CAP 211 - Interactive Design and Game Development

Game Design: Action and Strategy Games


This lesson discusses material 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

An action game is one in which the player must use hand-eye coordination to quickly react to events on the game screen. 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

Action games can be forced into two categories: shooters and non-shooters. In the shooter genre, include games that simulate using ranged combat (e.g. guns, bows, missiles), and games that simulate melee combat (e.g. fists, swords, clubs). Why? Because they are more alike than they are different. You should be able to come up with examples of games that include both long and short range weapons ("local effect weapons"). Older games 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.

Shooter games generally can be described as having an avatar, ranged weapons used by the avatar, and some number of enemies/targets.

Reflecting on some classic games of this type, successful designers have tended to do two things:

  • use color to identify friend and foe, to make the game easier
  • limit the number of enemies a player may encounter at once (to avoid a frustrated player swearing off and at the game)

To build toward a definition of non-shooter action games, we can consider some examples from Rollings and Adams, on page 296. 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 (like a snowboard) while avoiding enemies. The feature they have in common is that you are not a hunter, you are trying to be a survivor. Non-shooter action games often put the player in the role of the prey instead of the hunter.

Action game elements

Rollings and Adams used the Rules element of a game to include all mechanics of game play. Some sub-elements listed below may not be universal, but many of the following are found in most games.

Rules sub-elements:

  • level - 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 - consider three types: a countdown that limits the time allowed to finish a level, a countdown that makes the game harder if it expires, and a countdown that 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
    Rollings and Adams presented a chart showing an ascending saw tooth curve. Each sharp point on the curve represented the boss of a level, and each dip in the curve following the boss represented a respite, a brief time in which the game gets easier as a reward for beating the last boss. The is the same concept that Jesse Schell proposed as a effective way to throw challenges at a player. Make the challenges harder as time goes by, culminating in a major challenge (boss). When the player overcomes the boss, make the challenges temporarily easier, to allow the player to relax and feel mighty until the path slopes upward again.
  • wildcard enemies - randomly appearing enemies that are more potent than the waves they appear with; these are 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;
    This can be a metaphor: the key may be a quest that must be fulfilled, and the lock may be access to 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. The usual "rush in and kill everything that moves" strategy will not work on such a level.
  • 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 commonly found: 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 discussed in the last lesson. Remember 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. Such players are not happy when there is no victory condition. It is possible, however, for such 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. This may explain something about people who continue to gamble long after they lose the amount of money they set as their limit. The believe in the possibility of the win.

The player's perspective in the game is also a design issue. Typically, action games are presented in first person, third person, or side scroller perspective. Some authors present a good argument against the first person perspective: it is limited and unnatural. Most people have peripheral vision, which the first person perspective does not include. I agree with this 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 with wrap around scenes to be made after all.

Strategy game elements

We continue the lesson with features of strategy games. 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. Rollings and Adams use Civilization as an example of a strategy game. If you know that game, you may wonder about it being offered as a strategy example instead of as a construction and management example. This series of games includes both kinds of game play.

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.

Strategy game elements:

  • 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 setting is often historical, present day, science fiction, or fantasy (I am not sure this helps, but it seems accurate.)
  • perspective - typically a larger scale perspective than an action game, since you are meant to control action on a larger scale