Friday, 23 March 2012

Unconventional Design Tips

The general advice for upstarting developers seem to be to focus on mechanics, building fast a prototype, getting the core game fun and and so. For instance CliffyB did so at GDC 2012. This is not bad per se, but it is really not the only way to make games and usually, and this is the issue, result in the same kind of experiences. So to create a counterweight to this, I decided to make my own list of design advice. Here goes:

Build top-down
Find some core mechanic of controlling and interacting with the game, be that sidescrolling shooter, point and click or whatnot and then focus on the big picture. What feelings should game create, what is the theme, what kind of message should the game get across? This means creating an overarching structure for the game first, and then when you start designing the mechanics, levels, etc you make sure that it goes along with this. By doing so you can design games that try and convey things not possible over shorter time spans. It lets you control build-up and emotional journey to a much greater degree.

Design and create chronologically
Try and see the development process as a very extended playthrough of the game. By designing and producing the initial level/area/etc first you get a better feel for the player's journey through the game. This make it easier to understand the how the holistic experience will play out, and it allows you to always base later levels/areas/etc upon what the player's frame of find (as it is formed by the previous experiences) is at that point.
Of course you can still go back and change things as needed, and this is often required later. But you want to stick with the chronological structure until as much as possible of the game is completed.

Do not care about fun
First of, despite what some might say, fun is a very specific word and leaves out many type of experiences. For instance very few people would call "Schindler's List" fun. Hence you should not use fun, unless you are specifically after creating a "fun time". A better word to use is "engaging" which can be used to describe the quality of anything depressing dramas and lighthearted comedies.
Second, what you want to care about are your high-level goals. The most vital part is that anything you add to the videogame serve these. If making them fun help this purpose, then by all means make them fun. But if you want the player to be part of a dark and disturbing journey, then fun is most likely not what you want to aim for.

Proper assets early
Art assets such as a graphics, music and sound effects are far more important than what some might argue. Not all videogame ideas can be properly evaluated by using simple blocks and beeps. What the player sees and hears has a great impact on how they can relate to the game. Sometimes mechanics that at first seem really crappy, can start to shine once higher quality assets are used. If you want the player to experience a story by moving through an environment, then you need to have the audio-visual feedback that immerse them in that.
This does not have to mean that full production quality assets are needed and it is not always easy to know when your prototype looks and sounds good enough. But if make sure to keep in mind that the underlying system is not everything, then that is one step in the right direction.

Diversity in the world, not game core

Do not think that everything you want to represent in the game needs to be inside the core mechanics. Instead, keep the mechanics simple and then let the world do the work in delivering a wider experience. For instance in Limbo, there are only a few core actions available for the player, yet the game keeps the activities varied and unique through out the game.
This is the hard way of designing games as you cannot simply extrapolate from a prototype, but the end result is a deep experience that is easy to get into.

Do it as short as possible

Do not make a game that is the best value possible. Let the videogames say what you want it to and then STOP. Do not try and drag sections out for no real reason. In the end what you want to create is a product that delivers your high level purposes in the best way possible.
This is also a legit business choice as you do not compete with other time consuming videogames. If your game does not take up huge amounts of time and yet gives the player a coherent and fulfilling experience, there is a bigger chance they will have time and motivation to give it a go. I would also rather see a world with many smaller interesting experiences than long ones whose only motive is to eat as much time as they possibly can.

There you go! Now of course these tips are not some ancient wisdom that lead you to the path of glory. One must always try and figure out the best process for the type of game you want to make. But what I hope this does is to show any aspiring developer that there is more ways to create videogames than the conventional ones. At Frictional Games we pretty much follow the above and have managed stay in business for over five years and are currently financially stable. So what I just said are tips that have been tried in practice.

If you know any other tips that goes against the "fun mechanics are everything" line of thinking, do share!


  1. Awesome tips, man!

  2. I have a similar set of aims when designing a game!
    My teachers tell me it is dangerous, however to me it is
    less comformative and thus allows us to think more freely!

  3. Only caring about gameplay and fun gives us the same cloned 2d shooters and platformers that seemingly every 'Indie' company produces.

    1. No Peter, we get cloned 2d shooters because making games is really hard. And cloned 2d shooters are easy and fun to work with on your free time.

      You can of course go 'indie' and try to make a game alone that's not a clone of any game.

      Go ahead, Try it.

    2. Oh I don't need to do it myself, I simply need to point to other small groups, Indie outfits, and individuals who have done it.

      Like Notch, or ThatGameCompany, or DoubleFine, or Frictional Games, or Zoetrope Interactive.

      Off the top of my head. Most of them writing engines mostly from scratch.

