Here are some more takeaways Eric brought home from the Game Developer’s Conference early in March. This time from the session “Rules of the Game: Five Tricks of Highly Effective Game Designers”
The first non-bootcamp session I attended at GDC involved five game designers going over a trick they’ve each used to help improve their game’s design. With less than an hour and five speakers, none of them were able to go into the kind of depth I’m sure they wanted, but there were a few good takeaways. And the talks were the slowly percolating kind, where little bits and pieces have continued to pop into my consciousness over the two weeks since hearing them – a trend I’m sure will continue for the next few months, maybe even years.
The first speaker, Laralyn McWilliams (Full Spectrum Warrior and Free Realms) focused on the value of making an emotional connection with players. Most of us have different things we’re after: ownership, social status, individuality, escapism, information, skill, relationships, progress, so Laralyn’s idea was to consider the needs your game is serving and focus on ways to hook into those needs. The example she used from Full Spectrum Warrior involved reinforcing the emotional attachment to keeping squadmates alive by giving them names and unique voices, as well as adding a healing sequence rather than a game over sequence when they died to make the player’s game goal (get them patched up) coincide with the desired emotional connection. Although that was a straightforward example, a more interesting example came from her work on Free Realms and discovering how the leveling system didn’t seem to coincide with the way players were using the game. Players were using it as a social tool to interact with their friends, while the game component focused on solo gameplay activities. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and had they known that ahead of time, they would’ve tried to focus on gameplay mechanics that reinforced the social aspect.
Over the past two weeks, Laralyn’s talk has been sinking into my thinking in a deep, meaningful way. When I consider the games I’ve played over the years that really stick with me (the kind I don’t forget two weeks after playing them), there are two types: 1) games I played when I was young 2) games that produced in me a feeling I’ve never had with a game before. Games that stick with me for the first reason are obvious (I didn’t have enough gaming experience to know what was “good” or “bad”, “exciting” or “boring”), and we can’t control for how old someone is when they play a game, so that reason might not be that useful to consider. The second reason, however, opens the lid on an insight into making powerful games.
When making a game, every day brings news ideas along with problems, and, if you’re working with or involving others, challenges to your ideas. When designing a game around a cool concept or a gimmick, it’s easy to waver on what’s right or wrong. After all, if someone plays the game and says it’s not fun or not working, they could be right. But as you continue to accept outside input and make changes, something happens along the way to water down your original vision. The resulting games, even if they were made “funner” than they started out, often end up feeling weak and forgettable. That’s not to say that merely being stubborn is an effective strategy, but bending too easily can be just as bad for the game.
Dean Wesley Smith is a Science Fiction author who touches a bit on the topic when it comes to writing, and his words have been burrowing their way into my consciousness for the past few months as well. He recommends, contrary to most advice, to do the minimal amount of editing possible (just enough to fix the mistakes) to your story before sending it out to be published. To anyone who has been fed on a diet of author interviews or how-to-write books, that advice feels like a punch to the gut. But it’s true. The longer an author of any works fiddles with it, takes advice, rethinks things, edits out the embarrassing parts, etc. the more polished the work is, but the less meaningful it becomes. As human beings, it’s our weak moments, our sudden flurries of passion that make us unique, not the smiling, shiny exteriors. And the more game development projects I’ve been on, the more Dean and Laralyn’s advice resonates with me.
Something seems to fall apart during most of those projects. People seem to stop caring and begin to see the project as work. Sometimes even the director would rather whip out the iPad than hear what’s going on in the meeting, and it grows worse over time. Passion is difficult to maintain over a span (and especially difficult to maintain in large groups), and I think it’s why the indie scene is blasting to center stage.
With smaller projects, shorter development times, and fewer voices, authors might be making rougher experiences, but they’re making passionate experiences that resonate with gamers who have grown tired of factory-produced games. Of course, the risk with resonance is that, for something to resonate deeply with some people, it’s going to turn off others. That’s the nature of a strong message. Almost nothing worthwhile appeals to everyone. (Consider the many books that were considered rubbish in their day and how they’ve become our classics.)
