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Does anyone actually care about Game Designers?

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#1 MachiniMax   Members   

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Posted 27 August 2009 - 02:06 AM

A number of recent events have me worried. I've been abusing the EBGames 7-day return system for PS2 games. "If you don't like it, bring it back," kind of deal. I almost always took the games back. Most of the games I bought/swapped were so badly designed that they were just unplayable. Some of them even had great graphics (silent hill origins) but basically lacked a good game. So the attendent notices I've been coming in a lot and asks me what kind of games I like. I tell him the last great game I played on PS2 was Shadow of the Colossus. He blinks at me before gesturing with his hands: "Yeah, Shadow is kind of up 'here' where most game are kind of down 'here'. Maybe you shouldn't expect so much from games." I was shocked. This totally blew my mind. Why the hell shouldn't I expect good quality from my games? Am I doomed to sit back and make snide remarks forever? What the hell is so wrong with paid professionals that they can't make good games? Games AS GOOD as Shadow of the Colossus, Ico or Portal. Why can't all games at least be playable? People get paid for this crap. That was event number one. This is event number two. I recently applied for a job transfer at a local developer. The job was a game design position to do specifically with level design. This is not a new concept to me. But the market was open and a lot of my associates were also applying for various other jobs at the same company. Many of the artists I knew were made to do a 4-6 hour test; presumably to test their knowledge of certain programs while assessing their artistic skill under pressure of time. The process was pretty similar for any coders applying for low-level positions. Crucially, only minimal previous experience was required to sit the exam. But the designers had a different format. Individually, we were given a stock game mechanic and told to design a level exploring it. We only had twenty minutes to do so. At the time I figured hey, whatever, I'll design a level experimenting with the mechanic in 20 minutes. But afterwards I thought about it a bit more. Why did the artists and coders get a whole day's worth of a test while the designers only got 20mins? That hardly seems right. Sure, I designed a good level in 20mins... But so what? That's moot when you consider the stuff I could have done in 6 hours. As if anyone can tell whether you're a good designer based on 20mins of work. What if some kid randomly hits on the only good design they'll ever create just that one time? Do all companies only spend 20 mins on each level design in their game? No freaking way! Do you give an artist 20mins to model, texture, skin and animate a character in 3dsmax? No way! Do you tell a coder to make a game in 20mins in C# and base his job application on that? No! The company didn't end up hiring any of the applicants. And so... I thought the days of people considering game design a joke were over. But I see that there's still a warm place in consumers' hearts for bad game design. If I had my way, badly designed games would be held accountable; just like if you have a plumber who doesn't screw your taps shut tight enough. Why do people still accept bad game design? And is this the reason so many developers still don't care about it as much as art and code, even after good game design has been proven again and again? 20 minutes? Gimme a break. I may have a biased opinion because I didn't get that job - but neither did anyone else; what is that company going to do for their level designs? I shudder to think.

#2 Kylotan   Moderators   

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Posted 27 August 2009 - 03:07 AM

Quote:
Original post by MachiniMax
So the attendent notices I've been coming in a lot and asks me what kind of games I like. I tell him the last great game I played on PS2 was Shadow of the Colossus. He blinks at me before gesturing with his hands: "Yeah, Shadow is kind of up 'here' where most game are kind of down 'here'. Maybe you shouldn't expect so much from games."

I was shocked. This totally blew my mind. Why the hell shouldn't I expect good quality from my games?

He was only trying to tell you that games vary wildly. But 'quality' is a very subjective concept. The degree to which they vary means that if you love one game, it's unlikely many others will impress you to the same degree. In fact, part of the quality of a game often comes from its novelty. That means it is very hard to replicate. That's not a failing of games - that's just part of how it goes. For every person like you who complains that no game has impressed you as much as XYZ, there's someone else complaining that too many games are like ABC. Originality is one axis of quality, ease of use is another, familiarity a third, aesthetic qualities a fourth, etc. It's easier to improve one of these when you stick with lessons learned on the others. Time and resources are limited.

Ultima VII is probably my favourite game. No other RPG really comes close in my mind. But Baldur's Gate beats it for quality in the interface department. Oblivion beats it in the presentation area. Planescape beats it on plot, and FFVI beats it on characterisation. Which has the highest quality?

And do you have the same criteria for movies? Should every film be a 'Citizen Kane' or a 'Casablanca' or near enough, just because they too are made by paid professionals? The fact that we still refer to these as two of the benchmarks when they were made over 60 years ago demonstrates just how hard it is to replicate that sort of success. Sometimes a mixture of hard work, talent, and luck conspire to make something greater than expected, and future amounts of equally hard work won't necessarily get you anywhere close. All repeated endeavours end up distributed over a somewhat wide range of varying acclaim due to a number of factors.

