Category Archives: game design

Ok, it’s just a theory, but hey, if you don’t come to a guys blog to hear his personal take on things…you are doing it wrong…:D. And to be fair, it’s not just mine, I don’t recall where, but I recall once reading someone make the point that if you could go back in time and remove the movie ‘aliens’ and the book ‘the lord of the rings’, you would basically eradicate modern gaming. Obviously that is a huge generalization, but I think a decent point is being made. I’ve also noticed it in personal experience, I’ve been in a design meeting where the designer has described big sweeping changes to the way the game should look, and it was obvious to absolutely everyone that he saw ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ the night before.

The problems with that is we have ALL seen Aliens and we have ALL seen The Lord Of the Rings. I’m serious in suggesting 99% of you readers have seen both. You have all seen Star Wars too.

Now there is some decent mileage in saying that you are making a game that appeals to your demographic, and that this is a sensible thing to do, and that yes, lots of people like space monsters, laser guns and orcs. The trouble is, EVERYONE ELSE is doing this too. As a result, you need to bring something else to the table if you are going to compete. The problem is, you are stuck, creatively speaking inside the prison of your own experiences.

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Game developers tend to be young, sometimes shy, introverted indoors types who can be a bit obsessive. As a result, they tend towards having knowledge and experience in depth, rather than breadth, and from a game design POV that is stifling. Game design works well (in fact I’d suggest all creativity works well) when you bring multiple influences, hopefully really diverse ones into the mix. Saying you like both Star Wars AND Star Trek does not count. I mean really diverse.

I’d never heard of Ayn Rand before Bioshock. Since then I’ve even bought a book of hers (out of curiosity, don’t hate me, I’ve read The Communist manifesto too, I’m open minded…). I really liked Bioshock (up to a point), and I think the atmosphere and story was what made it great. When I play Bioshock I feel like I’m experiencing ‘Alien’ ‘20,000 leagues under the sea’ and ‘Doom’ combined with a (to me) fairly obscure Russian philosophers writings, with a strong background in art deco. This is why it works. This is why it is cool. This is why Bioshock is not just another corridor shooter or RPG.

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Nobody who really does any proper game design thinks they are gods gift to game design. I certainly do not. But sometimes people *do* ask me for advice, and the advice I give is nothing to do with games. If you want to be a better game designer, Read a book you would never normally read. Sit through a movie you would never normally watch, Go somewhere amazing, try something weird. Build up as many experiences as you can. I’ve tried tons, from helicopter/fixed wing flying to horseriding, archery, clay-pigeon shooting, guitar & piano playing, and lost more. I’ve read a fairly bizarre range of books from War & Peace to Chuchill’s War Diaries to Kurt Vonnegut to A.S.Byatt and Naomi Klein.

Kudos (my life sim game) was inspired by a film (Donnie darko…don’t ask), Democracy inspired by a book about cybernetic chimpanzees, GSB by a book about D-Day. It’s probably hard to tell any of those connections, but there are there, and they make a difference.

Don’t stay in the geek bubble, don’t just read science fiction and fantasy, don’t just watch the blockbuster movies. There is a huge range of amazing culture out there that can act as your inspiration, stop sticking to the same few movies.

And yeah…I get the total irony of a guy making ‘Gratuitous Space Battles’ typing this stuff :D

I’m not very good at game balancing and low level design decisions (like whether gun A fires faster than gun B, or what the cost of power C is). I’m just not. I also suck at art. I have no idea what colors go with what colors. This is why my better half chooses my clothes. I’m safe with black, but beyond that, I’d end up dressed like a circus clown if left to my own decisions.

I’m good at some other stuff. I’m very good at Game Names, big-picture ideas for game themes and ‘style’. I’m very good at optimization, and good at the business/strategic/marketing side of things. The thing is, it’s taken me a while to absolutely come to terms with what I am and am not good at. I started selling games in 1997, so it took me 17 years to work this out. That means that for most indie devs out there, the chances of you having really worked this out yet are pretty fucking low.

I know one game developer who is good at big picture stuff, but very bad at mechanics and actual coding. They are awesome at marketing. I know another who is a genius at both high and low level design, but not so good at strategic biz stuff. Both are great talented people who are doing ok. Both will remain nameless :D

The big decisions and difficulties come when you think about what to do regarding the stuff you aren’t good at.

