Teaching Game Design

Column — by two time IGF Finalists Vlambeer

[epic_dropcap style=”dark_ball”]I[/epic_dropcap]mitating another game allows people to learn someone else’s rule set. That can be useful to establish a sort of game-rhetoric, which is a good way of learning and understanding how other people achieve their design and gameplay. Imitation, sadly, does not lead to good games. All parts of a rule set have been designed for specific problems within that specific design. By using the solutions from another design, a designer is ignoring an endless amount of more fitting and interesting possibilities. Ignoring those possibilities is one of the reasons so many games in the stores look so alike.

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Feeling is an abstract given, that should be applied in a concrete way.                     

On the other hand, this abundant ‘cut & paste’ mentality also means it’s easy to achieve innovation in games. By changing something minor in an existing design, a game quickly seems innovative. Every year, the indie scene uses this to produce thousands of monstrosities with original game design. So, analyzing game design obviously doesn’t lead to good nor interesting games. These kinds of design are solely based on imitation or avoiding imitating too closely.

The importance of  ‘feeling’ in games is the thing that analyzing design doesn’t take into account. Feeling is an abstract given, that should be applied in a concrete way.

A designer recently told us that early in his career, a client wasn’t happy with the way a certain gun ‘played’. The designer added a bit of bass to the sound effect and told the client the gameplay had been fixed. That weapon is still being fired by many around the world. The designer now works as a senior designer on Mass Effect 3.

Super Crate Box wasn’t successful because the rule set resulted in tight, intense gameplay. It was a success because of the enormous amount of detail that helps players process their actions.

This is what happens when you fire the shotgun: a few projectiles are launched and damage enemies. More importantly, however, is that what the player doesn’t necessarily notice consciously – the things the player feels: your character recoils two pixels, a loud shooting noise plays, severe screenshake and as soon as you’re able to fire again, the round is ejected from the shotgun with a soft click. Enemies that you hit turn red for a single frame and if they take enough damage, they fly backwards in an elegant arc. You could say Super Crate Box has good gameplay because shooting the shotgun feels nice.

“Your design is nice, but the game doesn’t play. Next time, make your explosions a lot bigger and add a bit of screen shake.” That’s how you teach people how to design gameplay. •

Vlambeer is a Dutch indie game studio made up of Rami Ismail and Jan Willem Nijman, bringing back arcade games. Two time IGF Finalist for Super Crate Box and Ridiculous Fishing.

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