Monday, October 26, 2009

Basic Foundamentals Complete

So far so good. I've enjoyed the feedback I've received from my peers and support from my friends and family and I'm inspired to continue what I've started, sharing what I've learned (the hard way).

With the basic foundation of my views of game development established, I can now delve deeper into the art of game design. I have another half dozen or so articles in various stages of completion I just need more time in the day.

On a side note I've changed the site so that you don't need to sign up to make comments.

Next on the agenda, a series on Combat Design.

Casual or Hardcore? Design for Both

The debate existed under different names such as "N00bz vs 1337" "Casual vs Core" "Button Mashers vs Advanced" players. The ongoing dilemma between designing games for casual or core audiences with each side adamant games must be designed and developed for a particular group to be successful.. Trying to design for the casual market and you "dumb down" games too much and alienate the core market. Trying to design for the core audience and you alienate the larger casual market by devising mechanics too complex. Casuals may constitute the larger purchasing market, but it's through the reputation of a game from the hardcore that lays the reputation of a franchise and foundation contributes to profitable squeals. The bottom line is you want the game in as many consumer's hands as possible. So why not design and develop for both?

The 3rd pillar of the fundamental truths of game development is Games are for Players. The principle that developed from this understanding is:
  1. Build for the masses design depth for the advanced
Depth should be done in such a way that it's not necessary, but is ideal for maximizing performance. Thus the masses don't have to, but can still "accidentally" access more functionality. Advanced players can apply their skills and purposely access deeper game play mechanics or tactics due to their higher level of understanding or superior hand dexterity. Gears of War and Bayonetta have game play mechanics that are devised for both the casual and core audience.

Gears of War 2: Reload Mechanic:
Each weapon can chamber "X" amounts of ammunition. Once the chamber is empty the weapon needs to be reloaded before being able to fire. Reloading weapons was developed in two ways:
  • Masses - Fire until ammo is drained from weapon. Automatic reloads. Don't need to worry reloading.
  • Advanced - Manually reload with a risk reward system. Properly time a button press to stop the moving bar to land on the sweet spot and you reload faster and get a damage boost. Failing by pressing too early or too late and your gun jams and takes even longer to reload. 
Picture taken from Gears of War Gears 2 gamers blog

Bayonetta: Very Easy Automatic Mode

The reverse of the principle. The combat design is intended to be complex and difficult for the hardcore market. Platinum Games developed an automatic mode for the players that lacks the desire, skill or time to master the hardcore game play mechanics. The depth of controller interface and decision making is available for the Core player, yet it's not necessary for the casual player in order to advance through the game.
  • Masses - In Hideki Kamiya, director of Bayonetta, words from his blog "This is the power of Automatic. Automatic can be used on Easy and Very Easy difficulties, and leaves the most complex controls up to the CPU." Play one-handed.
  • Advance - In another blog Hideki Kamiya implies the intent for the hardcore audience with "For instance, with Bayonetta, we would hate for someone to think it is a heartwarming tale and then buy the game to discover it is really a sadistically hard game (I hope…) where you play as a witch who laughs as she destroys angelic enemies."
Most decisions will be made with the target audience in mind. Designing mechanics so that the game is enjoyable  to as many people as possible is common sense. Design the core mechanics so that the casual has accessibility  in game play but design depth that the hardcore can take advantage of and improve performance. Who cares how the player plays the game, as long as they had fun and bought it new ;)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Communication: The Game Designers Real Job

The game player just pops in a brand new game. How does he control his avatar? Where is he suppose to go? What does he need to accomplish? Who does he need to defeat? The player needs to be communicated this information or else immersion is lost and frustration starts to fester. Frustrated unhappy players curse, throw controllers, change games, turn off the machine or drive to the nearest "evil" used games dealer to trade in their game. To avoid those clearly undesirable outcomes the designer needs to communicates to the player. In order to actually communicate to the player, the designer needs his team. He needs programmers to make things work. He needs artists to make things look and sound great. He needs quality assurance to make sure the player enjoys the experience. He needs production to keep him on schedule. He needs marketing to let the player know about the game. That's a lot of different groups that need to hear different information. Designers need to effectively communicate with the player and the team to make the best game possible.

