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The Game Prodigy - GameDev.net Edition



Gameplay is King, Story a Distant Second

Posted by , 20 January 2011 - - - - - - · 719 views
game design, uncharted 2, story

In this game design article we cover the amazing design choices in Uncharted 2 that allowed for non-stop action and how they can be implemented in your own games. From picking the right moments to make playable and the right moments to make an IGC, Uncharted in a cut above the rest in delivering the perfect experience.

This post originally came from game design site TheGameProdigy.com. Visit for more articles on practical and applicable game design.


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It's been a while since 2009′s most critically acclaimed game title: Uncharted 2 for the PS3 was released. And so while this analysis may be a little dated in terms of the game title, my hope is that the design analysis is timeless for a game that I believe has set the standard of gameplay for the next few years.

Personally as a player, this isn’t exactly my kind of game; I’m not a huge shooter fan and, like Avatar, the story and premise seemed a bit simple. However, as a game designer, I can’t excuse myself from a game so highly regarded among players and developers alike. Even if it didn’t interest me in the name of my own entertainment, it certainly interested me in the name of my design education.

After sinking a good number of hours into it, I can definitely say that it is worth the ride. The game has a captivating story and interesting characters, but that’s not why it’s a great game. It is a great game because of the only thing that can make a great game: great gameplay. Let’s step through two of the best points of this game’s design and execution.


Don’t Tell Me About It; Let me Do It
Let’s start with Uncharted 2′s biggest design achievement: you get to play everything you want to play. You do everything you want to do. Action? You do it. Talking? It’s just a cutscene. This may seem obvious, but it’s more difficult than it sounds.

One of the easiest way to ruin a story is to try and haphazardly shove gameplay inside of it. The problem goes that if you have an interesting story, compelling characters, plot twists and allegory, that’s all fine and good. But what you have are the ingredients for a movie or a book, not necessarily a game. It isn’t a game until the player interacts with the story in some way. And even if the story is strong, poor gameplay will make it unbearable. Developers beware focusing on the story in your game to the detriment of gameplay. In games, gameplay is king. Always.

When you’re making a game and need to have the player interact with the story in some way, then it makes sense to have them focus on the parts of the story they would enjoy. In a film, this means that you want to see the couple fall in love, fight, break up, and get back together. You don’t need to see them use the restroom, get dressed, eat lunch, or turn up the air conditioning.

If designers don’t pull this off correctly, the result is that the gameplay feels completely divorced from the story; the two have nothing to do with one another. Uncharted 2 did a fantastic job of this, which we will get to explaining in a moment. But before we get into how this is done right, let’s first take a look at a game that did it wrong.

Back in 2005 a game was released for the Playstation 2 called Indigo Prophecy (Fahrenheit outside of the U.S.), the less-famous precursor to David Cage's more successful Heavy Rain. It was a critically acclaimed mystery thriller where you played as a man who just came two after a murder. The game follows the footsteps of the murder, as well as the detectives who are trying to track him down. The production values were high: good voice acting, good visuals for the time, and the story itself was spot on.

However, Indigo Prophecy doesn’t make a very good game. It sold fairly well, but that’s not the point here. Out of all of the gleaming reviews, only one reviewer got it right. All the way at the bottom of its Metacritic, one reviewer gave the game a 33/100 amid 90′s. I would argue that that reviewer was actually the most perceptive of the bunch.

The problem? The gameplay had nothing to do with what players cared about. What players cared about was the mystery, the moral choices the characters were making, the fight scenes and romance scenes. But what was the gameplay? None of that. The Indigo Prophecy designers realized that they didn’t have any Base Mechanics to support these aspects of the story. So instead they force the player to perform mundane tasks. Want to speak to the police chief to learn about the killer? Well, first you need to walk upstairs and get the file. Want to woo your ex-girlfriend? First you need to get her belongings and put them by the door. The actual action was always a cutscene; the result makes the player feel like they’re being robbed.

Heavy Rain made great strides to fix these problems, but as the studio continues to learn and run to the top of the game design mountain, they'll find that the Naughty Dog team had been standing there all along.

