"How surprised were you at Velocity's success?"
And the answer is:
"Not surprised at all, but relieved."
That is to say that we knew Velocity was an awesome game, and we worked hard to get it noticed. Subsequently we were relieved when it received the attention we knew it deserved. You might ask how could we be so confident? It's because we focused on all the aspects of game design that are essential to success, putting time in to make them as good as possible whilst spending little time on the aspects that don't matter so much. In short, we stuck to an essential checklist.
This checklist is our special sauce. We use it to design all of our games, and each has benefited greatly. Our checklist has developed out of necessity because we're a small studio with very limited resources. Every action counts.
So why share our secrets with the world?
We believe in sharing knowledge to make the world a better place. We want to see more independent developers make stunning games to help shift the mainstream public perception of 'indie' as being somehow inferior, less engaging, less polished. The tide is turning, and we'd like to help accelerate it. Yes there has been a democratisation of game development with free tools and new platforms with lower barriers to entry, but what is the use of having all the gear and no idea?
No doubt there are people reading this who are either already making games as a career, or have studied games and want to learn everything they can about the medium. It’s therefore pretty likely that some of the things contained in this article will already be known and understood. So apologies if that is the case, hopefully we can share some nods of agreement, rather than you folks falling asleep. Having said that, there are some original ideas here, which is why we're publishing it :)
Games are more diverse now than they have ever been, so to claim that we can summarise all the nuances of what makes an awesome game in a single article would be a gross mistake. However, if there’s one thing we're truly good at, it’s understanding the essence of what makes things great, and being able to apply that understanding. So, this is an article about the essential things that comprise an awesome game. First of all though, we have to establish what makes a good game.
This list is in order of importance. Each aspect is listed here briefly, and discussed in detail afterward.
1, 2 and 3 loosely comprise the gameplay.
4, 5 and 6 loosely comprise the presentation.
All aspects of a production rely on each other to create the whole, and for that production to hold water, all aspects need to be at the same level of quality or polish.
Not So Good Game
If one aspect isn’t as polished as the others, it lets the entire experience down. The overall perception of the production is brought down to the level of the weakest part, which means if your graphics and concept are great, but your controls suck, your game sucks.
We're assuming that readers know this at least on a subconscious level, but how do you ensure all of these aspects are strong? Well, here goes:
1.1. No Brainer?
Such an obvious one this, but so many games get the controls wrong. Either too fiddly, or not fiddly enough. Great controls can take a lot of time and effort to get right, and most of the time tuning the controls is a matter of personal taste - so it requires empathy to get right.
1.2. Controls Are Half The Fun (Rules Are The Other Half)
And it's essential that you do get them right, because controls are half the fun. If the controls aren’t fun, then you risk frustrating your players, or worse still, boring them. So how do you guarantee your controls are fun to use?
1.3. Find The Toy
Finding The Toy is a phrase that refers to setting up an action and reaction that makes the player feel powerful, regardless of any rules or challenge being imposed. Cutting the rope in CutTheRope is a toy. It’s fun to swipe and cut, and watch something fall. Flinging a bird with a catapult has proven to be quite a good toy too. Games with toys at their core are fun to play around on regardless of any challenge the player is being tasked with.
When I first read about the concept of the toy, I thought to myself: games have been around for a long time now, so if we’re going to find a hit new gameplay toy, we’re going to have to look at new input systems. I imagined having to play around with Tilt, Touch and Swipe, or Motion Control. Which is wrong, fortunately.
You can make the simplest of actions into a great new toy if you have a strong concept. Taking Velocity as an example - you can’t get much simpler than pressing a button and moving left and right, but giving the player the ability to teleport is a really cool toy. It’s satisfying to do regardless of anything else going on in the game.
1.4. Design Around The Toy
Once you have a cool toy, it’s worth building some levels that explore every possible limit of the toy to work out what is fun. Quite often you will be limited in your scope for level design by the mechanics of the toy. In the case of Velocity, it took a long time to tune the feel of the teleport, and what felt right in the toy - nice and quick - meant that we couldn’t have any spaces in the game less than a certain width or height, or the teleport cursor would be too fiddly for the player to try and place, reducing the level of fun. So, every level in Velocity was designed with this in mind.
1.5. Player Is King
The player should always feel in control of the game. They are allowed to feel like they’re crap at it, that’s fine, but the moment the game feels like it’s too hard to play as a result of the controls being too difficult, it stops being fun. Just getting this bit right takes a lot of effort, and is probably the main reason why games are cloned so often. It’s far easier to take an existing control system and change the graphics and call it your game. But if you spend the time coming up with a new toy, you’re setting a trajectory for a game to stand out.
1.6. Acknowledge Conventions
If possible, your game should also follow the conventions established within a genre. Changing things that players expect to be able to do is not creative or innovative, it’s annoying.
2.1. Concept Is Actually Context
What is the player doing, where are they doing it, how and why are they doing it? This is why game concepts are quite often inspired by the controls, so if you want to create a really original concept, spend time experimenting with control systems that are under used, or not used at all.
