Designing arcade games – a quick guide

So I was thinking about designing arcade games over a coffee earlier …

Game design is often seen as a very exact science. If you learn some “rules” you’ll suddenly be a game designer. I’ve heard and read all sorts.

“As gamers we strive for patterns and repetition.”
“As gamers our primary focus is on ‘tidying’ the screen.”
“Games should be about challenge and reward.”
“Games are at their best when they teach us something.”

The list goes on.

You know what, each is probably true but sometimes I think those in the business ( i.e. selling books ) of game design can be a little too pretentious. Such a high-brow attitude to making games can be quite a dull thing to have to pore over so I’ve knocked up what I call ( well I do now ) my short bullet list to establishing the core to an arcade game.

Here you go. See what you make of it.

  • Create a cool central idea. e.g. blast stuff to hell
  • Create a cool avatar for the player to control and protect
    • Make sure the avatar appears:
      • fun to watch
      • alive !
      • vulnerable within the game’s environment
  • Give the avatar an obvious primary action e.g. shoot, jump etc
    • Feel the action. Don’t just let a bullet lazily drift up the screen. THRASH it up the screen and let whatever is in its way know about it ! Don’t just let your avatar jump lazily up and lazily down – change the pace. Walk,BA-BOING, down again. Bend ze knees. Let the avatar look alive.
  • Create a fun control mechanism for your player’s avatar
    • Understand the target platform’s limitations – auto-firing of bullets is always an option on mobile devices
    • Play with the numbers
      • Don’t just settle for a basic jump or bullet shot. Explore the fun in a super high jump or a screen full of bullets. If it’s more fun stick with it and build your game around it.
    • Feel the fun
      • On touch screen explore the ability to “swipe” or even control the avatar with just one hand for the ultimate in casual gaming
      • On keyboards select the best key for the maximum amount of reward in player feedback. ( Is the space-bar really the best “action” key for your game ? )
  • Give your avatar something to pitch its abilities against
    • Action > Reaction > Consequence e.g. Shoot, Destroy, watch for the bonuses
      ( Mario does it best. Jump, bonk, bonus )
    • Start easy and allow the player to learn the limitations and boundaries within the game and his avatar. e.g. Small swipe = small hop, BIG swipe = BIG jump, don’t touch the edges of the road etc.
  • Consider everything to be rewardable
    • e.g. bonus items, points, the firing of a bigger laser, the ability to jump higher and farther
  • Consider everything to be a challenge, no matter how easy or difficult you perceive it to be. Note: controlling your avatar should never be a challenge
    • Scale your challenges in line with the abilities of your player’s avatar

Beyond this you are firmly in to the realms of staging and level design. I think the underlying theme for what I’m trying to convey is that the first time you implement a feature isn’t always the best way to present it. Play with it. If you’ve built your game efficiently you’ll probably have the ability to just play with numbers. Change the gravity setting from 1.0 to 0.8. See how stuff responds. So on and so forth.

As a rule I build my games to be very simple to operate. I generally imagine that all players have access to the basic arcade stick and single action button ( fire button ). In most cases however the action button is replaced by either an on-screen action trigger ( e.g. the jump pad in Danger Ranger ) or automation ( e.g. the lasers in Galactians 2 ) such that the player is left with the relatively simple exercise of controlling their on-screen avatar.

Consequently many of my game’s challenges involve player collision at their core. Either in the form of dodging on-coming enemies or collecting moving bonuses in order to better overcome on-coming enemies.

If I had to write any kind of strict rules down I’d probably opt for “everything has a score value”, “when you think it’s the most fun it could probably be, just play it a bit more”, “make dying / loss of life / turn / whatever you want to call it a visual treat and for god’s sake restart the action promptly” – watching people play arcade games I often see a tremendous amount of people abandon the game when they lose a life, “imagine the guy playing your game has just 2 coins in his pocket and he spent one of them on your game”.

Above all of course. Have fun. If it isn’t working out shelve it and go and try a different idea.

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    HTML5 Game Design and Development » Blog Archive » A couple more thoughts on designing games for mobile phones

    […] blogged some thoughts on designing arcade games in the past but I just wanted to offer a few thoughts on just a couple of aspects of designing […]

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