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.