How to design an awesome game, Part One

Well, it’s a few days late, but I finally got to the game design musings. In the interest of the common good, I’m going to try to lay down some simple and easy principles that show how to design an awesome game. This first article discusses some basic types of Awesomeness, in an effort to work out a more reliable system to develop great games.

Of course, the easiest way to create an awesome game is to already have an awesome game, and to just make a sequel which is exactly like the original, only more so (God of War 2, Halo 2, Guitar Hero 2, etc). Or alternately, to make a game which is exactly like somebody else’s awesome game, only more so (Duke Nukem 3D, Rock Band, etc).

It’s interesting to notice that both Guitar Hero 3 and Rock Band were attempting to make something like Guitar Hero 2, only more so, but ended up with very different offerings; The Guitar Hero 3 developers said “What’s awesome about Guitar Hero 2?”, came up with the answer of “the music tracks” (Awesome Music, below), and so decided that “the same thing but more” meant adding more tracks, whereas the Rock Band guys said “What’s awesome about Guitar Hero 2?”, came up with the answer of “the guitar controller” (Awesome Gimmick, below), and so decided that “the same thing but more” meant adding more types of instrument controllers.

Being able to spot the quality in an awesome game which actually makes it awesome is very, very important (and is often also surprisingly difficult)! And you need to keep an open mind. As software people, we’re generally biased toward seeing the awesome part as being something in the software, when it very well might not be. In fact, many extremely popular games are awesome for reasons which have very little to do with the game mechanics themselves. But I’m getting ahead of myself. :)

Let’s assume that we’re not going to rip off an existing awesome game, and must instead start from scratch with our own, original game design, and that the only constraint on our design is that it must be Awesome.

So where do we start? More beneath the fold.

It seems clear that there are a few different kinds of awesomeness out there. And different people have different preferences between them; we’re certainly not going to be able to create a game which absolutely everyone will swoon over, so we need to pick a target market who will think that our game is awesome. Usually, the best target market to pick for this sort of thing is yourself; after all, if you don’t think your own game is awesome, you’re not likely to spend much effort designing and developing it.

I think that there are seven broad categories of awesome, when it comes to games. These categories are not mutually exclusive; a game can certainly be awesome in more than one category at a time, but it’s rare. Most awesome games are brilliant for just one reason, and the other facets of the game are merely ‘good’.

Anyway, here are the broad categories I’ve been able to cull:

Awesome genre:

Every once in a while, a game appears which doesn’t fit into an existing genre. Usually, these are very small games, often just little prototypes in Flash. When someone finds one of these that turns out to be fun to play, I’ll call that an “Awesome genre”.. although that probably implies things I don’t intend. Usually games which achieve awesomeness this way lose their awesomeness once more games start springing up in this newly defined game space. That is, unless it’s a difficult genre to break into, as happened with, for example, The Sims, which even after eight years is still pretty much the only game in its very successful and awesome genre. On the other hand, note how many pretenders sprang up overnight to challenge Nintendogs, for the much less technically challenging “realistic pet simulator” genre. When I continue with my ‘Sir Nicholas Spratt’ game, it probably won’t fall into this “Awesome genre” category; while the randomised murder mystery thing hasn’t really been attempted in the last decade or two, in terms of the player’s experience it’s still just a murder mystery (and probably one with a very weak plot, compared to mysteries crafted by human writers), and human-plotted mystery games have been done quite extensively.

So in general, if we want enduring awesomeness then we probably want to look at achieving it via one of the other categories.

Awesome gameplay:

Gameplay is awesome when a core thing the player can do within the game is new, unexpected, and fun.

What do I mean by “core”? I mean that it has to be the primary thing that the player does. In Super Mario Brothers, you jump. In Sonic the Hedgehog, you run really fast. In Doom, you shoot things. These are the core mechanics of those games.. and if you’re aiming for really awesome gameplay, then you need a core mechanic which hasn’t been seen before, and which is fun to do.

Vaguely recent games in this category would include Portal (lets the player make two arbitrarily distant locations suddenly become adjacent to each other), Ikaruga (swap colors to make yourself invulnerable to one or the other half of enemies and their projectiles), Crush (classic 3D platformer, but you can crush the level into a 2D sidescroller on any of five axes), Echochrome (swing the camera around an optical illusion in such a way that an NPC character will traverse it), etc.

