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[In this extensive design article, Chris McEntee, NHTV Game Architecture and Design student -- who worked on Rayman Origins as a designer at Ubisoft Montpelier -- examines the company's core design philosophy and explores the techniques used to create the lauded platformer.]
"Form follows function" - Louis Sullivan
"Less is more" - Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
"Easy to learn and difficult to master" - Nolan Bushnell
In my time with Ubisoft Montpellier, I have had the honor of working with a handful of talented designers who are experts in the process of rational design. Over the course of my internship and specialization, I have tried to absorb as much information on this design process as I possibly could.
Paired with my extensive research into the subject, I feel that I have achieved a relatively decent grasp of the core concepts and have applied them in my own levels relatively well.
Through this article I hope to provide a solid base on the idea of rational game design, as well as some personal insight and examples of my own so that perhaps more people can start to embrace the practice and produce - hopefully - more entertaining and thoroughly satisfying gameplay experiences.
Conceived by Lionel Raynaud (Ubisoft worldwide content director) and Eric Couzian (Ubisoft game design conception director), and led by Olivier Palmieri (level design director on Rayman Origins), Ubisoft developed an internal Design Academy for training their designers in the field of rational game design. While on the development team of Rayman Origins, I was able to work directly alongside Olivier Palmieri in his task of implementing rational design methods in the development process of Rayman Origins and picked up a strong understanding of the methodology from him along the way.
Rational design is all about eliminating unnecessary information, making things inherently readable, understandable and apparent, introducing mechanics in an orderly and easily digestible fashion, and preserving the learning and difficulty curves of a game, known as macro flow.
In principle, it is best to provide a player with significantly interesting and deep mechanics that are well explored and exploited through clever rationalized level design, rather than injecting the game full of one-shot gameplay mechanics to feign depth. A good mechanic, such as the portal gun in the Valve game Portal, can carry an entire game by itself with the addition of proper gameplay elements to help emphasize the usefulness and depth of the mechanic.
We try, as designers, to overstuff our games with content, ideas and objectives because we think that makes it more clever or fun. I have come to understand the meaning of the three quotes at the top of this page, and fully believe in what they preach. When we rationalize our game systems and keep things simple but deep, we can truly create a good and meaningful gameplay experience that is also efficient for the team and easy to troubleshoot through iterative play-testing. I feel that rationalization is one of the keys to success in the game design field.
The pipes and platforms in the middle of the ravine are constantly falling, meaning there is no safe spot for the player other than the top of the mountain.
For every game experience, a clearly defined objective or goal must be present; whether or not this goal strongly influences the player's actions directly is a different story, but the player must have a sense of purpose in the world they are traversing. In a platforming game like Rayman Origins, while there is a high-tier goal of "saving the world from darkness", there exist sub-objectives in every level that help to form a memorable and varied set of experiences throughout the game.
Even in a game such as Minecraft where the player has free roam to explore and build whatever he wishes, he has goals that emerge from the game system that drive his experience in the game universe, such as building a mega-structure or stockpiling resources for later use.
"…most game mechanics that don't feel deep enough feel that way because they have too many objectives and not enough meaningful skills." - Mike Stout, Evaluating Game Mechanics For Depth
Make your objectives clear and explicit, and clearly mark the path to the objective with meaningful mechanics. Simple manipulation of time and space conditions can emphasize or set forth a new objective; a falling object sequence makes it clear that the player must climb rapidly, else he will fall down a ravine. His objective: climb without stopping. This is not told to him by an NPC, this is not explicitly stated, but it is made clear by the situation he has been faced with.
Or take a different scenario where the player is in the belly of a beast, and he must escape before a column of fire burns him to a crisp; this is an objective, clear and concise, with clear consequences of failure, and gives him an immediate purpose: survive and escape. In the final section of this article, Motivation, it will become clear why the simple goal of survival works so easily in a game scenario.
Many times in Rayman Origins did we force the player to move by pursuing him with a swarm of enemies, so as to change up the pacing and keep him moving and give him a more immediate and pressing objective. The opposite is true as well; there are chest chase maps where the player must chase down a treasure chest to obtain the treasure locked away inside. While the gameplay result is the same -- the player must be fast and keep moving -- the conceptual objective feels different. The player feels a drive to catch the chest that he does not feel while being pursued by a wall of flames, but the objective is clear.
Objectives are all about what the player perceives as the purpose of his existence in the game world, and the feelings which the designer wishes him to associate with this experience.
While the simplest way to access this golden collectible is by using the nearby bumper, players can choose to use the helping hands move on the safe ground directly under it, and stack their way to the same height.
Atomic design, like the unimaginably small particles after which it has been named, is a very low level in game design wherein the designer examines the small influential factors and finds clear ways to harness their power in the pursuit of creating a learnable, balanced, fun and exciting experience.
One of the core principles of atomic design is considering at all times the required skills and inputs for a given in-game situation. By breaking down the number and difficulty of inputs and the complexity of the skills involved, it is easier to rationalize the way in which challenges are given to the player, keeping them from being stuck in a sequence which he cannot escape from due to the level of complexity required that he has not yet obtained.
Inputs such as holding down on the left analog stick and pressing the attack button, in that order, can actually be more difficult than a designer would instinctively think. Many players confuse the order of the inputs, or have a hard time simply managing two things in sync.
When we start to realize that some of our gameplay mechanics may be harder to execute, we think more critically about the frequency in which this mechanic is required, and find ways to best combat the barrier for entry. This is an example of breaking down and analyzing a mechanic which is the basis of atomic design; once we have deconstructed our mechanics into their base inputs and parameters, we can start to combine raw inputs to build new mechanics from scratch. By building mechanics in this way, we can more easily control the inherent difficulty to execute it and be better prepared for level design and defining the game system.
A game system refers to the balanced relationship between all the gameplay and mechanics of a game; the game system is, in essence, the game as a whole. Gameplay by definition is a group of mechanics that are related to the same subject, such as, for example, navigation, shooting or swimming. Mechanics are challenges that evolve in difficulty depending on the implementation of proper atomic parameters.
A game mechanic is a challenge based on a specific input and skill which can be altered by atomic parameters to increase the inherent difficulty of the challenge. To successfully define a mechanic, we must first define a skill to associate with it, so that we know what shall be challenged. A player skill is not the same as a character's skill or in-game abilities; player skills are something separate from the game world entirely, and are based on physical, mental or social actions that, when translated into proper inputs, allow the player to overcome a challenge.
It is important to note that a mechanic by this definition is a challenge, and if no challenge is present, such as initiating dialogue with an NPC or accepting a choice within an interface, it is defined as an action instead. Mechanics are the critically important tools for developing good gameplay, flow and learning.