I was on the jury this year for the Independent Games Festival design award, an amazing experience that made me rethink what good game design is, and what game design is in general. None of the stuff I’ll be talking about will reference games in any way that will divulge what games were played and nominated, and the fact that I was on the jury was made public a while ago. This post will talk about questions that came up in my mind, and I’ve saved the best and most controversial one for last.
The first thing that came up in discussions between the judges was the question of what constitutes game design, and where the limit is on what falls under design vs. some other aspect of the game. Keeping in mind that there’s also a Grand Prize to vote for, we started discussing. On one side of the spectrum, people will say that everything is design. How the audio interacts with the setting and the movement of the player, how the story interacts with game mechanics, the difficulty progression, the art style serving the game’s purpose—all of this is design. On the other end of the spectrum, people will say that design is what is left when you remove everything else: the art, the story, the environment, the audio—if you removed all of those things, are the underlying systems, level design, skill progression, reward systems, etc. well designed?
In our group, it seemed that the majority ended up agreeing that we should be looking at design as specifically the elements that designers touch, and the Grand Prize discussion would take into account more broad design things like how it all comes together. For this case, I concluded from discussion with judges that game mechanics themselves need to be cleverly designed, well balanced, and tie in with the other elements of the game, and the design has to be innovative in some way. Doing something that’s already been done—but doing it really well—is definitely praise-worthy, but I don’t think it’s what I imagine for the Design award for the IGF. As someone who tends to skew more on the side of “everything is design”, I was okay with this mostly because I put my favourites for all-around design as votes for the Grand Prize.
This brings up the point that our definition of design depends on what we’ve read and learned, and how we came to be game designers. In my case, I consider myself a designer but not “the designer” on my team, as we all pitch in on overall design tasks. We’ve never hired a designer whose job title isn’t either artist, programmer, or something else along with designer. That surely plays a large role in my feeling that the game design includes everything about the experience and not only its systems. I’m sure someone who did a bachelor’s and master’s degree in game design would have differing views on this.
Another question was how innovative the design of a certain game actually was. For example, I played a game which had a very innovative storytelling mechanic, and I thought it was incredible. Then, in discussion with other judges, I learned that the mechanic had actually been done several times in other games that I hadn’t played. That changes things. I didn’t have time to play all of those other games—some of which were 10 years old and on PS3—and so I had to rely on gameplay videos and other judges for input.
How good did the overall game have to be for it to win an award in design (or anything else)? How much is your opinion about the design mired by something like bad writing, or an inconsistent art style? Two points here: first, I think it’s unlikely that a game that fails miserably in some important facet (other than design) will be nominated for design, simply because people will not have had a good time with it and that will influence their thoughts about its design. Second, I think I would have trouble voting for a game for design if it was truly awful in another respect. Some of the games I saw were decent in writing or art but had great design, and that was good enough. Anyway, all of these questions came up and needed to be addressed while looking at the nine gazillion games that were played.
The last, and most fun question, involves whether or not good design = commercially successful games. Games were sorted by votes per view, to avoid giving an advantage to games that were voted for simply because they were popular and judges had already played them. It seemed that the top voted games in votes/view in design also happened to be mostly commercially successful games. This doesn’t give anything away because there were plenty of top design contenders that weren’t as commercially successful, just for the record. The question is: were games nominated for design because they were already popular and more people knew them? Or are well-designed games generally commercially successful because good design leads to good game sales? I don’t have the answer, but it’s something to think about and discuss.
Thanks for reading! It’s been very enlightening and hopefully I’ll be invited back again!
I’ve been thinking for a while about what makes a game successful, or rather what makes a game unlikely to fail. My definition of success, in this context, is simply not failing. That is to say, a game has been successful if it can earn its money back and not be a financial and critical failure. I’m not looking for a formula to solve game development, because I don’t think that exists. But I do think we can mitigate our failures by keeping some important points in mind, and I’ve been trying to discover what these points are.
I don’t think we can predict success if we define success as selling 1M copies or having your company bought by Microsoft… but I like to think that we can identify some key properties that will make a game unlikely to fail. This is a hit based industry and I would be a multi-millionaire if I knew which games would be critically acclaimed monumental financial successes… but I’m not. And I won’t pretend that I know the answers to what makes a hit, but I will throw an idea out there to be pondered within my definition of success. This idea was created in hearing tons of game developers talking about their failure stories, and I think there might be something to it:
Consistency is one of the most
important predictors for a game’s success.
