Game design is always about looking back before looking forward. Sometimes this is done consciously; other times it is done unconsciously, but it always happens. Every great new idea is built on improving on one or more old ideas, and the best game designers are well aware of this.
One of my biggest pet peeves is when someone says to me "don't reinvent the wheel," which they often quickly regret saying as I begin to lecture them on how if no-one ever reinvented the wheel we would never have tires, suspension, alignments, treading, etc. -- all things which have made the wheel more efficient, smoother and just generally better.
A great design for a reinvented wheel
But for a wheel to be reinvented, one must start with a wheel to begin with, and that is what we are always doing in the games industry. A good example is the recently successful iOS game, Jetpack Joyride, from Halfbrick Studios.
It's an excellent game, and quite obviously modeled off of those Amiga/Commodore-era "don't touch the sides of the tunnel with your helicopter" games. They took that solid idea, and evolved it with pickups, achievements, special gear you can earn, etc., and made a great game out of it. They reinvented the wheel and it worked.
Halfbrick Studios' Jetpack Joyride
Does it always work?
No, it doesn't always work. Some past ideas weren't that great, let's be honest. But some have not only been ridiculously successful, but have also done the unthinkable and withstood the test of time.
Two good examples in relatively different genres are Quake 3: Arena (1999) and Diablo II (2000). There are many more, of course, but these are my case studies for this particular article.
Well over a decade on and these two games are still being played with distinct regularity, are favorites at private LAN parties, and have graphics which still stack up fairly well against their more modern competitors.
Why is this and what can modern game developers do to make a game that withstands the test of time so well? The answer lies in how the button is pressed.
What the pokies used to look like
… The button?
I mean this metaphorically, of course. But let me explain with a story. In my day job, I am quite involved in the gambling industry, and as such am exposed to many new products before they hit the market. One such product came about which was a "re-launch" (as it were) of the old-style "one-armed bandit" poker machines of yesteryear, which fell out of use in Australia decades ago.
In an attempt to latch onto the "retro rush" that seems to be going on… Well… Everywhere, people thought that re-releasing a classic-style one-armed bandit machine would inspire people's nostalgia and that they would be a viable new product.
I was quite excited when I heard the news, as I remember my grandfather having one under his house back in the '80s and I loved the feel of the flywheel revving up as I pulled down the lever. I loved seeing it kick the spinners into gear and watching all of the colorful fruits lock into place on the wheeled display.
Needless to say, when the first units came into the test room, I was excited to feel that little piece of nostalgia again. The machines certainly looked the same, if not a bit more modern. The digital displays had even been replaced by the classic wheels with the printed artwork on them.
It was in test mode and ready to play, so I grabbed the lever and pulled. The wheels started spinning and the lights started flashing, but it was all wrong. It felt so wrong that I thought perhaps the machine was broken… It wasn't, of course, it worked perfectly well.
But the machine was no longer clockwork, obviously, and the lever arm was simply a spring-loaded arm which pressed a small button when it was fully depressed. There was no sense of "winding" the machine up. No sense of having some sort of influence over the device and no sense of being connected to its operation in any way.
It was a jarring sensation of being completely disconnected. What was once – for lack of a better term – an intimate interaction experience had now become somewhat cold, clinical and disconnected.
I voiced my concerns at this, and was – of course – laughed off. I even went so far as to suggest they could build a small flywheel mechanism into the arm that has no functional purpose other than generating that "feel" when you pull the lever.
They ignored my counsel and released the product anyway. Needless to say, it was very unpopular and never really took off. The official reasoning was that "people don't like the 'retro thing' in gambling."
How is it relevant to video games?
How does this relate to video games such as Quake 3 Arena and Diablo 2? Well, think of that "button" as being the interaction between the player and the game. It has to feel good, just like the poker machine arm.
There are things you can do to the button to make it feel better and be more intimate, or there are things you can do to the button to make the user feel disconnected from the machine, and they both come down to a deep level of design.
When beginning a game project, try to describe the game in a short, concise sentence. Once you've got that sentence, every single thing you add to the game which complies with that sentence will make the game "cleaner" to play, but the more you stray from that sentence, the more disjointed it will seem.
Quake 3 Arena
Take Quake 3 Arena as the first example. It can easily be described as "fast-paced, sci-fi, multiplayer deathmatching" and nothing else. The reason that game was so popular for so long was twofold.
Firstly, it was built on a very beautifully made engine made by John Carmack, which was powerful enough to drive MANY other games for the next decade (RTCW, Jedi Academy, Call of Duty, etc).
Secondly, it followed a clean design based on a simple concept which could be summed up in that one sentence. Every aspect of the game conformed to it. There was nothing confusing, or particularly intricate about it. When you played it, you were immersed in the game. No part of it "fought" against you or detached you from the experience.
You had four movement buttons, a jump button and a shoot button. A control system which could be replicated on a classic Game Boy. The player movement was swift, smooth, consistent. The game never slowed down, or became badly paced at any point, yet still gave the user enough freedom to develop their own style of play and put it into the game.
Conversely, a later id Software game, Doom III, was not quite as smooth. The gameplay was slower and more disjointed. It was still a great game, yes, but things such as having to stop to punch numbers into a keypad or having to put down your weapon to pull out a torch disconnected the player from an otherwise immersive, cathartic experience.
Diablo II is another fine example of this. Fans of the series will know that it has an incredible complex control system consisting of one button… Oh, yes, you can use the number buttons on the keyboard as well if you like, but there is essentially the left-click button and a couple of others which you use occasionally.
The entire game is about as non-confrontational as you can get, and anyone can pick it up. It is also paced beautifully, with the first area being almost impossible to die in, yet still giving you enough of a sense of risk to keep you engaged and on your toes.
A typical scene from Diablo II
It had very simple multiplayer, a beautifully crafted procedural item and level system, and enough replayability to ensure people would be able to play it for years, and indeed they did.
Blizzard, in true Blizzard form, found all of the features of Diablo I that left the player feeling disconnected, and removed or remodeled them, making a game which is clean, simple, elegant and extremely replayable.
They followed a simple design sentence of "explore, kill and loot while progressing character," and every aspect of the game reflects that. Nothing gets in your way, nothing slows the progress. There are no repetitive cut scenes or cloned combat encounters or scripted events, all of which can make a procedural game lag something awful.
This "neatness" has ensured the game's continuing success both in the single-player and multiplayer worlds and place on game store shelves over a decade after it first was released.
So what are you saying?
When designing a game, before doing anything else, describe what you want it to be in one concise sentence. After that, with every decision you make or feature you go to add, check to see if it fits neatly with that short description. If it strays too far out of that, or the description ends up being too long, you will end up with a convoluted game and the player will feel disconnected from it.
Remember that games are a form of escapism, and the player should forget that there is even a keyboard or other controller between them and the game. The graphics help, yes. The story helps, yes. But it's the FEEL of the game that will ensure a captive audience. It's just like the one-armed bandit.
The aim of the poker machine is to pull the lever and get the wheels spinning, but if you just focus on making the lever spin the wheels, people won't play it. They need to enjoy the act of pulling the lever and pushing the button just as much as the result of that action on the screen.
Anyway, thanks for listening to my little rant :) I hope it helps to inspire all of you other game developers.
[This piece was reprinted from #AltDevBlogADay, a shared blog initiative started by @mike_acton devoted to giving game developers of all disciplines a place to motivate each other to write regularly about their personal game development passions.]