Defining Awesome — The new game design philosophy
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  • The new game design philosophy

    Written by . Posted at 7:26 am on February 19th, 2012

    The goal of the Game Designer should not be to stage the game.

    That is a goal of a theater/movie director, a choreographer or even a writer.

    Game Designers should design what the player can experience and come up with game mechanics that will allow him to do that.

    Let me give an example.
    I’m currently playing a game called Zeno Clash. There is a level where there are these huge monsters and on top of them a boss/hunter rides them. You have to shoot him off the big monster while at the same time avoiding squirrels with dynamite that he throws at you.

    The whole arena is staged. The hunter is placed on top of the monster from the start. The whole movement is scripted. You can shoot the hunter off the monster only when his health bar is depleted. The only freedom you have is how fast you shoot and kick the squirrels to avoid them exploding on you. You can’t even walk beyond what the level designer made. You have to sit at a specific place and be forced to do what someone thought was going to be fun. It is like theater not a game.

    This would be fine if it was 1982. But we have 2012! A new era must start.

    The way a game like that should be designed is for the game designer to make a checklist, of what he wants the player to experience:

    1. Battles with riding monsters
    2. Shooting each other off the monsters
    3. Exploding squirrels

    These should be as vague as possible, because you want the player to define the specific actions he wants to make. Let the player decide how he wants to kill the boss.
    So now the engineering department should make another checklist with things to code that will accomplish these experiences:

    • Mount/dismount on big monsters
    • Collisions between squirrel/monster/player/enemy/explosion
    • AI that can chase/runaway/idle/attack
    • Gravity

    Does that sound hard? It is basic stuff that anyone that has coded at least one game will have to go through. The hard part is making them all work with each other, so that the player can discover the game mechanics himself and use them as he wishes to accomplish the goal (in this case kill the boss/hunter).
    Ironically this isn’t more work than scripting the whole thing in some fancy 100,000$ game tool. But the potential is enormous. Making all the elements work with each other will allow the player to experience a level where he can jump on a monster, kickback an exploding squirrels at the boss, explode the monster with the boss on top and make him fall dead and gib in full bloody glory.

    I want to mount that monster and stomp the boss. Not  have to go through some chores that the game designer imposed on me and force me then to watch a scripted sequence that I feel I had no influence on. There is a way to do this better.

    I feel a new era is beginning. Where video games are finally starting to detach from the archaic forms of entertainment of the past. I am beginning to understand this new path and if more people making games do too, we’re gonna have some amazing games waiting for us to experience in the future.

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    1. Reactorcore

      Totally agree with you and I support this philosophy.

      I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more games that aim to present players with non-staged experiences ever increasingly, with the player making his own story within the game’s universe and not following a scripted path(s) set by the designer, since this allows the player to be much more connected with the game than any staged media ever could.

      The nasty thing about this, however, is that these kind of games require serious thought to make a very good design that works. As such, they are generally harder to make properly simply because of the enourmous time needed to make said designs.

      Unlike modern games of today, that are built by implementing a staged sequence, which is quite straight forward in design and simple to do (relatively), where as non-staged games require an opposite approach entirely and thus are far more complex to make.

      The way to build such games is by building it starting from the very basic atoms. The world elements, the entities and their attributes, rules of interaction between the two and so on. And these building blocks will ultimately enable the player to do what experiences were originally designed for the game to provide. And as a bonus, it will also provide with much more emergent experiences which makes the game even better.

      Designing all this either iteratively or by waterfall is far slower than how modern games are developed, but the strength in these non-staged games, is that are built to last and may as well be infinite and far more entertaining than any modern game is if designed to be such.

    2. I think big companies like ActiVision have just went on a huge money rush. By forcing the player to rush into a tunnel without any ability to solve problems and make decisions as they wish, they kill the fun. The campaign in MW3 is mostly about running from point A to B, while you need to shoot everyone and huge fancy effects are thrown at your face.

      There was this Survival mode tho, but it didn’t bring any big fun despite that you were technically allowed to do as you wish.
      But afterall, it was one tiny level (even if there were many of them), I had cool guns, attachments and whatnot, but the combat was just utterly boring. Level ended, go buy a gun, go around a corner, wait for the stupid AI to come, shoot everyone in the face, run to the next corner, repeat. The bosses offered some minor variety, but they were dump, it was easy to get cover, and all you had to do to win them is shoot all the weaponry on them.

