5 big things about game design the game industry is missing out on

Originally I wrote this for a Finnish blog as a request, but the guy I was doing it for dissappeared, so might as well post it here, in english.

Anyway, this post is about a number of major game design related things that I’ve observed as missing in the games industry, both indie and AAA alike. Mostly its predefined traditions that I’ve noticed is what keep people from discovering these important things, while at other times their importance is dismissed due to their long-term nature, opting to go for solutions that offer short-term solutions without any regard toward sustainability or the side effects of quick and dirty solutions.

I hope to highlight these things and why their important with this blog post, so that they’d be used more often. They lead to better game design, which I personally find lacking everywhere nowadays. I want games worth playing and have them last longer damn it.

1. User Content is the next big monetization source

Earning money on making games does not have to limit the game artificially, resort to unethical designs or become a sell out with advertisements.

There is a massive untapped way of monetizing a game that can surpass Free2Play businessmodels, while both being potentially extremely profitable, but also ethical and even improving the game experience itself.

It is this: Allowing users to create content for the game and optionally charge money for it, while you, the developer, gets royalties for each piece of content sold.

This is technically already happening in the Unity Asset Store, Apple’s App Store and Team Fortress 2’s Mann Co hat store. Both examples have been extremely profitable and have vastly enriched their respective platforms with improvements or new content for users to enjoy.

Imagine the Steam platform, except for single game, where all the products are content for that game.

Imagine the Steam platform, except for single game, where all the products are content for that game.

This requires a modular game design that can support infinite standardized content and an online portal through which users can upload and sell their creations, while you get a cut for each purchase for providing the platform for users to both play for enjoyment and earn money on.

No need to gate progression, no need to use evil design patterns, no need to compromise the experience of the game in any way at all, but still make mad profits.

2. Boundless games are the next revolution

I’ve always wondered why developers spend many years of their life on developing something that is a single-use product, that may only last a few hours or maybe a couple days, before its used up with no replayability left in it.

Considering that video games are interactive programs that have the capability to simulate a world and let the player be directly involved with it, unlike books or movies, where the user can only enjoy those mediums passively by reading or watching them, with no chance to influence it or be there as an active participant, it seems a waste to craft a game to be enjoyable only once and, most worryingly, be a scripted linear experience that artificially limits the player instead of enabling them.

More so, considering that making games is really hard, as it requires advanced programming skills to craft a game engine, which alone is an extremely complex task to achieve that could take up years of work, just so it’d be used for an experience that can be exhausted in a few hours is absurd. Writing books or directing movies isn’t even remotely as hard as this!

So why make a throwaway product when you have the possibility to create something that can be infinite as time itself?

The idea behind an infinite game is to provide a consistent universe to the player and let them be themselves in it, allowing them to interact with it freely, using no arbitrary limits to stop the player from having fun the way they want to do it.

There have been many games that have accidently included features of an infinite game, but so far no game has fully become one to the fullest potential. Minecraft, Terraria and Starbound are some of the biggest examples of a game that comes really close to being infinite, but all fail in some aspect or implement the infinite game only partially. Between these three examples; they all provide an infinite world, have modular content, character customization, can be expanded with modding, have multiplayer, but they end up undoing their potential with the progression structure of a game type that is scripted, linear and finite.

However, they are still incredibly successful for the features of an infinite game that they do have, but that success is only the fraction of what is possible.

Just to clarify, the way I define an infinite game is not the traditional arcade type of endless games, such as tetris, temple run, flappy bird or other highscore based games. My definition of an infinite game is like taking an epic 10 hour campaign game with adventure, action and story, like Half Life or Mass Effect, but allow it to be infinite.

While its fairly complicated to design such a game, the essential idea is mainly to restructure it from being a controlled, linear experience in a predefined setting with predefined characters into an open, uncontrolled world, where the player is playing as themselves and nothing is strictly predefined.

