No Zombies, Ninjas, Pirates, Prostitutes

Advice for Design Students from a Design Student

A lot of people wonder where to get ideas for game design. Most students, it seem, use the same method: starting with narrative (I’ve got this idea about a game involving the fall of the roman empire). While these methods are certainly fine, they usually are more geared towards the creation of content over design. The fall of the roman empire is certainly a fine narrative basis for a game, but I believe it’s not because the student is thinking of what sort of mechanics (political systems, health of the populace, defending against barbarian hordes (Go Celts!)) can be used in the game but more what the visual style of the game will be. Certainly they can model all sorts of Roman Centurions, Senate Members, along with all of the various architectural elements, but what sort of game experience do you offer the player? This, I feel, is the number one overlooked aspect of game development when it comes to student design.Students seem to be under the impression that complexity equals fun. I know I’ve been guilty of this designer drug. The more complex the system is, the more fun it is for me to create.However, it is one of the biggest things you can do to make your player put your game down and walk away. Intuitive interaction should be your goal, not “Let’s make the player read 20 pages in the manual to figure out how to combine game items together”.There’s a mantra I try to make everyone I talk to at the school follow: No Zombies, No Ninjas, No Pirates, No Prostitutes. It seems that most student designers try to put one of these four stereotypes into their game. If your goal is to create a unique experience, how are you going to do that when you are releasing Zombie Shooter # 176? The best means for creating a unique game play experience is to combine two design methods: Core Design philosophy and Hunicke, LeBlanc and Zubek’s MDA approach.

Core Design Philosophy

Endorsed by Miyamoto of Nintendo God-Status, the Core Design philosophy involves the creation of a single “nugget” of game design goodness. If you look at any of the Mario Brothers game series, for instance, they have a core of “jumping”. Everything in the game involves jumping. You jump on things, into things, over things, etc. This creates a great game play experience for many reasons. First, by understanding one simple mechanic (Pressing A makes my character jump), the player is able to go through a discovery of all of the different things they can now do with this one mechanic. This allows for a minimal amount of tutorial time. By starting with a core, the designer can develop the rest of the game based all around that core. If it doesn’t use the core, then cut it (another thing students don’t seem to like doing). Get rid of it. It doesn’t go with the core.But what core should I start with? Should I take another game’s core and try to use it in a new way? Certainly. The probability of you coming up with something 100% original is very minimal, at least in your early design process. Start with something you think is a good core and try to improve upon it. What if you had zero gravity jumping in Mario? Or perhaps the world was spherical, and so jumping wasn’t a straight up and down process? This seems to be what the designers at Nintendo have implemented in the upcoming Mario Galaxy.

Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics

This leads to the second thing that students usually overlook: certain mechanics will cause the player to have a certain experience. If Mario couldn’t hop on enemies to squash them, the game play experience changes completely. Now, instead of feeling empowered over the enemies in the world, the player has to avoid them, dodging around and over them as much as possible. This is an example of the MDA concept: Mechanics lead to Dynamics which lead to Aesthetics. The Aesthetic of a game has nothing to do with the visual components in a pure design sense. It has to do with the experience that the player will have. Is the game scary? happy? silly? All of these come from the mechanics of the game.So, say the student wants to make a game about the fall of the Roman Empire. Does the player need to feel a sense of impending doom? What mechanics can be placed in the game for the player to feel this? Even if we visually create the world with this in mind (dirty, unkempt populace, broken and destroyed buildings, dark and ominous music), if the player has complete control of the world and nothing goes wrong, then the game will be a failure at instilling the aesthetic. A mechanic in which the player has no control over certain elements, and those elements are always a negative (senate members being assassinated or corrupted easily, things that decrease the populations belief in their government) then their will be a much greater effect on the gaming experience than any visual element will.In the end, I think something that most students forget is that games are an interactive medium. Unlike film, television or stage, gaming involves creating a connection between the player and the world in which their avatar exist. Without this connection, the player is simply an observer. Of course, in the world of an observer, visual style is a major factor in creating the experience. But in the world of a participant, it is only part of the gestalt.


