Game design Toolbox – Emerging Truths

Expect Iterations

When I was a director of development, I was really hoping to work on game designs that would be finished by the time of the technical design review. I now understand that this was just a dream, and that the design will have to be iterated and tested on users to be improved.
I changed my mind after understanding that the designer needs to be focused on the experience of the user, and not on the mean of implementation. Unfortunately we do not have an exact science in place about guaranteeing an experience from an implementation. So the designer will give its best shot at what the implementation should be, test it on some users and refine it, until the experience is perceived.
I organize the teams and projects expecting those iterations and therefore try to keep as small a team as possible as long as the design does not feel complete.

Game Design Is Really Hard Work

Don’t think for an instant that there is anything easy in designing games. Be prepared mentally to that fact. Giving birth to a game design is an extraordinary task, and you should expect that it will seem impossible to get closure on the design at many time during the process.
I like to remember that Isaac Newton started to work on the theory of gravity at 26 and published in his late 50s. Genius and hard work is often what is required.

Pressure For Fun

Many games are not fun during the development process and this is very scary to everyone involved. My experience has been that the limits of the actions have not been set up properly. Without those limits, the actions can be performed forever, the failure states are not showing up, the user is not driven to a larger and larger set of goals, the game is not fun. Put those things in, and you will quickly see the fun in the game start to appear.
This makes it sound like a formula for fun, and yes I make the statement that it is.

Enhance the contrast. Run away from “subtle”

Brett Sperry commented that he always try to get the maximum differentiation between the units in C&C. He now believes it is a key element of game design. The unit with the best armor, will also be the slowest, and compared to the others it will have a lot more armor and move really slow. There should not be any doubt in the users mind about that.
I had a similar experience in SimCity 3000 where the UFO were supposed to be a major “event” in the game, but were 32×32 pixels on the screen. We changed that by bringing a half screen image of a UFO through the display seconds before launching the UFO over the SimCity terrain.
It seems to be a common mistake to believe that subtle changes are going to dramatically enhance the perceive value, if they are subtle, they are just most likely to never be perceived by the user.

Plan to spend the money on the key emotional moments

Ralph Guggenheim and Neil Young rightfully commented about Majestic that we need to map our memorable moments, or emotional moment in the game and make sure that we spend our production money on those moments and not on moments the user is not going to care about.

Mastering in Action Games

Tetris is a game that demonstrates how everyone can become a better player in action games. This is also how most of the human learning happens, and it is easiest to see when you learn music. Practice is what makes it work. The functions are first performed by the conscious brain. This is why they are so slow, but yet they are very flexible, the conscious brain can do a lot of things, but it can only do it very slowly. The more the function is practiced, the more it is taken over by the unconscious brain, and the faster it becomes. The conscious brain cannot possibly react to anything under a half second, it is pretty much half a second behind reality. How fast the user becomes is a function of practice and individual performance, but this is pretty much the same model for everyone. Tetris is fun, because it is simple, and the brain learns to move the fingers in reaction to the shape being displayed. As he learns the user becomes faster and faster, but it drives the process less and less at a conscious level. One of the key features of Tetris is that the game is tuning itself to the user. As the user succeed, he goes up a level and each level is faster than the previous one, up to the tenth level, which is at the limit of what the eye-hand coordination enables. And the funny thing is that “thinking” is what makes you loose. When playing at the highest level, the user is in a sort of trance where the unconscious brain has taken over and the user is experiencing what a music player experience when doing a performance (playing a piece of music that he knows to play perfectly).
Again, as a good music teacher would know, you really want to push the student to its limits as much as possible to accelerate the learning. If you were to only play Tetris at level 8, you would never become good enough to play at level 10, the brain has to be pushed to its limits to force it to “learn” a faster response to the environment. This is something to remember in the designs, where every time you will drive the user through a response curve that will automatically tune itself to the user, the user will learn faster and will probably enjoy the experience.

After a while, people stop to play Tetris, there is no more learning, the satisfaction that the user brain gets from learning does not happen anymore.

Since we can guarantee that the user will improve at any eye-hand action sequence, it is perfectly fair to use this in the rewards, as well as in the limits. In the end that is what the action games do.