Build the Gameplay Where the Player Cares

Uncharted 2 does right what Indigo Prophecy and many parts of Heavy Rain (preparing diapers and putting on ties, anyone?) did wrong. Naughty Dog understood what players would think was exciting: the running, the jumping, the shooting, and the combat. They then built the Base Mechanics to support that. The controls were exquisite: you feel like you can do almost anything. Scale walls, find ways to climb up and down unreachable heights, sneak past guards, or take them out. You can actually get in the groove of the action and know that it is you who is deciding how to approach tactical challenges. These are action experiences that Hollywood movies dream of but could never implement.

The result? Whenever anything exciting was about to happen in Indigo Prophecy, I would put the controller down. Whenever anything exciting was about to happen in Uncharted 2, I would pick the controller up. What a change in Core Experience!

The trick is to focus on what the player will want to do in your game (Note: no guessing allowed. You must know your player well). If your game is about solving mysteries and tracking down a criminal, then make the gameplay actually solving mysteries, figuring out what to do next, and making choices based on evidence that affect the story. If the most exciting part of your story is about gunfights and chases, then build the Base Mechanics around shooting and running. And no, not having action isn’t an excuse for not having exciting gameplay. You can make a conversation or researching a book exciting with the right design; it just takes vision of what you want to give your player.


Always Keep the Game Flowing
As we’ve mentioned, Uncharted 2′s Core Experienceis feeling like you’re in an action story, and another way the game pulls this off is by keeping the game moving. Playing the game gives the experience that you are actual in a classic Indiana Jones flick. But remember, this is a game, not a movie, and in a movie, the good guys always win. So how did Naughty Dog decide to handle the player losing without sacrificing gameplay or making the story stall out?

Neither of these two techniques are unique to Uncharted, but they were executed together particularly well. First is the Hint System. When the player gets stuck, then after a period of time a hint button appears. The player can press this hint button and hear another character speak about and point to what they’re supposed to do. And the game keeps on rolling without the player feeling like a fool. Perfect.

Does this feature support the story, or the gameplay? Well it is certainly woven into the story, usually via an interesting comment from one of your pals. However that’s not why it’s significant. It’s significant because it gets the job done from a mechanical standpoint. You could have a hint that triggers a funny joke by a character, but obviously if it doesn’t help the player learn what to do, it’s worthless. Gameplay first.

Next, Uncharted 2 doesn’t rely on ancient (read: 1980′s) conceptions of challenging to make sure the player doesn’t waltz through the game’s more trecherous challenges. In many classic games, challenge is conveyed by sending the player way back to try again. Get shot? Game over. Go back to the beginning of the level and do it again. While this kind of Punishment and Reward System does have the effect of increasing the tension in battle, the negative repercussions of losing are often too frustrating to be worth it. It’s a difficult problem: how can you get players to perform difficult tasks without making the punishment for failing unbearable?

Uncharted eschews those old coin-op design choices and instead opt’s for a good balance in their punishments. Whenever you encounter an action sequence or a gunfire scene, then the game saves a checkpoint. If you fail at the challenge, then the game just sends you back a few moments to the beginning of that scene. This reduces frustration because you’re only set back to the point right before you were killed. Additionally, it forces the player to actually perform the task again, hopefully successfully. Even when Drake was killed multiple times at my hands, I wasn’t discouraged, because the punishment was so light. Pulling the player back any further would almost certainly have broken the flow of the game and yanked me out of the action; keeping it tight pulled me in.

Both of these features keep the gameplay flowing at the pace you would expect to feel if it were a major motion picture — with (of course) the added experience of you actually playing through the action scenes. Now that’s a win-win.


An Action Movie Come-To-Life
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Uncharted 2 pulled off some incredible stunts, and was an fantastic example of a game choosing to be universal instead of original and avant-garde. Well executed, well understood design decisions propelled this title to the top of the award charts for 2009. Developers everywhere, indie, student, and pro, should be required to check it out.

This post originally came from game design site TheGameProdigy.com. Visit for more articles on practical and applicable game design.




Better to be Profitable or Innovative? Setting Strong Dev Goals

Posted by , 19 January 2011 - - - - - - · 648 views
goal setting, scheduling and 1 more...
This post originally came from game design site TheGameProdigy.com. Visit for more articles on practical and killer game design.

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Many of you have your own games that you are working on. Be they student projects, indie experiments, or just a hobby, everyone wants their game to be successful. But what does it mean to be successful? Is a game a success if it’s profitable but completely stale? How about if it’s innovative but makes no money?