Quote:
Am I doomed to sit back and make snide remarks forever? What the hell is so wrong with paid professionals that they can't make good games? Games AS GOOD as Shadow of the Colossus, Ico or Portal. Why can't all games at least be playable? People get paid for this crap.

You are being very opinionated here. Not everybody wants to play games like SotC or Ico (which are pretty much the same game in wider terms) so why would you expect all games to be that way? Paid professionals make lots of good games all the time. Just because they don't meet your criteria, doesn't make them less good.

Paid professionals are also paid for a reason - not to do the best they possibly can for you, but to produce a product for a client who has a target audience in mind (which often doesn't include you). Developers who have expertise in car racing games are not going to create a narrative-driven 3D adventure just because you feel that the latter is of higher 'quality'. It's like when people complain about a study showing people's romantic habits, saying "why aren't these scientists spending their money curing cancer instead?" Scientists are not fully interchangeable between disciplines, and nor are developers all interchangeable between genres. Yes, scientists and game developers can learn and diversify a bit, but on the whole people hone their own areas of quality and play to their strengths. You just have to accept that their strengths may not lie in the areas that you care about as a consumer with certain interests.

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Do all companies only spend 20 mins on each level design in their game?

No, but neither do they only give coders or artists a day on a task either. They're deliberately artificial constraints to test the applicant. And not every company will have the same relative time constraints so I would suggest not generalising from this.

#3 Tom Sloper   Moderators   

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Posted 27 August 2009 - 04:34 AM

Quote:
Original post by Kylotan
not every company will have the same relative time constraints so I would suggest not generalising from this.

QFT. Not every company will even have a group test as the OP described, either. It was a novel thing to read about.
"Don't jump too fast to sweeping generalizations" is excellent advice.


-- Tom Sloper
Sloperama Productions
Making games fun and getting them done.
www.sloperama.com

Please do not PM me. My email address is easy to find, but note that I do not give private advice.

#4 Staffan E   Members   

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Posted 27 August 2009 - 05:29 AM

Good post by Kylotan. I can only second what he said.

There is one thing I'd like to add though. Now suppose that there is a studio out there who has the exact same preferences in games as you do, and that you indeed are their publisher's target audience. Even then you can't judge them for not meeting your standard of quality. Game design, as I think you know, is not an exact science. As a programmer, if anyone out there invents something really cool, you could copy it one-to-one, as long as you stay within the legal boundaries of IP and patents. The customer would never second-guess you for copying the technology. However if you designed a game that was identical in design to say SotC you would be blamed with plagiarism. You want to make something that is somewhat alike but still original.

Game design is an art even if you are a paid professional. And creating good art is always fickle. We can either moan about how modern music is nothing like Mozart, or we can be happy about the fact that every once in a while someone creates something amazing that we will remember.

Anyway, it's not all doom and gloom for you.

#5 lithos   Members   

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Posted 27 August 2009 - 07:22 AM

No not really. By itself a game designer can barely make a board game or a P&P RPG game. When you're applying for a game design position you're applying for a middle management position(even if it's not the same look and feel). And lets be honest how many of those do you need, and how many people would you hire right off the bat to do so.


#6 Robert-Glen   Members   

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Posted 27 August 2009 - 03:40 PM

I was curious, what was the stock game mechanic that you had to design a level around in "event number two"?

Were you told to design for a specific genre or given any other constraints?


#7 tremault   Members   

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Posted 28 August 2009 - 08:14 AM

if the company feel that allowing limited time for level design is important to them, they want the kind of people that can produce their idea of good levels in that sort of period.
perhaps they are looking for pure creativity rather than planning.
there can be different kids of level design.
I can plan something really elaborate that may not work out. or i could do a lot of small different things that are all unique and fun and many of these simple ideas could be really good fun.
in some game engines, level design is really a very small part of it because teh game may be dynamic. like viva pinata for example. or little big planet.

given 20 minutes, one designer might start to place trees and make platforms etc. another designer might try and place NPC's and try and make some narrative.

I don't think it means designers are less valuable. I think it just means the producers have different ideas on what will make them money.
as with lots of movies these days, visuals tend to take front seat.

designers tend to be more valuable in comanies like valve.

#8 Wavarian   Members   

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Posted 28 August 2009 - 08:32 AM

The best designers, in my opinion, are the ones that form a "remote" bond with the player. They're not just making levels, they're testing and toying with the player in their own domain, and the really good games make the player feel as though the designer is sitting there behind him the whole time, watching him play.

Some designers like to have the player trust them: "If you jump down this hole, I'll take care of you", while others also do this, but later betray the player and have him prove that he can outwit the designer.

