Timeless Game Design

Computer games have changed a lot in their relatively short history. Sound has become more advanced, allowing for professional-quality music tracks and sound effects to be rendered in immersive surround-sound. Storage space has increased, allowing games to become longer and contain more content than they used to. Perhaps most notably (at least in terms of technical presentation), graphics have left the blocky, primitive systems of a previous generation far behind.

Another thing that has changed is gameplay itself, and how people think about games. When computer games first came into existence, they were still highly experimental (as tends to be the case with any new medium), and people had not yet formed any ideas about what computer games are or what is expected from them. As such, game designers had considerable freedom to do almost anything that came to mind, since only by trying something out could they discover if a game would be fun, and whether people would play it or not.

Today, the computer game scene is very different. Most people have formed ideas about what computer games "should" be like, and as with any long-established form of commercialized culture, it is difficult to inject new ideas into the field without meeting considerable resistance from game publishers who are hesitant to market unproven ideas for fear they will not sell, and casual game players who are not keen on the idea of trying new game styles they have not seen before.

The result has had considerable negative impact on the game industry. Although many people believe that games have become a "mature" industry, and as such are getting better, it must be kept in mind that "better" is a relative term.

The general trend in the game industry over the past several years is to make games more palatable for people who don't play games a lot. In the 1980s, games were typically made for serious hardcore gamers (since they were the ones who most frequently bought games), and therefore games were made quite difficult, often so difficult that only someone who played them constantly could play the game through from beginning to end. Having to invest some significant amount of time--often hours--just learning how to play a game was not seen as a significant impediment, as seen by the fact that flight simulators used to be highly popular, although they typically came with 200-page manuals (some were even larger) and took weeks or months to become competent at.

Today, the market has been overrun by casual gamers who don't see games as a significant part of their life. They may play a game for an hour or so, then go watch television or do something else. While these people are certainly allowed the decision to do what they want with their lives, the fact that the casual gamer has become the most significant consumer of games has caused the commercial games industry to drift far from the place where it used to be. Games rarely have complicated controls now; controls are often reminiscent of those seen on console game systems, in which you simply have a directional controller and less than 10 commands to worry about. Indeed, many computer games are actually ports from console systems, and this leads to a very simplistic interface that doesn't take full advantage of the 100-or-so keys on a typical computer keyboard. Games also typically come with tutorials that you can play through before starting the actual game. While this kind of thing might be welcome in a flight simulator where there are hundreds of commands to master, a tutorial is hardly necessary for something like a first-person shooter or a typical role-playing game.

The basic consensus among "serious" gamers is that games today just aren't much fun. The gameplay has been made too easy to accomodate those who won't play the game enough to really learn its ins and outs, games have too many noninteractive portions (typically cutscenes that serve to tie the plot together, but get in the way of gameplay), and most games seem to be very similar to several other games released previously. In short, the industry is short on new ideas, and when it does come up with a new idea, the idea is usually rejected because publishers are afraid to release an unproven game concept lest it fail to sell well.

As a result, there are no more good games in stores. The only good games currently being made are produced by small, typically not-for-profit groups who make games for the sheer love of doing so. If you want to play a good, original game, the good news is that most of the ones you find are likely to be free.

For several specific examples of games that push the boundaries of what computers games can do (or used to push that boundary back when they were released), check my page on such games. However, in this page, I wish to outline a few key principles about what makes a good, fun game.

There's a book that came out recently that perfectly empitomizes everything that is wrong with games today. It's called 21st Century Game Design, by Chris Bateman and Richard Boon, published by Charles River Media. If you are serious about games, I highly recommend you read this book so you can understand exactly the mindset of the people who have destroyed the games industry. The book is all about how to make the games that are prevalent now; apparently, now that we are in the 21st century, good games are obsolete, and it's time to make completely derivative works because people have so little idea of what makes a good game that they'll buy anything as long as it doesn't challenge them to think too hard. Time after time, this book repeatedly tells you how you can make a game dumber, less interesting, and less challenging so that it can be more likely to sell. Read this book, then make sure you never, ever do anything it says. Instead, I've taken the liberty of making a list of what makes games genuinely fun. Consider this page a list of guidelines for timeless game design that will be good for people of any era and any generation.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Take the principles listed here with due consideration. It is possible to carry any one of them to an absurd extreme. For example, I state that a game should not be learnable too quickly. This is generally true; however, perhaps it is your intent to make a very simple game. Pong is so simple you can learn to play it in 30 seconds or less, and its simplicity and lack of complicated controls do not make it a bad game. Despite the considerable amount of science and technology that underlies them, computer games are more art than anything else, and if you intend to make them, you need to be able to balance decisions like this carefully without taking them to an extreme that will destroy the game experience.

