The Roots Of Computer Game Design
Computer game design has its roots in earlier forms of entertainment that predate the joystick and personal computer. Board games, paper and dice games, toys, and the ancient art of storytelling all have methods that continue to capture the human imagination and joy. Level designers can learn by studying these methods and understanding what each form has contributed to the art of computer game design.
Board, Paper & Dice Games
Games predate civilization. Some of our oldest games still survive to this day, like mangala (or stones), dice, checkers, tic-tac-toe and chess. What gives them their lasting power? What can we gain from them as designers of complex computer games? Simplicity and elegance.
These games keep the gameplay and the rules simple. Almost anyone can grasp them and quickly perceive the strategies and skills necessary to achieve victory. Elegance comes from years of refining the rules and components to maximize and balance the gameplay, and provides lasting entertainment value.
Simplicity and elegance should be your goal in level design. So many designers (I being one of them), have fallen into the trap of creating complex games and levels that make it difficult for players to grasp the rules, objectives, strategies and indeed the fun. Designers often fail to play test their level enough to uncover any unbalancing factors and make improvements. So keep it simple, and submit your level to a lot of play testing so you can polish it.
There’s a lot more that can be learned from non-computer games, such as the value of symbolism, statistics, and role-playing, but this goes beyond the scope of level design and should be left for a future article on computer game design.
Toys – Train Sets, GI Joe and Barbie
Toys have always fascinated children of all ages. Train sets are the ultimate interactive toy. You can be designer, builder, painter, passenger and engineer (or even God if you like creating natural disasters). GI Joe and Barbie both have interactive features such as movable limbs and changeable clothing and accessories and even vehicles and play sets. They cash in on kids’ aspirations and dreams. One of my favorite quotes from a paper game industry veteran and former toy maker is, "Who knew that a doll with tits would sell so well?"
The more you can interact with toys and the closer they get to peoples’ aspirations and dreams, the more they are appreciated. The same can be said about level design. Think of your level as a train set. Consider how can you make it interactive with all the bells and whistles and other special effects. Think about how you are portraying the player and what you are having them do. Let them feel like a general chasing down a retreating tank corps or a squad leader breaking ranks and charging a hill. Let them feel like a deer hunter chasing down quarry. (Think about the few million units that the latter type game has recently sold.)