamers spend lots of time immersed in games, casual gamers want a shorter learning curve and the ability to spend less time in each session
  • core gamers want to be challenged, casual gamers want to be entertained
  • core gamers may invest time in a game that is frustrating in order to overcome it; casual gamers want to have a good time, and that is not it

Some of these observations are self-fulfilling definitions. As you read them, you may find that you fall into one or the other group for each observation independently of the others. The useful idea here may be that you should look at your game design as it evolves, and make sure that it will appeal to the audience you have in mind. If you do not tailor the game for someone, you may find that it does not appeal to anyone. Your game design must include a statement that shows you understand something about your intended audience.

Mr. Schell presents a perspective from Richard Bartle, who believes that players can be classified into four groups by knowing where they fall on two spectrums.

  1. Does the player want to act or interact when playing the game?
  2. Does the player want to exercise the choice above with other players, or with the world of the game?

The answers to those questions place the player in one of Bartle's groups:

  • achievers - want to act upon the world, they want to attain the goals of the game. They seek the pleasure of Challenge.
  • explorers - want to interact with the world, they want to find everything in the game. They seek the pleasure of Discovery
  • socializers - want to interact with other players. They enjoy Fellowship.
  • killers and heroes - want to act upon other players. This, oddly, includes both those who want to kill other players, and those who want to help other players. This strains the theory for me, in that it feels wrong to put heroes and killers in the same group. Perhaps, when viewed in this matrix they do belong together, but it still feels wrong. Let's expand the label to read Heroes, Villains, and Killers.

      Act... Interact...
    ...on/with Game Achievers: seek Challenge Explorers: seek Discovery
    ...on/with Other Players Heroes, Villains, and Killers: seek what? Status? Conquest? One side of the force or the other? Socializers: seek Fellowship

    Does every player fit into one and only one box? No. A game can and should cater to more than one player type, and more than one pleasure. Civilization provides Challenge, Discovery, and Conquest, and may provide Fellowship in multiplayer mode. You should make sure you are providing some pleasure in your game, or the game is failing the players.
Game genres

Genres are categories or types. The authors list seven genres that most games will fall into.

  • action games
  • strategy games
  • role-playing games
  • real-world simulations
  • construction and management games
  • adventure games
  • puzzle games

Many games will include modes that are from more than one of these genres, but if a player is looking for a game that is one type in particular, it may be wise to stay mainly in that mode. If, however, your game allows players to switch to different genre modes to solve various challenges, the game may have a wider appeal than if they must always play a sequence in a force genre.

Type of game machines

The authors spend a few pages discussing three categories of game equipment: game consoles, personal computers, and handhelds. Their information is dated, since the book is a few years old. We may want to discuss this in class, thinking about currently available hardware.

Design influences

The last topic in the chapter reflects some things the authors have already said. They start out giving some good advice, but then falter into generality once again. We will consider their arguments in class.

Assignment 2: Form groups for designing some games. Write a proposal for a game that your group thinks would be possible to build. The proposal should address:

  • short statement of the nature of the game
  • genre of the game
  • player's role in the game
  • description of game play
  • intended platform
  • intended audience, including some thoughts about Bartle's four types of players