Despite what is commonly thought, not everyone who works in video games is a programmer. If you were to count all the roles required to make an AAA video game, fewer than 20% of them spend any time programming computers. Concept Artists, Level Designers, Music Composers and Sound Effect editors are all integral to the creation of any video game and all of them bring a diverse set of skills to game production.
The role you are taking on for this video game is the role of a producer. Your job is to communicate with all the people developing your game and make sure they share the same vision. This is a task that is often far more complex than programming.
These two very basic concepts are at the centre of all game design. And they are the first step in communicating your game idea to others.
You can see this basic conflict between goals and obstacles in almost any video game.
The player’s goal is to score points by completing lines, while the blocks fall faster with every level, making it more and more difficult to place pieces correctly and complete lines.
Super Mario Bros:
The player’s goal is to reach and rescue a princess, while being attacked by marauding bands of mushrooms, turtles, and other enemies that can kill Mario and cause the player to lose progress.
The player’s goal is to score points by successfully completing songs, while playing the wrong notes will make the crowd angry and cause the player to fail the song.
These two simple concepts give everyone a goal to work towards and a foundation to support the game. But keep in mind that there is quite a bit of flexibility on these points.
Minecraft is a game in which players gather resources from the environment and build shelters to protect themselves from the skeletons and other monsters that roam the world every night. However, the reward of this game is not simply surviving the night, but the sense of accomplishment that comes from creation. Minecraft has an ending, and even a final boss, but the key that has made the game so popular is the enjoyment players find in building and exploration - in creating their own worlds.
The player doesn’t always need a concrete goal, like a princess in need of rescuing, or an end game. Your game doesn’t need a win screen or even a loss screen. But you must reward the player when they accomplish something, and a penalty for failure makes the reward more meaningful. The penalty might be forcing the player to start over at the beginning of the level, or some other loss of progress. Overcoming an obstacle that was once seen as difficult or impossible is one of the most pure feelings of satisfaction you can find, and it is this sense of progression that is behind the success of most games.
Now that we’ve got a rough idea of what the game is going to be about, we have to focus on what the game is going to look like. What you should be focusing on is less what will be shown and more how it will be shown. Every producer wants their game to look amazing, but it’s the artist’s job to make it that way. The producer’s job is to communicate how the game world will be presented so the artist can work on making it beautiful.
There are multiple ways to show your world. In early video games you were constrained to one perspective. The most common in this time period was presenting the world from a side-view. Side-scrollers like Super Mario Bros., Metroid, and Lemmings were all games that used this method to show their world. Side-scrollers are a good point of view on the game world when you need a player to be able to jump from platform to platform and to directly confront an enemy up close and personal.
There is also a top down view, where the viewer looks down on the world from above. Bomberman, Final Fantasy, and Zelda, were all games that used this method to show their world. Top down views are excellent when you have a large world to explore. Because the player is free to move in four directions (north, south, east, and west), it is easy to create an expansive world for the player to explore. However, because the player is looking straight down it becomes far more difficult to create a sense of depth.
An isometric view is an altered top down view, or a cross between a side-scroller and top down. In an isometric game, the world is viewed at an angle from above. This allows the player to move in all six directions but also creates a greater sense of depth in the world. Elements don’t need to be as highly stylized as in a top down world but you have to be worried about the player moving behind objects. Q*bert, Diablo, and Fallout all used this perspective in their game design.
All of these styles predate the work of John Carmack. As a lead programmer on games such as Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake, he was instrumental in the creation of true 3D game worlds. All of these games are known as first person games and feature a virtual world seen through the player’s eyes. And while this style is most often associated with first person shooters such as Call of Duty and Battlefield, it has been used for puzzle games like Portal, and adventure games like Skyrim. First person views are excellent when your really want to immerse the player in a world, and when the player needs to focus and point and shoot something.
Building upon John Carmack’s work, many designers wanted the player to control a visible character that moved through a 3D world. This is called a third person view. Instead of seeing the world through the eyes of the character, there is camera placed behind the character that follows the player. Super Mario 64 popularized this style of game play, but you can see it used in modern games such as Assassin’s Creed, Gears of War, and Uncharted. Third person is ideal when the player has to see the character’s body in the world. This is the style for you if you need the player to jump from block to block, or you want the player to be able to follow the character’s movements as it dodges or attacks.
Now the five designs I just explained are just scratching the surface of what is possible for video game designs. There are uncountable numbers of different design possibilities. However, when you are describing something that doesn’t fall under these five design schemes, it’s best to reference something in the real world. Hearthstone is a game of warriors and monsters fighting each other, but it’s depicted as a card game. Papers, Please is a simulation of a border patrol guard and the game world is half side-scroller and half a top down view of desk space. As a producer your objective is not to create the design but explain what you want. The easiest way to do that is to simply point the designer to something they are already familiar with, and move on from there.
Controls are the way the player interacts with the world. A good control scheme can make a game and a bad control scheme can ruin what could otherwise be an excellent game. Since we are designing for the computer, we can assume that the majority of the audience for the game will have a mouse and keyboard. However, since computers can also have additional input devices such as microphones, control pads, or touch pads, you may want to consider utilizing these features. Normally video games companies would focus on getting the largest audience possible, but since TFYC is so focused on originality in game design, giving your game a unique control scheme might make your submission stand out.