      Oh yeah, Scratches was good, that was one guy too.

      It might seem like it would make man-months to get a basic engine up and running, but most Games Programming graduates will write a functional 3D engine as part of their studies.

      Yes, pretentious retro games are a bit easier to do, but making something better is not the 'really hard' task you seem to think it is.

      Make a 2d shooter if it's so easy and fun.

      Go ahead, Try it.

  4. It also helps if you don't have to go to online college (or take a tutorial that feels like one!) just to play the damn game.

    It encourages focusing on making enjoyable encounters instead of focusing on the lower-level mechanics, which can often lead to mediocre results.

    It was a real eye-opener that made me realize the importance of aesthetics, but I still prefer having intense and challenging mechanics (eg Tribes Ascend, DotA 2).

  6. Your 'top-down' is actually 'bottom-up'. Top-down would be to think about the feeling of a game or (shock horror) the story and then build everything underneath to achieve the this.

  7. This is all so true. It's good that there's a developer out there willing to look past "fun" to try and pick apart the huge spectrum of emotions that video games are capable of. Keep doing your thing, frictional.

  8. Paul Firth:
    I think this is basically what I said. I only mentioned deciding on the control first as you cannot properly design the high level without knowing this. It may not be TRUE top-bottom, as you need to know the bottom layer first, but I think it is quite different from what is normally taught.

  9. I'm liking these design tips; there's a sameness to the way popular writers on the subject seem to be analyzing gameplay and evaluating the strength of a design.
    This is a simple but refreshing tack.

  10. Tip: Don't ignore dynamic relationships. Figure out character growth and dynamism beforehand and then use game mechanics and content to reveal and explore this.
    Relationships between people, between the protagonist and characters, and between the protagonist and the world are important. The best stories set the stage of these relationships, and then have many of these change in both minor and major ways. If your story doesn't have an impact on the relationships between people and between things, it is probably not a story worth telling.
    Sample of games exploring relationships by game mechanics: Japanese Dating sims, Deus Ex, Ico, Valkyria Chronicles

  11. McLean your point seems to be limited to certain genres whereas the OP's is pretty generally useful advice. However I can see what you mean in terms of "don't ignore dynamics", or how things relate to each other. The thing is that dynamics tend to only reveal themselves once the game is playable and things are tuned. We can make guesses but in my experience they tend to emerge unexpectedly. Subtle changes to rules can have large impacts on dynamics (just as how in your example the relationships between characters in stories are delicate things).

  12. With any kind of computer entertainment, you either have to make interaction logically appealing, or, if you are against this (and it seems you are), you have to minimize the interaction to the point that players don't even notice it.

    The first approach is the traditional approach. Since computer interaction is barely physical, it follows that computer interaction can only be logically appealing. For an interaction to be logically appealing, it must be part of a fun test. That said, from traditional point of view, all games are tests.

    If you are making tests, it is better to make tests first and then add the artwork later. This is because modifying tests also implies modifying art, whereas modifying art really only implies modifying art.

    The second approach has little to do with games and more to do with older artforms such as novels. Novels are read from books. Books, contrary to their status as non-interactive artform, are interacted with. You have to read the text line by line and you have to turn the page when you hit the bottom. However, the purpose of this interaction is not to entertain; it's purpose is purely functional one. As such, it is best to keep such interaction as minimal as possible, for any redundance in its design would most definitively distract readers from getting the meat.

    With this sort of approach, it's pretty clear that you have to do the art first, because art is the meat, and interaction is purely functional element.

    1. "For an interaction to be logically appealing, it must be part of a fun test. "

      Well, no :) We have already tried interaction in Amnesia that are not fun tests, and most people still find them engaging.

    2. I'd actually argue that people perceive Amnesia as fun tests.

    3. Also, I just want to add one little thing, if people find some game to be fun, it doesn't mean it's due to interaction. Kinda like how people find books fun to read, but it's not because they turn pages.

    4. Sorry but your claim that books are interactive is simply incorrect. A book does not change state in response to input which is a fundamental quality of an interactive system. Sure the reader can observe its content and REACT (internally, I might add) but the book is unable to respond back to the reader and remains unchanged and non-dynamic.

      You point out that the reader turns the pages but this is a fixed reaction, not an interaction, and I would argue that this is no more interactive than turning your head to look at something else. By this definition, everything is interactive.

    5. "I'd actually argue that people perceive Amnesia as fun tests."

      And that would be stretching the definition of "fun tests" a lot. Of course you can define it like that, but then it then clashes a lot with the normal notion and is sure to bring along lots of bias in a designer.