Right now I'm playing my way though Doom 3 (yes, four years after its release), and am really enjoying it. Sometimes I'll look at a hole in the floor and just know something is going to pop out of it.. But as I pass by it, nothing happens, and I can just hear the designer behind me saying "Yeah, I know what you're thinking LONG before you know what you're thinking buddy".

Sadly in the popularity of multiplayer gaming, there isn't much room for this kind of designer / player interaction, and kids these days think that game design is just about building maps, placing items, and that's it. It's sad to think that development companies are also sporting this kind of mentality.

Designers are the game's souls. Great designers make puppets out of their players. You think you can outsmart them, but really you're just trapped in their twisted world.

#9 tremault   Members   

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Posted 28 August 2009 - 10:08 AM

Quote:
Original post by Wavarian
Right now I'm playing my way though Doom 3 (yes, four years after its release), and am really enjoying it. Sometimes I'll look at a hole in the floor and just know something is going to pop out of it.. But as I pass by it, nothing happens, and I can just hear the designer behind me saying "Yeah, I know what you're thinking LONG before you know what you're thinking buddy".

This made me laugh out loud!

yes, I find that my best ideas come out when i am creating something for my friends to play. It's like i'm going about the map leaving little traps here and there and leaving some odd things to make them laugh. I think a really good fun level comes about when the designer is really having fun. it is certainly like a sort of communication.

#10 MachiniMax   Members   

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Posted 28 August 2009 - 04:17 PM

Thanks for the replies guys.


There's an interesting general trend among designers on the net which is pretty obvious in this thread (and in most game design discussions). That's where people consider game design to be art and where good game design is a purely subjective thing. But I don't think that's really true.

Yes, the fact of the matter is; people can like poorly designed games, but it's not necesarrily the case that games people like are well designed. I liked playing Grim Fandango but I also understand that much of its game design was really really flawed. I subscribed to it for the novelty of the world and the briliant acting (not even the storyline itself) but that doesn't mean it was well designed as a game.

But this isn't about my preference in games. I don't subscribe to genres or story arcs. I like the original Spyro the Dragon just as much as Portal and I like Portal just as much as I like Defcon; I believe they are all designed just as well as each other. If someone has a vendetta against dragons, they might not want to play Spyro, but the point is that if the DID want to, they could do so without any misinterpretation of the rules; its design is solid.

This is basically why games design is a science to me and not an art, contrary to most beliefs. It's all in the psychology that Wavarian touched on. The designer needs to know what the play will think (there's your science of psychology) and the best designers will do artistic things with that science (where the story of Portal complements the gameplay). People who don't believe in that statement also tend to believe God of War was well designed.

I'm often told by game developers that 'we have to make what people will buy'. I think this is pretty much a harsh reality for the major league industry. A successful game isn't necesarrily well designed - and that's really what I'm getting at. Its accepted that this is the case so people think that good game design is subjective.

Poorly designed games (like WoW or God of War) can still do very well so I guess it makes sense that game design isn't that big an issue; or more so, like an art rather than a science. Hit and Miss, right? But I have to stress to people who think this way: sure that poorly designed game was successful, but imagine what it could have been were it also well designed.

Shadow of the Colossus was just the case in point and while that game is largely pretty solid, its design breaks down at the end when it tries to get artistic. Automatic death scenarios should never exist in games no matter how loud the story calls for it (and I'm not talking about the ending itself). That game is about as well designed as Max Payne or Hitman Blood Money; pretty darn good but with noticeable issues.

And yes, for context, movies are the same. A good example of a poorly done movie would be one where plot hooks happen for no logical reason or where close-ups look at a character's shoulder rather than their face (as the shot was supposed to) or even where the editor has simply forgotten to put a black filter over one scene in the middle of the film. They're all technical issues and where game design breaks down, I consider it to be a technical issue, not an artistic one. Here's looking at you, Too Human.

Lithos said that when you apply for a game design position, you're basically applying for a middle management position. I think that's true. I also think that's bad. While some management is required in almost any job, the designer should ideally focus on creating a design which works for the player - not for the team or the honchos.

Whenever I work on a game (specially as a lead) there's a sort of mentality among the higher-ups that the game is 'their' design. While I'm all for sticking closely to a brief, I'm kind of disheartened when someone who isn't a qualified game designer insists they know what they're talking about because they saw 'it' done in another game... You all know what I mean. Try telling an artist to make the game look like a Picasso painting because Picasso is one of the greatest artists of all time... Right? It doesn't work that way.

