Unseen features in your game could help make it a big hit, says our pseudonymous design expertů
Every designer would like to design a hit game. It’s desirable not only due to the financial benefits that follow, but also because of the industry respect and future design freedom it brings. But not every game can be a hit; indeed, not every game should even try to be a hit. And the first step in creating a hit is to define the proper metric of success for your existing design and then determining if a hit is possible, or even desirable.
A retail hit is not the only form of success in the game industry, it is merely the most visible measure of it. Not every well-known game makes money, and there are games you’ve never heard of that were more profitable than you would probably believe.
I’ve never had a retail ‘megahit’ myself, but I have designed games that have made significantly more profit than most of the top ten-selling games at the time.
And then there’s the question of critical acclaim and reputation, which isn’t much of a factor for beginning designers but is increasingly important to the more established and successful ones. The very best game designers are always focused on doing something genuinely new, different and entertaining; if they do it right, with proper regard for their target market, they know that the sales will be there, too.
Understanding what you are trying to do is the single most important aspect of the design process. It is alarming how many people in product development have literally no idea of what they want to do.
Earlier this week I received an email from a publishing executive who wanted to know if I might happen to have any ideas for a specific market segment they want to enter. This is neither the first time I’ve received such an email, nor will it be the last. As publishers seldom know specifically what they want to do, their primary focus is on determining what market space will give them the greatest revenue with the smallest development cost. This is why they are so interested in casual games right now, as the bang for the buck there is greater at the moment.
The challenge is that identifying a market opportunity and actually hitting it are two very different things, and most of the time the onus for hitting that target falls on you, the designer. This means that it is vital to understand the difference between the aspects of your design that will help you hit your target and those that will hinder your ability to do so.
This does not mean that you should simply throw out every new, different and cool element and copy the market leader, that’s a surefire way to limit yourself to a moderate sales ceiling as well as design mediocrity. The market limitations merely provide you with a set of borders within which you can innovate.
This can mean acknowledging the reality that massive amounts of gore which would go unremarked in a computer game might be unwise to include in a PlayStation title. It can mean leaving out that awesome idea for using voice recognition as a primary interface because the market penetration of headset microphones is not yet high enough. It can mean adding character development and RPG elements to a game originally conceived as a pure fighting game. Or, it can mean stripping out more complex elements in order to provide easier entry in a game that will be sold online.
I thought the most interesting thing about this month’s interview with John Romero, an acquaintance since we were both working in different partnerships with Raven after the release of Doom, was learning how id’s designs took deliberate advantage of what had initially been an accidental artifact of the Wolfenstein 3D technology. This is a brilliant example of how a game’s design can be shaped to maximize both its gameplay as well as its market appeal.
Q&A: JOHN ROMERO
John Romero is the co-founder of legendary game developer id Software and the designer of genre-defining 3D action games Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Heretic and Quake. He is currently designing a massive multiplayer online game with his new games development house, Slipgate Ironworks.
Do you think Wolfenstein 3D was one of the first games to incorporate emotion into gaming?
Fear is an emotion.
With Wolfenstein, the fear came out of the way the game was being designed. We weren’t trying to elicit fear at first, the motivation was to make the player feel successful and powerful, we wanted him to have a great time. But as we were developing the game, the way we made the AI technology work, we designed kind of an interesting way of helping the AI by using sound zones. We made use of that in Doom and other games use it now, but prior to that most games used the monster’s point-of-view.
In Wolf we wanted to not only have that point-of-view reaction, but we wanted to activate enemy AI with sound. Every room had a fill zone, so if you were looking at the map you’d see it marked with different colors indicating different zones. A room would have a different color than the adjacent hallway, so when you opened the door, it would flood fill the colors together into one sound zone.
That made things start getting scarier; you had to start thinking about the consequences of your actions and anticipate the reactions to them. We were doing things to make the AI cooler, but this also started to make the game scarier.
Looking back, what happened in the process of making the game was that we ended up modeling it after the original game [Castle Wolfenstein by Muse Software, the popular Apple II game that served as the inspiration for Wolfenstein 3D]. One of the coolest things was that the original was scary, especially when the SS were following you from room to room. When the SS came in after you and there was this digitized sound sample –
Yeah, we wanted that. We weren’t trying to focus on fear, but it became scary when we tried to recreate that sense of being a prisoner trying to escape.
So in Wolf, the inclusion of emotion was somewhat accidental and stemmed mostly from the technology, but in Doom you were playing upon the player’s fear. That was obviously intentional.
I think we took it to another level with Doom. If we modeled Wolf after the original, which inspired some fear, then Doom was modeled after Aliens, which of course was very scary. By the time we got to doing Quake, we had basically come to understand that fear was a great component of our games.
With Quake, we tried to pull the horror from a different direction, we were using a more psychological, Lovecraftian kind of fear in that one. That was more disturbing and visceral than the fear inspired by Doom.
We took that concept right down to the graphic level. If you look at games nowadays, even compared to Quake running at 640, it looks and feels very different than all the new and shiny 3D stuff. It looks dirty, even the environment creeps you out.
How will game designers inspire emotional reactions from players in the future?
Fear is really primal. More complex emotions require higher brain functions and it takes more design support to trigger that sort of thing. Love, for example, takes a lot more character development.
So really, triggering the base instinct stuff is what we can do now. Messing with more complex emotions is easier in other mediums because they’re more limited than games, you know, movies and books aren’t interactive. To do it in an interactive medium, you’d have to focus on it.
It would be difficult. A studio that’s been around for a long time with a set team, a designer with a clear path and serious resources would be one of the few that could go forward with something like that. You know, with goals like: ‘I want the player to fall in love.’ Or ‘I want the player to cry when this character gets wiped out.’
Your terminology betrays your orientation towards the base instinct stuff.
[laughs] ‘It was so sad when his skull got fucking vaporised!’
Does scripted gameplay of the sort seen in Half-Life and Halo offer the possibility for more emotional involvement on the part of the player?
Scripting definitely offers a way towards that kind of thing. But second-by-second gameplay is really important. You shouldn’t just try to stretch the gameplay with cinematics because the non-player characters are traveling with you and their fate is wrapped up with yours.
What happens to them should have a greater effect on you. You should have to care for them. Actually, that was one thing I was trying to do with Daikatana, you had to work with the secondary characters to keep them in the game and if they died the game was over. Unfortunately, the code wasn’t supportive of that level of involvement.
The Alpenwolf is a professional game designer who has been active in the industry for 17 years and designed games for some of the largest American and Japanese publishers. He has been known to visit Ironforge in the company of a large white wolf. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.