Communication: The Player
The principle that is applied to communicating with the player:
  1. Never underestimate the stupidity in people
To understand how considering people are "stupid" helps improve game play, lets first examine stupidity with the following television shows
  • "Jerry Springer" provides examples of people who make poor decisions in their love life.
  • "Cops" provides examples of people who make poor decisions that affect their freedom.
  • "1001 Ways to Die" self explanatory
These shows are filled with examples of people who make poor decisions with their real lives with real consequences. If people make poor decisions in real life with real repercussions that affect their lifestyle, freedom or life itself, how then can we expect players to know what to do or how to behave in a digital world that they are experiencing for the first time? With no repercussions to insure they read the game manual, properly play the tutorial while listening to all the instructions? So game play itself needs to instruct the player.

Two methodologies stem from understanding "stupidity" to improve my skills as a game developer:
  1. Teach the mechanics properly
  2. Always give clear directions
In addition to the importance of a good tutorial, any new mechanic introduced during game progression needs to be taught and communicated to the player. If you need new ability "x" to defeat the next boss, then introduce the mechanic before you get to the boss. Design an enemy that can also be defeated using the new mechanic. This way the player gets practice at using the new abilities and basically taught in a relatively safer environment before relying on the new skill to win or lose versus a boss. Don't just throw a player into a situation to sink or swim. Rather guide them through their experience so they can spend their time playing and enjoying the game instead of trying to figure out what the developers wanted the player to do.

Communication: The Team
The actual means of communication to the player will vary depending on the genre and intentions of game play but include text, dialog, animation, special effects, and sound. Anything that the player can see, hear and feels, with rumble controllers, can be used to convey game play information and mechanics to the player. So in order to communicate effectively to the player, the designer must first communicate to the rest of the team. A designer communicates with the rest of the team through writing documents, verbal discussions and by listening.

This has to be my least favorite part of being a game designer. It's much more fun and exciting to brainstorm ideas and put the final tuning of a design.. It's work to commit all ideas into text form only to have to debate, rationalize and rewrite the design documents. However what's said verbally can be forgotten. A room full of people can all participate in the same meeting and agree to results and an hour later forget the details. What's committed to text form can be re-referenced. Any misunderstanding can lead to wasted man hours. Ripping something apart to only have to rebuild it a different way morale crushing not to mention inefficient and thus costly.

So be as clear as you can and write under the assumption that the reader has no prior or specialized information to help them understand the document. Basically write the document for the suits in the industry that don't really know or understand the ins and outs of design or game development. It's a fine line of providing enough information to be useful without getting into intricate details that overwhelms the reader. 

Not every discussion needs to take place in a meeting on an official basis. Sometimes taking the time to have a 5 minute chat in person can save days and weeks worth of work. Understanding basic ideas isn't enough when it comes to implementation of a design and the effect of lost man hours. A programmer or artist may read the design and understand the basic principle. However they may not understand the design inside and out and therefore may execute the task "incorrectly" due to misunderstandings. So it's a mistake to leave the other departments alone until their tasks are finished. Simply stopping by their desk and asking if they need anything, have any questions or would like any feedback before they steer too far off course.

Simply listening to other opinions and ideas goes a long way in the team trusting the decisions the designer makes. If I'm willing to listen to game play ideas and critiques from the other departments and from different levels of experience then the team understands and gains confidence that the decisions I make are well thought out and not knee jerk reactions.

Although an idea as first presented won't work, its still a new way of looking at a problem, or an outside the box solution. Make adjustments to the idea to get it to either feasible or to align it to the direction of the game play vision and target audience. That's the strength of working in a team environment. Collaborative solutions or game play mechanics that couldn't be conceived by the lone individual. The point is every idea can have value but you won't ever get there if you never listen.. 
Two reasons why ideas never make it into game play:

  1. Resources - Most developers don't enjoy the luxury of unlimited time and budget so manpower and time constraints prevent most ideas from becoming an in-game feature.
  2. Vision - The idea may be a great, in a vacuum or on a different kind of game, but may not mesh with the current project or target audience.  
So listening to an idea give feedback and critique what was good about it, and then explain why it doesn't work or fit into current development plans. Taking the time to listen builds up team confidence and morale. Developers don't want to feel like their nameless cogs in a machine that needs to blindly follow orders from above. Instead we're passionate and creative individuals filled with our own ideas about what makes a game successful and fun and being able to express themselves can keep morale and productivity positive.