Some stuff in game design just works (and is often required for the design to be any good), other stuff doesn't. Gameplay gimmicks (like the portal gun in Portal) can go either way to begin with but they should be tested for proof of concept: rapid prototype away. The same goes with story gimmicks like the dragon thing in Spryo; he didn't need to be a dragon (he could have been an all-purpose tiger tank in neo-vietnam) but it made good sense. That's good design.

It seems to me the longer people keep accepting the 'all-purpose tiger tank scenario' the longer we won't need designers as much as we should. Consider also that people who've played good games can generally pick a bad one, even if they don't know why it was good or bad.

#11 Drathis   Members   

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Posted 28 August 2009 - 05:10 PM

But since game design to you is science, what is the criteria between good design and bad design? How can we distinguish a good game from well designed game? Your examples are kind of useless to me because I don't understand why you think Max Payne is better designed than God of War(I know you didn't exactly say that, correct me if I'm wrong).

#12 Wavinator   Moderators   

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Posted 28 August 2009 - 08:24 PM

Quote:
Original post by MachiniMax
There's an interesting general trend among designers on the net which is pretty obvious in this thread (and in most game design discussions). That's where people consider game design to be art and where good game design is a purely subjective thing. But I don't think that's really true.


That doesn't make any sense. For a thing to be considered good or bad it has to measure up against some sort of absolute standard. If we were talking about aircraft design, that absolute standard might be physics, in which case it might not matter if the form of a thing were aesthetically pleasing if there was no chance that it would ever possibly fly.

But you're talking about an entertainment product. The standard for such a thing is likely its popularity or ability to effectively impact the consumer of it in a given way. You may not personally care for what is popular or how it makes its impact or any of a number of other particulars-- but that doesn't matter. You may simply be an outlier on the statistical curve of ever changing tastes.

Quote:

Yes, the fact of the matter is; people can like poorly designed games, but it's not necesarrily the case that games people like are well designed. I liked playing Grim Fandango but I also understand that much of its game design was really really flawed. I subscribed to it for the novelty of the world and the briliant acting (not even the storyline itself) but that doesn't mean it was well designed as a game.


You'll have to define well designed in a way that has no bearing on your own personal tastes, then.

Quote:

This is basically why games design is a science to me and not an art, contrary to most beliefs. It's all in the psychology that Wavarian touched on.


Psychology is an opinion about phenomena, circumstance or facet of human behavior. But it's not a hard science, like chemistry or physics. Unless we're talking neuroscience, where we can observe and measure physical phenomena occurring in the brain, when you're talking about psychology you're talking about theories to describe experiential realities that aren't guaranteed to be shared by all. Psychology is more like a lens or framework which attempts to describe certain behaviors or ontological states of being.

If you look at the history of psychology you can easily see this. Take something like the revisions and controversies surrounding diagnoses in the DSM. They're subjective, and subject to cultural viewpoints (among other things) which vary with culture and time. There's no absolute psychological truth or psychological principle that is invariant across all cultures in all times. Unlike physics or chemistry, you can't rely on immutable facts that vary regardless of observer (let's leave quantum mechanics out of this).

I make this long winded diatribe about psych because it's a really short sighted thing to base your views on. Economics, culture, contemporary tastes, underlying cultural metaphors, modes of perception-- these should also be factors, not just the ever shifting ground of psychology.

Quote:

The designer needs to know what the play will think (there's your science of psychology) and the best designers will do artistic things with that science (where the story of Portal complements the gameplay). People who don't believe in that statement also tend to believe God of War was well designed.


This is a puerile argument. You really can't imagine that there are those people who find issue with the designs of both or neither???

What does the design of Portal offer the strategy gamer, or the physically uncoordinated, or players who deem lack of multiplayer in any game to be a serious design flaw (I know all three and to them it would not be a well designed game)? What does Portal's tired, hackneyed story of a malfunctioning, psychotic AI have to offer a player who's already been up against SHODAN? What does Portal have to offer for the player who hates puzzles, or geek humor featuring cutesy killer turrets and a bizarre obsession with cake (or caek or whatever the geek speak spelling is)?

Quote:

Poorly designed games (like WoW or God of War) can still do very well so I guess it makes sense that game design isn't that big an issue; or more so, like an art rather than a science. Hit and Miss, right? But I have to stress to people who think this way: sure that poorly designed game was successful, but imagine what it could have been were it also well designed.


I'll stress to you that if it's a science it should follow the tenets of science: "Good game design" should have some quantifiable, observable, measurable qualities which, when assembled in a game, automatically result in a good game every time. And at that point you should be able to mass produce it, just as we do with aircraft.

