April 3, 2009

You’re probably wondering who I am. To put it simply, I’m what you might call a wanna-be games designer, not in the industry yet (Though I’ve attended a couple of UK games development conferences, mostly Develop in Brighton – http://www.develop-conference.com/ I’m an attrocious networker, a habit I ought to change, I mainly  go to learn and get an insight into the hot topics of the moment). I’m currently in the middle of a Games Development Degree (BA Creative Computer Games Design) at Swansea Metropolitan University, as with all Games Degrees its only been established recently, some times I wonder if I’m more lab rat than student… But I suspect English, History and other degrees had to establish themselves many years back just as Games Degree’ are having to now. That said, I’ve recently heard that a former student has gotten a game designer position somewhere, so they must be getting a few things right (Or the student had natural talent, which would help).

I suppose sooner or later someone might ask me just what a game is, the problem with definitions is that sometimes people try to create them just so they can fit things into a nice, safe, pidgeon-holed world where everything makes sense. Somehow, that seems a bit odd to me, that said, definitions can serve a purpose and I’ll get to that. A lot of definitions try to deal with further definitions and words like fun, play, interaction and so on start to emerge (If you want a more comprehensive list of definitions for games, theres about 10 in Rules of Play – Katie Salen, the info was useful for one of my assignments, if you’re wondering). As far as I can tell though, those words tend to apply to people trying to define ‘good’ games.

Not long ago, I had an assignment brief that required me to look at two existing games (One rated higher than the other) and compare them using one of the ludology (Study of Games Design) methods that have been created, I ended up using Patterns in Game Design (Bjork & Holopainen), Design Patterns originates in Architecture using a system of patterns that consist of both a common problem along with a solution (Or solutions?) however this exact method isn’t used in game design patterns, instead they form a sort of structure that can serve a multitude of purposes… For example, if you’re playing an in development game and you think something is lacking/missing you could experiment with trying to add a new pattern into the existing structure of patterns (Potentially creating an entirely new gameplay experience) – At its core patterns in game design is a tool intended for assisting the process of game design.

Whilst breaking down Chrome (A technically solid game but recieved average reviews)  and S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl (The better recieved game amongst press & gamers, even though it was a bit buggy at release)  I noticed something interesting, the majority of the patterns that Shadow of Chernobyl had which Chrome did not related to one particular aspect of the game, giving the player freedom to make decisions. Though Chrome had levels that were each individually larger (On average), progression was linear whilst Shadow of Chernobyl had a much stronger element of free roaming, choosing missions/goals… Even the inventory system in Shadow of Chernobyl was less restrictive than that of Chrome (Which also had a grid system, but fewer grids and in a limiting pre-defined set of shapes) using weight as the limiting factor instead of a grid forced into a particular set of shapes.

Though previously I had stayed clear of inventing any definition I ended up straying into one almost by accident:

‘A game is a representation of some form of world, that requires the participant to make decisions.’

Huh? You ask? I’ll break it down because theres stuff going on here that I feel is implicit, firstly everything takes place within some kind/form of world, that could be the maze in pac-man, the container in tetris, the locations in any first person shooter or an entire universe/galaxy in a space game. The second part is pretty straight forward, the player has to make decisions, these can be based on imposed goals or on-the-fly goals chosen by the player (EG The Sims doesn’t set any explicit goals if I remember correctly) and can be small goals (Shoot the baddies in the room) and big goals (Save the girl/defeat the boss/return with the elixir) .

Now, I realise that by avoiding mention of concepts like fun, goals and play I’ve ended up with a fairly broad definition, it serves my purposes though – Its a reminder to get the world right (A world the player wants to spend time in) and the decision making systems right (Give the player decisions they enjoy making, even possibly as far as letting the player decide what sort of decisions they want to make). Thats how the definition informs my decision making… If I get either of those two basic things wrong, I ought to hang my head in shame.