The key thing you should always look to when designing controls is what we covered in the very first lesson - what is the player trying to accomplish and what is stopping the player from accomplishing his goals? Unless part of the fun of your game is how difficult it is to accomplish simple things, your controls should not be one of the obstacles. Having deliberately difficult controls can actually be very engaging for players, and several very entertaining games have been built around difficult control schemes. But if you want the player to feel powerful and in control, the control scheme should be as simple and as intuitive as possible.
Buttons are excellent for moving a character. They give what we call a digital input; they are ether ON or OFF. The player can stop moving with the lift of a finger or start moving again instantly. The keyboard has over 40 buttons, literally at the player’s fingertips, all of which can be put to whatever use you desire. When you need the player to have the ability to change direction in a second or when you need the user to have a large set of possible actions, this is the control surface for you.
Mice are a bit different. It’s actually quite difficult for the average person to move the mouse in a completely straight line. The mouse does give people the ability to switch between coarse or fine control at a moment’s notice - this is why the mouse is ideal for first person shooters and other games requiring quick reflexes. But a mouse only has three buttons compared to, say, a PS3 controller’s 10, and it occupies a hand that could otherwise be pushing more buttons on a keyboard. If you can simplify your game, and create a clean design, then this is one of the most approachable and rewarding interfaces.
That being said please don’t feel constrained. If your game were about playing as the Big Bad Wolf in the story of the Three Little Pigs, a microphone could be an excellent way to capture the experience of blowing down a house. Or, if your game were about simulating the experience of a lawyer, being able to scream out “Objection!” could be fun touch of realism. There are already games designed around singing, and speaking, but keep in mind that not everyone playing your game will have the perfect pitch required to give a Grammy-winning performance, and not everyone is comfortable making a fool of themselves.
You are in control and you are the designer and what we described is just scratching the surface. There are literally thousands of cheap peripherals that are just begging for use in video games. Remember, for the purposes of this contest we are placing a high value on originality, and there is nothing more original than something that has never been done before.
Using a Touchscreen or designing for one would allow your game to be ported to Android and iOS – a rich market, but one with incredible levels of competition. The choice is up to you. Just remember that controls should always aid game play, never define them, and the PC is the main platform you should be designing for.
Ironically, difficulty level is one of the hardest things to balance when designing a game. Make a game too easy and the player won’t feel that they’ve accomplished anything by completing it. Make a game too difficult and the player will be discouraged and not spend the time to actually complete it. What makes this process even more difficult is that every player has a different level of skill. What might be difficult or impossible for one player might be child’s play for another.
The difficulty of a game affects its audience. As they gain experience, players develop metagame skills that help make other games easier. These are skills that are transferable from one game to another, like reflexes, motor control, and a “game sense” that allows the player to understand what the creator had intended for them to see or do. The industry terms for the different skill levels of gamers are “casual” and “competitive.”
What a game designer has to focus on is the rate at which the difficulty will increase over time. It’s fine if the first few levels of a game are extremely easy. Super Meat Boy, a game renowned for it’s difficulty, has a first level where it is literally impossible to die. In Lemmings, the first eight levels of the game are extremely easy, with each level introducing a new ability the player must use in order to move on. These levels serve to teach the player how to play the game, by forcing them to learn abilities one at a time.
Games aimed at casual players tend to have a long learning period. This allows players that don’t have the necessary skills to slowly learn them, and gives the player a large number of levels to complete without getting frustrated by the difficulty. Many mobile games, like Candy Crush Saga, use this gentle learning curve to great effect; once the game becomes difficult enough to be discouraging, players are already hooked.
Games aimed at competitive players tend to do the opposite. They throw the player into the thick of it early. A game like Dark Souls expects the player to experiment with solutions to a problem, or to go online to look for solutions when the difficulty seems insurmountable. Competitive players are not easily discouraged by failure, as long as they feel that the failure was their fault and they could do better next time.
The key reason for this difference has less to do with the skill of each individual group of players, and more with how much time players are expected to devote to the game. Competitive players will keep coming back to the same game, day after day or month after month until they have mastered it. They will actively research online, and learn from other players how to best play the game. A competitive player is looking to learn tricks outside the realm of normal gameplay, because a competitive player is not only competing against the computer but other players - either directly, if the game is multiplayer, or to get the highest score among his friends and family.
Casual players tend to play a game for brief periods, which is why so many iOS and Android games are aimed at casual players – it gives people something to do while they are on the bus or waiting in line. However, games aimed at a casual audience don’t always have to be easy; in fact some are very difficult. Tetris is a game that almost anyone can start playing and enjoy, but it takes skill and experience to play effectively at the highest level of difficulty. The same can arguably be said for Bejeweled, Peggle or even Candy Crush Saga. You can always make a game more difficult - the key is to raise the difficulty at such a rate that players will always feel that their skills are appropriately matched to the difficulty. The way that you accomplish this feat is up to you.