Game Design Tips & Tricks: Getting Started

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    Getting Started

    Most people ambitiously want to start out creating games like those made by AAA studios. This is frankly unrealistic. Nearly every AAA studio started out small, with two guys making pixelated RPGs and RTSs in a basement. It takes years of commercial failures, marketing mistakes, delayed releases, bad ports, company buyouts, lawsuits, lots of work, huge financial risks, and a whole lot of luck to get to the point where a studio can produce a game up to modern standards.

    Even with a good team and a decent budget, production deadlines are a nightmare and the odds are stacked against any game that is not an established franchise. A game designer’s first project should aspire to be less like Fallout 4 or Call of Duty and more like a knockoff Pong.

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    Beginner Resources

    2D RPGs, RTSs, platformers, java games, or mobile apps are generally the best place to start learning game design mechanics. Try out level design makers like Super Mario Maker, Halo Forge, Gary’s Mod, or other level design kits that are sometimes included as extra features in games.

    Modding communities and forums are generally willing to help people wanting to learn to create mods. There are a lot of free asset stores that you can download models from. Once you have some experience with small scale game mechanics, you have much better chances of creating a successful independent studio or applying for a job in the industry.

    It’s very rare to see one individual create an entire game by his or her self since it requires so much work and specialization in different areas. Game design is a team effort, so assemble a team of people who are dependable.

    People design games because they love doing what they do. Continue playing video games, but analyze how they are designed, and take notes on what aspects work well and what aspects could be better.

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    Game Design vs. Game Development

    Game designers are responsible for the art, story, and look of the game. Game developers are the people who program in the underlying mechanics needed to make that game function. It takes two to tango, and the same holds true for making a game. Designers and developers have to work together to create a game that is any good.

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    Step 1: The Ugly Prototype

    Don’t try to commit to an entire game without first determining your goals as a team. Spend one week creating a quick and dirty prototype of the game you want to make. This proof of concept is obviously is not going to look beautiful, but it should convey what the game mechanics are and what the tone of the game will be like.

    Professionals draft a Game Design Document, which can be a brief set of goals or several hundred pages. The GDD outlines everything that the game will need to work. Depending on what type of game is being made, you will also need to figure out what program or game engine will work best for the project. Gamemaker Studio Pro is typically good as an intro 2D level editor, while more robust engines like Unreal, Unity, or Source are recommended for 3D graphics. Most games are coded with C++, C#, Python, C, or Java.

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    Level Design

    As consoles and game engine technology improve, games are able to support more robust environments than ever before. Levels can be expansive and highly detailed. It is still important to not design levels that are massive and sprawling, since it takes a lot of memory and could cause lag in framerate.

    Many game levels are designed to be more compact than they would appear by having lots of narrow corridors and turns that maze back and forth. Open environment exploration tends to cheat by only rendering a certain radius around the player at a time, or integrating loading screen areas. There are also ways to make maps appear much larger than they actually are by putting barriers up to limit the amount of exploration to where the game designer wants the player to go.

    Whether designing for linear missions, open-world, or multiplayer, the player has to be able to make decisions that affect the outcome of the gameplay, but they also need to be lead forward in a logical progression. Narratives and mission objectives tend to be used to guide the player to the next area, but side-exploration is also encouraged. It is generally a good idea to try to make areas visually distinct from other sections of the game to avoid repetitive gameplay.

    Concept art, architectural blueprints, and orthographic plans are used to plan out the paths a game will take. Usually level paths are blocked out using basic cube geometry, with the details being put in later. The best kind of environment design integrates the settings into the gameplay instead of just making it a pretty backdrop. 75% of most games involve the environments, so background designers are in high demand.

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    Stats

    Healthbars, level, damage, defense, difficulty; all of these factors are determined by a set value assigned to a variable. It’s just arbitrary numbers and simple boolean logic, but stat systems govern practically every aspect of the way a game plays from the micro to macro level.

    Balance is important, but so is customization. Players want to be challenged as they level up and gain new abilities, but they don’t want to face bosses that are frustratingly overpowered bullet-sponges. Programming scripts can read the numerical data of players to adjust numbers so that enemy stats are not too high or too low, but these averages don’t always work. The best way to ensure balance is by introducing variety into the stats of different weapons, enemies, powers, and characters.


    Classes

    Classes are built upon the stats system to create different options for the style of player gameplay. Attack, Defense, and Stealth/Ranged, are the three basic types, but there are lots of other variants and possibilities that can be created by offering leveled specialization or upgrades.

    Enemies also tend to have class-based abilities. The main thing to keep in mind when designing different classes is to make each class visually distinct, and to add balance. Triangularity is a term used to describe the balance structure applying to the common triple class system, and it basically should work like Rock Paper Scissors.


    Items

    Weapons, collectibles, health restoration, costumes and cosmetics, temporary power ups, props, etc.. While it would be nice to include tons of stuff to gather, keep in mind that every asset has to be created by an artist, programmed to properly interact with the player avatar, and sometimes even apply unique animations, textures, and skins. A lot of time goes into making every single item, even those that may not even have any useful function. Focus on creating the minimum number of items necessary for the game to play as intended. Extra fun stuff can come later.


