Month: January 2014

Goals

In my previous post ‘Decisions, decisions‘, I talked about… decisions, and how important they are are to a game.  But thats a bit like saying “The most important thing about wine is what it tastes like”.  Yes, thank you, Sherlock Holmes, but how do I make it taste good?  What factors affect the taste?

One of the most important contexts for making a decision is in pursuit of a goal.  Once a player commits to attaining a goal they will eagerly play your little game to achieve that outcome.  It’s a ‘human’ thing, I suppose.  Anyone who has played Civilization can attest to the siren song of ‘I’ll just keep playing until I…” Build that thing.  Conquer that city.  Discover that stuff.  And the fiendish game keeps tempting you with new goals before you have managed to complete your current ones, and suddenly it’s three o’clock in the morning.

As with decisions, balance is key for goals.  It must be the decisions the player makes that are the biggest factor in whether or not they achieve their goal.  If the goal is too easy, or too hard, or too random, then the decisions the player makes won’t matter, and you will be cursed for your “stupid game”.

And again, its best that the goals be consequential within the context of the game.  Sure, players might have all sorts of reasons for setting a goal that doesn’t have consequences within the game itself — one example is the concept of a score.  Getting a high score is a valid goal and can drive some players.  They get to be at the top of the score table.  Not only did they beat a game, but the score gives a quantifiable measure of how well they beat it.  But its not as good a goal as the consequential type that Civilization is littered with:  if I build that farmer, then I can grow my population.  If I conquer that port city, then my coast will be safe from raids.  These types of goals are more likely to keep you up until 3am than trying to beat the current high score.  Spelunky is a brilliant game.  In Spelunky, the money you exit the cave with is your score, yet money is useful for buying things that help you exit the cave.

Which brings us to the most delicious decision of all – choosing between mutually exclusive goals.  In story-telling, that is the seed of all drama.  If you can consistently offer your player mutually-exclusive, consequential goals, then you have hit game-design gold.  Do I spend these resources on building farmers to get more population or on military units to protect my coast from raids?  Purest gold.

So maybe goals are the most important factor in game design?  No.  Only insofar as they provide a context for players to make decisions.  Goals can be achieved in a mindless, un-fun fashion.  Want that shiny new magic sword?  You can grind for pennies a throw until you save up enough to buy it.  Goals are powerful enough that players will do that sort of thing.   It is far better to offer a way to get the sword that involves consequential decision making on the part of the player.  Or in other words – fun.  Imagine an RPG that didn’t have money.  You couldn’t grind to save up to buy a shiny new sword from an impersonal shop.  You could only get stuff by performing quests, or taking or trading it from someone who already had it.

In summary, another weapon in your game’s arsenal is laying out “goal mines” for the player to step on or avoid.  Consistently offer your player the choice between mutually-exclusive, consequential goals.

Decisions, decisions

Hi, and welcome to my first post for the Armpit Games blog.

Here I will talk about game design in general, and the things I learn by developing and publishing Dungeon Bash – a mobile game I am currently working on.

DECISIONS, DECISIONS, DECISIONS….  imagine Im having a Steve Balmer-like rant (but less sweaty).

The significant decisions your game offers the player are the most important factor in game design.  Of any type of game – tabletop, computer, or otherwise.  I imagine a game as being a cannon constantly firing a stream of decisions at the player.  When the rate of decisions slows, or the decisions become meaningless, then the fun stops.

By ‘significant’ decisions I mean those that have an impact on how the game plays out.  Whether it involves success at ‘solving’ the game, or the direction of the narrative, or achieving certain goals, or just plain survival.  This is the reason ‘game balance’ in conflict-type games is so important.  If the game is too easy, or too hard, no matter what decision the player makes, it wont affect the outcome.  They will win or lose no matter what choice they make.

So the best place to start when analyzing your game is to list the decisions that it forces the player to make, and when it does so.  For instance, Dungeon Bash is mostly about making a constant stream of tactical decisions.  Decisions about when to attack, when to run, do I use this now or save it for latter, do I group tight or spread out, order of march when in corridors of exiting a level, which character would benefit most from equipping this item, who should tank and who should flank, etc, etc, etc…  Dungeon Bash is a turn-based game and it is at its best when one decision can mean the difference between victory and disaster.

Decisions can also lose their significance once the player becomes familliar with them.  The first time a particular level in a puzzle game is played, it is new and the decisions being made cause the player to engage and think.  But once the puzzle is solved, the replay value of that level diminishes rapidly.

In Dungeon Bash, decisions are kept fresh by providing variety – each time you play it offers a different team of three characters so that the player has to learn how best to handle that particular combination.  Every level is programatically generated so the player cant anticipate the lay of the land.  And there is a very large number of monsters to encounter, that will appear alone, in mixed groups, or swarms of the identical creatures.   All of this is aimed at forcing the player to make significant decisions as frequently as possible, by placing the characters in an endless variety of tactical situations.

You should try to categorize and describe games in terms of the decisions it offers.  Dungeon Bash is largely tactical and resource management.  A puzzle game offers logical and spatial decisions.  A story-based game should offer chances to affect the ongoing narrative.  Multiplayer games involving alliances or factions revolve around making trust and communication decisions.

In analyzing your own game, you can look at your list of decisions and decide:

  • Is this decision significant?  If not, how can it be made so, or should I just get rid of it?
  • Are there situations in the game where the player makes no significant decisions for long periods?  How can I reduce the length of those periods, or introduce new decision-making into them?

Keep your decision-cannon firing big, bold decisions at the player as fast as it can!