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The Abstraction Of Skill In Game Design
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The Abstraction Of Skill In Game Design

October 20, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

Times have changed in the industry, thanks to games becoming more mainstream. Core gamers, or the ones who want either -100 or 100 percent abstraction, are no longer the majority. Instead, they have for the most part been moved into a niche market, as most triple-A titles are aiming for greater appeal.

Most skill-based games are aimed at the -70 to -50 percent crowds, while RPGs are aimed at 70 to 50 percent. A distinction has to be made: it's not that these fans are going away; instead, they are a drop in the bucket compared to the fans of more mainstream games.

When developers and publishers see series like Call of Duty, Mass Effect, or The Elder Scrolls on the top of the bestsellers list, and recipients of numerous awards, that has to catch their attention. This has led to the challenge of creating games that appeal to everyone. However, if there is one lesson to take away from this article it is this:

You cannot make a game that has universal appeal.

Design-wise, it is impossible to create a game that relies on 100 percent player skill and at the same time completely abstracts character interaction and expect it to appeal to everyone.

Skill-based gamers don't want to have to grind levels so that their headshots will do damage. Conversely, RPG fans want their character's dexterity, not their own, to determine outcomes. Something has to give; one side has to be given priority in the game space -- and when that happens, someone is not going to be happy.

As a designer moves closer to 0 percent, they need to realize that genre conventions and mechanics will either not fit, or have to be altered. A UI for a -100 percent game doesn't have to be complex. With Bulletstorm, the only information on screen is health, ammo capacity, and score. As more abstractions are added to the design, the UI needs to be redesigned to accommodate them -- such as an indicator for accuracy, and even an inventory screen.

Strict control of a party in a RPG becomes harder with less abstraction. A player simply cannot give the same complex orders when everything is real-time. This requires the designers to give more AI control to the party, or change the player's role during combat, from tactician to fighter.

Another challenge is that players have expectations for the respective genre. Action games are about presenting information as cleanly and easily as possible to keep players in the action. On the other hand, in a RPG where managing attributes and information is necessary, the player wants to slow down and examine the data. As the design moves to 0 percent, these two polarizing views will have to be dealt with -- and if it isn't done right, it will annoy fans of each specific genre.

The Witcher 2

Take The Witcher 2, as an example, in order to find information relating to the RPG side of the design, such as the level of their conversation options. The player has to go through at least three different screens' worth of information. This slows the game down dramatically, and is a sharp contrast to how responsive combat is.

The Stalker series, on the other hand, developed a UI that achieves a greater balance between action and abstraction. The inventory/status screen gives the player all the information they need about their character, including details on their weapons. This allows players to find what they're looking for, make any changes, and get back to the action as quickly as possible.

Mainstream game design has become a game of tug of war between keeping the fans (or core gamers) happy, while expanding the appeal of the game with the designers caught in the middle. Pulled too far one way and you have a game that keeps the fans happy, but has limited appeal. Go too far the other way and the designer can have a worse situation: a game that is too watered down for fans to enjoy, yet too inaccessible to attract a larger audience.

The industry is now at a point that it has entered the mainstream, much in the same way that comics and rock music have done before. In this new reality, it will be up to designers to strike a balance between old and new fans.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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