But, assuming we as game designers don’t want to make a rough experience, how can we keep a project on track over the long haul? By taking a hint from Laralyn and identifying the emotional goal. If we’re making God of War, the goal shouldn’t be: “make the blades of chaos feel cool” because that falls apart the moment you discover they aren’t cool, or marketing says that people don’t like blades or chaos. But if your goal is: “make the player feel like such a bad*** they can take on the gods themselves” then you can filter every problem, every concern, every marketing note through the lens: “Would this change make the player feel more like that bad*** or less like that bad***? and make decisions based on that. One core emotional goal can keep the director on track and can be easily conveyed to everyone involved in the project. It can be conveyed to marketing. It can sometimes even be used in the marketing.
If the project succeeds at touching that emotion, it results in a memorable experience for gamers. Laralyn mentioned the value of making an emotional connection with players, and I’m beginning to see how powerful that statement is. (Note an emotional connection doesn’t always have to rely on basic emotions like happy, sad, or angry, it can also be something as simple as wanting to explore. For anyone who has a fond place in their heart for Zelda, you understand how powerful that emotional connection is.)
After Laralyn finished, Chris Avellone (creator of my favorite story game, Planescape: Torment) discussed finding inspiration in everything, including the things people don’t necessarily like. He stressed that even a straight-to-DVD B-movie can become a rich source of inspiration, and, because no one else is using it, it has a better chance of feeling fresh than trotting out, say, Aliens or Blade Runner for inspiration.
Chris is on the money, though I have no doubt that he is also aware of how major cultural touchstones can help a game connect with a larger audience. How much to keep common and how much to make fresh will always be a difficult balance to strike for any entertainment medium, but because the default tendency is to go for the easy connections, his points do help focus on the need for keeping things fresh, and consuming even single-digit Rotten Tomatoes rated material can be a source of inspiration. (For any of you who are watching the Blue Tengu animations, you’re already well aware I like diving deep into the obscure.)
Dan Teasdale (Destroy All Humans, Gunstringer) went into a more specific and calculated way to improve games that made the clearest takeaway from the talk. He focused on the number “3”, and how the human mind has an easy time sorting data grouped in 3s. (Nintendo are also well aware of the principle with Zelda boss fights, etc.) The other way I’ve heard the value of 3s mentioned before is that 3s feel “complete”.
However, Dan cautioned that it’s not always best to stick to 3s; there are some occasions when it’s better not to. His example was the list of challenge missions in his game. When grouped by threes, it didn’t feel like there were enough of them, but when he grouped it in fours, creating an unbalanced visual leftover at the end, the disharmony made it feel like there were more missions. The game had the same total number of missions, but the visual layout produced a completely different sensation. A lot of talks tend to focus on the touchy-feely sides of game development, but the examples he used and the reliance on numbers was a clear and useful takeaway.
Kim McAuliffe (Sims 2 DS), the designer responsible for cow tipping in Sims, gave the tip that you should fight for the little things (such as cow tipping). Not too far from what Chris was talking about in his talk, she stressed that sometimes it’s the little touches not everyone appreciates that make all the difference (even if it’s the little touches that everyone is so quick to throw out), so they’re worth fighting for.
With cow tipping, because it was such a specific feature deep in the system, the people who discovered it were thrilled to have discovered it; they were so thrilled they shared their experience with others. In other words, a minor feature became a talking point – something to make the people who found it feel special and to give them something to tell their friends, who might later play the games themselves.
Kim’s idea meshes with part of a talk given by Cliffy B (Gears of War) back in 2011, where he mentioned the genius of the Red Dead horse glitch and mentioned that clever designers should make sure their game is loaded with those kind of glitches because it’s those kind of things, the ones that don’t end up on the back of the box or in the promotional materials, that drive players to want to share content. When people discover something out of place, they want to share that thing, and that thing goes viral.
Although the five designers didn’t have enough time to go deep into what they think are effective game design tricks, the little they did share made powerful seeds for shaping future thinking, so I’m glad I could attend the session and hope I gave you a taste of the tricks they were trying to convey.