Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The World of Game Design

     Hi, my name is Stephen. I've played a great deal of games, spanning the spectrum- I grew up in a golden age of independent game innovation, when online flash portals like newgrounds.com were at their strongest and the Half-life modding scene was thriving. Today I purchase a lot of classic games from GOG.com, from periods before there was a "mainstream" and nearly every game was an inventive one. In school I spent a lot of time in Counter-Strike custom maps- kind of a crucible for level design which earned me an appreciation for the deep level of understanding required to build a balanced, atmospheric map. In fact, I consider level design to be one of the highest art forms in the modern world, and one of (my) three tenets of game design:

Mechanic - This is what most indie games seem to be exploring today. In a sense, building a mechanic is positioning goals in relation to the player(s), and changing the way obstacles interact with the path to that goal. It can be literal -as in games like pac-man- or more abstract -as in Hidden In Plain Sight (Indiecade 2012 finalist) where the player's own behavior becomes an obstacle.

Controls / Interface - Also often experimented with in indie games, the controls are the means by which a player extends their mind outside their body and into a game. The control can be the entire experience- right now at the Indiecade E3 exhibition is a game where two people grip a single mobile device which displays a direction it wants to tilt in, causing the two people to become badly entangled as the device demands yet more awkward movements. My belief is that a pleasurable control scheme is the most important factor in a fun game, that freedom of movement in itself is fun and taps into the classic desire to fly or breathe underwater.

Level Design - Relatively unexplored and perhaps only understood in a limited context, designing a level is introducing new experiences using the same controls and mechanic. Level design often dictates the difficulty of a game. Since I started thinking about level design, my favorite comparisons would be in the games of chess and tug-of-war. The games will always have the same mechanic and controls, but a new level in a game of tug-of-war might be where one side stands downhill to its advantage but holds on slippery ground, countering that advantage. In a game of chess, every different board is a level, and with each move the player must reconsider his strategy and create new predictions for how the game will develop. To arrange a balanced level in either game requires a perfect understanding of the game and how it is played. For the record, I'm terrible at chess.

Each of these three mechanisms are brought to the player via the presentation, which is the visual, audial and literary composition of the game. This is virtually the only thing explored by modern mainstream games, and perhaps rightly so- after all, the movie format has been largely unchanged for the last hundred years yet the medium still regularly delivers new, delightful experiences. I feel that the presentation strictly follows the mechanics, controls and level design in importance- to craft a game following an aesthetic is like building a castle from the flag downward.

One thing I have noticed over the years is that the best-received games tend not to be ones with excellence in any one aspect, but rather harmony in every aspect. This idea forms the core of my theories on game design- it's possible that the secret to making a fun game is in setting the players expectations, well before ever attempting to exceed them. In any case, games are now regularly praised for being short and concise (Portal, Limbo, anything from Brendan Chung) while mainstream releases can be critically panned despite cutting edge photorealistic graphics.

There is still much to explore beyond that, too. For example, I don't think anyone will know soon how and why a player feels accomplishment while playing a game. What kind of different behavior can you expect from a casual player and an invested player, and can they both be led into the same emotions? Gaming has brought a new actor into the world of entertainment- the self, not only the individuals holding the controllers but the collective self experienced by every human being who has ever lived.

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