The Air-Speed Velocity of Unladen Gaming
Good Game Design
by Brad Wardell
Forget the marketing guys or the executive suits everyone
claims are sucking the life out of the games industry. Sometimes
the bloody trail left behind by a bad game that's DOA when
it hits the retail shelves leads right back to the game designer.
That's because designing a good game is tough, really tough,
and what is fun on paper is too often tedious and boring in
practice. The best games tend to be relatively simple, but
game designers can't resist making complicated games. We're
a bit crazy that way.
As a game designer myself, this has bitten me on a number
of occasions. When we originally designed Entrepreneur, it
had a ton more features than what actually made it out the
door. That’s because when we play tested those features, the
game..well the game sucked. Let me explain: Entrepreneur was
a real time business strategy game in which you start a company
and must take over the world’s markets. You pick an industry
to be in (like the computer industry or car industry or whatever)
and then try to become a monopoly in it either by out selling
your opponents or running your opponents out of business.
Well, in the original drafts, you could have as many products
as you wanted and set the price of your product depending
on where you were selling it. We also had a stock market in
which you would try to buy stock in suppliers and other companies
(like your competitors) so that you could potentially do a
hostile take over. Moreover, you could research and patent
technologies that others could use and have to pay for. Plus
there was industrial espionage, employee relations to avoid
strikes, defect management and more. Sounds great on paper
if you’re a business sim guy but when we got it into beta,
well, it wasn’t fun at all, particularly if you wanted it
to be a multiplayer game. What ended up happening is in the
final months of development we jumped in and did emergency
surgery on the game and replaced a lot of the most complicated
things with what are called "Direct Action Cards"
(think of Magic the Gathering cards for business). We got
lucky in that the game turned out well. And next month when
we release the sequel, The Corporate Machine, we were able
to take what we learned and apply it to the sequel.
And this sort of thing happens all the time. The original
design of Starcraft was far far more complicated than what
was actually released as well. The Zerg, I believe, originally
had a multi-stage process for handling their resources for
Another example is again here at Stardock, we had been working
on a design for a game to be called "Political Campaigner
2000". Basically, you were the campaign manager for a
presidential candidate and had to help get them elected. It
used data from polls in each state to determine how well you
would do. We had to hold back on the game because we knew
we wouldn’t get it done by this election period. However,
if we had simplified the design, we would have been able to
get it out for this year’s election. Believe me, given what’s
happened with the election, there’s some discontent that we
didn’t do that now. J
The bottom line is, many game designers stumble on wanting
to put too many game elements into a game and forgetting that
simplicity is often the key. It can cost lots of companies
a lot of money.
So how do you make a good game? If you make it too simple,
it won’t be "big" enough to be a major game. It’s
a fine line between a fresh simple concept that you find at
the store shelves and a $10 shareware game.
There are 5 simple rules to follow to make a successful (fun)
Multiple paths to victory. Whether it’s a strategy game
or a platform game, you want players to be able to have
multiple ways to win. In Civilization, you could win by
conquering the world or sending your people to another
planet. In Baldur’s Gate II, you can play as both good
and evil and most puzzles had multiple ways to complete
Provide new things to discover over the course of the
game. Don’t put all your game elements up front. Have
things you strive to get or see that makes it worthwhile
to keep playing. Strategy games tend to do this by having
new technologies and new units you can build. Role playing
games keep you looking for that +5 armor.
Keep the interface simple. Seems obvious but many game
developers are more into the technology than the game.
A good game’s interface shouldn’t even be noticeable.
If the player is losing due to not being able to navigate
the interface, that will harm the game. I loved Total
Annihilation but loathed TA: Kingdoms because of how much
work it was to micro manage the units that you had to
do to succeed.
Avoid helpless defeat scenarios. You don’t want players
losing the game because of something they consider cheesy.
In Starcraft, it could be frustrating having a mass of
cloaked ships wipe someone out because their otherwise
impressive army didn’t have enough cloak detection units.
Total Annihilation had the Big Bertha which could be abused.
Similarly, in role playing games, you have to keep players
from getting too far too fast to where they can’t defeat
the bad guys. Believe me, this is not a trivial thing
to design in. Cheese tactics are very hard to design against
but the games that stay popular over time are the ones
that successfully design against it.
Design for the proper target hardware platform. Yea,
I might have a dual 850 setup but I suspect most people
don’t. We design games for P2-233 systems. Unless you’re
making a totally cutting edge game (like a first person
shooter) you better make sure that most people can play
it optimally. Strategy games for instance, aren’t 3D because
people want them, they’re that way because game developers
want to make 3D stuff. There’s no excuse to double the
hardware requirements for your strategy or RPG to make
it a 3D engine. There is market research out there and
believe me, people don’t care whether the engine is 3D
or 2D when they make purchasing decisions.
It is easy of course to sit back and talk about what people
should do. Hey, I know these rules and have blown it before
myself. And it gets harder each year as the pressure to have
multiplayer gaming in everything grows. Allowing an air transport
unit to pick up an opponent’s unit (like in TA) wouldn’t be
a big deal if it were single player only. But in a world filled
with insecure zitty 15 year olds taking out their aggressions
on the world, such minor issues have to be patched.
As with most people in the game industry, I regularly get
letters and email from users making suggestions for what we
should do in a sequel to our games or submitting their own
game designs. And it is pretty universal that people want
to put a heck of a lot more features in the game than would
be good for them.
In fact, the very features we had taken out of Entrepreneur
are regularly requested as "new features" we should
put into The Corporate Machine. Next issue we’ll talk about
the perfect real time strategy game…
Brad Wardell is the Project Manager of two ongoing
The Corporate Machine, a business strategy game
due out December 11 and Galactic Civilizations, a turn based
strategy game due out late 2001. Stardock’s website is http://www.stardock.com.
Brad Wardell’s website is http://people.mw.mediaone.net/bwardell.
He is also the Product Manager of WindowBlinds (www.windowblinds.net)
and DesktopX (www.desktopx.net).