First, make sure you have a game concept.

Every game starts with an idea. Sometimes it's a good idea, sometimes not.

Often, people get the idea that they'll simply create a game based on an already-existing gameplay concept, change some textures and characters to make things look different, and pretend they have a new game. In reality, what they have is a game that's already been released before, just with different graphics.

The commercial game market is currently flooded with games which are almost indistinguishable from each other, simply because they all copy the 3 or 4 most popular gameplay formulas in the belief that this will make them successful. Quite the opposite is true: If a gameplay concept has already been done, a game isn't likely to become popular if it does the same things all over again.

If you're going to bother making a game, before you even start, make sure you have a game concept that's original and usable. This is especially true if this is to be a commercially-sold game; nobody wants to bother wasting time and money making or buying another tired clone of old concepts.

As with most other axioms, there are potential exceptions to this principle. If your game is not intended for sale, but just as an exercise in game creation, it could potentially be worth your time to create your own implementation of a classic game concept. Pac-Man has been cloned literally countless times, since creating a from-scratch Pac-Man game is a common programming exercise among Computer Science students, but realize that if you want to create a clone just to see how it might be done, the result is not so much a game as it is a homework project. Programming just for programming's sake can be fun and educational, but seldom does it create results that anyone would want to actually use. Once again, this isn't always true: Some memorable games were conceived when somebody wasn't even trying to make a game, but simply writing a display hack or some other miniprogram that led to a neat idea. Inspiration can come from anywhere, but a true artist needs to be able to distinguish between inspiration and derivation.

Include lots of controls. Use every key on the keyboard. Use 4 buttons on the mouse and joystick.

If you have ever used a real computer, you may have noticed that computers have a lot of buttons on them, especially on the keyboard. The classical IBM PC-compatible keyboard layout has 101 keys on it. That's a lot of keys. And each one can be programmed to do something different.

Use this functionality! Don't waste precious resources. The buttons on a computer's keyboard are there to be used. In addition to all the letter and number keys available, you can usually make interesting combinations by including the meta-keys like Ctrl, Alt, and Shift. A basic game can easily have well over 100 key commands in it.

This is not to say that every single game in the world should have that many commands; merely that it is not unreasonable. It is quite reasonable to make a game that requires a 10-page summary of every command available in the game. This will create a game with a lot of depth to it; such a game will richly reward gamers who explore all the commands available and take the time to master them. It's okay to make a very simple game with only a few controls, but you should not feel compelled to do so just for simplicity's sake. If there is a feature that a game could use, implement it!

Make all controls remappable.

Once you've created lots of commands for the game to receive, you need to understand that everybody will have a different preference for how to activate those commands. Include an in-game interface for remapping every possible command to any keystroke, mouse button, or joystick button. Also make sure that this configuration is saved in a plain ASCII configuration file, so people can alter these settings without having to actually run the game.

Include lots of settings.

In the same vein, games are supposed to be tweakable. The purpose of a computer is to provide lots of options to the user. A game should allow the gamer to adjust the gameworld to their preference.

Avoid over-explaining controls.

One giant mistake that many games make today is to try too hard to explain every command and situation that might exist in the game. This is what has led to jokes about games running on "auto-pilot" by trying to make everything so simple that you don't have to do anything. If you want to make a game like that, you might as well just make a movie.

A perfect example of this is the experimental game Black & White. This is a game that dared to be different in many respects; it has gameplay like nothing else before it. However, the game is seriously hampered by its desperate efforts to explain everything that can happen in the game right off the top. When you start the game, and for a long, long time afterward, people will constantly be popping up to explain things for you. "Here, let me show you how to do this! This is another useful command! LET ME HELP YOU!" The result seriously damages the experience of what could have been a breakthrough game.