In the modern gaming industry, gameplay is usually very geometric in nature (whether Awesome or not). Most games end up being about objects moving through space, just because it’s much more obvious how to simulate these Newtonian sorts of mechanics, rather than modeling character emotions or other non-physical traits.

So, since most games are about geometry, the most awesome new ideas in gameplay tend to be about changing the way that the geometry works; either bending it, or warping it, or connecting different bits of it together, or changing the flow of time, or else fundamentally changing the way that we interact with the objects in the world, as in Ikaruga’s invulnerability to half the objects in the game. If we can come up with a new way to move through or interact with our surroundings, that’s a great candidate for Awesome Gameplay.

It’s important to note that “awesome gameplay” is generally made by having a single, simple idea that nobody’s done before, and which can be explained in only a few words. Awesome gameplay almost never comes about by accumulating a large list of individually “awesome” features culled from other games.

Awesome graphics

It’s becoming harder and harder to achieve fame via awesome graphics, though this used to be the key differentiating factor between games and their sequels, among commercial games. And graphics are still important, but are slowly becoming less so as strong visuals become easier and easier to achieve. Note that this category includes both stunningly realistic graphics, and strongly stylised ones, as seen in games such as Okami. But strongly stylised ones tend to remain in the “Awesome” category for longer, as the next generation of graphics hardware will almost always provide something to trump the current state of the art in realistic graphics.

Unless you’re a specialist in this area, I strongly recommend against trying to make awesome graphics your selling point. As you might guess by my choice to work with vector graphics, I’m not a graphics specialist. :)

Awesome writing

Many games are currently making their marks based on great writing. Most awesome RPGs, for example, are awesome not because of their game mechanics, but rather because of their storylines. The same is true for adventure games, which can catch and hold our attention by their plotlines (The Longest Journey, Knights of the Old Republic), or by their characterisations (Phoenix Wright, Sam and Max), or both.

This is another area where I don’t have huge skill, so I’m going to pass on this one when it comes time to design my awesome game.

Awesome polish

Lets face it; if you can polish something up to be shiny enough, your game can become awesome. Even starting as simple as pachinko, if you polish enough, it’ll be awesome and entertaining purely by dint of its amazing level of polish.

But this approach is a staggering amount of work, so I generally don’t recommend it. Of course, maintaining at least some level of polish is always important, regardless of whether you’re aiming for “Awesome”.

Awesome sound

Bizarrely enough, many awesome games these days are awesome solely due to their audio, and often just due to their music tracks.

This trend probably started with Space Channel 5 back on the Dreamcast, and has been slowly growing more prevalent. Other games which are awesome almost solely on the basis of their awesome music would be the Katamari Damacy series, Loco Roco, Rez, and many music and rhythm games. The theory is that the music is so much fun to listen to that the game itself doesn’t have to be particularly compelling. The easiest way to spot this type of game is to try playing games muted, and see which ones are still fun to play without sound. Anything that you think is an awesome game, but which isn’t as fun with the sound off, is probably awesome at least in part due to its sound.

As a software guy, it’s difficult for me to make a game which has awesome sound, so I can’t really rely on this to make my awesome game. But to be honest, many of my favourite games are awesome almost exclusively because they have Awesome Sound.

Awesome Gimmick

Finally, the Awesome Gimmick. A gimmick is a piece of hardware that’s used in an novel way. The gimmick most usually is a special controller (Steel Battalion, Guitar Hero, Buzz!, etc), but not always. Witness Eye of Judgement on the PS3 for a non-controller example. Most games with gimmicks can still be played without the gimmicks, but are substantially less fun when played that way, as the novelty of using the gimmick is at least half the fun of playing the game.

Again, as a purely software guy, I can’t really do this one unless I steal someone else’s awesome gimmick. So this one’s out for me, too.

So it sounds like when I design my awesome game, I’m going to want to focus on Awesome Gameplay as my best chance of achieving awesomeness. But that’ll be the topic of Part Two, in a days.