How Smart Designers Prep With Game Research
Game design can often be very fuzzy. For one reason or another, it’s a discipline that almost everyone likes to talk about, has an opinion on, and has something to say. Some of this discussion is useful, but much of it is often reinventing the wheel — talking about issues that have already been solved in other games.
The worst is when you’ve been working on a game, on an idea or concept, fleshing out the options, tackling it like a hard design problem, spending nights pulling you hair out, only to discover later on that another game had already found the solution — you just didn’t know about it.
At the The Game Prodigy, we try to focus on designs that are applicable and can be immediately understood and applied (or it’s apparent that it doesn’t apply to the current situation). So how can designers avoid the above situation? How can you have a good understanding of a design even before you try tackling it?
The answer is research — game design research. As with any other discipline, it’s unwise to start working without first thoroughly researching what has already been done. Knowing the playing field can help you come up with your own strategy.
The Due Diligence
Professional game designers don’t just dive into designing a system without doing their due diligence. In order to understand where you’re going, you need to know where you’ve already been.
What is the due diligence? Researching the designs, similar titles, and similar features. Looking at what has already been done, where it’s lacking, and where there is room for improvement. And this can only be done by playing and studying a wide variety of games in the genre that you’re designing for.
To a lot of people, calling playing games “research” can seem a little silly. But remember, we’re not just playing them for entertainment (though there’s nothing wrong if you are enjoying your job!). We are playing to learn and understand how they work, how they create the experience that they do. Many game studios have their own game libraries and consoles on site so that designers and developers can do game research.
Do you think that movie directors only watch their own films? Do bestselling authors only read their own books? Do engineers and programmers only look at code that they themselves have written? The answer to all of these is of course: certainly not!
The best way to learn is to begin by imitating others. All art, science, and innovation is made by people who stand on the shoulders of giants. Then, after you understand what everyone else is doing, then you’re free to use parts of what you’ve learned or innovate in what you don’t see happening. But you won’t be going forward without an idea of what the space already looks like.
If you have a certain experience that you’re trying to deliver, then you can find games that are around that experience and see what they do.
Example Research: Fighting Game Genre
The first step in doing game design research is to understand what kinds of designs you’re attempting by defining your platform and your core experience. Are you making an indie title aimed at players who love retro-games? Are you making a fighting game for the Xbox 360? How about a mobile quick-action high score game? For whatever game you can think of, there are other designers out there who have tried it before and can be drawn from for inspiration.
In each of these examples, there are numerous games to look at in order to learn more about what has already been done in the genre. By seeing what has been done, what problems have already been solved, and where there is room for new ideas, designers will be better equipped to create designs for their project.
Let’s say that we’re working on a Fighting Game. We want it to be innovative, new, and interesting, but first we need to understand what’s already been done.
We’ll probably want to start by playing a few games in the Street Fighter series, the king of the genre. Street Fighter IV, Alpha Strike, and perhaps even classic Super Street Fighter remade for the 360 would be great places to start. We can learn about how the games structure their matches, how they set up the amount of life that players have, and how they construct their combos. We can understand their design of hard vs. weak hits, counters, throws, and so forth. All of these features can do in our design palette.
From there we’ll want to look at competitors to Street Fighter, such as Soul Caliber, and compare and contrast. What is different? What’s the same? Does one game only use high, medium, and low, while the other uses only high and low? How do the games structure their combos? How about character unlocks and the level structure, or the health or special move bars, how does that work? Does one game involve more items while another focuses entirely on player-generated moves?
We’ll also want to be sure we take a look at some alternative fighting games to get our minds out of a box. Games like Ragdoll Kung Fu provide interesting ideas for what a different style fighting game could be about on a PC, using the mouse instead of an arcade stick. Another title to look at would be Toribash, a game where players create their own combos and moves by moving individual joints. Do these off-the-wall fighting games have any components that you’d like to use as inspiration for your design?
By the time you’ve played a handful of fighting games, you’re going to have a great idea of what’s already been done, and where your game can fit in.
Key Components of Good Research
As we’ve covered in this example, there are a few key components to doing good game research. Here are just a few:
Write down all the games in your genre or the use your feature, and try to see if you notice groupings (the standards, the alternatives, the strange ones). Pick at least one from each group
Write down features, gameplay mechanics, and how they work
Compare and contrast. What’s different between these games? What is the same? Are there standards or conventions?
Try to think around the games: what were the budget constraints for the title? Did that seem to affect the design at all?
What aspects do you want to use in your title from these games? What designs to you want to disrupt or change instead?
Personal recommendation: Keep all your notes in one place; one doc file or one notebook. It will help you make connections inside the genre and make it easier to compare different games and features.
Taking a good look at the art that other designers have already created lays a perfect groundwork for you to begin your own title. Don’t write a single line of code without doing at least a little bit of research; you’ll be surprised at what you find and how much more prepared you’ll feel. (Source: The Game Prodigy)