Quote:

And yes, for context, movies are the same. A good example of a poorly done movie would be one where plot hooks happen for no logical reason or where close-ups look at a character's shoulder rather than their face (as the shot was supposed to) or even where the editor has simply forgotten to put a black filter over one scene in the middle of the film. They're all technical issues and where game design breaks down, I consider it to be a technical issue, not an artistic one. Here's looking at you, Too Human.


I'm hard pressed to find a popular game riddled with technical issues. Even user interface is a matter of appropriately assessing the affordances of widgets, buttons, indicators and such-- and those change! Not too long ago invisible UIs were all the rage, and before that the "rack of buttons" (in strategy games like X-Com) were cool. Before that we had parsers and overlays on the keyboard. Yet if you introduce modern gamers to the classics most would likely puke. Even I had a hard time with the technical and design issues of a game I considered a personal classic-- the once vast and engaging world it featured now seemed barren by today's standards.

Sensibilities changed. That doesn't make those old games bad, though.

If you apply this idea to movies, then you'd have to argue something along the lines of early movies (such as silent movies) being no good because of the problems with emoting or long takes or belabored exposition. But what's really happened is that sensibilities have changed.

Subjective.

Quote:

It seems to me the longer people keep accepting the 'all-purpose tiger tank scenario' the longer we won't need designers as much as we should. Consider also that people who've played good games can generally pick a bad one, even if they don't know why it was good or bad.


I would suggest that you've somehow picked up a pre-1960s mentality akin to the kind that defined cultural expressions as "high" and "low." High culture was generally thought to emerge from those with refined sensibilities, those with the intelligence to somehow authoritatively know good from bad. What the masses liked, on the other hand, was cheap, vulgar, unrefined "low" culture. And by extension, those who liked low culture had to be cheap, vulgar and unrefined people.

Ask yourself if this is how you feel about all those God of War fans you're railing against.

What's missed in the high/low dichotomy are all the unique, subjective elements that allow a work to be good and well crafted. Does the game speak to the audience, to their culture based on all the stereotypes and referents they've become used to from all the other media they've consumed? Are the mechanics engaging, complimentary and unified? Does the player know what he or she's supposed to be doing and are they being given appropriate and rewarding feedback for doing it? Is, as Ernest Adams once asked, the game bigger than itself-- that is, does it take on elements that make it timeless and enduring or is it a consumable experience meant to be thrown away when the player is done with it?

I think you'll miss all these questions if you blindly seek some ultimate standard of design goodness. And to me that would be a shame, because in authoritatively chopping up the game design world into good and bad you'll probably miss the few opportunities available to make things people will like and even benefit from.

--------------------Just waiting for the mothership...

#13 MachiniMax   Members   

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Posted 29 August 2009 - 12:47 AM

@ Drathis; you're right, I do consider Max Payne to be better designed than God of War, despite its few shortcomings. And yet, God of War is decidedly a more successful game in the marketplace. If you haven't played them both, then the rest of this post is probably for you.



"For a thing to be considered good or bad it has to measure up against some sort of absolute standard.....But you're talking about an entertainment product. The standard for such a thing is likely its popularity or ability to effectively impact the consumer of it in a given way......You may simply be an outlier on the statistical curve of ever changing tastes.....You'll have to define well designed in a way that has no bearing on your own personal tastes."


I suspect I am indeed on the fringes of popular taste and it's actually my experience that most game designers are. But it's a personal thing which we can't allow to get in the way of our work. In fact, it's our job to be objective in our designs. The best way of doing that is indeed to form an absolute and quantifiable standard, just as you say.

But from a design point of view, that standard does not come from an idea's commercial popularity. In many cases, it's actually part of our job to make an idea popular through the game itself. You may not believe in or support the basis of psychology in design but its actually a really great place to start when developing a quantifiable standard and usually where everyone ends up anyway.

It seems to me that without a prefessional respect for modern psychology (we're not talking freud here) then a designer's train of thought would inevitably get bogged down in cultural and commercial traditions; most of Wavinator's points seem to revolve around this too. The idea that a game should supply its audience with culture-specific content might seem like a good idea - but its ultimately self destructive in the market place because cultures and commerce are, as you say, changing all the time.

Appealing to a cultural ideal in either a game or a story often ends up like putting a 'use-by' date on your product. To combat this, many of the most well received game worlds go out of their way to build a culture of their own inside the game. Just look at the Star Wars universe. Sure it might be based on existing cultures but you don't need to know about Ancient Japan to understand a lightsaber; all of those culturally significant motifs are explained in the product itself.

You might usually consider 'black' to be an evil color; but it doesn't take much for a game to tell you that, in this world, 'black' is the colour of 'good'. Once that cultural ideal is established in the game itself, the player's own culture becomes pretty much irrelevant; they understand the way things are now. If the audience has some aversion to the colour black (say, a religious thing) then they won't play - but it's the Spyro example again; if they wanted to play, a well designed game would let them.