Well, that’s depends on the developer and their goals. Many developers just start building something, and then after a while they achieve some sort of result. Maybe they sell their game online. Maybe they end up in a game competition. Or maybe they don’t finish the game at all, they just go on to start a new project. They don’t have clearly defined goals for success.

The ones who are successful are the ones who are smart by setting their own personal goals for their games. In order to tackle a game project in an intelligent way, developers need to be concrete about their goals and what they are trying to achieve.

Many different studies have shown that goal setting across all fields and disciplines is beneficial in getting results. But in game development it is particularly useful because the goals for different developers can have such a wide range of dreams.


Two Developers, Two Goals, Two Successes
Let’s look at two very different developers with very different goals in their games. On one hand is Zynga CEO Mark Pincus, and on the other is indie developer Jonathan Blow.

Pincus’ strong primary goal for each of this games is to make money and be profitable, and this has influenced how the games have been made, their quality and design, their release schedule, their similarity to other games, and everything else about them. Games from Zynga can be beautiful, innovative, or new and fresh, but if they weren’t making massive amount of money, they were failures and were pulled and cancelled. Thus, in order to achieve profitability, many of Zynga’s games were in fact modeled after competitor’s games, but still achieved profitability, the primary goal.

Blow’s game development goals are quite different. Blow’s strong primary goals are far from money, as he has said in a blog post. As one of the organizers of the experimental gameplay project, the primary goal of his games was to try new concepts that hadn’t been tried in gaming, to push the boundaries, and to make games that are considered works of art. Money is not a concern for him.

An important point here: I am of the opinion that there is nothing wrong with either of these goals. Both developers decided what they wanted to do with their games and focused solely on that, and as a result both of them have been wildly successful. Other goals may have been achieved (Braid making a fair amount of money, or Frontierville showing some forms of innovation), but to their creators, those secondary goals were not even really necessary. What mattered was that they achieved their primary goals for their games.


The Many Goals of Game Development
As you can see, defining the goals for your game help a great deal in determining its future and the choices you will make as you are in production. And by defining your goals, you define if your game was a success or a failure. So in order to be smart about how we as developers go about making our games, we need to pick out our goals, think about them, and then be sure of them.

Let’s run through some of the common goals that a game can have. Selecting which of these apply (and just as importantly, which ones don’tapply) will do wonders for your project.

  • The Goal of Having Fun. Many young students start working on a game just as a hobby. They do it to have fun, to learn about making games, and generally have a good time. This goal will drive decisions such as implementing what seems to be the most fun to implement, while avoiding making parts of the game that are hard or boring to make.
  • The Goal of Innovation and Art. Many indie developers set the goal of pushing the envelope, of doing something that games have never done before. This goal will drive decisions such as trying out a new idea wherever possible, requiring theme or allegory be added to the game, and striving to be original and new.
  • The Goal of Fame. Some games are made simply to become famous or known within some crowd. Some games are made that appeal to the GDC indie crowd, while other games are made to appeal to the mass media and get someone’s name out there. Games with this goal will want to have attention grabbing themes or ideas and attach the developer’s name all over.
  • The Goal of Learning. Making a game can be very educational too. If a student wants to learn 3D programming, then one great way to learn is to make a 3D game. This goal will drive the developer to tackle hard problems, especially those that have not been attempted before, in order to learn and bolster one’s skills.
  • The Goal of Profit. Games are a billion dollar industry, and all large companies have the goal of making money from their games. But indie and student developers can set a goal of making money off of their games if they want as well, perhaps hoping to one day start their own company or support themselves through their games. This goal will drive design decisions around what would make the most money.
  • The Goal of Career Development. Many students will want to make games for career development, to be able to say on their resume, “I made this game”. This goal will drive decisions such as foregoing a cool feature in order to get it finished completely, or working late into the night long after it’s gotten frustrating.
Do Your Game a Favor and Define Your Goals
All of these goals are valid, all of them are available to you, and all of them will cause different decisions to occur during the process of development, resulting in different looking games. Carefully selecting which goals you have for your project can greatly increase the chances of success, because you’ll know exactly what success means for you. You’ll be more motivated to work on your game because you’ll have a practical idea of what you are trying to accomplish.

And perhaps more importantly, you’ll know which goals you are not trying to achieve, so you can be free to make the design and development decisions that you want. So go ahead and answer that age old question: innovation or profitability? Is one more important? Or are both important and there must be a balance? Decide for yourself and go after it!

