There are some concepts in game design that are relatively easy to talk about. Take functionality, completeness and balance – the subject matter for the night’s first lecture. It’s not easy to attain balanced, fair design, but it’s at least a pretty concrete concept. We all know unfair, unbalanced gameplay when we see it. But what about the more abstract stuff? Things like “fun” “challenge” and “play” are far more difficult to define, and even harder to actually design for.
Welcome to week six of my class, where we tackled all of the above.
We whipped through that first lecture in about fifteen minutes. Completeness, functionality, and balance – these are easy concepts to explain, if damned hard to master. Since we’re a completely design-oriented class (leaving the coding up to later courses), functionality isn’t too much of a problem, but we are aiming for work that feels internally complete and balanced. So when we design in LittleBigPlanet, we’re balancing for pace and difficulty, and trying to keep a nice system of risk vs. reward alive in the gameplay.
Fun and accessibility are much tougher to summarize. Different people obviously enjoy different things. Hardened strategy gamers, twitchy FPS players and Wii-fed six-year-olds will all have wildly different (and still entirely valid) ideas about what is fun, so I think it helps to start by acknowledging the different kinds of fun.
To simplify, we’ve got hard fun (challenges and goals), easy fun (playing around, exploring), people fun (social interactions, competition) and serious fun (the need to play, explore ideas, etc.). Most games will blend more than one of these “types”, obviously, but one or another will tend to dominate. LittleBigPlanet itself crosses into all four, but for my money, its most important role is rich in the creative aspects of “serious fun”.
Challenge is one of those things that’s insanely hard to get “just right” – make your game too easy, and it will feel unstructured, boring and lame. Too hard, and you’ll piss off players or bore them in an even worse way. Hit that sweet spot, and you have an enormously satisfying experience. A player who feels like he/she is constantly learning and applying those new skills, having a good time with the mechanics, and experiencing (whether subconsciously or not) the addictive effects of a competent risk vs. reward system is usually a happy customer. He/she is having fun.
One of my students actually asked me about reviewing games and whether I’ll score a title lower for being inappropriately hard or easy. Immediately, I thought of Mario Galaxy 2 and Donkey Kong Country Returns (and decided on the spot that this needs to be a podcast topic).
It’s always interesting when I have to switch my so-called “hats” on the fly – from the designer/teacher to reviewer and back again. But it’s true, I certainly take difficulty into account when it’s time to grade a game, and I did with the aforementioned examples – I thought Galaxy 2 was too hard for it’s all-ages demographic, while DK was aimed more at adults with nostalgia for the older series, hence the tough-as-nails gameplay came off as rewarding rather than punishing.
It’s a little scary just how subjective that judgment is, from the other point of view. Once again, consider it a future podcast topic.
Learning by Example
I’m constantly using examples from games I know well (and have talked to death on the podcast) to try to illustrate everything. Last night, I used BioShock as both an introduction to player choice (the infamous “harvest or rescue” decision), and as an example of risk vs. reward (the camera mechanic, where you get damage bonuses for playing shutterbug with splicers). I can’t help it – it simply has good, well-implemented, dramatic examples of what I’m trying to get across. Sometimes big daddies and little sisters just teach better than I do.
Of course, so do screw-ups. I brought up a couple of examples of great games that are fun (and well balanced) all along until they hit a difficulty spike that quickly kills the momentum. Like the infamous spinning blades of platform death towards the end of God of War, and the Meat Circus in my beloved Psychonauts. In both cases, it’s been made clear that those sections simply weren’t playtested enough thanks to a big old lack of time – an obvious lesson for my group.
Next week, the first big project is due – a full design document and a pitch. I’ll try not to mention BioShock this time.