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by Tim Huntsman
Gamasutra
July 7, 2000

 

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Features

A Primer for the Design Process, Part 2:
What to Think About

[Back To] A Primer for the Design Process: Part 1, What to Do

Previously, I talked about the "Do" process, about what you as a designer can do as you ramp-up in the early design process. The focus was on asking questions, finding out what people want, getting a focus for your project, and putting it into a format everyone could (and would) use. This next section should help in giving you some insight about the frame of mind you should be in during the early design and implementation phase.

Contents

Asking Even More Questions

Good Habits, A Critical Eye, and the Fun Factor

The list of "NEVER"

What to Think About:
The "Think" section contains info that you, as the Designer and maintainer of the overall vision of the product, should be thinking about to improve the quality of your game. To be thinking is to be involved in the design process. You should be in constant contact with all the people working on your title. You should know what goes where, who's supposed to put it there, and be able to answer just about any question anyone might have about the product.

1. Asking Even More Questions:

The following section can be employed through the development process. These are things you should be asking as you go Alpha, and they should be finalized before you go Beta. (Just so you know where I'm coming from, I've always understood the terms Alpha and Beta as they apply to game development in the following way: Alpha means that all of your "major" technology is in place, but not working 100%. This also applies to sound and art. Beta means that everything that's supposed to be in the game IS in the game. It's all down to tweaking and bug hunting from there to turnover.)

How is our front-end/fluff going to flow?
The "KISS" rule applies here (See "Never" rule #1.) Don't force the player to filter through 6 or 7 screens to get to the game play unless it's absolutely necessary to the game. Put things in their logical place, and don't be afraid to give the player help or tell them what buttons do what within each screen. Another rule for you PC developers out there: If you're going to make me type a new name for a game save, please allow me to hit the "return" key to save instead of forcing me to go back to the mouse and click on the "save" button. I won't even talk about deleting an old save to free up some space.

This also includes thinking about what you're going to let the player do to configure their individual gaming experience.
On a side-note-many companies have front ends that, to put it simply, suck. They have limited options, navigating these options is a task Uri Geller couldn't fake, and it's usually a chore to try to configure something for your own liking. This comment holds true for the vast majority of PC game companies and not consoles. The console companies have standards that they are held to. Make it easy for players to modify things that you're going to allow them to modify. And, I might add, there's absolutely nothing wrong with giving players instructions on what button(s) they need to press to make something happen on a menu screen.

What options or modes should be included?

Creating a player in International Superstar Soccer '98

This particular question could be restated as, "How can we empower the player?" More and more players want to "mod" their games. I've seen this with the popularity of Quake mods-special fan-made levels, skins, and sound FX-and in games I've worked on like WWF Warzone and WWF Attitude. Giving players some measure of control over their environment will do wonders to increase the replay value of your title. It pumps up the "cool" factor. Konami's International Superstar Soccer '98 had the same create a player idea allowing the player to make either real or fantasy teams and using them in long-term tournaments.
Empowering the player with cool features, options, and game modes also has a definite payback in the fact that you will build a loyal fan-base that will buy into the franchise you create. (Sequels, people, sequels.)

A simple way to find options and modes to add to your title is to ask your testing department (or your publishers) or get some focus group testing done. Everyone has an opinion, you might as well listen to them.

How's the pacing?
Simple question. Is the overall game too long? Usually, you'll find that the game's too short. Players fork out anywhere from $20 to $70+ bucks for a game and it better be worth it. There are no rules on just how long the total gaming experience should be (with the exception of arcade titles) but players should feel like they got their money's worth.

A secondary consideration is to consider in-game pacing in the same way you'd critique a book or a film. Does your product drag its heels for an ungodly long time, boring the player to tears from one scene to the next? Does it go crashing through it's paces at breakneck speed, never giving the player time to catch a breath or reflect on what he's supposed to actually be doing other than surviving? 'Balance the flow' are the words to remember. Changes in tempo are a good thing but remember to take care how you manage those changes.

How hard is hard?
Get QA's feedback when considering the difficulty. Can players breeze through your game in minutes, in hours, or days? Remember the players who are buying your game, and don't always look to please the QA testers who have been playing the game solid for the last 6 to 9 months. Whatever is going to be considered difficult for your testers will probably cream the average player who might purchase your game, and force them to return it because they can't get past the first level. More than three levels of difficulty are usually better if you can swing it. Sad to say, tweaking levels of difficulty - adjusting AI to match and balancing game play to accommodate - is a tough and time-consuming thing that needs to be addressed by everyone involved on the project.

How can we integrate cut scenes, FMV or Run-time movies?
The first question is simple: Do you really need something like this, or can your game survive (quite nicely) without this? If absolutely necessary, try for the "in-game" movie rather than the pre-rendered cinematic escapade. It not only helps to keep the player immersed, but your transitions will be less jarring to the player. Metal Gear Solid, Half-Life, and Soul Reaver were good examples of the In-game movie.

How can we get replay value out of this?
Some games are over when they're over. The surprise is done and there's really nothing left to look for. Others can be played again and again, either because there's more to discover, or you're trying to do something personal like beating a high score. (Score? Games keep score? What's that? I'm sorry, but I'm a throwback to halcyon arcade days of the early 80's where score was EVERYTHING!)

How are our load/save times?
No one wants to sit around looking at 2-tone bar fill while waiting for the game to load. Sony has standards for it and it's not really an issue for the N64. PC guys, you're on your own. Push the programmers to optimize this. It's ALL part of the total game experience.

On a related note here-allow the player to save where they want to unless it's fundamentally necessary to not let them save. Reflection's Driver for the PC is a glaring example of forcing the player to get through 3 or 4 scenarios before they can save. You should know just how annoying this is and furthermore, you shouldn't be doing this to the gamer unless it's absolutely necessary to maintain the fundamental design features of your game.

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Good Habits, A Critical Eye, and the Fun Factor


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