"What does the design of Portal offer the strategy gamer, or the physically uncoordinated, or players who deem lack of multiplayer in any game to be a serious design flaw (I know all three and to them it would not be a well designed game)?"


This is the same point. If a player only wants to play real-time strategy games, they won't play Portal. But its not really (or it shouldn't really be) the designer's job to worry about that on a low-level basis. In fact, its detrimental to their cause. If I was designing Portal and was determined that it would appeal to RTS gamers, then I'd be trying to appeal to a market which doesn't exist for a game like that; I suspect the rules would then become confused and the game design would suffer. Sure maybe some RTS fans would pick it up and give it a whirl; but that doesn't make it a well designed game.


"I'll stress to you that if it's a science it should follow the tenets of science: "Good game design" should have some quantifiable, observable, measurable qualities which, when assembled in a game, automatically result in a good game every time. And at that point you should be able to mass produce it, just as we do with aircraft."


Yeah actually this is precicely what I feel should be happening. They do it in hollywood (or any other industry) all the time and the result is movies like My Sister's Keeper; sure not everyone likes it but there's nothing wrong with the way it was presented. It's not a Fight Club masterpiece, but from an objective standpoint it's a good solid show that doesn't betray any tacit agreement. So sure it doesn't account for Inglorious Basterds and other left-field movies (Psychonaughts equivalent), but it does reduce the risk of producing a poorly designed game. At 5% success rate for our industry, that risk really does need reducing.

If you want to put the standard cultural spin on it then yes, consider that they don't make many silent movies anymore. Movies are better with sound. The only reason they didn't have speech back in the day was because they physically couldn't. As soon as they could, they did. That doesn't necesarrily mean that masterpieces like Metropolis are bad movies; but I suspect they'd be better were they presented with diagetic sound in mind. That's an opinion, yes, but we don't make silent games either. Humans inherently and universally desire sound.

So diagetic sound would be a quantifiable, observable, measurable quality in a movie. Likewise, if we were to break an example-game down into tokens of design, a game with sound would be at least one point ahead of a game without sound. And at a very high level (consumer level, say) that's about as complicated as it needs to be. "Does the game have sound? Are there any noticable technical issues with the sound? Is the sound suitable for the game context?" Basic enough.

But at a lower level of game design, it's much more psychologically orientated than that. In the 'sound' example, we'd be looking at things like volume levels, emphasis, psychoacoustics, rhythm, mood, etc. Particularly in the case of psychoacoustics there IS such thing as good sound design and bad sound design. Ever played a game where the in-game weapons are REALLY loud so you turn the volume down a bit; then the voices in the cutscenes are almost inaudible...? Bad sound design! Some games give us the sound levels to play with on our own to fix any issues like this - that's a good idea and if a game doesn't have that, it loses a token point. Often its not the designer's fault that something like this would get left out; but regarless, it's not in the game and that is a bad thing.

And it goes a lot deeper than that. I'll continue picking on God of War for a moment, picking a random example. God of War epitomises the 'invisible walls' syndrome. This is usually where the artists are primarily in charge of making game levels. The result; highly detailed and very beautiful levels that look great! But that's all. Get Kratos and run him into a wall - see if he actually hits the wall. Probably 50% of that game is invisible wall; an area you can't get into or touch just because there's no code to accomodate it.

Now that might not seem like such a big issue on the surface but there's a lot of suggestion in the invisible walls (un)feature. Firstly, it suggests that areas with invisible walls are not important because you can't get to or use them. They have no affect on the game. So my question to the designers is this: why is that area in your game at all? You have just taught me that almost half of your game isn't worth exploring. Invisible walls used to be a byproduct of technical limitations; as of the PS2 and Xbox, there's just no excuse. If an area in your level is useless to the game, cut it out entirely or do something better.

Secondly, it reduces the player's ability to play the game the way they want to play. Simply, it reduces their control of their actions. They have no choice but to follow a set path - not because the story or charatcres call for it, but because the level designers are too lazy to make anything but hack-and-slash worthwhile doing. To some people (those who liked the game) this probably isn't that big an issue; it's not a game breaker. But the fact of the matter is the designers could have done better and imagine where they'd be if they had - I doubt very much that was a technical issue and I suspect it was a question of what was important in the game only to the designers. Again, if it's not important it shouldn't be in there.