13 Responses to No Zombies, Ninjas, Pirates, Prostitutes

  1. Taco! says:

    The game prototype I submitted for Entelechy 2007 was based on the idea of forcing the player to adapt if they want to win… Although, technically, there was not winning condition, it was more like “How many points can you get”.

    Illbred (better known against my liking as “Taco Tactics”) had a different approach; I took my favorite type of game–turn based RPGs–and tried to do away with what I hated about them (level crunching to win). Some fun systems were developed for that. Even today, the mechanics of it are still evolving in my head.

    Like you said, there are many ways to come up with a game idea other than zombie, pirate, ninja, prostitute theory. My favorite is considering mechanics and dynamics that make the game stand out a little and more interesting to play and refining it to make it fun 🙂

  2. gmunster says:

    I really enjoyed your post. I think its nice to have an upper class student giving advice, especially since I’m JUST starting my game development major. This quarter I took Intro to Game Development with Brenda, so I really am at the beginning. I recently created my own blog to discuss what I think of games, genres, learning, and more. I’ve linked you on my blog.

    – Gabrielle Munster – Game Development Major ’10

  3. Harrison Pink says:

    There’s a kid in the ITGM Major I call Zombie Shooter. See if you can figure out who it is!

    Protip: He’s also known as C-

  4. Brian says:

    I find I start with a topic, which depending on how broadly you define ‘narrative’ could be considered one. You sort of do in the example above about the fall of the roman empire.

    However, that said, where it goes from there depends.
    I would say that although sometimes I explore an idea from a writer’s perspective, much of the time I explore one from the mechanics side.

    For example, my desire to make a game out of my experiences as a DJ, and make a “DJ simulator game” of sorts. That takes a series of events from my life (narratives) but makes game mechanics out of them. The game itself has no planned narratives whatsoever, outside of the implicit narrative that people make up in their heads whenever they’re presented with any string of events. In any case, nothing I’d write.
    For me, that game is all about its mechanics, despite the fact that I’m basing it on a narrative.

    Actually, I remember your critique of that idea of mine, that feedback would be too slow. A critique which I never had the opportunity to rebuttle. I should debate with you on it sometime. ;p

  5. jeffmcnab says:

    Yes, I can see what you are saying. But your narrative of “DJ simulator game” would be, in my opinion, the core of the game. Anything in the game that doesn’t relate to that core should get cut. Remember doing that between alpha and beta of AE?

    Look at Guitar Hero, for instance. The core of the game wasn’t “push buttons and strum to reproduce a song”, but “be a rock star”. While the “pushing buttons” is the core mechanic, it isn’t the core of the game. There’s a subtle difference, one that you bring up with this comment.

    Debate? Bring it.

  6. Brian says:

    I see. So what you’re saying is that in your observations most students don’t even consider what the core experience of the game is?

    I’m trying to mentally grapple with whether or not I’d say that statement is true, from my observations…

  7. jeffmcnab says:

    I don’t mean that they don’t even consider it, I mean that they don’t consider it when they start. They usually start with narrative instead of game experience. The other thing is that even if they start with it, they don’t revisit it once the project is in the middle. They continue to add features at the expense of game play, forgetting that all features need to relate back to the core.

  8. Brian says:

    So, then, would you agree that the “no zombies, ninjas, pirates, etc.” rule is merely a guideline to consider mechanics over narrative?

    Because “zombies” is more of an aesthetic choice more than anything else. Not really a genre, and definitely not a game mechanic.
    It’s reasonable, then, in my mind, that someone could make a completely and wildly innovative game based on zombies.

    I had an example, but it was taking too long to write up, so perhaps I’ll discuss that later as well.

  9. Brian says:

    I guess, to summarize perhaps more clearly – is it the topic alone that makes a zombie/pirate/ninja related game too cliche to consider, or is it merely the level of innovation of what is done with that topic?

