The Two C's of Video Game Design
There have been a countless number of books and articles written about the games industry from both its technical and theoretical aspects. However many of these have been written by people who although deserving of respect due to the amount of effort they have used to achieve their professional status are still probably not the ideal people to listen to. The reason for this is as follows: To make video games you only really need the technical knowledge to do so. However to create good games requires both a sound technical knowledge and creative and communication skills. Unfortunately there are many people in the industry without these skills.
This article therefore has been written with a focus on creative and communication skills, not technical. Technical skills can be learnt on a college course, university or from books. There are plenty of resources available on technical skills many of them are excellent. Games Design is all about creativity and communication, the two C's, written or verbal. This article aims to introduce a number of principles, some may seem knew, others not but if you only learn one thing you didn't know before then I will judge this article a success. Sitting comfortably? Good, then let us begin.
Anybody can be creative. Every person who plays video games probably has good ideas for games and yet we are still seeing an amazing lack of creativity in the current generation of games. Why are there so many poor games released all the time. Publishers are regularly used as excuse, either because they wont finance innovative projects or they place too much pressure on the developer. In some cases these are valid reasons for a poor game. The main reason however is as I mentioned earlier, many people in this industry have the technical skills but not the two C's.
Another complaint is that there are too many licensed games. Why should this be a bad thing? The main problem many games suffer from is a weak plot. Surely making a game where professional writers provide the background material for you is a blessing not a curse! Sometimes licensed products are used wrongly; rush out a generic game because it will sell anyway is a common situation. But surely no developer sets out to make a bland or bad game, after all they are professionals and all professionals have pride, after all it has taken them a lot of hard work to get where they are.
Even if you are not naturally creative there is still no reason why you cant design a good game. If you look at the film industry there are many directors who aren't particularly creative and yet still make good, highly polished movies, Ron Howard for example. I admire Ron Howard because he has spent a great deal of time and effort into learning what makes a good film. He has learned from others and won an Oscar. He has made more good films than other directors who would consider themselves more creative. Game designers should take a leaf out of his book. Look at what others have done, good and bad, and remember it. Don't repeat other people's mistakes. If something doesn't work in one game then it is not likely to work in yours.
Others ways you can learn to be creative are by watching and reading every film and book you can. Think about what you liked or disliked and why. What makes a good film or book is the same as what makes a good video game, the entertainment value.
The best thing to do however if you wish to be a good games designer is to play every game you can, whatever the genre or platform, and again think about what you thought was good and what you thought was bad. There really is no substitute for this.
Some genres are more popular than others. As with everybody else you probably prefer some to others. Designing a game in a genre you like will be easier than designing one in a genre you don't like. Before designing a game play every game in that genre you can get your hands on. Read reviews to find out what people liked and disliked. Do as much research as you can. Do not be afraid to include aspects from other games in your own design after all there is no point trying to reinvent the wheel.
The other thing to think about is what genres sell well and which do not. Its seems as if every week small developers are going out of business because they are not doing market research. Lost Toys were a talented bunch of guys in all aspects of development, but neither of their two games sold well. Market research would have told them this before they even started. Both their games were fun to play but in this generation that is not enough. Plenty of games are fun to play; yours has to stand out to succeed.
Unique Selling Point is something you will here a lot in the business world. In a business plan it is a vital part of the document. Your game has to have a USP or it will not sell. You have to provide something no one else is providing. Why make a driving game with nothing to make it stand out. If a consumer has a choice between Project Gotham Racing 2 or yours which will they choose? Obvious isn't it! Need for Speed Underground offers car modding akin to the Fast and the Furious for example.
