May was a little bit slow too, wasn’t it? Better than April anyway. June will be fun. I thought I’d talk a little about game design today, specifically the elements of the game that make it challenging.
A game is largely a goal, set before a player (or set of players), with challenges to beat, and a reward for accomplishing the goal. Without the challenges, however, the goal is hardly a goal. Imagine a game like Space Invaders, only there is just one enemy, he’s very large, he only takes one hit to destroy, and he doesn’t move or shoot. Not much of a challenge huh? Consequently, it’s not much fun either. Games should provide a sense of accomplishment, and thus goals are guarded by a variety of obstacles and enemies, often multiple in combination. Traditionally, we think of these challenges as enemies which are actively striving to keep you from reaching your goal. This works very well, particularly when there is a variety to which the player must adapt. However, these are not the only devices a designer can use to hinder a player.
Descent by Parallax Software is one of my favorite games. I still play it, not for the graphics or the fancy features, but because it is a well-made, fun-to-play game. For those who don’t know, in the single player campaign, each new level sees the player in another mine, where the player must destroy a reactor and escape before the level explodes. There are a variety of challenges that hinder the player. In addition to the many robots that are intent on destroying the player, there are locked doors which the player must find keys for, there is the player’s limited amount of energy, which he must recharge if he wishes to defend himself, and there is the challenge of reaching the exit after destroying the reactor, which is often compounded by the others I already mentioned. Now imagine this game if there were no enemies, no locked doors, and unlimited ammo, and the exit was always just a few seconds away from the reactor. The challenge would be gone, and there would be no accomplishment in completing a level. In fact, the experience would quickly become repetitive and boring.
One of the most important things to consider in designing a game is a specific set of challenges that the player will enjoy overcoming. These can be anything from something that hinders the player directly, such as goo that slows him down, or an obstacle that he must avoid, to enemies that are actively trying to keep him back, to a simple time limit that he must hurry to achieve. Depending on the style of game, you may want something that makes him think, or something that makes him twitch with quick reflexes. The point is, designers need to decide how they want the player to proceed. I don’t mean that they should leave the player a single choice in order to succeed, rather, the player should have a variety of choices, and plenty of freedom. The challenges a designer presents to a player greatly affect what the player does, and whether he enjoys the game or not. They define the gameplay in a very real sense. That’s what makes playing a game different from watching a movie. As game designer Chris Crawford says, a game is about what the player does. If it was simply about graphics, as many seem to think, the players might as well just go watch the latest action film.