      In the same way you could say Schindler's List is "fun". But, in the English language, "fun" is not normally used like this. If you tasks somebody to do something fun, even if you give them your own definition of "fun", they are very unlikely to do something like Schindler's List. Even worse, an audience who is excepting that videogames are fun, will have an even harder time to get into the Schindler's List of games.

    6. @CrowbarSka:

      Interaction is a fuzzy term, and depending on the definition, my use may be wrong. However, I'd argue that even if my use is bad, my point still stands.

      Whether it's "minimal interaction" or "no interaction at all" is irrelevant, it still stands as a valid analogy.

    7. @Thomas:

      Consider that I'm saying "fun tests" not "fun aesthetics". I'm not saying that games should only be one of these: cheery, pompous, scary, epic etc.

      I'm simply saying that games can either have fun tests or no interaction at all (or minimal interaction) that is there to support the aesthetics.

      I'd say you use both of these. There are sections with fun tests and there are sections that are pure aesthetics.

    8. I'm missing the definition of "fun test" here, are we talking about gameplay mechanics?

      If so, Amnesia's mechanics are not all that interesting by themselves. What I mean is that if you take away the atmosphere, the dangers, and leave the pure mechanics... Amnesia fails as a "fun" game. It's just a "Pick up stuff, turn this crank, move this stick, etc." Granted that I am only on the storage room right now, but what I understand of it is this:

      You lay things out in a manner that forces you to explore every part of the game and face all of those horrors. It's not about having fun, it's about forcing the player to do things or go places that they have no other incentive to do. Then use the human senses to create an environment that reaches horror on every level.

      So, in a way, the mechanics of Amnesia are the exact opposite of fun. They don't lead to a fun feeling, they leave you feeling terrified.

  13. Goddawg! It's like reading my own brain. Well written and true all six paragraphs. The bit about diversity and the game core is always such a battle. Too often everyone seems to think that all ideas can and should be a feature with its' own button.

    Game development has so much to learn from other arts. Removing the dead flesh is much more important than adding muscle. Cheaper too...


  14. Build top-down - Always trying to do that.

    Do not care about fun - Shocked me at first.

    Do it as short as possible - That's what gets most on my nerves when it comes to current games with a 'commercial base thinking'. Meaning the types of games that are just made to make money. Not created as good product, that is actually fun to play. Or something like... fun in the beginning, money sinks in the end (aka a typcial social media game).

  15. For me the 'fun' test really is more about watching for tedium and frustration than the typical definition of fun, especially when it comes to things like core game play mechanics (including something just because it's interesting on paper does not equate to it being engaging or fun to interact with).

    Your perspectives on theme and playing through the game as you create it are quite interesting. I have a new project I plan to start soon and will give this post another read before I start it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts :)

  16. You know I totally worship your opinions on game design, I think you guys are one of the few studios that have understood the medium of games. I don't have knowledge about your actual workflow, obviously, but it is your vision and your mindset that makes everything different. I studied game design and got the word "fun" thrown about a lot, you taught me not to apply that to every bloody thing concerning a game. In fact, I think - some of the best games I’ve played probably never even intended to be fun - and the ones who do, honestly rarely are.

    So in line of "against fun-mechanisms" I want games to convey a meaning without forcing the players hands. By this I mean never taking away the players control. Like having cutscenes or – my favourite, quicktime events. So instead of using those oddly popular attributes, trying to tie everything together so everything the player sees, meets, hears, does - resonates that thing you want to convey to the player. Totally ambitious, but I want it. I think focusing on "fun" and a fun prototype mechanic undermines the value of visuals and sound and emotion as well. I might enjoy digging a hole, but the experience in itself will translate entirely different considering where I am digging it. A lush, sandy beach – a wet, dusky cave, a foggy swamp, on the moon…
    Uh, think I'm repeating what you’ve said. But nevermind, happy easter!

  17. I think what's telling about CliffyB's design technique and yours is fairly obvious, you aspire for games to be experiences and not just tests. This is why Amnesia is dangerous in a way Gears of War could never be: Amnesia is art. The role of mechanics is very much like the book analogy described above in which someone is turning pages and yet this action is automatic and unperceived while reading. This is because mechanics are only there to facilitate the story, the feelings and ultimately the experience of playing the game. If being able to fire and transition from cover becomes more important than watching a teammate meltdown after a friend gets killed by a sniper you should seriously reevaluate what you're trying to communicate to people.

  18. Great Tips indeed. :)

    Now, if we can only get Frictional to re-make Undying!! :)
    With 2days graphics engines, even a re-make (the exact same game, plot, etc) done up with a today engine, would be very welcomed!


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