Game Design Tips & Tricks: Indie Games

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    Evolution of Game Graphics

    Due to the high graphics and production standards set by AAA games, creating a 3D game today is much more complicated than the early 2000’s. The biggest changes are in the field of realistic texture mapping, shaders, physics, and lighting. Adding details to the degree where even a nonessential mesh of folded laundry looks photorealistic increases the workload for game artists tenfold.

    It is possible for a small group to create a 3D game with modern graphics, with a few caveats. The game needs to be short, have as few animated characters as possible, and limit the scope. Open world sandboxes and multi-levels are probably out of the question unless the graphics quality is scaled way back, like in Minecraft. Exploration games can be done if the emphasis is solely on the environment.

    The Order: 1886 – Bringing the Game to Life

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    Digital Foundry: Uncharted 4 Tech Analysis

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    Stylization

    Indie games will never be able to compete with the highest graphics of AAA titles. However, they can take advantage of art style to stand out. Pixilization, Cel Shading, and Low Poly assets are popular options. Pre-rendered backgrounds can also be used, but they tend to work better with platformers due to the camera angle being restricted to one direction.

    PBS Offbook: The Creativity of Indie Video Games

    ClassicGameJunkie: Pre Rendered Backgrounds

    Gamasutra: The Importance of Art Style

    AV Club: Cel Shading in Video Games

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    Sprites

    Sprites are generally comprised of pixels, but they can also be vector based. Pixels appear more retro, whereas vectors make a strong statement of being a modern app or Flash game. Depending on the art direction you are going for, there are advantages to both styles. Pixels are probably a little easier for non-artists to work with.

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    RPG Dialogue and Exposition

    Small teams generally don’t have the budget or time to create lots of character animation for NPCS, elaborate cutscenes, or interactions. Static profiles, narrators, scrolling text, books, or radio messages are ways to provide exposition and hints to the player throughout the game. Live-action footage and rotoscoping can also be used, but this technique is known to produce very mixed results.


    Companions

    A step up from the stationary NPC, companions follow the character around and assist on missions. Game designers seem to have learned from past mistakes with dreaded escort missions and overbearing stereotype characters that were more of an annoying burden than useful assistants. Most companion characters now are fairly durable in combat situations and don’t incessantly repeat the same two lines over and over. Game developers have also figured out how to create better pathing A.I. so the companion character is better at tracking the player’s movements to follow, attack, or move out of the way.

    A well-written companion should be more than just a useful asset in gameplay. Even though player companions aren’t alive, many gamers do form a sort of attachment to the NPCs. It makes playing a solo campaign a little less lonely. If the player is willing to go back to a previous save to try and prevent an untimely death of their beloved Dogmeat or Companion Cube, the design team has done their jobs right.

    Some games allow the player to take control of other characters. This can be useful for adding different abilities and team dynamics.

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    Meaningful Choice

    It is very difficult for game developers to program in tons of alternatives that will drastically change the course of the story. As a result, most storylines follow a core narrative that is very rigid. The ending will be pretty much the same no matter what the player does, regardless of whether you choose the door on the left or the door on the right. Morality system dialogue trees and sidequests tend to be the worst offenders for providing filler that gives the appearance of choice, but ultimately doesn’t impact the main narrative.

    More and more developers are seeking creative ways to create nonlinear storytelling that allows the player’s decisions to actually matter. So far, the most successful efforts have been in the realm of very contained settings where developers can concentrate on crafting very specific responses for the A.I.

    Some developers have accepted that video games are just games and they have programming limitations. Efforts can be better spent improving other aspects like exploration or combat instead of futilely attempting to make an NPC have the emotional range and mental capacities of an actual human. Game developers shouldn’t try to cater to everyone by trying to make game choices completely customizable, but rather tell a decent story and offer certain features that make the game fun to invest a few hours into. Game designers design games; it’s unreasonable to expect them to be miracle workers.

    Pentadact: Why Nonlinear Storytelling works in Her Story

    Pentadact: The Cost of Simplifying Storylines

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    Destructoid: How Philosophy made The Stanley Parable Great


    Game Design Pitfalls to Avoid

    Video games have been around for over 30 years, and in that time a general consensus has been reached among the majority of gamers: certain features are just a bad idea to include in a game. This includes annoying NPCs, escort missions, no saves, micro-transactions, and frustrating water levels to name just a few.

    As a general rule of thumb when designing a game, don’t be afraid to try out new features and mechanics. They might not always turn out as intended, but people are generally willing to credit the developer for trying. What most gamers don’t like is seeing the exact same mistakes never getting fixed and being repeated over and over in successive titles.

    Gamespot: Annoying Video Game Clichés

    WindowsCentral: 5 Worst Game Design Mistakes

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