Sure, there can be a backstory to the world, there may be a focus on certain themes, it may be located in a specific type of place in a specific universe, but its generated out of templates that the player can assign names themselves. Instead of the player being forced into a scripted situation or have a destiny to fullfil, the adventures come just by the player existing inside the world of an infinite game.

A boundless game imitates life in its metagame structure

A boundless game imitates life in its metagame structure.

Adventures start and stop through events or needs that the player tries to fullfil in the game for his character, but time itself goes on in the game independent of the players activity, so stuff happens even if the player didn’t actually do anything.

An infinite game is something that would surpass MMOs and F2P games completely and is a type of a game that would bring a big revolution as minecraft did, except minecraft’s design was only partially an infinite game, which is why it isn’t even more popular today and why many people quit playing it eventually.

3. Most important thing in game design is purpose

If there is one thing that would describe the most important thing in game design, that would be purpose.

As basic at it sounds, its suprisingly enough ignored, causing developers to start a project with a certain vision in mind, but end up developing something completely against that vision, creating a bad product in the process. The reason for the failure was that the purpose was not first made clear when the project began.

The idea is this: if you know what you want, you’ll know how to build it. Its that simple.

When you follow a clearly defined purpose, any decision will automatically be guided towards the best possible solution at hand to make the best possible result. This is the holy grail of how best game design is made. You cannot go wrong with this.

In a sense, its an analytical approach, famously used by Rovio when they developed Angry Birds. They clearly defined what they wanted their project to be and that automatically guided their brains to ask the right questions in order to achieve that goal, resulting in a success.

The process is very simple:
1. Be very clear and honest what you want the project to be.
Ask: What is the point of making this game?

2. Once the purpose is a clear vision, then focus on what is the next immidiate step to make it real.
Ask: What should I do next to make the game complete?
Ask: How should I do this next thing for the best possible result?

For example, you want to make a game about the thrill of skydiving as an entertainment experience. Knowing this, you can then ask yourself how to make this happen. If the answer is “I don’t know”, then your task is “find out”. When you ask yourself “how to make this the best possible way” and the answer is also “I don’t know”, then the task is once again: “find out”.

Finding out means basic research. Look for information on the internet, from people, try it yourself and see what is stopping you from doing the next step in developing the ultimate skydiving game.

Again, all this may seem like common sense, but I am definitely not convinced about that, considering the decisions countless developers make when they develop and release their project, often the result being the opposite of what they said they’d create in the first place. It just keeps happening. Do not underestimate how important this is despite how lame and simple it may sound.

This is what happens when you forget the purpose of your project

This is what happens when you forget the purpose of your project.

This process will focus your brains on making decisions that are the best possible for your project, ensuring that what you’re creating will be the best it can be. To get the best answers to design questions, the important part is to be honest and clear what the purpose of a project is. This is the most important tool driver of a game designer.

4. Gamification works only in the short term

I often hear how people are excited to gamify everything and expect it to make things better. I disagree with that. The reason is extrinsic rewards or punishments. These work for a very short time only.

The idea behind gamification is to apply game rules onto an activity that is usually boring and repetitive, but usually holds some form of long-term benefit for doing it, supposedly.

Its a bit like a game of pretend where the context of that boring activity is being covered with imagination of a non-boring fantasy, or trying to make it addictive through methods of arbitrary rewards and punishments. In the end, its either deception of yourself or giving you a praise or reprimand that itself has nothing to do with the actual activity itself.

The problem is that human beings have a universal need for sincerity and respect. Being what they truly are, gamification violates this need. Eventually, the user will detect the unsincerity and manipulation, which will cause them to lose genuine respect for the gamification they’ve been subjected to, even if it was there for noble purposes. The moment this illusion shatters, the person will quit the gamified activity due to the violation of basic human needs.

Since anything a human ever does is in their life is to meet their universal needs and gamification by its nature goes against that at a basic level, the player will feel subconcious resentment towards it.

The real mistake that gamification supporters make is to disregard the intrinsic value of the activity they are trying to gamify.

Extrinsic motivators encourage people to focus on them instead of the activity itself and its benefits

Extrinsic motivators encourage people to focus on them instead of the activity itself and its benefits.

