CAP 211 - Interactive Design and Game Development

On Game Design: Chapters 9 and 10


This lesson discusses material from chapters 9 and 10 of Rollings and Adams On Game Design, which covers elements of action and strategy games. Objectives important to this lesson:

  1. Action game genres
  2. Action game elements
  3. Action game worksheet
  4. Strategy game elements
  5. Strategy game worksheet
Action games

The text defines an action game as one in which the player must use hand-eye coordination to quickly react to events on the game screen. The authors observe that action games are often simpler than other types because there seems to be an inverse relationship between the speed at which a game must be played and the complexity of the game. Simpler games can be player faster than more complicated games.

Action game genres

Many of the examples given in this chapter are of arcade games, most of which will be unfamiliar to the reader. The lack of referent will make the chapter go faster. (Do chapters about simpler things go faster than chapters about complicated things?)

The authors divide action games into two categories: shooters and non-shooters. They do not make a case for doing so at the beginning of the chapter.

In the shooter genre, the authors include games that simulate using ranged combat (e.g. guns, bows, missiles), and games that simulate melee combat (e.g. fists, swords, clubs). You should be able to come up with examples of games that include both long and short range weapons (the authors use the phrase "local effect weapons"). The older games referenced in the text tended to specialize in one or the other, while more modern games tend to include both kinds of combat, so it makes sense to place them in one genre.

The authors break the shooter genre into two sub-genres on page 291, but it is again unclear why they are making the distinction. The sub-genres are referred to as First Person Shooters (FPSs) and 2D shooters. Again, you are not likely to have seen all the examples given in this discussion, but it is likely that you have seen enough to grasp their concept. (If not, search the Internet for some reference videos.)

Both types of shooter games are described as having an avatar, ranged weapons used by the avatar, and some number of enemies/targets.

The authors spend a couple of pages describing some classic games (and some that are simply old and defunct). This section is not enlightening, so we will skip ahead. Useful observations from this section:

  • use color to identify friend and foe, to make the game easier
  • don't let the player encounter too many enemies at once, to avoid a frustrated player swearing off the game

The chapter turns to non-shooter action games on page 296. Again, the authors list several games you may never have seen. They describe two games: Frogger and Q*bert. In Frogger, the goal is to navigate a frog across a road and a river, both filled with obstacles. In Q*bert, the goal is to control a board while avoiding enemies. The feature they have in common is that you are not a hunter, you are trying to be a survivor.

Action game elements

The authors move on to discuss some common elements found in action games. Only the first one, Rules, is further broken into sub-elements. If we accept that the authors mean the word Rules to include all mechanics of game play, we can see that this will be the largest element with the most parts. Some sub-elements described in the text are not as universal as the authors think, but many of the following are found in most games.

Rules sub-elements:

  • levels - a defined area in which the player must complete a task, which will typically provide a reward and access to the next level
  • checkpoints - places in the game world where a player will respawn after losing a life: could be at the start of the level, at the location where the avatar died, or at a specific other location
  • lives - players typically do not like games that end too quickly, so an action game will typically grant several attempts to learn/play it (lives) before declaring the game over
  • energy/health - the quantity that is depleted by enemy attackers, which will trigger the loss of a life when it is gone
  • time limits - three types are described: a countdown that limits the time allowed to finish a level, a countdown that makes the game harder if it expires, and a countdown the limits the life of a power-up
  • score - most games have some means of keeping score, so players can compete with each other, themselves, and arbitrary standards
  • power-ups - permanent or temporary increases to avatar abilities; players may be given points to spend on a menu of power-ups, making the game more customized the longer it is played
  • collectibles - objects that must be gathered to increase your score, to gain a power-up, or to trigger a special event
  • waves - groups of enemies that appear on one level or at the same time
  • bosses/big boss - bosses are more potent enemies, based on the standard enemy model for a level; big bosses are typically very potent, unique to a level, and may or may not be based on earlier enemy models (Note the chart on page 308, showing an ascending saw tooth curve. Each sharp point on the curve represents the boss of a level, and each dip in the curve following the boss represents a respite, a brief time in which the game gets easier as a reward for beating the last boss.)
  • wildcard enemies - randomly appearing enemies that are more potent than the waves they appear with; used to make the game less predictable
  • locks and keys - typically the lock is on the exit to a level and the key must be found to open the lock; the authors point out that this can be a metaphor: the key may be a quest that must be fulfilled, and the lock may be a level, a map, or a game mode that becomes available once the quest is fulfilled
  • monster generator - the place in the game arena at which the enemies appear, which may be on screen or not; a monster generator that produces infinite monsters creates a new strategy: you must complete the level without killing all the monsters, since there will never be an end to them
  • dungeon exit and level warp - a dungeon exit is a transition from one level to an adjacent level; a level warp is a transition across multiple levels
  • mini-map - many games with a large game world will put a map of the play area on the screen; three types are mentioned: a map of the entire game world, a map of only the local area, and a map that becomes visible only as the player explores an area

