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Structuring Key Design Elements

April 11, 2003 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 5 Next

The Key Design Elements of Your Game

I am sure you are now comfortable with this light introduction to UML use cases. They are hardly more than a table of actions and a simple diagram composed of a stick figure and bubbles of action. Now I want you to think about the interactions of your game and write down its use cases.

The methodical way of discovering your use cases is to focus on the core activity of your game and write down all the things the player does in the core of your game. Work your way outward, writing down the other activities you have planned for your game, such as buying gear, building a house, researching flame throwers, learning a new spell. Keep working outward until you can't think of anything you missed. At this stage we are looking for the major activities, so don't think about how many buttons the save menu will have, just what are the big interactions between the player and the game.

Then sort these activities into groups based on similar functionality as I have done with Diablo and Gran Turismo. Finally sketch out the use case diagram complete with the player actor and your use cases. It is useful to create diagrams for each group of activity. You have now articulated your gameplay in both an easy-to-read text format and graphical format. These use cases will be the basis of refinement for the game design and technical design stages. However, in this article we are looking for key design elements. Examine your groups of activities and look hard for a set of activities that stand out as potentially unnecessary to the core of your game. Are there parts of your game design that are distracting in complexity? Are these parts only fun to a hard-core set of fans? Are these features hidden from the novice player? Can they be cut altogether?

Take a look at your design; are you sure you are only making one game? I think a lot of the projects that slip by years make the mistake of trying to fold more than one game into a single game project. You do not need to make more than one game to be competitive. Just make a small set of features that are inherently fun, make those tight, and take the production values as high as possible. This is how a hit is made.

The Battle of the Counterterrorists Games

There are two games that neatly make the point I am discussing in this article, nailing the right key design elements. These two games are Rainbow Six and Counter-Strike. Both of these games feature special operations type protagonists working as a team to defeat terrorists and other modern day bad guys. An experienced development team produced one of these games with a full development staff for an established publisher. The other game was developed principally by two fans who have had experience making mods with modest financial backing of a development house.

Both of these games are successes and I would be proud to have been a team member in any capacity on either of these two projects. That being said, Counter-Strike clobbered Rainbow Six. Counter-Strike is the mod produced by a small staff of fans working part-time, while Rainbow Six is a full game with many man-years of effort. If game development is so hard, how could these fans have done so well compared to the pros?

While poor technical execution will never make a hit game, the answer to this question lies again in the key design elements of Counter-Strike versus Rainbow Six.

The Key Design Elements of Rainbow Six

Rainbow Six was the earlier of the two games; to some degree this can never be a fair comparison, as the Counter-Strike mod team had Rainbow Six available to experiment with and to refine. Rainbow Six was designed for single-player play, and while it did have multiplayer mode, the game was much more playable in its single-player mode. Rainbow Six featured an extensive campaign structure where you managed the team members of your elite special forces. This team management would appear to be at first glance quite fun and supportive of the context of playing the missions of Rainbow Six, much like Gran Turismo, and that might be true. However, the Rainbow Six team added another context layer to the game: mission planning. Here the player planned out the mission to such a degree that they could tell their team members when to throw the flash grenades and which doors to break down and which to sneak through. After the planning stage was complete, the game acted somewhat like the blend of a movie and a game experience. The movie experience came in where your AI teammates, whom you gave instructions to prior to mission start, would follow your orders and have whatever success might befall them; the game part was that you still had interactive control over your character.

Are We Playing a Mission or Planning a Mission?

I think the preplanning of the missions is what prevented Rainbow Six from taking off to a higher level of success. The problem with such a detailed modeling of the preplanning stage is that it was cumbersome in three ways: First, the player already had context for the missions through the campaign structure and the team management feature sets; second, it was cumbersome due to the user interface of the preplanning. It was like having to act as some kind of game scripter, programming your teammates. And finally it was cumbersome; each time you died or otherwise failed on your mission, the player would break out of the cool, immersive action of the mission and be forced to calculate new scripting paths for their AI teammates. All of these awkward bits leaked out throughout the game-playing experience, leaving me wondering if the designers of the game ever came to agreement about whether the game was about playing the mission or playing the premission planning.

RAY MUZYKA SPEAKS: I totally agree. I recall being very irritated with how difficult it was to equip your party, choose your party, plan out your party's actions etc. There was no learning curve; instead you were dumped into an equipping-your-character simulation, which, fundamentally, was not the game I had thought I was purchasing. This created a perception/reality gap for the consumer that made people not want to play the game.