That’s my hypothesis, and hopefully it can be discussed, debated, and refined or refuted. I am by no means an expert in this subject and don’t intend this to be purely informative, but I think this is a point worth considering and discussing, and that discussion may help us achieve a deeper understanding of our craft.
I should add, before we get to definitions, that a crappy game won’t succeed regardless of how consistent it is. I can’t claim to know where exactly how high that minimum quality bar is set, but the idea is that many games that could have had success ended up not finding it, mostly due to a lack of consistency.
My Definition(s) of Consistency
When one creates a game, they create a universe. They create at the bare minimum a visual style, a set of rules of physics, a soundscape, interactions between parts, a user experience, and a universe. Beyond that, game developers may create mechanics, rules of interaction between systems, stories, cultures, languages, customs, and more. These systems need to be consistent with how the game is talked about, consistent with one another, and consistent in themselves.
I’d like to consider three kinds of consistency here, and then we can discuss whether this is actually a strong predictor for success (i.e. non-failure). Personally, I think the order I’m presenting them is their order of importance.
We talk about and pitch our games in different ways, on different platforms, and to different people. We try to explain our entire game in a catchy sentence, we show a screenshot, or we make a trailer that tries to convey the player’s experience in our games. Unfortunately, we often break the consistency of the universe we’re attempting to create even in the way we pitch or market out games; we show off static shots of cute characters when really the in-context animations are what give them their charm, we talk about procedural generation in a rogue-like when the real fun comes from the combat mechanics, and we talk about open-world and crafting when the best part is the story.
From a failure workshop talk that Hugh Monahan of Stellar Jockeys gave at Full Indie Summit in 2016, he talks about his early access trailer for Brigador: “The problem is that it looks like a twin-stick shooter. Brigador is anything but a twin-stick shooter. For some games, Brigador included, the subjective experience of playing the game is totally different from what it looks like watching a video of gameplay or watching somebody else play.” He goes on to explain how the feel is different from what it looks, and how much deeper the gameplay is than it looks: “This isn’t the game I was sold”, is what many players were saying after playing it. “Because this game looked close enough to existing tropes, or existing genres of gameplay, a lot of what was creative and unique and different about Brigador got completely wiped by this instinctive ‘oh, it’s a twin-stick'”.
Now, I know that anecdotal evidence isn’t going to prove my point, because for any example I give I’m sure others can be found that were inconsistent in their marketing but still did well, but I think this shows how this inconsistency can be dangerous.
Players have certain expectations about your game based on other games they’ve played in the genre, other games they’ve played with the same art style, and other games that list similar mechanics or features to yours. If a game is a hardcore strategy game, it needs to look like a hardcore strategy game. If it doesn’t, it needs to be made abundantly clear to players why it doesn’t look like they would expect it to. I should add that we have to be careful when making games, because any hint that our game is similar to another game or similar to games in a genre will be picked up by players, and the expectations start to creep up.
This is not to say that we should make games that all look like one another… absolutely not. But I think we need to be aware that player expectations exist regardless of what we want, and that making a deep strategy game that looks like the image below is setting yourself up for an uphill struggle of trying to change player expectations that are already pre-established.
While I haven’t played the game yet, there’s a pretty wide agreement that Yooka-Laylee didn’t live up to expectations. I don’t think it sold as well as was anticipated, and its review scores for metacritic were not too favourable. The issues that reviewers talk about always include the idea that the nostalgia element was good, but the game brought with it all of the annoying things from those old games like Banjo Kazooie: the camera, the pointless currency collection, etc. I’m not sure the Yooka-Laylee team could have prevented this, since the expectations were set high as soon as Playtonic mentioned that they were making a 3D platformer. But at the end of the day, people expected something more than what they got.
Just as a quick aside, I know and respect both of these companies whose “failures” I’m highlighting, and I still look up to them as game developers despite using their games as “failure” examples.
I touched a bit already on what game consistency is comprised of: things in the game cannot contradict what other things in the game say, how they work, or how they feel. Within the game itself, the mechanics and everything that you’ve created in your game universe need to be consistent and predictable.
A rule that has been established and conveyed to the player cannot be broken by the game, otherwise the game risks losing consistency. If the game is set in the year 2093, the font used in the menus shouldn’t be Times New Roman (unless there’s a damn good explanation, and even then, why are you using Times New Roman??). If the player plays as an extremely kind-hearted, benevolent, peaceful person, they shouldn’t be killing in cold blood in the next level. If the player can always grab ledges in a platformer, there shouldn’t be similar looking ledges that can’t be grabbed. The example here is in Zelda (in every Zelda game I’ve ever played, in fact), a cracked wall means you can bomb it. It never, ever means that anything else, as this would bring the player out of the experience and lead them to question the rule they learned, that all cracked walls are bombable.