It's okay to explain just what a command like "Zogor freem" is supposed to do. But if a command fires your gun, there is absolutely no need to include a sentence saying "This command fires your gun." The words "Fire gun" are perfectly sufficient. Make sure that a command quick-reference manual is made available, with one-line summaries of each command in the game. If more detailed explanation of some commands is required, offload those explanations to a separate part of the documentation.

For a perfect study in a game that doesn't explain its controls, consider Hacker, Activision's 1985 classic which comes with no tutorial and no introduction. None. When you run the game, you find yourself faced with a simulated computer console, and you just have to figure it out from there. You can't have a less-explained interface than that, yet Hacker was a success as a game precisely for this reason.

Remember to leave plenty up to the player to discover. If you explain everything that happens in the game up front, then there is no reason to play the game, because the player already knows how to do everything. Part of the fun of a game is discovering a new control, or a new way to use some control, and saying "Wow, I never knew you could do that! This changes everything!" If it takes a player less than 3 months to learn how to play your game properly, you have over-explained its interface. The purpose of a computer game is to explore, so leave plenty of room for exploration.

Incorporate lots of hidden events and places.

If you can play a game through once and see everything there is to see and do, that can still be a fun game, but there may be no reason to play it again. Instead, the preference is to fill a game with lots of secrets that can only be discovered with a little searching and experimentation. Some secrets should be easy to find, like an extra goodie hidden in a small closet at the end of a hallway. Other secrets should take a lot of searching. It is a mark of an enduring game when someone who has been playing the game for 10 years suddenly discovers a special area they have never seen before and says "I never knew this place existed!"

However, avoid making secret areas a pure matter of trial-and-error. One of the worst offenders I have ever seen in this regard (perhaps the very worst ever) is Rise Of The Triad, a first-person shooter which starts off being lots of fun, but which degenerates in later levels into seemingly endless mazes of corridors in which you need to find the hidden switch or pushwall to continue on. Finding these secrets is entirely a matter of pushing *EVERY* wall in the level until you find the one that will move. This is a game full of secrets, but finding these secrets is the most boring activity imaginable. Secrets in games are a good thing, but make sure your secrets don't require the gamer to go through long, boring sequences just to get to the next area. This leads perfectly to the next point...

Avoid repetition.

Games are supposed to be fun. Doing the same thing over and over again is usually not fun. Way, way too many role-playing games suffer from this fault. Nobody wants to kill the same monster 300 times so they can level-up, only to face a slightly more powerful monster that they then need to kill 500 times.

Of course, you may wish to make a deliberately boring game for artistic effect. Lawn Mower is exactly what it sounds like: A game about mowing a lawn. You move the lawn mower all over the lawn, and when you finish, you move on to another lawn to do it again. This is boring and repetitive, but it's supposed to be; the ironic game-ification of a boring real-world activity is precisely where the humor of the game lies. If this is your intent, that's fine, but if you want to make a game with long-lasting fun value that people will actually want to keep playing, don't add repetitive sequences.

Avoid too many story sequences.

Games today have a lot more back story than they used to. While this can be a good thing up to a point (it avoids the effect of simply controlling an anonymous character who appears to not have any goals), many "games" have actually crossed the boundary where they feel more like a noninteractive movie and less like a game. An excellent example is Dreamfall, the sequel to third-person adventure favorite The Longest Journey. Now, Dreamfall does a lot of interesting things; it's a true free-movement adventure, perhaps the first game of its kind I've ever seen. However, it suffers from simplistic puzzles that do nothing more than serve as an excuse for the throwaway gameplay portions. The true strength of Dreamfall is in its cutscenes, and the developers obviously realized this, as the game feels like little more than a series of cut scenes joined together by brief, trivial segments of interactivity. If all you want to do with a "game" is tell a story, forget about making a game and just make a regular movie.

Bend reality with care.