Mastering in strategy games

Brett Sperry again remarked that for the user to be able to learn, the game needs to enable strict patterns to be played.
Click this 3 times then this twice and you get the box to open. Brett believes that the predictability is satisfying to the user. The user creates a mental model and it provides a sense of progress, and a sense of control, both very important to the user.
Sean Cooper believes that C&C is a hit because you learn that a GI needs 5 hits to kill a tank. It is always 5, it is predictable. On the other end in Total Annihilation there is always a random component which makes the AI reactions unpredictable, this feels that it is not as good.

Satisfy The Hollywood Clichés

When trying to find a mental model where that the user will feel comfortable with about the game, great help can be provided by Hollywood. Perceived reality is often defined by Hollywood. I believe that by understanding the frame of reference that exist in Hollywood for the subject matter and quickly satisfying the clichés that are expected by the user, we in fact appease the user and let him focus on the game. It was most clear to me in the Sims when the product was weird because we were putting adults in houses and trying to make families without kids. The fact is that families = kids because that’s how it is 100% of the time in Hollywood. Once you have shown that you can have kids in the game, then the user accepts the game. Without it everyone just focuses on trying to understand why there are no kids, and fundamentally rejects the game.
Another example: if you are going to have rockets take off, you need a countdown. If you have car racing, have accidents. If you have a garden hose, someone will get wet…

Sid commented that on his game Pirates, this was a real focus. To deliver the Hollywood vision of what pirates were, and that he felt at ease to jump from one sequence to another, much like in a movie, just because the user would understand that he had merely skipped some uninteresting moments.

You can save yourself a ton of energy and time by just satisfying quickly a few of those in your game.

Imagined Versus Realized States Ratios

This concept is best explained by the experience one has in playing one of those early 3D adventure game. You go from room to room, and see objects, but most of those objects cannot be touched or moved, it is frustrating. It is better to put less objects but to let the user interact with them always at the same level, so that the user will not start to want to do actions the game will not enable.

A typical example is a driving game where the cars do not get damaged.
Another example is a game like Shockwave on 3DO where the user was forced to fly within the limits of a very specific path, it was a really hard constrain for the users to accept.

On Computer Versus Off Computer Game Play

Randy Breen first described to me the concept of trying to figure out what would make the user dream about the games. He was describing a subject matter and an experience that would be relevant enough and compelling to the point of getting the users to dream about the game. Clearly this has been achieved in many a version of “Road Rash”.
When you are addicted to a game, you start to think about it even when you are not playing it. I think that the designer needs to reflect on this and figure out a way to leverage it further.
When I was addicted to Tetris, I thought about it when not playing it, but I cannot say that it impacted my game. When I was addicted to SimCity, I was thinking about the needs of my cities and figuring out better strategies to implement them. I had a more interesting addiction.
I think it is re-enforcing the addiction of the user to provide him with puzzles and challenges he can travel with when not playing.

The Movie Poster Concept, The Value Of The E3 Demo

During the development of the Sims we worked with “Pet-Fly”, a team of Hollywood writers who created “Viper” and “Sentinel”, but are also core gamers. Danny Bilson during one of our meetings described to us for the creation of a TV show or a Movie, it is best to understand clearly what the “Movie Poster” will be. In the end, it is what will sell the user on the movie, so you want to define that as well as possible and then deliver on it.
For our games, it is the game box, the article you want to see in PC-Gamer or in the New York Times.
I now think that the E3 demo is a better way to pre-sell our products. I think that those demos are experiences we understand much better, and are easier to deliver. Few of our games have concepts that can be expressed in a single sentence, but we can do a lot with a 5 to 15 minutes demo.
A well thought demo could really be the only thing you need to pre-sell the product until you have the final code of the game.
I already described the mental model we had for The Sims, and how we delivered it through the E3 demo.

Provide A Calvin’s Syndrome Relief Valve

A lesson directly from will. If people like to build they also like to destroy. Even adults like to behave like kids, and when designing SimCity, Will tells that the users had that desire to bulldoze everything. That’s what gave birth to the disasters in SimCity. A way to be the bad guys that goes against what the whole game has been driving you to do, just so that you can have a few seconds of fun. After all in the digital world, you can always save.
Every time I go to the beach with the kids, it seems that stepping over sandcastles is a top activity, it must be programmed in some gene to protect some territory, because it seems a pretty universal behavior.
Maybe in NFS high stales I should have the opportunity to blow up my Ferrari rather than loose it!