Designing Games

I believe a few months back I wrote an entry on interactive media design, in preparation for the course I was taking this semester. With half the semester over, I’ve learnt quite a bit about designing games. Most of these skills apply to all games, beyond simply the ones you play on video gaming consoles. And some of the concepts are quite interesting! I shall do a summary of them here.

1. Feedback

A game is essentially a feedback loop. Players interact with the game and the game adapts to what the player does. Does that sound different from what you’d expect a game to be? Most people think of games as static, where the environment is laid out for them and all they do is play it out, but most games aren’t actually like that. Most of the truly fun games change a little based on how the player is currently doing, and this is known as feedback. There are 2 kinds of feedback, positive and negative.

Positive feedback is basically the game changing itself to make it easier for the winner to win. For example, certain cards in Magic: The Gathering reward players when they’re already in a winning state (perhaps things like Serra Avatar, which is stronger the more life you have). Admittedly, very few games will adopt this strategy because it makes games end very quickly. Either players are already very good and they get even better, thus winning the game, or they are bad and get worse and therefore lose the game quickly.

On the other hand, we have negative feedback, which constantly works to balance out the game and bring it to an even state. This of course drags the game out. Many cards in Magic work like this, such as Timely Reinforcements or even Supreme Verdict, wiping out the board so that the gap between winner and loser diminishes. Did you know that Snakes & Ladders is also a game with negative feedback built into it? Because the winner is the first player who stands precisely on the number 100, and exceeding 100 means they have to move backward, the winner is slowed when he reaches the last few numbered squares in the game, allowing the other players to catch up. Therefore you never know who is really going to win up until the last minute.

2. Narrative and Branching

There was a topic we had where we learned about choice games, such as Choose-Your-Own-Adventures, visual novels or even games where players get to explore a terrain and do different things based on where they go, such as Skyrim. There is a whole bunch of challenges when it comes to giving players choices, because it means we have to generate content for all the possible choices players make, and most of the time each individual player only sees a fraction of this content. So there is a constant trade-off between the amount of choice players have and the amount of coherent story that you can build up for them. Stories tend to be in linear narrative, so such games have to guide players to choices where they can continue the story in a progressive logical manner.

Branching narratives sometimes employ a few tricks — which some of you may have spotted as you play — to limit the number of actual choices they have to create. These tricks include false choices, loops and barriers. False choices are choices where whatever choice you make leads you to the same consequence. Loops are where a certain choice you make loops back to a previous encounter in the narrative, or to a future choice, so in a sense it is a circular narrative structure. As for barriers, they can be seen often in Pokemon games. A guard at the city gates won’t let you pass till you’ve acquired the gym badge, and to acquire the gym badge you’ve got to go fight Team Rocket, thus you’re forced to go along the tale that they’ve mapped out for you. It may sound like cheating you out of a fully interactive experience, but you must understand that a game is never like a perfect world. Choices always come with restrictions, no matter how good the game is or how much effort the makers have put into it.

3. Conversational Interactions

Have you spoken to a chat bot before? Programs like Cleverbot can seem really sophisticated, carrying on an intelligent conversation with us like a normal human being. However, chat bots are really made up of a series of codes, asking them to track certain words that people say and place emphasis on them to decide the next response. Sometimes they save your earlier responses into memory, so that they can use them in conversation later. It makes dialogues appear natural, but if you’re perceptive enough and say the correct things, it’s also quite easy to trip a chat bot up.

4. Adaptive Difficulty

We’ve reached the most awesome part of game design, adaptive difficulty. In a game like Tetris, the game gets harder and harder as players get a higher and higher score. Blocks fall more quickly, providing a challenge for the accomplished or thrill-seeking players. When making games with adaptive difficulty, though, the main factors to consider are:

How difficult is the game at the start? Games ought to start off easy in order for the beginner players to get the hang of it.

How quickly does the difficulty increase? Difficulty should be gradual so players don’t get immediately overwhelmed.

How far is it from the starting difficulty to the point where players fail? This determines the length of time players get to enjoy the game, and it should be long or short enough to fit their needs, whether it is a hardcore or casual game.

I’ve written a long spiel introducing some basic concepts of designing different types of games. Adaptive difficulty is the most common element you see in games,with games gradually scaling in difficulty to keep you entertained at all skill levels. The idea of how to scale is  a real difficulty, though, and you won’t appreciate the challenge if you don’t try designing a game on your own. Do take a look at your favourite game someday and examine closely the aspects of it that ensure you have fun with it for ages.

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