There are basically two choices: Get good at them, or outsource them. Obviously it isn’t that easy. You *can* outsource almost anything. Even big-picture stuff like game name and style/design can be outsourced. You won’t see an advert for people who do this, but there are plenty of very talented designers who would work for you as a consultant on such stuff. There is no shortage of guys in suits who will act as consultants for you on the topics of business and marketing/PR as well. When it comes to coding/art etc, the options to outsource that stuff are well known and varied.

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In the long run, you need to work out what bits of your business you do want to control and run personally, and what stuff can be left to someone else. For me, with my temperament and skills/interests, I want to control all of the business, PR and big picture design. In an ideal world I’d do all the coding too (I still do…), but I could cope with letting that go a bit one day. That means I need good artists, QA, and design people, and I’m gradually over the years building up a list of the right people for all this.

The tendency, and I’m sure many indie devs encounter this, is to pretend you can be good at everything, just given enough enthusiasm/late-nights. This is bullshit. Steve Jobs didn’t solder together Apple II components, nor did he design the iMac. He knew what he was good at, and stuck with it. At the start, when you have no money, you’ll probably need to offer revenue share to artists or PR/biz people who help you out. That’s fine. At the very start, if you are feeling adventurous, you probably (for at least one game) try and do it all yourself, for no other reason than to work out what you really do enjoy, and what you don’t. Try not to be like me, and take over a decade to work this out.

 

I had a few negative reactions (not many) to some of my early screenshots and videos of Gratuitous Space Battles 2 Screenshots like this:

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Basically people didn’t like the ship designs and colors. The colors were too gaudy, and they hated any hint of a checkerboard pattern because it makes them think of placeholder textures. This amused me, because actually the designs are based upon the artist chriss foss, who I liked as a kid. He did some really distinctive spaceship designs. Some people may dislike them, but in a world of identikit spaceships, his stood out.

So much for blocky color patterns, but the other criticisms (that the designs were not good) is more relevant, and serious. It is, of course, entirely a matter of personal opinion. For contrast, here is a few ships from GSB1:

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Some of you may prefer that. So this blog post is here to make you feel better :D.

Firstly, do you know who designed the spaceships in all the GSB2 screenshots and videos? It was ME. ME!!!!! And I don’t have much of an artistic eye, or patience, or time. The basic components are done by the talented GSB1 artist, but then my totally clueless hands have been let lose on them, using an unfinished space ship designer, so this is what comes out. In other words, people with more of a sense of style, more patience, more time, and finished editor…should turn out MUCH nicer stuff. I’m also toying with the idea of actually paying someone to design the initial enemy ships for this very reason, although I’d love to try it myself…

The thing is, I am vastly more of a fan (as a player) of stuff that lets me put my mark on it. Sim City is great, but it’s even better when you have the building design tool. One of the appeals of minecraft is surely building things. People spend a crazy amount of effort just designing their clam logos for Battlefield 4. Give the player a ‘customize’ option, and you will lose them for an hour or ten. Even spore, a game that people rapidly dismissed as bad (despite earlier promise) had a huge number of high quality creature designs. And the ultimate example of people designing awesome spaceships so far is probably galactic civilizations 2, where people have clearly spent hours and hours designing the ultimate space battleship.

Yup, we may not all be experts, but I’ll take a ship I’ve customised over a ‘stock’ ship any day. People like to stand out, they like to create, they like to ‘play’. And this is where I like to think my games often cross the line from what people call ‘games’ into toys. I have never been a fan of scripting in games, or linear experiences. We have books and movies for that. Games give us freedom, freedom to experiment, to define our own rules, to invent, or at least they could…

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FPS Design over the years…

Back when I first started gaming, a lot of games gave you a sandbox experience. It was frankly easier and cheaper than level design, and limits of file sizes mean you simply couldn’t fit 200 hours of RPG backstory onto a floppy disk. This resulted in incredible free-form strategy epics like Lords Of Midnight. I really miss those times, and that encouragement for free-form experimentation. Kids these days do not really ‘play’ games. They ‘compete’ at them, to ‘win’, or to ‘beat’ them. This feels weird to me. I’m always playing to have fun, not to go along with what a designer has decided I will do that day. In the ideal Star Trek MMO, I’d just tend a ferengi bar, but the designer no doubt wants me to go ‘questing’…

Democracy is probably the most free-form of my games so far, but they all have a hint of it in them. Kudos didn’t really have a proper ‘end’ as such. there was no boss to beat or princess to rescue. It was a toolkit, a toy, and bunch of things to play with, woven together as a functional simulation that let you play out ‘what if’ scenarios.