      These juggernauts for an example, I was playing in a desert map and one was brought in. I was new to them and wondered what it’d do, okay, it shoots and looks terrifying. But I just went around a burning tank, it didn’t shoot me, I emptied my three clips and two grenades to it and it died. Yay, big fun.

      The maps also were very restricted, tiny areas, offering nothing but boring, linear shoot’n’run gameplay, as the enemies did. But now imagine, if it was a WHOLE WORLD, large large map, and you were able to run around in it, while constantly being chasen and having only small breaks during firefights (or long if you wished to hide (:). Moving around wouldn’t be very fast, as vehicles would be rather rare, so it shouldn’t be impossible technically either. If the player reaches the end of the map, he could just be transferred to the other side. You could climb to a high apartment house, snipe approaching enemies from there, and escape by car explosions around you, caused by the enemy tanks desperately trying to eliminate all life in the city. You could sneak and make surprise attacks, blowing up caravans and whatnot.

      And now, now imagine if this was MULTIPLAYER. Co-op gameplay against the bots in one metaserver, perhaps destructible enviroment, giving the player a FREEDOM to decide his actions. He could form a gang with other players and create a stronghold in office, or be a lone-wolfer making backstaps and big killstreaks. Say if you died, then you can respawn in some random location, possibly after a little waiting punishment. Could be in a sewer, hiding from the foes moving on the road above, could be in a huge firefight between 20 other players and AI. That’d bring in the same kind of joy of exploration and chance, as in Minecraft.

      This would be the ultimate MW3 which would really blow the cash, and surely bring back a lot of the more hardcore gamers.

      Sure one may think that it would become a whole different game, but not actually, since there would still be the fast-paced campaing and rapid multiplayer. A survival mode like this would work well as a counterweight to those, and I know it’s possible to be done, they’ve got hundreds of developers and a bugdet of millions. Also the whole destroyed Europe aspect of the game would fit well in it, the players would be rebels fighting against the intruders. This is what I want, not a boring movie trailer.

      Oh man why did they not do it.

      They are on a money rush. New game which is an already existing game with minor addons, as fast as possible, just to keep the money flowing. They do not dare to try anything creative, they’re too stuck in their money.

      Now I think indie games are going to be the shedders of light, see e.g. Minecraft. Games made by a few men, creating tons of cash will eventually make the big game companies realise: Oh man, what if we tried something new?

      I so agree with your post MM. KAG is going to be something big with this philosophy.

    3. Btw this blog needs an edit button.

    4. I like what you’re saying.

      It makes me think of Shadow of the Colossus, arguably the best game for PS2.

      Although some parts were relatively scripted (and they had to be due to technical limitations at the time), the game offered large amounts of freedom, and discovering what you can do was quite fun and immersive.

      Bottom line, I agree and hope future games push the envelope in this direction. Be more dynamic, based on general rules (of physics) rather than arbitrary made up gameplay laws.

    5. Reactorcore: To accomplish this the development model must change. It is obvious that agile/iterative is the way to go.
      It is hard but not impossible. Remember that a non-staged game doesn’t have to be perfect. That’s the beauty of it. Just like life, it can be imperfect and thus seem even more real.

      Monsteri: Activision is not gonna do that game. It will be made by some indie and it will feature some mediocre graphics but it will blow your world with fun.

      shurcooL: tried to launch it on PC with no luck :)

    6. Reactorcore

      @MM: Never said it was impossible, only that it requires lots of time to think to build a solid foundation to achieve a good level of consistency which is of great importance for games that aim to be more than a throwaway product. For games that want to last.

      One big complaint I have about pure agile/iterative development is the serious lack of consistency in the systems made with this approach. The reason I’m mad at this is that it has single handedly ruined many games for me because its not fun to play something that is inconsistent, something you can’t trust properly and thus prevent me from taking it seriously enough to be immersed in it.

      Whats really interesting is that modern big studios actually do develop their games iteratively, although not as openly to the public as indies like yourself do. They use the agile development method because its fast, cheap and it fits the whole “throwaway staged game” experience, so they can sell a bunch more cookie-cutter games than make something that will truly last and is not a one-time throwaway product, such as what KAG is aiming for (I hope).

      Two big things that are preventing many from doing games properly are 1) lack of time to sit down to make a proper, consistent design and 2) not willing to get committed to make a game that is built to last potentially forever (Since if you make an ultimate game, you’ll have hard time trying to sell anything else that is even slightly inferior).

