The development of video games is a lengthy process where several tasks are interconnected and work is iterative. The first stop on our tour of Gaming development and production is Game Design.
Game design is much like architecture and construction – it consists of visualizing the final product, creating blueprints for all the factors that have bearing on the final product, as well as outline step by step what to do and in what order. The industry of Gaming covers such a wide variety of products that there are equally numerous ways of structuring the development process. But one key concept which is good to get acquainted with when learning about game design, is core gameplay loop.
The core gameplay loop is the basic backbone of the game, a set of mechanics and events that make out the game itself, or the gameplay. It is called a loop because no matter how simple or complex the game, the main gameplay almost always repeats itself eventually – so that within 10-15 minutes or so for most games, the player will understand what the game is about. For those of us new to this world a good example is the classic game Super Mario Brothers where the core gameplay loop consists of stages or courses where Mario runs from one end to the other, meeting obstacles and gaining rewards, to eventually pass the course by jumping on a flagpole. Then the loop starts over, this time with a different course with different obstacles, but still with the eventual outcome of passing the entire stage and reaching the goal. The more complex the game, the more complex the gameplay, and the more variations inside. And for games with a high narrative profile, such as for instance role play games, the player needs to inform herself substantially before starting the game to understand how it works, and along the way as well, but the basic blueprint is still built on the principle of there being a gameplay that repeats itself, one way or the other.
One factor which weighs heavily on what the process of game design will look like is the chosen genre. Since there is such variety in the industry, today we therefore take a page from the book of Alexandros Mavroudis, Gaming Corps’ Game Designer and Narrative Gameplay Specialist, using his work process and our game Oh Frog to describe game design.
Oh Frog is a puzzle adventure game, with emphasis on the puzzles. Like all games in that genre, solving the puzzle is where the core of the fun lies. However, it also imbues the experience with a form of linearity: Solve a, then b, then c, then d, then reach the end goal. Due to its linearity, the player will likely not want to do the same puzzle again, so a puzzle game benefits greatly from an emphasis on narrative: what does the player need to do to solve a specific puzzle, and how does that tie in with the narrative of the game as a whole? While solving the puzzle is its own reward, adding an extra coating of benefits with the aid of some event at the end of the puzzle, can also serve to increase the attractiveness of the game. That extra sweetness, along with the continuation of the storyline, makes for an enticing hook to keep the player interested, which is the goal of the design.
When designing a segment (one round of the core gameplay loop), the first order of business for Alexandros is to define the goal. In the case of Oh Frog our main character Lif always helps those he meets, so the goal can be that he helps someone by releasing him from prison, finding another her lost items, or helping a third in his/her quest to climb a rock. So, if the goal is for instance to release a friendly dragonfly from a cage where she is held by an evil slime blob, then that sets the tone for the segment. The next order of business is to set the stage in terms of chain of events, which in this genre includes the puzzles. What are all the steps in the segment and what can and can’t be done? The gameplay must be difficult enough to challenge the player, but it must be intuitive enough for the player to understand the main goal (release the dragonfly), the solution to the goal (find the three keys) and the way there (start by jumping on the slimy rocks to get across the lake). Not every single step must be clear at the offset, but the game must be intuitive as it goes along, to such a degree that you don’t lose the players’ interest. Making a segment very hard to pass is not a difficult task, but designing it just tough enough to make it interesting, is for sure a difficult task. It is like writing a crime novel – picking some character in the periphery of the story for murderer and make it impossible to guess who did it, does not make it a great novel. Making the story so dense and complex that it is very tricky to know who did it until the end, but making that end extremely plausible once all the facts are in place due to nuggets of information spread throughout the novel – that makes for a great novel. Making a gameplay just intuitive enough is equally difficult.
The next factor that comes into play are rules. What can a player do and not do? Can you move in any direction or just in limited areas? If any direction, then the design must cover all potential situations and what they result in. Can you do something random with the keys and gain a surprise reward from it? Or is all you can do just unlock the cage? A designer must consider all possible actions a player may take and account for them. Again, balance is vital. If you can do everything and run around everywhere, there will be so many options and so many wrong turns before reaching the goal, that the player will lose interest. However, too many rules and too few options results in a very low degree of agency – a concept in Gaming that refers to the way a player’s actions control and affect the game. When there is too low a degree of agency, ie. too many rules and too few options, a puzzle game won’t be attractive. If the player wanted a low degree of agency, relaxing with a game on the bus to work, they would play for instance a simple mobile game with lots of rules, like the classic Tetris. They would not be playing Oh Frog, so the right level of agency, as a result of an optimal number of rules, is essential. It is the same in consumer behavior: research shows that up to a point, more choices make the buyer happy, then after that point more choices only create anxiety and can cancel the entire purchase. Where that point is depends heavily on the product. The same is true for video games.
Back to our Game Designer Alexandros and his process – how does all of this result in an actual design document for the development team to run with? Alex starts the design process by outlining the main flow. This consists of a few overarching events, condensed to a number of bullet points. The first of these will be the introduction. This covers the scene onto which the player enters when starting the segment. What is the narrative? What does the screen look like? What are the main mechanics? What are key features? Does the main character have anything with him/her from the previous segment? Has there been any new elements introduced here that weren’t around before in the game? Under a number of structured headings, Alex outlines all the details of the scene. Here is an example that shows part of the content of an introduction for a segment in Oh Frog:
Once the entire scene is set in detail, Alex moves on to whatever action comes first in the segment, he uses the term phase to describe a set of events that are clustered together. A segment can consist of several action sequences/phases, with some kind of transition in between, and all transitions need outlining as well. Within each phase is one or more puzzles which are the main events of the phase. Once all the phases are complete Alex outlines the ending to the segment, which includes definitions of how the goal is achieved, what that results in and what sets the stage for the next segment (for the next loop of the gameplay)
In the first version of the design document, Alex will do a few basic sketches or maps to illustrate some of the graphics, as a complement to the text. He will then do a first check with the artist to start the process of creating the art – backgrounds, characters, signs etc. He will also check basic mechanics with the programmer and start the discussion of what can be done, what can’t be done, what fits. Game development is a truly iterative process where the development team work together, there is no clean-cut handover from one team member to the next in a straight line. We will venture into art creation and programming in the following parts of the calendar when these two tasks in Gaming development are described in more detail. When it comes to the design document it is a gradually developing blueprint which in time consists of finalized art so that specific details can be outlined to perfection and then translated into code. When development has resulted in a finished product, the design document also serves as support for testing.
The next time we visit with the Gaming team it is to learn about the creative art process, stay tuned on December 12th. Tomorrow December 7th the advent calendar moves back to iGaming development, this time focusing on animation.