That’s what GSB2 is. It’s a big pretty spaceship battle toolkit for you to have fun with. If anyone complains that they’ve ‘beaten’ it, or Democracy 3, then they haven’t understood the purpose of the product. A game is not a challenge from the designer to the player, but an environment created so the player can experiment and enjoy themselves. That’s why there are customizable spaceships in GSB2. It’s not about the designer, or the artist, but about the player, and I believe in giving the player as much control as possible.

 

 

So I thought I’d put together a video showing what I’ve been doing on gratuitous space battles 2 since the Eurogamer show. I’ve also been recovering, and doing under-the-hood engine stuff and bug fixing. Enjoy… (& share/tweet post to websites etc :D)

And on the topic of developer videos.. check out the big pharma dev blog video below…

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I’m currently playing 3 games. Tropico 5, Company of heroes 2 and Battlefield 4. When I’m playing Battlefield 4 or COH2, I feel like I’m achieving more than T5. Why? Stats and achievements. I know…It’s crazy. When achievements first started, it didn’t seem like a bad thing. game designers would use them to do some fairly clever stuff. You can encourage people to replay a level 9and get more fun from it) by having a special achievement to play it a certain way. You can suggest people experiment with unloved or new and experimental game modes and styles by tying achievements to them. This is a great idea.

Also, slightly spookily, you can use achievements tot rack player progress. Some players get upset if the game tells the develop every move you make, but if it can do so as it tracks your ‘achievements’ we don’t mind. For the designer, this is awesome. You can see if everyone gets stuck on level 6, or not that the best players all use the same gun, so it may need nerfing…

The thing is, F2P designers have taught the paid gaming designers how to use achievements to encourage players to keep playing again and again and again and again… And although to a lot of people that’s no bad thing, it can have drawbacks. here is my BF4 stats overview (just 1 screen of about 50 showing my play stats).

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The thing it doesn’t point out is that I’ve put in 92 hours of time on that game. 92 HOURS. And in terms of unlocks, stats, awards, leaderboards, achievements, prizes, battlepacks, rewards, and whatever else there is, I reckon I’ve ‘unlocked’ or ‘achieved’ about 5% of it. I might suck at games, but even so, raw calcs suggest I need to spend 1,800 hours to ‘finish’ the game.

Now I get it, that’s not the point, hardly anyone unlocks everything, but there are two drawbacks here.

1) If equipment is tied to unlocks, that means 95% of your players aren’t getting the full game. I have no idea what most of the weapons are like in BF4, I haven’t unlocked them. I didn’t even get to more than 20% in BF3 before BF4 came out…

2) Some people have OCD. I have it a *little bit*. When I see those greyed out and locked items, it DOES make me want to keep playing. I cannot imagine the life of a real OCD gamer faced with screens like these.

So I guess it’s a balance, I *LOVE* achievements and stats, I’m the guy who made getting a job and romantic relationships into a stats based game. I do wonder if sometimes, the designers are just overdoing it though. The stats screens for Company of Heroes 2 are definitely designed by someone whose wife ran off with an OCD sufferer. That’s the only explanation that makes sense.

I blog a lot about advertising. If you’ve read the books I keep pimping you’d know that modern advertising is fucking scary. Don Draper isn’t around any more, they test ads using MRI scanners. The hottest jobs in big business aren’t in engineering or finance or old-fashioned marketing. They are in neuroscience and psychology. People are getting *really good* at working out human behavior and forcing us to do things without us even knowing. I find some games pretty addictive, but they haven’t even got going yet. How addictive and fine tuned will BF5 be or BF6? We have already had people collapse and die after marathon gaming sessions. I suspect that’s going to become more and more common. Sadly.