    Combat and Controls

    Being able to run, jump, swim, and crouch are basic things players expect from games. A surprising number of game developers don’t include these because they spent too much time working on other features and then ran out of time. Movement should be the first thing a programmer works on getting right.

    Combat comprises the biggest portion of the gameplay in most games made today, especially first person shooters. The mechanics of combat are obviously crucial to how well the game is received by players. Over-complicated inventory systems, clunky controls, and quick-time event button mashing are things to avoid. Combat should provide a challenge, but a reasonable one. Different players prefer different styles of game and different degrees of difficulty. Combat systems should accommodate for some flexibility in the way the game can be played.

    Many game companies fall into the habit of reusing tried-and-tested formulaic combat systems that are a safe approach, but don’t do anything particularly new or innovative. Hack and slash, run and gun combat can get repetitive. Throwing in unique abilities and items can add to the gameplay experience.

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    Narrative

    On the opposite end of the spectrum of nonstop-action adrenaline rush games are games that put greater emphasis on the story. These games may have more puzzles, roleplaying, character interaction, exploration, or cutscenes. Narrative games can still implement combat, and combat-intensive games can have good underlying stories. Neither type is inherently superior to the other, they are just different styles. It is something to consider when making a game how much effort you want to spend on each aspect. Narrative tends to interrupt the action to add pacing, but some people may see this as diverting time away from the actual gameplay. Series like Final Fantasy, Uncharted, The Walking Dead, and Metal Gear are notorious for having hours of cutscenes, while games like Doom and Super Mario Bros. have minimal backstory elements and simple objectives.

    It is recommended to always include the option to skip cutscenes and dialogue. In-game lore scattered throughout levels to collect is a fair compromise since it gives the player the choice to read supplemental information or just ignore it.

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    Character Design

    Video games are all about the player’s experience. You get to be the hero, rather than watching someone in a movie save the day. For that reason, who the main character is generally has less importance than how the player chooses to play. There are still plenty of iconic designs and characters who form popular franchises. However, more games are offering armors, custom outfits, or character creation settings that give people the option to choose their own protagonist.

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    NPCs

    Non-Playable Characters inhabit the game world, usually to provide assistance and optional side quests. NPCs are generally not given the same amount of attention to unique action and facial animation as main characters, so they tend to come across as a bit wooden and robotic. This can be a little disappointing in games that are otherwise very immersive. Well-writen dialogue for NPCs can really add to the player’s overall experience, so don’t dismiss side characters as unimportant to the game. Invest a little extra time into giving them backstories and personality.

    A lot of indie and AAA game developers struggle with dialogue. Once a character runs out of recorded lines and start repeating the same lines over and over, it gets a little annoying. Depending on the number of characters in the game, recording dialogue can be a very time consuming and expensive process. Modern AAA games often have to have several hours worth of dialogue. Indie games can use less characters or use RPG text boxes to substitute for the lack of voice actors. It is advisable to hire a trained actor to provide voicework.

    Crowd A.I. is another limit to game populace, since most engines cannot handle hundreds of characters in one area at once.

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    Bosses

    Awesome boss battles are generally the most memorable part of a game. That means they need to be one of the best designed parts of the game. Typically bosses are just overpowered bullet sponges that send lots of minions to swarm the player, which is not very creative game design. Players want an epic one vs. one deathmatch. Boss battles are an opportunity to mix up the gameplay with a challenge and unique arena.

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    Vehicles and Mounts

    Vehicles are thrown into games every once in a while to mix up the style of gameplay, usually for chases or faster travel. Unfortunately, the amount of programming put into vehicle A.I. is usually proportional to what fraction of the overall gameplay that element takes up. Vehicles are often difficult to integrate without bugs because they introduce larger model shapes and types of movement, which have to work with the controls and A.I. pathing already established for any existing character movement. A boat travels differently from a truck, which interacts with environments differently from a tank. Aerial vehicles introduce another axis of verticality, which means the map and level design have to be adjusted accordingly.

    It can take a lot of extra programming just to add the option to ride a horse, which is why mounts and controllable vehicles are often DLC patches. So if you ever ask your programming team if they can make it so that the player can ride velociraptors and they just sigh in exasperation, consider how much time and resources the developers would have to set aside to program that one feature instead of improving the overall gameplay in more meaningful ways. Game devs work hard to make cool games, but they can’t always include everything.

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    Sound and Score

    Hire someone to create an amazing original soundtrack for your game, and even if your game ends up being terrible people will at least compliment the music. The soundtrack guides the player through the game. It conveys atmosphere, mood, and emotion. When you enter a dark empty room, the ominous music should make you afraid to meet whatever is going to come out from that giant set of doors more than the visual clues of abnormally large spikes and chains keeping them shut. Triumphant swells in the orchestral should make your level 1 adventurer feel like they really can defeat the giant dragon spewing incendiary napalm everywhere, despite the fact everybody else with any common sense is running away or hiding behind flaming tree-stumps.

    A score is typically composed of a main theme with a number of boss themes, level-specific music, and leitmotifs for specific characters. Well-composed leitmotifs can be modified to play at different pitches and speeds to convey different moods. Other instruments can be added in to the base theme to create variation.

    Voice acting and foley effects are also a huge part of successful game design.

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