Three Novice Mistakes in Game Design
Over the past few years teaching game and simulation programming at DeVry University, I’ve noticed a handful of design mistakes that entry-level students make over and over again. And that’s fine. Putting together a solid design for a game is difficult. It requires experience, deep critical thought, and extensive testing, among other things.
I’ve compiled my three favorite mistakes here. If you are a student of game development, just knowing that these three faux pas exist (and are repeat offenders) can help you advance much more rapidly in your early education. If you are an educator, perhaps you’ve shared these same observations.
Three Novice Mistakes of Game Design
1. The impulse to cram as many genres as possible into a game
2. The need to make everything in a game environment into a weapon
3. Focusing on story to a disproportionate extent.
These are my favorite mistakes because they betray an innocence and excitement about games that designers of all skill levels share.
1. The Cross-Genre Extravaganza
How many genres are enough for one game? The simple answer is it depends on the game, but I’d venture a guess that two is fine, and three may be okay as well, provided you know what you’re doing.
Like a great chef, you have to know what ingredients are appropriate for a particular dish. Think about each genre as a flavor. Some flavors go well together, like basil and oregano, while others don’t, like garlic and cinnamon. Furthermore, the flavors you choose from depend very much on what kind of dish you’re cooking. If you just slam every spice at your disposal into a pot, your final meal won’t taste right.
For example, it’s fine to add action elements to a puzzle game, but adding puzzle elements to an action game can be dicey. Why? Puzzle gamers expect their challenges might be timed; adding some action is perfectly acceptable because it enhances the fun. But action gamers expect their games to be fast-paced, and the wrong kind of puzzle elements can bring any shooter or arcade game to a grinding halt. Imagine having to solve a Rubik’s Cube in the middle of an Unreal Tournament battle.
Think of how few commercial games have managed to create compelling cross-genre experiences. PuzzleQuest may be the one shining outlier. Success stories are few and far between.
Also, players often enjoy only certain genres. A real-time strategy gamer may not like playing first-person shooters, and vice versa. So an RTS-FPS hybrid runs the risk of alienating fans of both genres.
The Cross-Genre Extravaganza is a narrow strait to navigate. It takes a solid understanding of genres to know where they overlap and by how much.
2. You Can Use Anything as a Weapon
Wow, sounds great! Can I kill enemies with Jell-O? What about hairspray?
As silly as those questions might sound, they get to the heart of why this idea is too lofty for game development. If you tell your players that they can use anything as a weapon, they’ll try and use everything as a weapon, and most likely end up disappointed.
The spirit of the idea is one of true physical realism, something that has yet to be accomplished in game design. It’s a worthy goal for all game designers, but the simple fact of the matter is, for reasons both technological and monetary, we’re not there yet.
Imagine for a moment that we’re going to implement such a system in an action-adventure game. Every item that could potentially be used in combat has to yield damage. The amount of damage an item can cause is based on a value stored in its properties. For every item in the game, a number has to be decided upon and rigorously tested. Every broom, office chair, vase, and milk bottle in your game must be linked to a point value reflecting how much damage it can cause an enemy or the environment. That could become quite a tall order for a development team to fill.
What about mounting the object to the player so he or she can wield it? Well, where on the item will the player grasp it? This problem is usually solved with invisible mount points on both the object model and the player character model that work like positive and negative magnets. But again, for each item in the game, someone has to manually decide where those mount points will be.
If that doesn’t sound like a problem yet, then consider the different ways you might hold the following objects as weapons: a kitchen knife, a baseball bat, a steel folding chair, a 24-inch television set, and a length of chain. Some of these items have one mount point, while others have two. The posture of the character wielding each item also varies dramatically, thus adding to the number of animations needed for each character model. And with the television set, the weight of the item might come into play, adding even more complexity to the design process. How many times a minute can you swing a television set as opposed to a kitchen knife?
The point is being able to use anything as a weapon is one of those ideas that looks great on paper, but is as of now an unrealistic goal.
3. It’s Based on a Story
So many first year students confuse storytelling with gameplay. It’s an understandable mistake, especially when you consider how epic computer and video games have become in the last few generations. Look at the kinds of advertisements the industry puts out to promote its games.
Overwhelmingly, they focus on characters, situations, and stories to sell the product, as opposed to specific gameplay elements. To confuse the issue even more, one need only to look at the library of games for the Wii based on third-party IP to see this story obsession in action: The Ant Bully, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and Happy Feet, to name a few cringe-worthy examples.
It’s no wonder then that students confuse storytelling with gameplay — it’s the sizzle in the steak that advertisers know they can sell. But a good story does not a game make.
At the heart of every game is a group of core mechanics, the things the player can do in the game. With a strong enough set of central mechanics, a game is still fun even without a story. Think back to some popular games from the 1980s: Centipede, Yar’s Revenge, Super Mario Bros., Tetris. These games have limited narrative elements, if any at all. Yet despite a profound lack of story, they’re still fun.
Providing an adequate context can be a tricky thing, and students would be better suited to focus on more abstract games if they wish to become successful designers. Abstract games like checkers and mancala are so effortless and elegant in their design, and that simplicity has contributed to their near universal appeal throughout history. By studying the fundamental mechanics in abstract games, students can ensure a solid foundation upon which to build their epic tales. A thousand years from now, game players may not understand what it means to be an Italian plumber, but they’ll still be playing chess and go. Put another way, which game do you think has the best chance of survival over the next hundred years, Halo or sudoku?
Stories work best is in their ability to provide a context for what the player does. The story should answer the question, “Why am I doing what I’m doing?” It’s the frosting that makes good cake even more delicious. For example, without GLaDOS’ clever voiceovers, Portal is still a fun game. Throw in that extra layer of storytelling, and suddenly you’ve got a game of the year.
Furthermore, story can add an emotional weight to a game, making it more relevant to players. The Final Fantasy series is an excellent example. Without the emotionally driven, high fantasy tales at the heart of these games, they are still decent enough role-playing games. But the well-crafted stories that provide a context for the weapons, characters, stats, and combat have created a top-notch franchise. In this way, story answers the question, “Why do I care?”
When student game developers say their game is “based on a story,” they’re usually neglecting what makes a game a game. For fledgling designers, it’s far more important to start with solid mechanics, as opposed to stories.
Learning From Other’s Mistakes
Students make very reasonable mistakes. All of them are committed out of a genuine love for the things they enjoy about games: combat, story, the differences in genres. In time, perhaps these ideas might become commonplace, but for now, they are pitfalls best avoided. (Source: Game Career Guide)