Monday, July 11, 2011

Game Design: The Secret to Fun

Why are so many games today so repetitive? The enemies monotonous, the puzzles identical, the quests copy and pasted, why are games so boring? If you look at classic games you will find many different enemies in different environments but a lot of games today, even AAA titles fall short on variety, and as such a very common qualm with games today is that they are repetitive. For a game to be fun it can't be repetitive, it has to have variety.

A games structural design can be summed up in three parts: enemy/puzzle design, environment/geography and difficulty curve. The game may have more defined features like combat mechanics, aesthetic, etc. but strip a game down and that is what you end up with. If those three points are put together right, your game is built on a much stronger foundation. But today very little emphasis is put on these and often repetitive, boring games result.

Enemy design is a point left untouched in most major games, you basically have your grunts and your brutes, and for harder encounters they throw them at you in mass. A hallmark of a repetitive game is if in the last level you are fighting enemies indistinguishable from the ones in the first level. A fun game requires enemies to change over time, to become not just harder, where many games stop, but smarter. A dumb enemy is one that attacks in the same way as you, takes damage the same way as you, and moves in the same way as you. For a game to be fun it has to have variety in the fighting, movement and even method of defeat, of it's enemies. A game like Call of Duty, where such variety can not be found, is a chief example of a AAA game that is often repetitive, where as another FPS Half Life 2, is rarely called such. 2 major differences: first variety in enemies, Half Life features alien enemies of many types that move and behave differently, while all enemies in COD are the same. Well Zooqooo, COD is hyper realistic, only human enemies are allowed. Well reader the other major difference is that Half Life has puzzles. COD is a fighting game, you fight and fight, and except for cut scenes, do nothing else. Half Life has been called a thinking man's FPS. Frequent combat free puzzles and secret resupply points litter the levels, and this makes the game less, here is the word again, repetitive. But puzzles fall into the same ditch as enemies in that they might all end up the same. Even Half Life 2 repeats the same fetch the plug puzzle over and over throughout the game. An effective puzzle has to be unique, and many games fail at making unique puzzles and  end up making themselves less fun in the process by boring players with the same puzzle over and over. But the enemies and puzzles can't make up the game alone they take place in an equally important environment.

The levels in a game are often the most important thing for a game to get right, they provide the stage on which all other aspects take place, but even something so important is easy to overlook. The levels have an environment and aesthetic as well as a geography and structure. Both can make or break the game but in very different ways. The environment is the setting, the time and place of the game, it determines the look of the levels and at times the feel and mood of the game. Now it is easy to fall short in delivering an effective setting because if you deliver just one, your game isn't complete. It is important for a game to have multiple environments. different climates, urban and rural, interior and exterior, etc; these are choices that don't have to made once in a game but many times to create a complete game. The geography is also part of the level, but is very different; instead of the look and feel of the level, it is the nuts and bolts, the placement of buildings and walls, even the location of enemies. If the environment creates the way the game looks, the geography creates the way it plays. And the biggest choice in building an effective geography is linear or open? One pitfall for games that chose the former is that they are, well, linear. Even linear games need to show multiple ways to tackle a problem, to tailor to multiple play styles, and few games do that, opting instead for a sort of 'on-rails' approach to level design. But however much linear games can be to linear, open games can be to open. If you create a game with a huge world, but all the quests take place in a small part of it. If you create a large world, you need to reward exploration. But the thing that is overlooked more than any thing in games is the difficulty of the levels.

Difficulty curve is a term used by gamers to describe the difficulty of the game over time. For instance a game with a steep difficulty curve is much harder at the end than the beginning with not a lot of time to prepare. A very important part of an effective difficulty curve that is often overlooked is the tutorial. Many games create a tutorial that throws everything at you at once, this is bad because it basically makes the rest of the game a rehash of the tutorial. On the flip side a lot of games gloss over the tutorial, throwing you into the game feet first, this kind of 'tutorial' fails to prepare the player for the challenges to come and players often feels lost in the game. A good tutorial takes you step be step through the basics of the game, but doesn't lose sight of fun; if you lead the players by the hand, you can't force it, you have to let the player enjoy the tutorial like they would any other level in your game. But after the tutorial you have to raise the difficulty gradually, and lead to a finale that wraps up both the story and the gameplay. A final level has to have a larger than life environment and enemies, you have to tie everything together for the player so they don't feel like it ended abruptly, because after creating a varied fun game, you need players to finish it with a bang.

1 comment:

  1. I think the problem is in that "major" products in a consumer market don't have to be artistically sound. The big corporations backing games aren't always in it for the game in and of itself. That being said it stands without reason that there are noteworthy major titles.

    Regardless, it's a wonderful article. I think we need to talk. I think we need to see if a partnership can be achieved. ;)