2.2. Strong Concept == Coat Hanger
A strong concept makes it easy to flesh out the game with little effort. Gameplay, level design, art style, music, story, characters - all will hang pretty easily if the concept is strong. So what makes a strong concept?
2.3. Simplicity Is Good
It’s tricky to achieve simplicity, but it’s essential for communicating your game idea to potential team members, publishers, games press and ultimately gamers. If you or your game trailer can’t get across the concept quickly, you risk losing people’s interest.
2.4. Elegance Is Better
You’re doing well if you can achieve simplicity, because people will understand the hook of your game immediately. But it needs to have depth as well, otherwise people will get bored as they start playing. You have to try and add layers of depth that a player can slowly discover as they interact with the game.
The problem with adding layers of depth is that it’s easy to introduce inconsistencies in the concept, which spoils everything. When you’re adding layers of depth to a concept, you have to look at the ideas from every angle you can imagine, because an elegant concept is one that has no significant holes. I can really recommend a book for this called The Art Of Game Design: A Book Of Lenses, and its accompanying Deck Of Lenses. It’s an amazingly useful resource for looking at your game concept in literally a hundred different ways.
2.5. Clever Is Best
If you’ve managed elegance and simplicity with your game, you’ve done better than most game designers out there. But there’s one more level you can get your game concept to, and that’s clever. There’s a goal that I try and achieve with everything we do at FuturLab, which is to get the following response from people that see our work:
- "Ah, I see!"
- "Damn, That’s Really Clever Actually...”
It’s something I strive to achieve on everything I do, and it requires that all three of these conceptual levels are hit properly. You can’t get the ‘Cool!’ reaction from someone if your concept isn’t simple. They need to be able to see your game and immediately feel rewarded, just for seeing it.
That ‘Cool!’ reaction is also the hook that pulls people in, getting them to start playing, or want to play. Then the layers of depth are discovered as someone digs a little deeper, and if the concept is elegant, everything fits together nicely, and you get that: ‘Ah, I see!’ reaction. If your whole concept is clever, then people can’t help but sit back in awe and think: “Damn, That’s Really Clever Actually - I Wish I’d Made It”, or “I have to show this to my friends.”
If you can get these three levels of experience into your design, the game's trajectory is set up for greatness. If you start with a weak concept, your game runs the risk of being weak, no matter how cunning the gameplay is. If you can’t hook someone in, they won’t be interested. We found this with Coconut Dodge. The gameplay is superb, but few people bothered with it because the concept is weak.
Also, if you have a great concept, you’ll find it really easy to get other people involved in your project. There’s absolutely no way Joris de Man would have signed up to produce music for our game if it was a regular shoot ‘em-up that’s been done a thousand times. The teleportation concept hits all three of these targets, so when he sat down and played our prototype, that’s the experience he had - and he was sold on it and wanted to be involved.
2.7. Excited Yet? (If Not, Try Again)
At this point, if you’ve got a strong concept and you’ve worked out how to make the controls fun, you should be incredibly excited about your game. If you’re not excited by it, then you don’t have a game destined for greatness yet. You need to go back and redo those first two steps. Once you have got those two key aspects sorted, you have to bottle your excitement and get serious, because that was the easy part. In fact, you just experienced what Thomas Edison called the 1% inspiration of genius. The following months will be 99% perspiration trying to get the damn thing made. And the first thing to look at with your sensible hat on, is...
Your amazing idea isn't worth anything if other people can’t enjoy it, so balancing the learning curve requires just as much attention as the initial concept. So how do you get it right?
3.1. Identify Target Audience
It’s essential to tailor the learning curve for your target audience. In the case of Velocity, we wanted everyone from casual players right up to the most skilful gamers to enjoy it. So it was a lot of work for us, the game had to be very accessible for newcomers, whilst also supporting and rewarding an incredible amount of skill for those that want the challenge straight away.
3.2. Integrate Instructions
Modern games don’t have instructions, or even tutorials. The levels should be designed to teach, and actually that philosophy shouldn’t just cover the first few levels either.
3.3. Balance Learning & Challenge
A game is only fun when a player is learning. If they stop learning at any point, the game starts to get repetitive, so the learning curve should ideally just be a straight line. In other words, you are always giving the player an opportunity to learn something new - whether it’s introducing a new mechanic, or providing scope for the player to combine mechanics in new ways. However, if the difficulty curve is the same as the learning curve, the game can feel too laborious and tedious.
The trick is to have a stepped challenge curve that tracks closely to the learning curve, so the player is always learning, but there are short plateaus where a player can flex their knowledge of the game and feel powerful for a while before being challenged again. In the case of Velocity we introduce the mechanics slowly. It’s not until level 16 that you get to use the Long Form Teleport, which is the main USP of the game. From then on we use level design to teach players how to use the mechanics in different ways, combining them together to solve puzzles. The player doesn't actually get to use one of the coolest ideas in the game until the penultimate level.
