4 January 2011

Measuring The Space - by John Mawhorter

      Posted 01/04/11 02:58:00 am  

Increasingly, I see the problem of commercial AAA game design as one of measuring the space. By space I mean the various design differences between games in the genre you have committed to. Although I’m all for innovation and discovering new types of gameplay, this blog post is about imagining a standard industry developer handed a job by a publisher in genre X and how to win the battle for best game in genre X.

To begin with, measure the space by knowing it, observing it, playing it. Play research is consistently undervalued. How the hell! can you, as a designer, make a better beat-em-up if you haven’t played a lot of beat-em-ups. And not just the obvious ones,

Bayonetta, God Hand, Devil May Cry, Ninja Gaiden, Yakuza, God of War, etc. but the ones that failed (why did they fail?), the 2D ones (Streets of Rage, Viewtiful Joe (retrofuturistic), Turtles In Time). If you wanted to be completely satisfied, you might even play a few fighting games, since they’re very similar mechanically despite the multiplayer element making them completely different.

Find some lesser known titles that are well reviewed as well in an effort to find possible mechanics that can be resurrected from obscurity to shine in your own game. Then, think about the relative attributes of the games that you’ve played and think of a new possible combination of those attributes.

To give you an example, this post was inspired by thinking about the multiplayer FPS genre and where it could go. This is the genre I love most of any and thus one that I feel pretty knowledgeable about. I thought about the recent success of Call of Duty 4 and its sequels.

In my mind (gross oversimplification) COD4 is really just Counter-strike 2.0 and presented to the console crowd (I play S&D mostly, so some distinctions are lost here). Obviously it’s very well done and there’s tons of polish, but that, in my mind, is what it boils down to. The biggest difference in my mind is the sprint button.

This got me thinking about game speed and player speed and how those interact. Which moved me on to Quake and Unreal Tournament, games I would consider faster-paced in terms of both movement speed and combat speed/rhythm. From there I created a little continuum. Quake and UT on one side, Counter-strike on the other.

Various game speeds, movement speeds, combat speeds etc. averaged in, I could place America’s Army and Red Orchestra and Battlefield as further right of CS. Now, here we are ignoring variables like round structure, game types, and other very important matters, but for my purposes this sort of dirty prototyping works. For a 20 million dollar game, more accurate and fine-tuned research would be useful.

The conclusion I came to was there is an unexplored part of the space: a game with very fast movement with Counter-strike style play, further left of COD4, but still right of Quake/UT. A hybrid, perhaps. This led me to think about how to make movement more of a skilled mechanic, which led to parkour, which led to complicated rush routes, which basically unfolded into a GAME IDEA.

Know the terrain, divide it up, categorize it, and classify it, and then find some area where noone else has planted their flag and put yours there. This same project, in the service of startling innovation, can be applied to the macro landscape of games as a whole, but the same process on a micro scale can be used to make great games in established genres.

Too many games are sacrificed on the altar of me-too and not me-too-but-I’ll-do-it-better-BY-BEING-SLIGHTLY-DIFFERENT. Not all differences can lead to productive results, but if you’re working with a successful formula, little tweaks may be just the thing to produce wondrous results.

Sean Farrell
4 Jan 2011 at 8:57 am PST

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