Game Design Theory – Goals, Consistency and Controls

I love this article on Game Design Theory written several years ago for the book Atari Graphics and Arcade Game Design. Everything about it I find compelling and valuable in terms of considering the player and his requirements as a gamer. It goes in to detail about the benefits of well defined and above all fun challenges. It even touches on the player’s ego and its relevance to the broader game experience.

Naturally it was written at a time when arcades were king and home computing was still very much on the back foot. In fact the whole point of the article is how we as designers can capture the thrills of the arcade for the home gaming audience. It really is a perfect chapter for someone like me with a retro fascination in arcade gaming and a future that is very much about designing arcade thrills for mobile phones.

I’ve written about this several times before but I do believe there is a link between designing for the arcades of 25 – 30 years ago and designing for today’s casual mobile experience.
So let me pull just a couple of sections out of the article and try to make sense of them.

For a game to be considered challenging, it should have a goal where the outcome is uncertain. If the player is certain to reach the goal or certain not to reach it, the game is unlikely to present a challenge, and the player will lose interest. It is very easy to introduce randomness into the game either by hiding important information or by introducing random variables that draw the player toward disaster. Be careful not to overdo this, since a totally random game lacks a skill factor. Players quickly discover that they have no control over the outcome.

How many times have you played a game and quickly lost interest because you are just not challenged ? I see evidence of this quite a lot and have myself fallen foul of it. ( My Dragons game needs a better challenge, for example. It’s something that I aim to address at some point. )
The point about randomness is of course totally valid. As designers we probably rely on the randomisation of events a little too much.

A clear structure to your game with a well defined but out of reach goal is a great starting point for any design. Look at PacMan as an example. A maze full of dots and an animated mouth is a very clear instruction to the player of what she should achieve but is still quite clearly a) a big task and b) tricky.

 

pacman

Pac-Man

One of the more important design elements in any game is a logical set of rules. The rules can be extremely simple or utterly complex, but they must make sense. Since the game must follow its theme, any rules or variations should stem directly from that theme. It is pointless to throw in game elements that simply don’t belong just because you think that confusing the player would make the game more difficult. For instance, Donkey Kong, one of the best jumping, climbing arcade games, doesn’t require the player to shoot everything in sight, just avoid obstacles to reach the goal. Similarly, a tough, shoot-’em-up game like Galaxian keeps its fluid alien attack uncluttered by distracting game elements.

 

Donkey Kong

Donkey Kong

I suppose this is straight forward.
Whatever you define as your challenge for the player to overcome it should make logical sense. You really cannot afford to switch the rules of controlling the game, for example, just to add complexity. It doesn’t do that at all it just confuses and irritates the player.I have myself learned this lesson the hard way.
That said a game’s design that I was always proud of was Wizard Wars. It was consistent in its execution and extremely simple to pick up. Just tap the screen to move the Wizard and collect the shiny things whilst avoiding the nasty things.

The ideal arcade game should foster the illusion of winnability at all levels of play. One important factor is a clean and simple game design. Too much detail or too many rules may intimidate the player. If a player believes that his failure was caused by a flaw in an overly complex game or by the controls, he will consider the game unfair and quit. On the other hand, if a player perceives failure to be attributed to correctable errors on his part, then he believes the game to be winnable and will play repeatedly to master the game. It’s as if the player teases himself to play one more time.

In modern gaming this is epitomised by the game Angry Birds. Love it or hate it it is an immediately accessible game and one that we all feel that we can conquer with just one more “go”.  I mean what could be more simple than pulling the elastic on a catapult and aiming your bird to arc its way in to a fragile structure.

 

Angry Birds screenshot

Angry Birds

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that the controls are so simple that the player won’t ever attribute his failure to a problem with complex controls he will always assume that his aim or power was incorrect. Ludicrously simple to learn and yet extremely difficult to master. At least in one sitting.

These are just three of the numerous things that jumped out at me from the chapter.
There is a lot to take in within the chapter and I implore anyone with an interest in arcade game design to study it.

So what have I learned ? Here is just a short summary.

  • Define your goals well and make sure they are clearly visible to the player. Consider Pac-Man and how visible and obvious its challenges and goals are.
  • Be consistent. Be logical. Again consider Pac-Man and its very obvious and visible rules and restrictions. There can be no confusion. Your avatar is a chomping mouth. The maze is littered with dots to eat. The ghosts are coming for you. Surely that’s not fair ? What do the flashing dots do … ?
  • Make your controls simple and fool proof such that the player won’t ever confuse them with his inability to conquer the challenge. Consider Angry Birds. Simplicity is key. I’m sure there is further scope for analysing the balance between minimal input from the player in return for maximum chaos on the screen. A truly masterful game experience.

I really don’t wish to sound like someone who is obsessed with a formulaic approach to something that should be really quite natural. But I do believe that as designers we do well to learn from the experiences of the masters of arcade game design. These guys had nothing compared to modern gaming environments. Sometimes having very little forces some great innovation.

One Comment

    benny!

    Great post!

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