On the flipside, a game like Hitman Blood Money accounts for this with flare. Everyting in every level is touchable and everything that exists is useful. Part of this is enclosing the levels so as not to invite the player to try entering a non-existent larger world. Example; you see that seemingly innocent cabinet next to that desk in the corner? Yeah, that indicates that the room you are in is an office. Simple as that; everything has a purpose. In addition, if you get sick of trying to play the game the way it was meant to be played; you can go in all guns blazing and masacre the joint - this is both fun and relieves the stress of the normal scenarios. The guys who did Hitman anticipated what the player would want/do and accounted for it. God of War didn't do this and I have more examples which I won't exhaust the poor game with right now.

On a more abstract level, consider games in general as a set of rules. Humans like rules because they make things easy to control. Humans like control but only when they possess it. So if the rules work against us, we strive to break them. This is basically the Goomba scenario; goombas kill us (those are the rules) so we kill them first. Bad game design comes about when the rules are unclear or borken; say, suddenly goombas are invincible without warning. A game designer should be able to write out the entire rules set for their game (all the way down to the name of the sound file which plays every time you hit an object with your sword) then take those rules, apply it to the game itself and check for inconsistencies. If there are issues, they need to be fixed. Importantly, this doesn't guarantee a 'fun' game. But it does guarantee that your game will not be broken.

On a deeper level still, there are psychological traits that pretty much every human exhibits which indicate what they will or will not like doing in a game. For example; a game character who is easy to use in the context of the game is always more fun than one who is difficult to use (Spyro = good / Daxter = not quite so good). A game enemy who requires a more complex kill sequence (five buttons presses, say) will always be more engaging than one who only requires two button presses; so one must be careful not to overload the player with too many button presses.

It might seem a bit elementary but it really is this simple - there's just a LOT of simple in any given game. The key to good design is to have imutable rules (set out by you as the designer) which you never break in the game; even after testing. Then you can start being tricky with your story arcs and plot points and market and culture; and only then.

There are a few basic psychological housekeeping rules which must always be followed in addition to this; stuff like having a sound, animation and response for every action to play makes. If they swing with their sword and hit, give them a sound, animation and response to indicate thit. If they swing and miss, they'll need a sound, animation and response to indicate it. You'd be surprised how often games don't do this. Some games don't even seem to understand that fighting in the open while using a first person camera is harder than fighting in a cramped hallway - where something like God of War would/should be the opposite.


"Does the game speak to the audience, to their culture based on all the stereotypes and referents they've become used to from all the other media they've consumed? Are the mechanics engaging, complimentary and unified? Does the player know what he or she's supposed to be doing and are they being given appropriate and rewarding feedback for doing it? Is, as Ernest Adams once asked, the game bigger than itself-- that is, does it take on elements that make it timeless and enduring or is it a consumable experience meant to be thrown away when the player is done with it?"


Most of this is actually pretty spot on. The only really issue here is that timelessness and culture are rarely compatible. We can create culture in video games without it being based on the audiences' stereotypes and games which do this tend to gather strong cult followings. Just look at Super Mario, Katamari Damacy, Psychonauts, Little Big Planet. It's pretty much the reason fantasy is so popular. They have references to exisiting cultures for character's sake, but in the end they create their own world. I remember being attracted to the blue-crackling electricity in LBP but it only took one shock to realise that electricity in LBP is 'bad'. It is the culture in the game itself which should strive to be timeless; and in that respect it should stand alone.

If you want a full list of quantifiable game design tokens which basically help you remember what is good and bad, then I seriously do recommend looking into it. The fact of the matter is that making those tokens work is the hardest part - but the psychology behind it is pretty immutable. You just have to keep track of it. What disappoints me is how rare it is for games to do that and how it seems to be the norm to accept it.

#14 tremault   Members   

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Posted 29 August 2009 - 07:14 AM

i am sorry, but i have to say, it's hard to take someone seriously when they say the portals in a game called "portal" is just a gimmick....

i believe it's called a 'core mechanic'...

I suppose the cars in colin mcrae rally are a gimmick too ;)

#15 Wush   Members   

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Posted 29 August 2009 - 10:26 PM

Its hard for me to say without having played the game but a name can be misleading it only tells you what the developers thought not if the developers train of thought was correct.

I agree with MachiniMax Game Design is artistic cause of the requirement of creativity from the developer but there are things, which yes are based in neuroscience which are always true, afterall we always deal with humans and cause of neuroscience modern psychology is not purely wild guesswork.

Of course it is true that preferences of players are different, but this is just a different balancing of the same aspect the human mind can response to.