We teach our players the rules of our universe in many ways, and if we ever contradict the rules that we established or the rules that players believe we established then we break the immersion and we create a bad experience for players.
Why Do We Care?
Consistency is key, in my opinion, because
player expectations are created by consistency and those same expectations are shattered by inconsistent marketing and game design, leading to a bad experience.
These player expectations are created by you, your universe, trailers, screenshots, menus, game mechanics, art style, website, and everything else that has anything to do with the game. These expectations are also created by preexisting genre tropes, and anything your game does has to be aware of those preconceived notions.
This is why, in my search to find some properties of a game that will help it to avoid failure, I’m pointing to the idea of consistency as a proposed indicator.
Some Good Examples
I’m going to give some examples of some projects that I think achieved the consistency I’m discussing. As is the case with any argument, using anecdotal evidence is not a strong way to provide “proof”… but I’d just like to demonstrate some strong consistency examples after talking about a couple of weak examples in the above sections.
To provide an example of success, I present the game Shovel Knight by Yacht Club Games. That game promised retro, old school, challenging gaming and that’s what people got. What we also got was the innovations in new games (save files, responsive input, longer game, etc.) while not ruining any of the old stuff that we found so charming. Plus, everything about the game kept you in its world by being consistent: the music, the level design, the art style, the menus, the sound design, etc.
Firewatch from Campo Santo is another good example. First I should say that the trailer for Firewatch is a work of art. This is just one of the trailers they made, but they all seem to be consistently amazing.
It gives you every feeling that you’re going to feel while playing the game: suspense, discovery, relationship building, fear, relaxation, everything. This really sets the tone for the game, and it doesn’t fail to deliver. The music, the art, and everything else about the game reinforces this core point.
Like I said before, finding these examples doesn’t “prove” my point, but it can help illustrate why I think consistency might be a major factor in determining success of a game.
Suggestions to Improve Consistency
I can think of a few ways to try to ensure consistency, some harder than others.
Make sure your trailer conveys how the player will feel when playing your game.
M. Joshua Cauller has a great article about this on his blog. This is probably the consistency issue I’ve seen most: developers will create trailers (or worse, have trailers created for them by other companies) which don’t properly explain what the player experience is like. The trailer might completely miss the mark and focus on something that the developers find interesting, but that isn’t the real thing that makes the game fun. Sometimes, trailers can even be good on their own accord, but not linked to how the game makes the player feel. For example, if your game is interesting because of the flow and precise shooting and movements, creating a story-heavy trailer that doesn’t show those elements might cause people to expect something very different from what you’re providing… that lack of consistency leads to bad reviews.
Get an artist.
I’m not an artist, and I wish I was better at this… but people need to have an artist with a good eye look at their graphical elements. I’ve seen too many games with strange menu fonts, colours that don’t match the theme, UI elements that look like they came from Hearthstone in a game where the rest of the screen looks like Fez, etc. Strangers and other developers will can you if your visual style is inconsistent… leading to the next point.
Show the game often, and show it early.
By soliciting player feedback early, you practically ensure that you’ll catch the major issues before you get too far. Showing the game to other game developers, artists, film people, designers, architects… all of these will help you to understand the consistency of your art style and your game in general.
Be aware of everything that is in or related to your game.
I might just be picking patterns out of nothing here, but I find that often the inconsistency I’ve seen in games is linked closely to outsourced work that wasn’t well monitored. Art asset creation assigned to other companies, completely outsourced trailers, and far removed audio teams could contribute to this. If we are careful about the details about all of the things that are going in our game or are related to the game’s universe, we may be able to mitigate some of that.
What Do You Think?
Do you agree with that consistency might be a good predictor for success, above a certain low quality bar? Do you disagree? Do you think I’ve missed something important and shouldn’t be focusing on consistency? Do you think I might be on to something, but misinterpreting it? I’d love to hear what you think, so feel free to email me or discuss on Twitter, or leave a comment on the Gamasutra version of this article!
Recently, I’ve been trying to look at games through more of a designer lens. In order to improve my design abilities, I think it’s important to look at games as a designer. This means thinking about the choices that were made while designing the game, the levels, and the systems, as well as trying to understand what an average user would experience in your position.