Everything in Moderation
On the flip side, communicating more doesn't equate to communicating more effectively. If the player feels like you're holding their hands too much and provide too much information, it breaks their immersion and overwhelms them detracting them from enjoying the game. On the same token, your team doesn't need you watching over their shoulder every second of the day to make sure everything is done right. As a designer you want to communicate but not to unrealistic proportions that it takes away the fun in playing and developing games.

The second pillar of my fundamental truths in game development is Communication. Without gamers there would be no games industry. Proper communication to the player is vital for understanding and enjoyment. Games can't be made without a team. So making sure the team knows the vision allows them to properly do their jobs. Thus stressing the importance of communication to the player and to the team is essential for most effective results. It's a soft skill that plays a bigger role in the success of game development.I want to make the best games I can make. Thus making communication my real job.

Monday, October 19, 2009

So I'm actually online shy

I don't intend to simply blog academic style essays about game development. I also plan to put much more of me into this. Right now it's a couple of things. I have a ton of information and ideas that's dying to come out similar to Professionalism. I just feel I have to get the basic way I see and how I think about game design and development out there first and take advantage of what I shared at Interfaces. So my friends there will probably be reading familiar material, just presented differently. I'm not there to say "umm" too many times and asking them to confess to things they shouldn't in front of their teachers. ;) 

Also while most people feel more empowered by being a faceless entity over the internet for some reason I'm a bit more shy and private. So even writing this for all to read is just me slowly opening up I guess. It seems easier to hide behind the "proper" blogs until I'm use to expressing my thoughts on a blog.

Our industry is young. What I write about isn't some made up philosiphical kung fu zen of game development. Either I've made the mistakes or have had to endure others making mistakes. So there is this part of me that is dying to share this information so others don't have to learn the hard way. If your a hopeful into the industry I hope to give a clearer picture of game development. To the jaded professional that already everything I hope to show there are different ways of doing things that can net more effective results.

OK back to actually writing instead of talking about what I want to write...

Sunday, October 18, 2009


The first thing everyone needs to understand is that game development is a business. Whether you're a gamer, a developer, publisher, independent, corporate or even look down upon video games and assumes video games are "kid toys". At the end of the day there are people who earn a paycheck by working in this young interactive entertainment medium. Like any business, what motivates the individual still vary. Some are real passionate experts and artists in their fields, others do it for the all mighty buck and others think it's an easy profession that's all fun and games.

As for me, I do what I do because I love video games. I grew up on them, they've always been my favorite hobby and I've been lucky enough to be in the industry and learn how to make games. So reading articles about how others stay motivated interest the inner sociologist in me. For me, motivation is the easy part. The hard part is actually making the best product possible given time and resources.

The first pillar in the fundamental truths of game development is professionalism. For game development the two things I feel like its most important to understand is:
  1. It takes a great team to make great games. 
  2. Not every decision is yours to make, so make every decision the best it can be.
I've worked for studios that due to either the corporate culture or individual personalities cause a particular discipline of Art, Design or Programming have more decision making capability than the other disciplines, and the product can suffer in end quality. It sounds stupid but let me just say it, the different departments wouldn't exist if they weren't needed to make the game. Each discipline has different responsibilities and naturally views and thinks about game development differently.

Thus let the experts be experts. You definitely want to give them your feedback, just like you should seek theirs, but don't tell others what to do, rather make suggestions or ask questions that help focus them to what needs to be addressed. Give the high vision and let them figure out how best to implement. Continue to work with them throughout implementation to continue to communicate the vision and save potential rework from misinterpretation.

Games are very complex and require so much creativity as well as logical thought and interaction between a group of people all trying to create lightning in a bottle. Every decision made affects the tasks, schedules and thus lives of every discipline. Decisions made aren't always by the professionals in their respective disciplines. For example, not every game design decision was made by a designer, but it's just as easily due to a producer, programmer or the marketing department that decided upon game play or how the feature functions or is tuned.

OK, so I now understand not every decision is mine to make. Now what? How does this shape me into a better professional? For me this shapes two things, how I go about my decision making and how I react to a decision I don't agree with. Any decision that is mine to make, I try to make it be as well thought out or informed decision it can be.

