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Surreal's Lipo On Battling the Curse of 'More' In Games
Surreal's Lipo On Battling the Curse of 'More' In Games
July 16, 2008 | By Michael Abbott

July 16, 2008 | By Michael Abbott
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In his presentation at the Games, Learning, and Society Conference, Patrick Lipo proposed a set of simple tools for game design aimed at helping teams prioritize features and focus on the player's experience.

Lipo, a 15-year veteran designer who served as project lead on X-Men: Legends and as studio creative director at Surreal Software (This Is Vegas), suggested that such tools can “provide inspiration for the design of anything from a small side project to a magnum opus.”

A Matter Of Limitations

Lipo characterized the process of working on large games as both a blessing and a curse. Big budgets provide the resources to add a nearly endless set of features and realize even the most ambitious vision - “so why do so many big games seem to have development troubles?”

Lipo believes limitations can help guide designers and a keep a project on course, noting that “a game that tries to do too much often fails at most of them.” Despite what many young designers may think, a blank sheet of paper can be a dangerous thing. “Every game needs a box to be built within.”

Big games are often driven by a fear of player expectations. This often results in what Lipo calls “resources without meaning,” big budgets and personnel devoted to over-ambitious goals. It is possible for a design team to have an excess of ideas, and without a clear set of project priorities these ideas can paralyze, rather than inspire, a team.

A Matter Of More

Part of the problem, according to Lipo, is that “we all have the same enemy: more. Everyone wants more stuff, more features, more everything. We want our games to be cool, and more stuff adds value.”

Audiences are demanding breadth in all things, which is pushing designers to create design mash-ups with shooting, driving, open world, and MMO elements that rarely all work well. “GTA has set a ridiculous precedent,” Lipo observed, noting that it is unrealistic and unwise to mimic its formula. Spider-man 2, he said, is a telling example of what can happen when a game tries to be all things to all players.

Lipo believes the ideal approach is to focus your efforts within a clearly defined set of constraints. “This is not an argument for simplicity. Depth is best targeted at carefully chosen places,” Lipo argued. Constraints enable you to prioritize features and support a game's objectives. “They assure that each feature is worth the cost of entry, and they demand that the gamer will notice your efforts.”

“The big question designers must ask is very simple: what will impact your players the most?” Lipo suggests this may be an unpopular stance to many gamers “who want to feel you're giving them everything you've got,” but most well designed and popular games adhere closely to this credo.

A Matter Of Focus

Lipo cited God of War as an example of a highly polished game focused on epic fighting with a simple combat system and light RPG elements. BioShock, according to Lipo, is a simplified version of System Shock 2, a game that may have been too complicated for its own good. “I'm sure these were tough cuts to make, but BioShock is still complex and deep...and more successful.”

Lipo outlined a set of Tools for Focus:

* Use verbs to abstract player activities, keeping them “chunky” and high-level (e.g. fight, collect, build, etc.), and letting them group features (“fight” can branch into other related sub-features)

* Identify Pillar Verbs - these are what the player does 90% of the time, used as “a razor for prioritizing features”, and to spot where you are trying to do too much. The verbs, he says, should identify the activities that will impact player the most.

* Identify Secondary Verbs - these are side activities that provide breadth and variety of gameplay (e.g. a rail-shooting sequence). For instance, Half-Life 2's secondary verb is driving, Diablo 2's is crafting.

Lipo gave further examples, saying God of War's pillar verb was 'fight,' with 'upgrade' and 'explore' its secondary verbs, while Super Mario Galaxy's pillars were 'traverse' and 'collect,' while its secondary was 'fight.'

A Matter Of Values

Lipo also suggested that designers identify Pillar Values. “Beyond verbs, what abstract concepts make your game memorable? Where should your extra love go?” These function as short vision statements that define the game experience.

Examples of this were given for X-Men Legends: It's about a team of heroes, not an individual, it must contain the most destructive environments possible (this meant a trade off between dynamic and visual detail), and the player must be able to create his own team of X-Men.

With Halo, its values are cinematic set pieces, unique vehicles, and genre-defining multiplayer, while God of War's are an unapologetically brutal main character, powerful, visceral combat, and epic moments.

“Make sure your game screams your pillar values. Make them plain and easy to understand. Ask yourself 'What are people going to remember most about this game,” Lipo observed.

A Matter Of Scale

Finally, Lipo suggested designers pay attention the the scale of a game. “At what level of organization does the bulk of gameplay occur?” Different games make different choices in this regard, and Lipo cited the evolution of his own game This is Vegas, which began with “a vision of GTA meets The Sims.” While the team was excited about this idea, and the technology was up to the task, “the problem was scale.”

The player had the run of the city and could enter dozens of buildings, and the player could sway entire crowds with a single outrageous act. But the player could also affect his relationship with any individual. “This required the player to think on a 'per room' basis and a 'per person' basis.”

Suddenly one out of every 100 people wasn't just part of the crowd, which led to unpredictable behavior that hindered the player's ability to understand what was going on. “Gameplay was deeply rooted in two places. Ultimately we had to pick one.”

A good designer must be adept at creating guidelines and limitations as well as generating new ideas, noted Lipo, “because in the end it’s about deciding how to deliver the greatest game experience.”


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