      You can’t blame anyone for the above reasons, because you gotta do what you gotta do to survive, but as time keeps going, I expect to see more games developed in the same style as you are currently doing and it will be very popular for a time.

      But eventually, people will start getting fed up with the nasty side-effect of this development method that is the lack of consistency and the patch-work nature of agile-developed programs. Soon after, there will be a demand for more consistency among gamers (there is already, but its growing fast to the point where it will be a serious issue that people will simply stop playing games if this keeps on).

      Hopefully humanity will eventually overcome the need for money when technology is advanced enough to eliminate the lack of basic human needs so people don’t need to do shit they don’t want to simply to pay the rent, acquire food, water and what not. At that point I can see the video game industry focusing more on making non-staged games, but with enough time allocated for proper design using a hybrid development method of both the waterfall and agile/iterative when creating those games.

    7. @Reactorcore The thing is, if you make a retail game that is built to last it doesn’t promote the use of another game that will be released next year. This is why I think PC multi-player gaming with ads / fees are the way to go. You need a consistent money flow if people are going to be using your bandwidth. Obviously MM has gone the route of keeping the bandwidth to the minimum, but what if all the people that want the game has already bought it? They can’t keep putting money into a game they are not making money on. I think this is what happened with Soldat.

    8. Reactorcore

      @Mike: True, for this very reason the developer must think ahead of this to plan forward. Some of the options are, like you mentioned, subscription fees (pay every X time/usage), advertising or additional paid content (DLC) are fair and functional methods of constant income with many successful examples shown by many games.

      Its also very true when it comes to what you say about the problem Soldat has. KAG faces this very same threat as well.
      Currently people buy a discounted game with promise for the rest of the game being free. This works, for now, but its not going to last.

      It simply can’t last and eventually there will be a moment where MM is working on the game that everyone has already bought and all the extra work he does is pretty much done for free, he’ll quickly find himself asking “why am I doing this again? I’m not getting paid!”. Now, you could argue that you can work on the game out of love as a hobby, but this happens to be his primary job and you need to earn that money somewhere to survive anyway, he’ll either have to:

      a) add commercial advertising to the game
      b) break a previous promise and make future content be paid
      c) abandon KAG and make a new product

      I sound pretty grim here, but this path has a clear problem of unsustainability within it. Hopefully MM has something planned for this or KAG will face the same fate as some indie games that were promised to be more than what they turned out to be because of the failure to foresee this issue.

    9. Jamburglar

      This is exactly why roleplaying in any video game is so amazing to me. The only limit is your imagination and it’s really something I can get creative with. I wish it caught on more. I don’t understand why people prefer to play in controlled environments without much freedom as to a roleplay setting where they can do whatever their imagination allows them.
      The way you explained how games should be made, on top of roleplay, can give you an unparalleled immersion into any fantasy world. I love that KAG gives me the freedom to feel this, and when more stuff is implemented I fully intend to utilize the opportunity this game presents for a very story driven and deep game experience.

    10. What you’re talking about is called “emergent gameplay”. And I couldn’t agree more — this is the true future of game design.

      Tarn Adams and his brother design Dwarf Fortress following this principle.

      They have these things called “Power Goals” which are like miniature stories or scenarios that should be able to occur naturally in the game. Tarn then goes on to implement the gameplay elements that should allow such a scenario to *emerge* naturally.

      The big hidden benefit to this is that you also get many *other* possible scenarios that you didn’t even think of. For example, when Tarn added sewers to the game, he went exploring them and discovered that killer Hippos had appropriated the sewers as their home. This wasn’t something he programmed in specifically or had even considered, it simply emerged naturally as a consequence of how creatures are placed in the world.

      My favorite example is something that might even sound like a bug:

      I once discovered a magma pit while digging a fortress. Certain fire creatures lived in this pit and would harass any dwarf that got near the pit. So I sent my most badass dwarf to the pit to kill an Imp that was particularly dangerous. Once he killed it, since he was a hunter, he carried the corpse to the butchershop. There, the butcher chopped it up and brought the Imp’s meat to the nearby food barrels. Shortly thereafter, my entire food supply had caught on fire. Fire Imp flesh is made of *FIRE* — and so once it sat in a wood barrel long enough, the barrel burst into flame, and the fire spread — destroying my entire food supply!

      So needless to say, emergent game design makes for a much more immersive and genuine story since it is literally something that “just happens” in the game world. Think about it: the most interesting stories you hear people tell about games are how the mechanics of the game lead to novel events, not about some cut scene after a boss fight.

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