Well thought out in the sense that I understand the ramifications and how the decision will affect all other aspects of game play balance. System tuning changes the difficulty and thus layout for level design. Level design progression and flow changes how systems should tune individual enemies or abilities. Changing the speed or damage of one attack changes the difficulty of enemies I face, they then become too hard or easy and enemy placement or spawn behavior need adjustment. AI or enemy behavior may now need adjusting or tuning. Etc... Obviously you can't predict all ramifications, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't be thinking things through and not simply blindly guessing and hoping we accidentally get it right through iteration. Iteration is necessary for tuning and finding the magical fun factor, but how efficiently you iterate by being smart about what your iterating makes all the difference. You don't want to waste hundreds of man hours of the team on an idea that if thought out to its logical conclusion wouldn't mesh with the vision of the game.

How I try to make as informed decision as I can make involves talking to the team cross disciplines. Usually in casual "water cooler" type chats where I'll throw out my ideas, or direction I'm taking. This usually causes questions to be asked and acts as a safety net to make sure I've addressed all the design ramifications or what still needs to be figured out and thus provides further direction on the design.

By discussing implementation and getting estimates from the various groups allows them to start thinking about the implementation or sparks their imagination and further enhances the vision. Also it helps getting verbal buy in from those who will have to actually do the work to make it all happen. They are exposed to the idea early on, allowing them time to contribute and further refine the design, so that when it does indeed become the direction it's not simple one guys idea, but rather a refined vision that the team believes in. They aren't simply handed down orders and are involved in the process, helping morale and motivation.

Despite giving feedback, arguments and examples some decisions will still get made that you don't agree with. I'm well past the point where I care whose ideas gets chosen, I simply want what will make the best product possible within resource constraints. So instead of pouting, complaining, providing sub par quality of work due to not fully agreeing with a design or development decision, I instead use the same passion and thought into making the decision the best it can be. Whatever arguments I gave as to why the direction isn't feasible or doesn't work with existing design, then becomes my focus into not only making it work but hopefully to become one of the games strengths. Basically not being a defeatist and making the best lemonade I can with the lemons I'm given is my mind set.

The first pillar of the fundamental truths of game development is professionalism. From understanding the team environment and remaining flexible during the decision making process professionalism goes a long way in how the team perceives and reacts to official designs and have allowed me to enjoy the path my career has taken. I've worked with some amazing talent and I thank you all for making me a better game developer.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

First Post

So I decided to stop being lazy and to start writing and sharing the lessons I've learned and the thought process that goes behind how I analysis, design and play video games. Additionally I've had a lifelong love of the martial arts which includes studying multiple styles which has naturally affected the course of my career so although this blog will be primarily focused on the video game industry don't be surprised to find MMA and martial arts technique also being discussed.

But first let me introduce myself by cheating and using the same summery description I use on

"I'm a gamer. From the first time I picked up a game controller, I've been hooked. Video games provided an outlet for my imagination and took me to new unexplored and interactive digital worlds. Every time I was given the choice of what I wanted to have as a present, it was a game cartridge. Every time I was given a choice to go somewhere for fun, it was always the arcade.

As a teenager I started playing in local tournaments for Street Fighter. Local tournaments turned into state, national and international competition. Tournaments also expanded to other fighting games. Although I'd like to say I was a national champion, it was never to be. I was good enough to place in multiple tournaments, but not good enough to win one. Regardless, my analytical skills as a player have served me well in learning the art and science of game design. Tournament playing, lead to contributing and editing fighting game strategy guides and eventually my dream job of a game designer.

Since then, I've been fortunate enough *knocks on wood* to ship every game that has been in full production. This includes deadline sensitive movie based titles on large teams, to working in smaller studios with limited staff and technology. I've been in the trenches and those experiences have honed my skills in both the design and business of game development.

I've focused on building my career and establishing myself as a well rounded designer that is self motivated, hard working and a team player with a "can do" attitude who is able to handle a wide variety of assignments and responsibilities.

I'm still just as passionate about creating quality games as I was about playing games as a kid. The imagination I used to take me away as a kid, is now used for creating visions of game worlds, while still sneaking in as much game time as life and other hobbies allow."

In a nutshell my hobbies and interest as a kid are the same ones I have today. I still constantly thirst to learn more, but now I have a means of sharing what I've learned. Earlier this year I participated in the 2009 Interfaces Conference hosted by International Academy of Design & Technology. The talk and workshop I ran there will be the early basis of my blogs.

I hope you enjoy and learn. Cheers.