Friday, January 28, 2011

Elements of game design, part one: from Pong to next-gen…

There are many aspects of game design; writers, world designers, level designers, concept artists, and many other individuals building their creation around the central concept of gameplay. One of the key elements of the game from the very beginning is the gameplay, and it is the fiber that keeps the game alive and interesting. Before a plot or concept can be made, the designer first has to decide what type of game they’re interested in making, whether it be FPS, RPG, or even MMORPG. Gameplay is basically the interaction of the player with the game; the mechanics of that interaction make it rich and intriguing for the consumer.

We’ve traveled a long way in game design and development, but has the gameplay really changed that much from that of games in the beginning? And why is gameplay so important for the gamer? An entire team of designers is required for any game, and each individual has their own purpose. There are the writers, the concept artists, and so on. Normally they work as a team under a lead designer, giving some direction to their work. Art Direction is usually dependant on the genre of the game. Obviously, a fantasy game will look extremely different from a sci-fi. Thus, the art has to fit the overall genre. As such, so does the gameplay. In the end, if the team doesn’t work together, and compare their ideas, the final product is going to be a jumbled mess of mixed ideas.

Every game has a task or goal to meet. On one hand, it could be simply to make the highest score. In another, it could be to save the princess from the castle, only to find she’s always in another castle. And again, it could be to kill the evil boss at the end. But, are they all so different? The concepts haven’t evolved much, only the way in which we interact with the game. In the beginning, you had Pong, Pac-man, Space Invaders, and so on. The goals of these games were high scores, advancing to the next level, and defeating the enemy. Games today are exactly the same, only their gameplay is more evolved.

Sooner or later, you’ll either get to the end of the game, or get bored along the way. The main goal of gameplay, though, is to keep your interest in the game for long enough so that this doesn’t happen. To meet that goal, developers have to have an understanding of what their consumer wants. A more recent way of keeping the player’s interest is to reward them for their efforts. Almost every platform has thus evolved an achievement system, or item drop system. Examples of these can be seen everywhere: Achievements in Halo and other games, item drops in Team Fortress 2, and a combination of both in WoW.

Most modern games have the same principal today as they did many years ago; run and collect as many points/kills as possible so you could get to the next level, or else the bad guys will kill you. It changed in a way that is more complex in structure and the way it looks. The RPG genre has had an effect on other game types and gameplay. Now you have options that give you the chance to complete a task that is given to you, or not to, in various ways. Then there are plot choices, in which your decision will have an influence later in the game. This influence could either have a dramatic affect on the plot, or be negligible. BioWare is well known for this element, with games such as Mass Effect and Dragon Age. This is also an example of genres overlapping; both RPG and Shooter, among others, combined in one game. The game masks the linear experience perfectly, making you think that it’s a vast world and you can do whatever you want.

Gameplay has become one of the most important elements a consumer recognizes before purchasing a game. Years ago, most consumers were amazed by the pretty colors, and the thought of a new game. But now we dissect it before it has even hit the market to determine if it’s any good. Graphics are certainly high on the list as well, but that’s a topic for another time. If gameplay has changed in any real way, it is mainly that interactivity has greatly increased, and that the line between genres has been blurred and even mixed significantly, leaving each game somehow unique from another.