That being said, I finally started Super Mario Odyssey last weekend. I know, I’m late to the party. If you’ve ever played it, you already know that it’s great. But I wanted to talk about some of the things that I think the average gamer might not have noticed, but are really fantastic design elements or layers of polish. These are things that even independent developers on a tight budget can do in their games, so I think they’re important to talk about.
The first two involve the level design, and the clarity with which the player is directed through the level. Firstly, players can always see where they need to go without looking at a map, and yet don’t feel forced to follow a path because of the opportunity for exploration. The thing is, the opportunity for exploration is very carefully given to you. When the game wants you to go somewhere and not step out of line, it shows you clearly. In the below image, this is the part right before encountering a boss. Behind Mario is a ton of open space to be explored, and in front is a clear goal without distractions or options:
The game strikes a nice balance of making you feel like you can explore and wander off and discover things on your own, while still giving you a very linear path to follow, similar to how Ocarina of Time on N64 felt.
The second level design point is that the game doesn’t just aimlessly add places to explore in the levels. I’ve seen some games where it seems like the mentality was “the level looks too much like a boring square, let’s add some nooks and crannies”… and it’s awful.
In Odyssey, every time you explore a place you haven’t seen before,
you get rewarded.
These rewards can be seeing cool stuff, finding things you’ll interact with later, finding a Power Moon, or finding a mini-game (which leads to a Power Moon, as shown below).
Another game that did this really, really well was the new (2016) DOOM game. The level design was obviously quite a bit more complex than in Mario, but it trained the player well in the same way. It gave the player options to explore that were somewhat hidden, but once the player had decided “okay, I’m going to check this out” it always gave a reward. In the image below, let’s say the pink arrow is the story / linear path, the green path would be shown with some hints or a semi-broken door, and the player would explore.
This trained the player to look for hidden things and secrets (apart from the game obviously telling you that there are “secrets” in the levels), and so when a player felt that there was a hidden path, they would explore it.
This is where DOOM and Mario both do magic; you never have the disappointing experience of “Oh, I was sure there would be something here” or “Why can’t I do that? I expected it would lead me somewhere”. Those feelings are bad for design because they break the immersion by breaking the rules that the designer had created previously for the universe / game / level. Both games reward your exploration and you don’t even feel like exploring in the places where the game doesn’t want you to explore, because it directs you through those places well.
The next main point I wanted to talk about was the purchasing system for outfits. In Mario Odyssey, you can purchase things from a shop at the beginning of the kingdom you’re in. There are two currencies, the regular coins and one that is specific to the kingdom.
Some of the options in there include Power Moons, but also include custom outfits or souvenirs from the region which you keep with you on your ship as you travel throughout the game. This is super, super cool. Character customization stuff is always cool, and seeing it in Mario is certainly unexpected, but that’s not what I find so interesting about this game design choice. What I find interesting is that
The game rewards you based on the effort you’ve put in, leaving you feeling more accomplished than simply having “beaten a level”.
This ability to purchase allows you to choose your reward, choose what you value in the game, and creates a feeling of a collection challenge. Some people like to try to finish everything in a game (they’re called completionists). I’m not one of them, but, with this new feature I really want to go back and get all of the kingdom-specific currency in order to buy all of the cool things in the region. As it stands, I moved forward but made sure I had at least one physical souvenir from each kingdom and that I unlocked all of the outfits; that left me feeling satisfied and accomplished, much more so than simply “you beat the level”… which is easy enough in most Mario games.
As far as polish goes, there were a couple of things I noticed in the first couple of hours of gameplay. Personally, I love it when games throw me off and react to something that I do when I don’t expect it.
When you encounter this sphinx (it makes more sense in the desert level, even though it’s kind of Mexican themed and there are ancient Egyptian style ruins and a sphinx…), it asks you a “riddle” to pass. I tried climbing on it to get somewhere at one point, and your magical hat says to you “Er, Mario? You’re not a hat.” There are a few minor things like this that I found really great.
Another one I noticed was that when you move into 2D mode with Mario wearing an outfit, he keeps the outfit on and they made a pixel art version of this. It’s somewhat logical, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if it just defaulted to the regular Mario… I was pleasantly surprised. Surely there are many other little things like this, but I really appreciate that extra effort that the developers made.
That’s all for this time, I just wanted to jot down some of my ideas and hopefully some other game designers can read this and get inspired by some of the choices made by the Nintendo team. And if you haven’t played it, I highly suggest it… I’ll be getting back to it as soon as I can!