First things first I'd like to bring you the newest screenshot from the in-development prototype of Digitanks. Click the thumbnail to expand the full image. As you can see I've been hard at work. On the ground you can see some craters from some of the previous shots from the tanks. The terrain is fully destructible, with each shot creating a large crater that can slowly chip away at the terrain. It's cute when you sit one of your tanks inside one of the craters, they fit right in there perfectly. You can also see the new tank designs in action and the "bloom" effect I added, which helps a lot to distinguish when the shields are fully up. I've also figured out a decent way of enclosing the level so that there's not just black space in the background, there's now a dividing wall that you can see in the back. So let's talk about 5 ways to make your game better.
If you're like me, you like to make lists. If you're not like me, then you don't like ice cream. That would be a travesty though, as ice cream is ambrosia from the gods, so we're going to assume you're like me and you like to make lists. I like to make lists about everything, lists about what I'm going to do today, lists about what bugs my project has, lists about things I think I'm never going to get to do, lists about things I've eaten that haven't resulted in heart burn. I keep them all in my handy, trusty little notebook. I have a need to make lists to compensate for my notoriously crappy memory. Things stew in the back of my mind and I write them down so that I can collect my thoughts. I'm like an apothecary of organization, constantly stirring my brew of mental concoctions.
My most recent listation (yes it is a new word thank you) is a list of how to make my game "better." It's an abstract (and therefore potentially useless) concept, but it's practical to me because once I have the list created, I can use it to identify what needs the most work at any particular time, and thus prioritize my work. If I can identify how strong my game is in each area of the list, then that tells me what needs the most work. It's a simple way of deciding what to work on next out of my daunting list of options. Let's get to it.
1. Make the game more fun
Naturally, fun is subjective and we could talk for a while about what is fun and not fun, so I'm going to assume that you've already established your game's gameplay and themes, target audience and what its core fun is. You probably had an idea when you started your game that went something like, "Wouldn't it be a fun game if you could _____." So you broke out your tools and started hacking away at your concept. Somewhere along the line, you've got your game playable and it works pretty well, but for some reason it's not as fun as you thought it would be. That's the point that I break out one of my two tried-and-true methods of making a game more "fun."
Now that I've teased you with that little holy grail, we need to take a step back and take a look at the difference between problems and choices. This was succinctly expressed by James Portnoy in a semi-recent Gamasutra article so I won't rehash it here except to say that a problem can be defined for our purposes as a decision the player needs to make where there is one "best" answer that will lead him to his goal, but a choice is a decision where there is no best route to take. Portnoy deals with these types of decisions from a higher level in his article, where he gives WoW gear as an example of a problem and the choice between an apple and an orange as an example of a choice. I'd like to take this idea and refine it, apply it at a lower level, at the gameplay mechanic level.
Bearing that in mind, the first tried-and-true method of adding fun to a game is to introduce a tradeoff. A tradeoff is a choice made by the player where each leaf in the decision tree provides him with both a benefit and a drawback. Either way the player decides, he will be given an advantage in one area, and a disadvantage in another area. For example, one of the classic tradeoffs in first-person shooters is the decision of armor versus speed, where players can don additional armor at the expense of moving slower, which is a death sentence in many games. The risk of being a bigger target is weighed against the advantage of being able to take more damage. There's no clear advantage here, and the player can take advantage of his choice to try to control a situation. Another classic tradeoff is the zooming or ironsighting feature that many FPS games have. The advantage is being able to increase accuracy at range, but it comes only with the disadvantage of losing peripheral vision or moving a little bit slower. In Modern Warfare this takes the form of an "aim in" button, and in Counter-Strike it's crouching. I've seen the gunplay of a typical FPS go from "shooting fish in a barrel" to "intriguing and fun" with just the addition of that one feature. Another benefit that introducing a tradeoff has is a feeling of identification with the results of the decision, and a sense of control. A player feels that he has more invested in the game since he is making the decisions.
Classes are another classic tradeoff. Team Fortress 2 does a fantastic job in balancing these, especially with the additional patches that they release periodically. The Scout is a fast class with great accessibility that deals less damage, but the HWGuy is a slow class that deals high damage. But it goes further: Engineers are painfully weak, until they get their sentries up. Soldiers are plodding with powerful rockets. Pyros are weak at range and lethal in close quarters. Moreover, with the patches Valve is putting out, each class is getting a choice between weapons. The Pyro's Backburner is am ambusher's dream, it does additional damage to the backs of enemies, at the expense of losing his airblast. Each time they introduce a new weapon to a character, they force the player to trade off an existing ability in order to use it. The Heavy gets his KGB, which affords him 5 seconds of crit for every kill, but at the expense of a slower attack rate. Soldiers get the Direct Hit, with faster rockets, more damage, and mini-crits on airborne targets, but with a very small explosion radius. These are all standard mechanics that you see in many games, and with a little creative brainstorming, many more are possible.