3.4. Provide Clear Success Markers
Scoring a player provides them with incentive, so it’s really important that a player knows how to win, and therefore knows how and why they failed. Trophies & Achievements have had a huge impact on gaming communities since they were introduced. The younger generation of gamers won’t even bother playing some games unless they have trophies to add to their collection. That’s how powerful the human ego is, so use that in innovative ways to the advantage of your game. In the case of Velocity we have three different scoring criteria that are combined together to create a perfect reward. This means a player can feel rewarded even when they’re failing to reach the higher goals. This leaves scope for the ultra hardcore to get their completionist fix.
3.5. Make The Player Feel Clever
Designing a game is an incredibly rewarding experience. We are the masters of the worlds we create, and that power can very easily appeal to one’s ego. So it takes a lot of self restraint and empathy to be able to design levels for someone else to play; levels that can challenge without being difficult. I once worked with a chap who had a new game idea every day, and nearly all of his ideas were based on tricking the player in some way, which is never going to fly. Designing a game is a very altruistic exercise, and if you can make a player feel good, and look good at the same time, they will love your game. It’s as simple as that.
4.1. Feedback Heightens The Experience
Feedback is any event or action that is a direct result of a player’s performance or interaction, and it’s essential for heightening the experience. It’s amazing how much of a difference positive feedback makes to a game. You can have great gameplay mechanics, but if there’s little to no feedback, the game doesn’t feel great. Likewise you can have a mediocre mechanic and make it feel great by dousing it in nicely polished animation and sound effects.
4.2. Negative Feedback Can Help Too
One of the things that helped to make Coconut Dodge so addictive was the horribly abrasive sound that a player is subjected to when they die. It’s also accompanied by the music cutting off abruptly. The game isn’t insulting them, but it is punishing them in a subtle way, and it serves to make them want to jump back in and correct their mistake.
5.1. Fast Animation
My basic rule for UI animation is that it should be over well before a player knows what’s happening. If your UI is any longer than that, it had better be bloody fantastic. Games that provide animated UI break the player’s sense of control, and that’s not good. Split/Second, one of my favourite games of recent times also has some of the worst UI.
5.2. Short Loading Times
Loading times are important, but it is pretty low on the list. Even if a game does have poor loading times, people will still play it and love it. WipEout 2048 being a good recent example.
5.3. Instant Restart
This is so much more important. If your game is good, your player is going to be in a flow state, fully engaged with your game. If they make a mistake or die, they are going to want to restart as soon as possible, to get back into the flow. Not being able to instantly restart is one of the most frustrating things you can do in a game UI.
5.4. Skippable Cut Scenes
I shouldn't even have to include this, but it still happens. Even worse is when levels that start with a cut scene play the cut scene every time you restart that level. It’s punishing.
The audio and visual style is the least important of all these essentials, and that’s because graphics just aren't as important as they used to be. If your game looks like every other game in the genre, but has very innovative gameplay, then it will rise above the noise. That said, you've still got to do a great job, or your game will suffer, so...
6.1. Identify Target Audience
As mentioned above, if you have a great concept, your art style should come pretty easily. Concept, gameplay and art style all have to be pointing in the same direction in order to find an audience easily. We made a big mistake with Coconut Dodge, as the game looks and sounds like a casual game, but it’s got hardcore gameplay mechanics. We should have chosen something more fiendish looking to suit the gameplay better.
6.2. Find An Economical Style
A good game requires a ton of polish. It’s almost guaranteed that no matter how much budget you have for a game, you’ll never be happy with the amount of polish your game has - so decide on an art style that you can produce to a high standard very quickly. This is why so many of the recent great indie games are 2D. It’s so much easier to polish a 2D game. 3D is expensive and time consuming in comparison.
6.3. Support Core Mechanics First
Make the core aspects of your gameplay look and sound great, and then radiate your resources outward from that core focus. If you’re spending time making button rollovers look and feel great you’re wasting time unless your core mechanics are supported by absolutely beautiful effects.
6.4. Demand Great Music
Music can’t save a poor game, but it can certainly elevate a good game into great territory. Coconut Dodge is an example of this. If your game music is repetitive or irritating, the awesome mechanics you’ve spent ages refining will suffer.
6.5. Sound Deserves 50%, Gets 5%
Sound is so important for player feedback. But because every aspect of a game can come together without sound, it usually gets left until the last minute. This is another area we could have improved upon for Velocity. Fortunately we got the key sound effects to work well, but we ran out of time to extend that level of quality throughout the game.
If you've managed to achieve all of the points above, then it's likely that your game will be considered good or high quality. But how do you reach a level where people are celebrating your game as being awesome? It all comes down to innovation and flair.
Look at what your game is doing across the game play aspects (1, 2 and 3 above), and make sure you're doing something that's innovative; whether it's in the controls, the concept or the journey you're taking the player on.
Then look at what your game is doing across the presentation aspects (4, 5 and 6 above), and ensure they're being done with some artistic flair.
In essence then, an awesome game is a good game with innovation and flair. Quite simple really.
Velocity Ultra is out now on PlayStation Vita.