The Key Design Elements of Counter-Strike

Counter-Strike was designed to have only a multiplayer mode; not even a training simulation against bots like Quake III was available. Counter-Strike's brilliance is much like Diablo's in its courage to strip away game features and polish the core game until it is humming with game shine. For years in first-person shooters, when you died you instantly respawned to frag again. This is of course a load of fun, as one could easily spend a few hundred hours blowing away your friends before you get bored. But eventually people did get a little burnt out on straight death match, and a desire for something more manifested itself. These explorations for more came in the way of mods for Quake and Unreal that had different victory conditions for winning such as capture the flag. The team that produced Counter-Strike took the idea of a mod with context to the next level (that, by the way, is an overly worn phrase in the industry, but it sure is handy).

The next level of gameplay in a first-person shooter was to wrap an economy about the fragging of the game through credits one earned by winning missions and getting frags. This economy would enable the player to buy larger and more capable weapons, armor, and grenades, which in turn would enable him to perform even better and potentially get even cooler equipment. This feature combined with the idea of a death where the player had to sit out the rest of the turn really helped to focus the player on the harshness of the Counter-Strike world and put some good tension back into the game. Players would carry their credit balance forward each time the mission was over, and the frag counting would continue. Thus, Counter-Strike was designed in the beginning to be a replacement for the endless multiplayer fragging and instead be a much more compelling way of playing extended multiplayer first-person shooter action. All of this was accomplished by the thinnest of user interfaces, on top of Half-Life's version of the Quake engine.

In my opinion the Counter-Strike team really understood the gameplay experience they wanted to deliver-the most visceral counterterrorist gameplay experience, period. In the case of the Rainbow Six team, I think they were handicapped by the source material from Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six in choosing to model the extensive preplanning stage of a mission. That stage is no doubt realistic and the larger portion of the job in a real counterterrorist mission, but it just gets in the way of having fun hunting terrorists. And we are in the profession of delivering fun, not realism. Realism should only be used to create fun, not detract from it.

Most Popular Multiplayer Game

It is interesting to see that Counter-Strike is the most popular multiplayer gameplayed online, with anywhere from 25,000 to 60,000 simultaneous players. One could say that Half-Life itself was a mega-hit with over two million copies sold, whereas Rainbow Six was a more modest success, and use that argument to explain why Counter-Strike is the more popular counterterrorist game. However, that argument fails when you realize people do not play games they do not want to play. Sure, marketing can help a game get off the ground to some extent, but the games business is still dominated by word-of-mouth sales where one fan recommends the title to another. The big titles that receive large marketing budgets are also fun and playable games that enjoy strong word-of-mouth sales. Unlike the movie business, an aggressive marketing campaign cannot save your bacon. There is a long-standing tradition of going to bad movies just to see how bad they are; this does not happen with games. Games are too expensive at about $50; no one is inclined to buy a game just to see how bad it is. However, a bad movie has a couple of chances. First of all, just seeing what mischief with toddlers Arnold Schwarzenegger has gotten himself into complete with some buttered popcorn, a fountain soda, your friend's company, and a walk about the mall is a good entertainment value. This movie will go onto DVD, VHS, rental, cable, then prime-time TV, and eventually the USA channel-plenty of ways for a non-hit movie to recoup and make a small amount of money for the studio.

The 50,000 people playing Counter-Strike online is even more impressive when you think about the ratio of people playing the multiplayer portion of a game relative to the single-player portion. It has been casually measured across a number of games, excluding the massively multiplayer online role-playing games, that only about 5 to 15 percent of the purchasers of a game will go on to play it in its multiplayer format. Thus Counter-Strike was much more successful than Rainbow Six, and it was working with only 5 to 15 percent of the counterterrorist market.

Of Intersecting Sets and Elite Forces

A second-tier game will sell its most copies in the first few weeks when the early adopters who have kept on top of all the previews will buy the game. During this time period the online reviews are written up. To my surprise it appears that strong reviews cannot sell a game either. The most excellent Elite Force (not anywhere close to being a second-tier game) developed by Raven received the most stellar press reviews one could ask for, including game of the year from most publications. Built on the Quake engine and developed by a top developer, it had lavish press coverage generating plenty of awareness before the release of the title. The title was reasonably on time and reasonably bug-free. The team behind the game was so into the game, they produced a free expansion pack. Elite Force was firmly expected to be a major hit inside of Activision. I do not know the actual numbers on the internal return-on-investment worksheets, but I have heard they were expecting 700,000 to 1,000,000 units in the first year worldwide. Elite Force went on to do about one-third of those numbers. Why? Why did Elite Force not succeed when not a single person at Raven, Activision, or the press could have set the game up better for success? Is it bad luck? Is the gaming public so fickle?