Look at games and ask yourself why people enjoy or play them and what annoys them:
I know that grind based game work cause they constantly reward the player with a feeling of success , its how or brain learns succesful behaviour if an action leads to success it reward itself strengthening the neural pathways that led you to this behaviour.
I know that 3D Shooters work partionally cause of the adrenalin, partionally
cause or brain tends to regulate the selfrewarding based on the difficulty of a task.
I know that or brain reacts to movement with attention and that this is part of the reason we like to watch animations, combined of course with deeper psychological reasons like curiosity or that our brain seems to desire to stay trained and such asks for occupation.
I know that our perception has limits and that it can cause stress if a game tries to exceeds those.
I know that our brain is best trained by getting feedback and such learning to associate things.

I do not claim I know all mechanism or that I can always estimate the borders of our perception right, but it is a fact that you can learn about the makeup of the human mind, in a way a good sense for peoples characters and behavior is nothing else then the non scientific equivalent of that.

Oh and science is sometimes also an art, like art also often uses scientific techniques, its one of our cultural problematics that we tend to seperate things so strictly loosing sight of the connections between those things.

#16 Tim Ingham-Dempster   Members   

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Posted 29 August 2009 - 11:18 PM

Discussions like this always make me think of Maslow's heirarchy. If there were a game design analogy it could be broken into three tiers. The base level would be making the game world and rules consistant. This would be things like making sure that the same set of actions always leads to the same set of consequences. The middle tier would be the things we've learned about making a game easily playable. This would be things like clear and immediate feedback for all actions. The final tier would be making the game fun, expressing the ideas you want to express and making space for the player to express themselves(if thats what you want). Obviously this could be broken down a lot more. At the base of the heirarchy just about everything can be measured and judged to be right or wrong. The top level on the other hand is highly subjective. Games which are very good at the top tier stuff but ignore the base are hard to play and hard to enjoy, games which do the bottom tier well but ignore the top tend to be playable but may be dull. At the end of the day I suppose its a balance of how much development time there is. Its also possible that improving one tier will harm another, so compromises might be necessary.

I suppose the point I'm trying to make is that in my opinion some aspects of game design are measurable and objective whereas others are not.

#17 ernow   Members   

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Posted 29 August 2009 - 11:27 PM

When I evaluate/test job applicants I don't even need 20 minutes to assess them. You see, I am not interested in the actual products they create in 20 minutes (or even a day, though I might be interested in seeing the actual code or design then). What I want to see is how the applicant approaches the problem and tries to solve it. Is there any structure to his approach? How does he handle the time constraint? Is he focussed? If so, on what?

It is like the Rorschach test; I am interested in the process not in actual outcome.

#18 ernow   Members   

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Posted 29 August 2009 - 11:33 PM

BTW: of course I need more information; I am only referring to the "have an applicant do some sort of exercise"-part of an interview.

#19 Wush   Members   

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Posted 30 August 2009 - 12:00 AM

Found an article about the topic we dicuss.
http://www.gamedev.net/reference/design/features/alchemy/

#20 MachiniMax   Members   

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Posted 30 August 2009 - 12:22 PM

I think Tim pretty much shares my sentiments on this one and the vast majority of game design textbooks out there will end up back at Maslow's Needs as well. And this is basically what I meant about the 'portals' in portal. 'Gimmick' is a word given to features of a video game that doen't need to exist for it to work; however, they are also the things which usually draw in an audience and create interest. So while they may be fluff, they are actually essential in a good game.

Portal has 'walk through walls', Spyro has 'gliding', Max Payne has 'Bullet Time', Sky Odessey has 'no enemies', Ico has 'climb on anything real puzzles', etc.

Portal could have been called 'Doorway' and been about throwing magic spells at walls to open up doorways. There might have been people out there who wanted that game to remain like the original. But obviously the designers felt the sci-fi approach was much better for everyone involved.



"Games which are very good at the top tier stuff but ignore the base are hard to play and hard to enjoy, games which do the bottom tier well but ignore the top tend to be playable but may be dull."


I think this pretty much sums up this topic. Whenever I go to a seminar where someone is talking about game design, they're usually on the recruitment path and tell the audience the industry is looking for people with 'ideas'. But that seems to me like they're looking for poeple who want to 'make' games as opposed to simply 'design' them. More prevalent, of course, with digital distribution.

I think there is commonly a much greater emphasis on the high-level stuff like gimmicks and story (ala God of War - "I have a game idea") and less on the low-level stuff that actually makes those ideas work. And yet people seem to warm more closely to a gimmick game that doesn't work well than a more generic one that does (say, Freespace). I'm observing the same thing among developers (catering for audience wants).

I honeslty believe that games in general could be a whole lot more successful (even the games which are already 'successful') if developers placed more emphasis on low-level design and either less or just as much on gimmicks; but then where back to that ballance issue and the reason I feel Portal 'made it'; smaller games constructed better than large ones will universally win.




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