    Like, okay, I can see how a student making a zombie shooter is a problem. It’s old hat, and the zombie shooter would compete with the other student zombie shooters just like it.
    But how does a zombie business sim compare to those zombie shooters?
    And preferably if it was done in a way that wasn’t just tacking zombies on arbitrarily, but were somehow deeply ingrained into the game’s design, in a way that really worked? Its unique use of zombies would make it stand out, rather than blend in.
    Isn’t turning a cliche on its head (or at least twisting it) usually considered something to aspire to?

    Robots as an aesthetic were pretty integrated with the design of AE that it’d be difficult to remove any robots and keep the game the same. Robots just mesh well with the concept of ripping modular components off an enemy and using it as your own. Not that I can’t imagine, say, zombies using the same mechanics (albeit far more grotesquely), and well, trying to imagine ninja or pirate versions starts to get silly. Robots just worked the most naturally.
    So, I don’t mean to imply that these pirate/ninja/whatever cliches don’t influence mechanics.
    But that doesn’t mean they have to influence them in the ways people would expect.
    Frankly, a zombie business sim, if I could even think of how that would work, would be a lot more innovative with zombies than AE was with robots. And AE was highly rated for its innovation over the others, as I recall. The vast body of science fiction literature about robots would most likely have to disagree. I’ve heard of robots assembling themselves out of other robot parts. But in a game? Less so.

    Really, it seems similar to me with what happens with game genres (FPS, RPG, etc.) Which is I suppose why those were so heavily featured in my examples above.
    Designers need to balance the familiarity bonus of such things with the innovation needed to make their particular iteration on the theme stand out and blow the others away.

  10. jeffmcnab says:

    I understand what you are saying, Brian, and starting off with an idea based off of the trying to do something against the standard grain of Zombie/Ninja/etc is innovative. What I was merely saying is that the mechanics involved with the “standard” Zombie game, Ninja game, etc has been pretty much done to death (no pun intended). Students who start out by thinking about narrative alone usually don’t create innovative game mechanics unless the narrative is also innovative. Again, this is all from my observations.

    With AE, we didn’t start with the narrative, if you remember correctly. We started with the core: evolution of robots. We didn’t start with the entire back story, just that one aspect. In fact, if you remember, it took us quite some time to actually develop an entire narrative and their were many iterations on just it, let alone the game mechanics.

    Even in your example, you are starting with the core of the game: a zombie business sim. You didn’t start with the narrative. You didn’t develop an entire back story as to why their is a company making zombies or if the company is run by zombies or whatever. You started with your single concept of ZBS (a new genre?). Now to make this game, you would start going through the MDA process, seeing what mechanics you could put into the game to create the aesthetic of ZBS, or what you want the aesthetic of ZBS to be. And if anything doesn’t fit, you would cut it. This is a “good” model of game design, which usually brings about “good” results.

    Now, let’s say that you started with your ZBS narrative. A large corporation has created a drug that turns people into zombies. You run that corporation. That doesn’t sound like a ZBS to me. More of a business sim that just happens to have zombies. I could probably take out “zombies” and replace with “cigarettes” or “black tar heroine” or anything that could be seen as extremely damaging to the world’s population. The problems that the company would have to go through could be modeled the same.

    The core brings innovation to games, since games are about creating an experience. Innovative narrative doesn’t always mean innovative game design. In fact, narrative isn’t even NEEDED for games to be innovative. Look at Tetris.

    This answer turned into a long one also.

  11. Brian says:

    A simple answer would have been “Yes” to my question of “So, then, would you agree that the “no zombies, ninjas, pirates, etc.” rule is merely a guideline to consider mechanics over narrative?” 😉

  12. ai864 says:

    Technically, the five stereotypical components of games are Zombies, Ninjas, Pirates, Robots and Monkeys. Sheesh, doesn’t Brenda teach you people anything? 😉

    As for the “core”, I remember having a similar discussion awhile ago; nowadays I’m careful to specify “core mechanics” (push buttons in time with music) and “core aesthetics” (be a rock star). Both could be said to be “core” but with very different meanings.

  13. bbrathwaite says:

    I did forget about monkeys. I guess I haven’t seen enough monkey games to warrant a warning.

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