If you want to encourage someone to do something valuable, healthy or useful, even if it requires repetitive input and the results will only be apparent in the long run, the real solution is to highlight the positive sides and find ways for the user to do the activity at such a low cost, that it would be more valuable for them to do it, than not do it.

For example, if the goal of the project is to improve the chance of the user doing sports regularly, for health and fitness purposes, then the project should focus on finding ways to demonstrate to the user why doing sports is more valuable than not doing sports, while suggesting methods of doing said sports at less cost than not doing them, so that it doesn’t feel like effort when they actually do the sports, but actually enjoy it, have fun and find it absurd to not keep doing sports.

For example, I personally might find running laps around a track too laborious to do it consistently despite its great benefits, but if you give me a snowy mountain and a pair of skis, I’ll never stop skiing down that mountain and maintaining my ability to do so because I love that activity too much to not do it. And just like that, I’ve been convinced to do sports rather than sit on couch and be a lazy potato.

The purpose of an encouragement project is to bring out that intrinsic quality of a topic, not use gamification to sugarcoat it or offer addiction based artificial rewards for doing so. Empower the player instead of trying to either dominate them or force an addiction upon them.

5. Competitive games kill themselves

I’m referring to human vs human competitive games. Considering how popular competitive games are, not just in video games, but also in real life, such as popular competitive sports, traditional board games involving competition and even corporations competing against each other, this may sound wierd.

It might also sound outright crazy, if you’re a regular player of competitive games.

The issue is that competitive games will kill themselves. Literally.

In short, competitive games work on the principle that there needs to be a winner at the expense of everyone else. This is the very definition of the word competition; An event where two or more parties try to prove their superiority at the expense of the others.

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Two football fans. Notice the score at the top and how the fans are behaving as a result. The left girl’s day was ruined by a single number digit, meanwhile the girl on the right is enjoying the dissapointment of her neighbour without even realizing it.

As simple of a fact that is, its commonly overlooked due to traditions in game design and the competitive-oriented society in general too.

Just to point out, I have played competitive games for over a decade until noticing this issue. The nasty thing is that the problem becomes visible only in the long run, so with a short-term exposure and no knowledge of this even being a problem, it may be difficult to notice it and take it seriously at all. Its a very stealthy bastard.

When a game is competitive, it makes its players annihilate each other for the arbitrary position of being a winner. Losing is not fun as it means you’ve failed at the game and thus did not progress. Also, being assigned the title of a loser gives the winner the power to be recognized as a better person than the loser. This is the reason why trash talk exists and why competitive gaming communities are often toxic, elitist or hostile. These behaviours are encouraged by competition, directly.

The winner cannot exist without a loser, which means a competitive game always requires everyone else to be sacrificed for one persons or one teams enjoyment. I think this is sadistic and immoral.

The result is that players are encouraged to quit the game by other players, either through frustration from losing repeateadly or through harmful behaviour of other players, such as harrasment, sadistic mind games, hostility or simply realizing that its all a losing game, even if you get to the top of the leaderboard, since someone will always try to take you down.

Human vs Human competition and what it makes people do to each other as a result.

Human vs Human competition in action and what it makes people do to each other as a result. Not pretty.

Simply put, competitive games encourage people to leave the game, thus killing it.

The solution is to realize that what makes competitive games good is everything else but the competion itself. Visual arts, satisfying interactions in gameplay, great music & sound design, randomness of people, meaning and clear objectives to complete… these are all aspects that have nothing to do with competition itself. They’re seperate and work independently without needing competition to work.

These qualities can be arranged to work for a collaborative or cooperative setting, instead of a competitive one. This will work the opposite of competition, encouraging players to stay and have a naturally inclusive atmosphere.

I’m asking developers to restructure their competitive games into collaborative or cooperative frameworks, so that player communities won’t be encouraged to bring each other down, but instead empower one another.

Or another way of phrasing it: move away from having people compete against people and instead have people compete against anything else together or individually.

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