Many gamers want games to be as "realistic" as possible. While making games that imitate reality is a good thing, sometimes it can also be fun to exercise some artistic license and make a game that bends the rules of reality to create a certain effect. Some games take this to an extreme, and are so absurd and surreal that they seem to have almost no connection to reality at all. There is not necessarily anything wrong with this, but what you don't want to do is casually toss away basic facts of reality just to make things easier on the player.

A perfect example can be found in Deus Ex: Invisible War, the horrible sequel to the excellent Deus Ex. This sequel does not use different types of ammunition for its guns. Instead, each gun uses the same type of ammunition, even in cases where this is clearly absurd. In real life, different guns use different sizes of bullets, but maybe you could justify including only one type of bullet and having every gun in the game use that bullet to keep things simple. However, it is obviously ludicrous to pretend that a rocket launcher will use the same type of ammo as a pistol. Yet Invisible War cheerfully does this, explaining away the discrepancy by claiming that the game takes place in a futuristic world where ammunition is actually made of tiny nanites that can re-structure themselves to fit in whatever weapon is currently being used. While that might sound like a plausible explanation, the system of universal ammo is still stupid. Everybody hated it when Invisible War was released, and the developers should have been wise enough to realize that it would have just been easier to include realistic ammunition in the game.

On the other hand, most first-person shooters don't let you die nearly as easily as you would in real life. In the real world, how many bullets does it take to drop a human being? Usually just one. Sometimes two or three, but it's unlikely that a person could withstand more than three shots and continue running around without serious functional impairment. Yet almost every first-person shooter beginning with Wolfenstein 3D allows you to do exactly that. This is a deliberate decision based on the simple realization that a game wouldn't be very much fun if you constantly dropped dead every 5 seconds. Some games like Rainbow Six adhere to realism, and really do allow you to die from only one or two shots, but such games are only for a certain crowd of people. If you want to allow your character to withstand somewhat unrealistic amounts of damage for the purpose of making a more playable game, it's hard to say where to draw the line. Ultimately, that decision lies with you, the game designer. Remember, one of the main purposes of playing a computer game is to be able to do things you couldn't do in real life, so you're going to need to decide how real the game is meant to be. Just realize that if you make the player so tough that you can run headlong into a room with 50 people firing upon you with machine guns and survive the experience, people are going to have difficulty suspending their disbelief.

Distinguish between challenging and impossible.

As has been noted, games for people who actually like games are often difficult. This is deliberate; extra difficulty adds more long-lasting challenge for people who will actually bother to play the game for a long time. However, far too many game designers get lazy about implementing challenge into their games, and instead of trying to structure a game so that a highly skilled player can blaze through it, they simply make the game entirely impossible.

Consider Pong (which makes a great metaphor for lots of gaming principles because it's so simple). In theory, a perfect Pong player should be impossible to score a point against, because they only have one thing to deal with: One ball. As long as you can keep your paddle aligned with the ball, you can never lose. Now imagine two-ball Pong, in which two balls are in play at the same time. Is a perfect player still unbeatable? That depends on how the balls are arranged. If the two balls are staggered in such a way that they never reach the same side of the screen at the same time (and have some workable time gap between them), then yes, you can always deflect them. However, suppose that both balls reach your side of the screen at the same time, and they are far apart enough that your paddle won't cover them both simultaneously. Now what do you do? You lose, because you simply can't have your paddle in two places at once. This isn't a "challenging" or "difficult" scenario; it's simply impossible for anyone to deal with such a situation, no matter their skill level.

Unless your intent is to make a game that's deliberately impossible, try to avoid these kinds of situations. Having lots of enemies on the screen is not, in itself, an impossible situation to deal with, as long as the player is given sufficient faculties to deal with all of them at once. But if multiple enemies suddenly start attacking you at once from multiple directions, and you can only shoot in one direction at a time, nobody can take them all out at once without getting hit. Even skilled gamers are irked by these cop-out ploys, which are frequently used by lazy developers who don't want to take the time and effort to balance out a truly playable challenge. Instead, they just lump together a bunch of enemies and figure that with practice, the player will figure out how to deal with them. Message to these designers: Play your own games before you release them. Making a difficult, challenging game is acceptable, even preferable for some. Making a game that puts you in impossible situations is not.

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