Moral of the story: Never give the player a big gun without giving him a ball and chain.
The second tried-and-true method of adding fun is to introduce a risk-reward choice. This is a special kind of choice where the player can choose to take a risk in exchange for a payoff. This is different from a tradeoff in that tradeoffs have a pro/con on both sides of the choice, whereas risk-reward choices let the player choose between a pro/con or normal play. You see this in a great deal of classic platformers, where you'd get the 1-up if you braved the gauntlet. How many times have you seen that invincibility powerup on the other side of a lava pit, through spike traps, past the large rolling ball, behind the fireball maze, after the carnivorous alien hamster with tentacles? JRPG's love to do this. In Final Fantasy 7, fighting Emerald Weapon (a superboss with a million of hit points) gives you access to three Master Materia, and defeating Ruby Weapon (a superboss that you must fight with only one character) gives you access to a Gold Chocobo. Another classic risk/reward mechanism is charging attacks. At the expense of being unable to fire for a moment, the player can get additional damage to his next attack. If the player dies because he charged his weapon too long, they're less likely to complain because it was a conscious choice, but if he manages to kill his enemy because of the charging, then the reward is a natural gratification. Going through the pain of dealing with the risk can be tough, but there's nothing like a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow to make your game more fun.
Moral of the story: With great sacrifice comes great reward.
2. Make the game more rewarding
My dog has about twenty toys. Yeah, I spoil him. Mind you, he gets his fair share of discipline and training as well, but when I have to do some work I need to make sure he isn't wandering around the place chewing on my chairs, so I buy him toys. The problem is, there is no dog toy in existence that can hold a dog's attention for more than about half an hour, unless it has food. It doesn't matter if it's a squeaky, blinky, automated toy that rolls itself around on the floor while taunting the dog, he will get bored of it in a half hour flat. But if you throw that dog a bone, he will happily munch on it for hours on end. That's because somewhere in that lovable canine mind there's a part of his brain that has a drive to achieve the unending goal of nourishing himself. What the dog needs to keep his attention is a sense of accomplishment.
Humans have this same drive, but instead of food, we have a drive for "betterness," for lack of a better word. Fun isn't enough. It only works for about half an hour. What every game needs is the sense of progression, of getting bigger or stronger or faster or more powerful. The basic strategy of tower defense games is that after every round, you use your leftover cash to buy yourself bigger and better towers. Rocket towers! Armor piercing towers! Tower upgrades! Each time you get a new power and you feel better about yourself. This is the kind of instant gratification that games are made of. Katamari Damacy, one of my favorite games, has this mechanic built into it. Every time you accomplish one of the game's goals, your katamari gets a little bit bigger and you can pick up larger things. It's what keeps you pinned to the game, wanting to pick up every damn thing until you roll your ball up to the size of the moon. RPG's play on this sensation with their levels. Every time you defeat an enemy, you gain additional powers, do more damage and take less damage. You can put yourself against bigger and badder enemies, until finally you come face to face with God himself. If you don't believe me, ask the more than ten million people currently subscribing to World of Warcraft.
Speaking of MMO's, the one and only time I ever got into one was when I first started playing City of Heroes. I saw a friend playing it and I thought, "that looks fun" and signed up for an account. To this day I still have relapses thinking about my bubbler. Damn he was so cool, he had these big things on his arms that looked awesome when he bubbled people and he was all green and I had the best damn bubbles ever, people loved me. But I digress... the game captured my attention for a while, but the social aspect and the leveling only went so far. What I really got addicted to were the badges. I made it my sole mission in life to collect every badge that the game could possibly grant. This was in an era before the XBox 360 and the PlayStation 3 had their achievements and trophies, I was the only guy wandering around killing Clockwork gears just to get the damn badge. People would open my info window and go "Holy crap, look at all those badges, someone has time to kill." They strike some players as inane, but achievements are a great way to help a player feel towards they're working towards something.
It seems a little odd to me that people want to feel like they're working towards something while they're playing a video game. Work? In a video game? How does that make sense? But you see it pervasively in video games. FPS games afford you larger guns and more armor as the game progresses. RTS games unlock bigger tanks and more powerful structures. RPG's give the player bigger weapons and better armor with each level. 4X games let you research more powerful units and city defenses. Platformers give cooler powerups every level. Action adventure games allot you additional skills and powers with every major plot point. Simulation games unlock cooler improvements and buildings. It's a simple element but if you forget it, nobody will play your game for more than half an hour.
Moral of the story: Save the best for last.
As promised, this article is continued in part 2.