Thursday, February 10, 2011

Baby Steps to Becoming a Game Designer

So, the plan this week was to provide scripting examples to help people along in making their Amnesia: The Dark Decent custom stories. However, as Frictional Games had warned, the editor is still in beta...and it shows. Put down a table and try and rotate it, the editor would crash. Try and select a subset of entities, the editor would crash. Try and load up one of the professional levels to see how they did a specific trick or puzzle, the editor would crash. I really and truly wish I was over-exaggerating, especially since I don’t feel “done” with this little journey. Sadly, though, I’ll have to wait until either an update is released for the tools or I figure out why my system hates it so. After all, it’s clearly working for some people.

With that downer out of the way, I have exciting news! I, along with some good friends/skilled colleagues of mine, have decided to create a game. A game that will go above and beyond my “Mathtris” learning experiment. There are still a lot of questions we need to answer and a lot of wrinkles to iron out before we even really get started. What platform do we plan to make it on? Do we use an existing engine or make everything from scratch? What genre of game are we going to tackle? Are we going to just do this for the fun of it or actually try and make money? Big questions that, as of yet, do not have answers. We’re going to have a sit down sometime in the near future to iron some of that out.

In preparation for game creation, I’ve been taking slow baby steps towards being a good designer. There is a show hosed on The Escapist Magazine called Extra Credits, and their videos have been very insightful as to what skills a designer of interactive experiences should have to be successful. The videos are entertaining to watch, so if you haven’t checked out their stuff, I highly recommend giving them a look. These videos along with my own effort have started to shift the way I think about decisions made when designing games. I actually have a recent example of this that I’d like to take you though.

I was having a conversation about RPG’s and design choices with one Ms. Bursey over at Bursey15's Blog (one of the people who will be working on our super-secret game of awesome). She has been re-playing Chrono Trigger recently (a very popular JRPG from the golden Super Nintendo era) and she came to a design choice that annoyed her as much today as it did back when the game was first realised. There comes a point in the game where you have a large series of battles across a bridge, ending in a final epic boss fight. After beating the bridge, you can skip from one end of the bridge to the other by use of the over-world map without having to enter the bridge stage again. As she pointed out, this is the only place that you can do that. Every other stage in the game forces you to enter it at one end, play though the stage, and exit though the other. She asked some very good questions; “Why did they do that! Why can’t I skip every other area I’m done with? The forest in front of the castle for instance...Why can’t I skip that?”

I should note that I was thinking like a gamer at the time. My response to her frustrated query was “yea, I agree. That was pretty silly of them.” However, after the conversation was over and I went about my business, that question kept gnawing at me. Why did they do that?

Those of you who have played Chrono Trigger know why it’s a favorite among JRPG lovers. It was a very well designed game. So, was this a screw-up? The designers were human after all, so maybe they just put this function in without actually thinking? Was it a tactic to artificially extend the amount of hours you needed to spend finishing the game? Maybe, and maybe not...I put my “game designer hat” on and really gave it some thought.

Every other level in the game has something, and a great many of them, including the aforementioned forest, has special chests that you need to return to get later in the game. The bridge however does not have anything else in it. There are no battles, no treasure, no storyline tidbits, no nothing.

Ok, so, skipping the bridge makes perfect sense. After all, if there is nothing interesting for the player, why make them play though that part again? The question still remains as to why the player can’t skip to the opposite end of other levels after they’ve completed it. This question made me start to think like a programmer. For this to work, another very important question will need to be answered; “How would we know when a player is done with an area and would not want to return?” Would you need to keep track of all the possible items and paths the player has seen or not seen? How would you know if the player wanted to re-enter to level up their characters? How would you know if the player wanted to double check if they missed anything? Trying to program that would be a nightmare.

The only real solution to knowing exactly what a player would want to do would be to give them a dialog option each time they came to an area. “Would you like to skip to the end of this level? Yes or No?” The mere thought of that makes me shudder. NOTHING breaks game immersion more than out-of-place dialogs popping up. So, what it comes down to, at least the way I see it, would be a trade off between keeping the player immersed and giving the player convenience.

Convenience of travel is at the heart of this design choice. The big travel convenience that you get later on in the game is (spoiler alert) the Epoch. This wonderful flying machine not only allows you to jump around to different time periods as needed, but you can fly to any point on the map. I specifically remember my first experience with the game and the moment I achieved that freedom. It was monumental.

At one point later on in the game I needed to return to the castle that is normally blocked by a forest. However, this time instead of having to run though the forest and try to dodge the enemies therein, I could fly right to the castle’s front gate. I remember that moment specifically, because I was so happy that I no longer had to run though the forest, and was so glad to have this flying machine.

So, now the question is would the achievement of obtaining the flying machine and the freedom it offers have as great an impact if you could previously just teleport between the levels? I think it’s safe to say that it would not. Sure, it would still be wonderful to fly around and jump time periods with greater ease, but it would not mean as much if there wasn’t so much previous effort to get around. Plus, would the world feel as free-flowing, large, and complete if you didn’t have to travel around in the way that you did before gaining access to the skies? I’d also have to say no to that question as well.

That was quite the large analysis for one little part in the game, I’ll admit. Were the above reasons the actual reasons the designers of Chrono Trigger made those decisions? I frankly have no idea. Am I over-thinking things to much? Well, maybe...but I don’t think so. A well designed game like Chrono Trigger is popular for a reason. Every button press, every level, every battle, every bit of interaction shapes the player’s experience. The difference between a good game and a bad game is the thought and effort put into making the mechanics work.

I hope this post proves some useful insight as to what thinking like a game designer is like. Now, I’ll follow up that statement by saying I’m new to this line of thinking, and I’m far from perfect. It’s a skill that’s going to take time to develop, without a doubt. For those of you who have played Chrono Trigger and have different ideas/theories as to why they made the decisions they did, then my mind (and comment section) is always open.



  1. You make a good point though about it taking away some of the cool factor from the Epoch, but while I do think it would decrease the initial wow factor slightly, I don't think it would make it moot. The Epoch gives you the ability to cross water and access new areas (such as the sun cave) along with the ability to travel through time from any place, and move anywhere on the map with ease. In total there were only maybe 1 or two areas in each time period that you were forced to go through to get to other parts of the map. Some of these didn't have monsters, quests or items that you'd want to go back for later. The best examples for this would be the bike race in the future and possibly the teleport pads in Zeal (although I haven't played through Zeal recently so I'd have to double check that). I don't think adding a skip option for those areas would decrease the value of the Epoch enough for me to not squeal with joy when I get it.

    Although that is the web interface designer in me speaking. I'm more inclined to argue towards a design that will make things easier on the user. It's not always the best way to approach making a game. If there weren't things thrown in to create challenges then people would get bored. We can't have that can we? Especially not when our game is going to be epic!!! =)

  2. You make a good point. The amount of areas that "skipping" would affect are pretty few and far in between. Perhaps the break in the players immersion would be worth the convenience of a skip option.

    Fun fact: Turns out you can still cross the bridge the "hard way" if you want just need to stand in the right spot when you enter the level.