I have a theory why Elite Force failed to meet Activision's expectations. First of all, the game did sell well at approximately 300,000 units generating a gross revenue of $15 million. That is enough money to make a living for all involved and keep at it. However, I think it is the expectations that were at fault; I don't think the game could ever hope to sell more units than it did. Sure a truly immense advertising campaign with television commercials played 20 times a day on all channels and appearances of the game on all of the late-night talk shows would have sold maybe 100,000 to 200,000 more copies, but Activision would have had to pay for each copy they were selling. My theory is that when you are experimenting with genre crossing and blending, be sure you are creating a union between the two or more sets of players you are marketing to, and not creating the intersection between these markets.

RAY MUZYKA SPEAKS: This certainly is an art form, but I think it can be done; it's just difficult. Creating the correct impression on the fans of both genres and making the parts that don't appeal to the other genre's fans at all times accessible is probably the hardest thing to implement, but this is critical to achieving mainstream success through selling to a few hard-core genres in a cross-genre game.

The two markets for Elite Force were the Star Trek gamers and the first-person shooter gamers. Activision has been working hard for years trying to find a breakaway hit for the Star Trek license they paid so dearly for, and teaming up with world class developer Raven and using the fabulous Quake engine should produce a lavish 3D-game with production values far and above any that a Star Trek gamer has seen before. And for the first-person shooters who are tired of blowing monsters up in worlds freshly created with little or no backstory, Elite Force offered the Star Trek universe, which consumers have had exposure to for over 25 years. Sounds wonderful, so why did this game not sell a million copies or more? Warcraft II was just a sequel to a game of orcs and humans gathering rocks and trees and banging on each other. That sold millions of copies; why shouldn't Elite Force sell a million? The reason is in the key design elements themselves; the very strategy used to make a hit-a cross between Star Trek and first-person shooters-is what held Elite Force back.

Let us first take a look at Elite Force from the perspective of a Star Trek gamer. Star Trek is about a starship named Enterprise exploring the galaxy on romantic adventures that are solved through cleverness, diplomacy, or the gunboat diplomacy that the Enterprise can deliver with photons and phasers. The Star Trek gamer is looking to live the experience depicted in the television episodes and movies. These episodes feature fantastic science, starship combat, and exploring various social themes in a futuristic context. Star Trek does feature combat between individuals in the form of the hand-held phaser, a device that you just point and shoot to disable or to disintegrate. This weapon reveals an utter disdain for prowess of personal martial skill; this hand phaser is almost a nerd fantasy where they can get back at every childhood bully by just pointing their garage door opener-and bzzt!-no more enemies. The Star Trek gamer is not looking for a first-person shooter; there is nothing in the Star Trek universe backstory that leaves the player wanting to explore a shooter. The most successful Star Trek games have been the adventure games 25th Anniversary and Judgment Rites, as well as the starship games of Starfleet Command, Starfleet Academy, and Armada.

From the first-person shooter perspective, an FPS player traditionally looked for the technically impressive and challenging games such as the Quake and Unreal series. However, after the release of the story-rich Half-Life, the industry realized that the FPS crowd would love to have a good reason to exercise their martial prowess. The creepy world of Half-Life is a good reason, the pulse-pounding excitement of World War II through Day of Defeat is a great reason, and hunting terrorists with a submachine is always great fun. But again the Star Trek universe lacks any compelling imagery of personal combat. Sure, Kirk would slug it out with the occasional alien, and Spock could put someone to sleep by pinching them; either way, Star Trek lacks that visceral appeal.

Star Wars, on the other hand, has a glorious tradition of martial combat on the personal scale through the use of light sabers. This style of combat was indeed a strong success with the Jedi Knight series from LucasArts. Finally, let me repeat, Elite Force was not an unsuccessful game; it was a great game, very well produced. And missing the expectations set for it is not a reflection on the execution of Elite Force, but rather a reflection on the key design concepts of the game.

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