This is always a difficult subject to address. A recent study has shown that 80 percent of games don't get completed. To me this implies that games are too hard. It no good assuming that if your game is good enough people will persevere until the end. I really enjoy the Resident Evil games but I've only completed Code Veronica. I really enjoyed Splinter Cell but I didn't finish it. Recently I found Star Wars: KOTOR to have the most balanced difficulty. I completed the game but without ever getting frustrated even when I died a few times on the same section. When thinking about difficulty level take the following advice in to consideration. Would you rather people played five hours of your twenty-hour game before getting frustrated and gave up on it or completed your game in ten hours? Replayability is no longer an issue. Nowadays when people have finished with a game they trade it in towards the price of another one. Also renting is becoming more popular. Trying to increase to length of your game by making it too hard is bad practise.
On the other hand a game being too easy quickly becomes boring. It's a difficult balance to achieve. The main reason games are too hard is because the testers are playing the game all day every day for a prolonged period and so to them it becomes easy. This creates a situation where the development staff then assumes the game is too easy and make it harder. This is a strong argument for using external testers who only play the game once in a while.
Make it fair
Nothing irritates gamers more than unfairness in a game. This may seem obvious but many games still feature unfair elements. It also shatters the gamer's suspension of disbelief, which is a vital component of their enjoyment. Hidden and Dangerous 2 requires stealth but doesn't allow you to knock out guards or shoot lights out. This is unfair, as the game is not giving the user the tools they need to do the job properly. It's like asking someone to chop down a tree with a penknife. Expecting a gamer to learn enemy attack patterns through trail and error as in Ubisofts XIII is unfair. Give the gamer a challenge but give them what they need to overcome it.
Many games feature great gameplay but have other problems. A classic example of this is cut scenes you can't skip. The counter argument is if you accidentally skip a cut scene and can't view it again without getting killed. The easy solution to this is have a system where the first time the user views the cut scene they cant skip it, just don't make them too long, then if they die they can skip it second time around.
Another cause of frustration is unwieldy controls. Always give the user the option of inverting the up and down view controls for example. Also take a leaf out of Miyamoto's book; the user should be able to learn the basic controls within five minutes.
Cater for the new generation
The new generation are just as valuable as the old one. I started gaming back in the eighties but I find myself more akin to the newer generation of gamer. The new generation don't want to have to learn enemy attack patterns or memorize locations or routes through levels. Many of them simply don't have time or have to share their free time with other activities. Therefore a few lessons can be learned from this. Always give the user a map, preferably as clear as possible. Always let the user what they are meant to do next and allow them to check this any time they need to, don't expect them to remember what their told in a cut scene.
People in the games industry are not sad anoraks who sit in a darkened room hunched over a computer all day and are incapable of holding a conversation with their fellow human beings. Or at least they shouldn't be! Communication is just as, if not more important than any other skill a games designer possesses. You may have the ability to come up with fantastic ideas but if you can't get these across to other members of the development team then its all for nothing.
The trick to good communication is the same as anything. Do as much of it as possible! I was fortunate enough to receive specialist training when I started working at a call centre a few years ago. If your nervous about talking to people then force yourself to do it until it comes naturally. However try not to become a know all or arrogant. There's an old saying, nobody likes a smartass and its true! For example don't try telling a programmer how to do his job, he knows how to program better than you! If your new to a company don't go around telling everybody how crap their previous games were! Tact is a vital component of good communication.
Even if you do know a hell of a lot about a subject don't force it on other people. Game development is all about teamwork so try hard to make sure you fit in with the team. If you don't know matter how hard you try then perhaps you're at the wrong company. If you've had a row with the wife the night before don't take it through the door of your work place with you. It won't count for anything when your boss sees you snapping at the artists because he isn't “getting it”! Separate your personal life from your work life as much as possible.
The two C's are just as important as your technical skills. However your technical skills are still very important. A great games designer will have an abundance of all these skills. Just remember, anybody can come up with a great game idea, but not everybody can lay it all down in a well-written design document and communicate with the other members of the team to make it happen. If you do your research properly, learn from others and successfully get your ideas across to the programmers and artists the chances are your game will be a success.
Finally, don't be afraid to ask for advice. People love being asked for advice and will quite happily impart their knowledge to you. Learn from as many people as you can, take what you think is good and remember it.