This post originally came from game design site TheGameProdigy.com. Visit for more articles on practical and killer game design.




Bang For Your Buck: Getting the Most Out of Your Dev Time

Posted by , 18 January 2011 - - - - - - · 458 views
game design, momiga
This post originally ran on game design site TheGameProdigy.com. Visit for more resources on practical and killer game design.

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As a game developer, which of these sounds more desirable to you?

  • A really fun 5 minute game that took ten hours to make
  • A really fun 5 minute game that took one hour to make
Assuming that they are equally enjoyable to the same group of people, most of us would go with the one hour version. Sure, in nine more hours there is a lot that can be done. You can add more artwork, add social aspects, add multiplayer or extra modes. But if we are just focusing on fun, which I believe tends to max out on a relatively small scale, then time of of the essence, and if you only have an hour or so, you want to put it in the right place. As game developers, our time is very valuable.

Momiga is a great little Flash game that has been making the rounds online. Standing for “Most Minimalist Game”, Momiga features only one graphic (a small white dot), one button, and one sound effect. Truly, it is about as minimalist as you can get. Each “level” consists of moving a dot to the other side of the screen by pressing the space bar in a variety of ways. Each method is different: sometimes it slides across, other times it floats or bounces. The trick is to understand what’s going on and get it to the right.

I love to analyze games like this, because they provide such clear examples of simple but profound concepts in game development. Momiga is perfect example of being lean and economical. Student and indie developers often don’t give much thought to the concept of “bang for their buck”. That is, how much “game” they are going to get for the amount of effort that they put in. This can lead to effort being put in the wrong areas, which leads to wasted energy and exhaustion, which can lead to promising titles that are never finished.


Get the Most “Game”
I don’t actually know how long Momiga took to complete, but for an experienced Flash developer, it looks like it would take no more than a few hours to go from start to finish. And yet it has provided several minutes of enjoyment for tens of thousands of players.

To do this, the developer had to decide what he was going to focus on and what he wasn’t going to focus on. Clearly, with the title, he decided from the beginning that he was not going to focus on good graphics, sounds, backgrounds, or anything like that. He was also not going to focus on complex controls, UI, or menus, constrained by the rule to use only one button.

Thus, whether on purpose or not, the developer forced himself to focus on making what little he had fun. Since there are no graphics or colors to make the different levels feel different, the only way to make them interesting was to force the player to do something different at each turn. ”I had to bounce across at the last one, and this one looks like some sort of jetpack…oh ok….I get it it now…”. That process is inherently enjoyable, because the player is being presented with new ideas at each turn.

In a previous video on The Game Prodigy (From Seconds to Hours of Gameplay), we discussed ways that players can extend the life of their game time-wise, without watering down the fun and enjoyability. Some of the one of the ways you can do this is to build layers on top of your original Base Mechanic. Momiga takes a different approach. Instead of building up, per say, and making the single button clicking compound into points or higher levels of the same activity, the actual Base Mechanic changes each time. What the button press actually does is new and interesting.

To see how impactful this different focus of effort can be, contrast Momiga with another of the developer’s titles, Nano Ninja, a game which had much higher production values.

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Nano Ninja’s gameplay is essentially identical to Momiga – single mouse clicks do different actions across different stages, and the player needs to find out how to press the button in the right way to complete the small stage. Yet it is clear that Nano Ninja took much longer than one sitting to complete. All the graphics, animations, music, and sounds took time to create. In the end, it boils down to a very similar amount of “game”, that is, about five minutes of fun. But in terms of the amount of “game” that the developer got for how much effort he put in, the ratio is much lower.

One hour for five minutes of fun, or ten hours for five minutes of fun?


Put Your Game Where Your Mouth Is
By being aware of what is and isn’t important for your game, you can make sure you are making the best use of your time.

Now this isn’t universal – every game developer needs to decide for themselves how much time to put into what aspects of their game. Some types of games will flop and completely fail with their target players if great time isn’t invested into the Aesthetic Layout (AAA titles like Super Mario Galaxy come to mind). The point is that your time as a developer is valuable — make sure you’re spending it where it will count the most.

This post originally ran on game design site TheGameProdigy.com. Visit for more resources on practical and killer game design.







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