Victory conditions were defined and discussed in chapter 2. The authors remind us that some games have no victory condition as such, because they continue until the player loses. This kind of game is less attractive to players who need to feel the completion of beating the game and winning. It is also possible for a player to be happy as long as the player believes that the game can be won. As long as the player does not know that the game cannot be won, there is a perceived goal that may be pursued.

The player's perspective in the game is discussed on page 314. Typically, action games are presented in first person, third person, or side scroller perspective. The authors present a good argument against the first person perspective as being limited and unnatural. Most people have peripheral vision, which the first person perspective does not include. I agree with their observation, but this is not a complaint I have ever heard any game player make. It may be that this will be a reason for 3D game environments to be made after all.

Action game worksheet

On pages 319 and 320, the authors present a list of questions that a designer might ask about an action game they are working on. The questions summarize and apply the points in the chapter. You should use this list as a reference for questions you need to answer when working on an action game.

Strategy game elements

Chapter 10 discusses features of strategy games. We are told that strategy games were not common on console systems when the book was written. Is this still true?

The discussion of strategy games should cause you to stop for a moment and think about the fact that not all games belong to a single genre. The authors present Civilization as their first example of a strategy game. If you know that game, you may have wondered about it being offered as a strategy example instead of as a construction and management example. This series of game includes both kinds of game play In this chapter, the authors talk mainly about the strategy aspect of games that often include more than strategy.

The text tells us that computer based strategy games evolved from board games. Computer based strategy games tend to be either turn based or real-time games. The difference between them is apparent when compared to an action game. In an action game, there is constant interaction between the player and the game system (the opponent). The game play in an action game is typically very fast. In a turn based strategy game, the player has time to choose what move to make because the game waits for his input, usually without a time limit. In a real time strategy game, there are no turns, and players typically make their moves against a computer opponent that is set to play at a rate the human player can maintain.

The text begins a list of strategy game elements on page 323:

  • theme - back story of the game, which is typically conquest, exploration, trade, or a combination of these themes
  • presentation layer - the player interface is more complicated in a strategy game, partly because the player has many more tasks and partly because the player is required to manage many more resources compared to an action game
  • setting - the authors state that the setting is often historical, present day, or science fiction (This seems to be saying it's past, present, or fictional. An odd set of alternatives. How about a game set in an alternative history? How about a fantasy, not based on fact or science?)
  • perspective - typically a larger scale perspective than an action game, since you are meant to control action on a larger scale

The authors spend some pages on each of the theme options mentioned. The discussion may not be very enlightening.

Strategy game worksheet

On page 343 and 344 the authors present a list of questions that a designer might ask about a strategy game they are working on. The questions summarize and apply the points in the chapter. You should use this list as a reference for questions you need to answer when working on a strategy game.

Assignment 3:Group assignment: pick an action or strategy game with which you are familiar. If your group members are not all familiar with the same game, let the unfamiliar ones interview the others as subject matter experts.

  • Use the appropriate worksheet from this chapter to analyze the game in terms of the questions a designer should have asked about it.
  • Provide a short analysis of the game for each point in the worksheet.
  • The paper must be typed, and printed or emailed to me by the start of the next class.