Game Design Elements #3: Your Game’s Pulse

I kind of wrestled with this one, trying to figure out an appropriate name for this particular element (grouping), but I think I hit this one about right. So what do I mean by “pulse”? More or less, I’m talking about what keeps the player going… the parts of your game that captivate, challenge, intrigue… insert whatever you want, but its those things that will keep the player going and coming back for more.

The danger is, as game designers, we often become infatuated with a particular gameplay mechanic or gimmick and try to build a game at least partially based on this idea. But its not necessarily unusual to put our game out in the open and have it torn apart by reviewers and have it labeled as “boring”. Why? How could this happen to such a unique, interesting gameplay mechanic? Is it possible we tried to force the issue without really balancing our game or thinking about if all the pieces fit well?

The point of this GDE is not to talk about the specific mechanics themselves, but about the underlying facets upon which some of them are founded. I say some because–let’s face it–game design can really produce some out-of-the-norm stuff, but I think what’s discussed below hits some very good points. So if you’re trying to look at your game mechanics and figure out went right or wrong, maybe this will provide some interesting insight for you to apply.

Element Overview

After considering multiple games and game styles, I came up with an interesting triad of attributes. They are as follows:

  1. Speed
  2. Progress
  3. Variation

Each of these are pretty diverse in their application, and I may do a GDE in the future on each one of them. But for now, let’s make some general observations:

Speed: The speed at which things happen in your game. This could refer to the player’s movement and abilities or to the rapidity of an enemy horde’s attacks. You could also call it the “tempo” or maybe even the “athleticism” of your game. In essence, how fast is your game as a whole moving?

Progress: The tangible goals of your game. Progress can be measured in many ways: stages, experience levels, achievements, or even high scores. The primary concern here, though, is to consider the strength of the objectives in question. How engaging are said objectives, and is the player captivated enough by your game to strive for them?

Variation: The diversity of your game elements. In all honesty, this can encapsulate graphics and music too (changes in scenery, for instance), though we are looking at this more from a mechanics standpoint in this discussion. Do you have different types of enemies? Power-ups? Field hazards? How dynamic is your game’s overall structure?

The general idea here is that each of these are utilized by the player in the game environment.

  • Speed = Navigation/Environment Aspects
  • Progress = Motivation/Purpose Aspects
  • Variation = Logic/Adaptation Aspects

See how those three do a nice job of wrapping up the foundational structure of your game? This may sound corny (seriously, don’t read TOO deep into what I’m about to say), but think of speed, progress, and variation as the body, heart, and mind of your game, respectively. All are important. Though a game may be heavier into one or two of these aspects, these elements co-exist!

Element Incorporation

Instead of trying to summarize the wide spectrum of handling these three things, I’ve decided to provide some example games and how they have used the mentioned elements.

To start, we have the body, speed. An example of game-types that relied heavily on speed are old arcade style games like Galaga. Things are typically happening very fast, and the player who wants to survive must constantly be active or face certain death. It may be safe to say most of these games lived and died by their frenetic speeds, and the effects of such were often amplified by subtle gameplay changes (variation) that would appear throughout a basic, no-nonsense stage structuring (progress). Above all, control and speed were king.

Next, let’s look at the heart, progress. Prime game-types that thrive on progress are RPGs and exploration-based games. How much farther can you get? How much stronger can you become? Games of these types have a solid system of reward in the form of upgrades, unlockable areas, and the like. Games should still feature suitable speed (rewards are not excessively spaced from one another) and ample variation (diverse rewards), but the exact balancing ultimately comes down to the style of the game and its difficulty. The point is, motivate the player enough to keep moving forward… to strive for that next objective.

Last but not least, we come to the mind, variation. Puzzle type games are one of the stronger utilizers here; they, above most other game types, cannot afford to be labeled one-trick-ponies. They thrive on wrenches in the mix… challenging the player to think and adapt. Yet there is one very notable non-puzzle example I want to bring up: the original Donkey Kong Country. This game is an excellent example of variation, focusing each level on fleshing out a particular mechanic. Though many levels were by no means brain teasers, it kept things fresh and interesting throughout the entire game and kept it from becoming stale. Variation is what keeps your game from becoming monotonous.

Supposedly, a good deal of this is knowing who your lead force(s) and supporting actor(s) are. For example with the arcade games, you may have speed leading the way with progress and variation more as support and enrichment. All are needed though in some form; if I haven’t made it clear enough already, do not forget that!

Element Optimization

Again, this is a little tough to talk about due to the broadness of the topic. But a good analogy I can think of is comparing your game structure in a general sense to a food recipe. You have your three different ingredients, and its a matter of applying the right amount of each pertaining to what particular game you are trying to make. And just because one area is lighter or heavier than the others isn’t the important part by itself; its how the parts come together. Even a sugar cookie can have too much sugar.

Find the balance. Learn what makes your game mechanics fun. Is it the freedom and fluidity found in speed? The curiousness evoked from the diversity of your environments found in variation? The sense of accomplishment gained from toppling a big boss or unearthing a secret treasure found in progress? WHAT MAKES IT FUN? Learn these “fun” aspects, understand them, and make them work. And realize not every mechanic will revolutionize gameplay or even be fun, despite best efforts to balance it. When this happens, don’t keep riding the train until it wrecks. Go back to the drawing board and keep trying until you find something that works.

But be creative. Don’t be afraid to think abnormally about something, if you will. Upon considering element combinations, for instance, I kind of happened upon these rough conclusions:

  • Emphasis on Speed and Progress = Urgency
  • Emphasis on Speed and Variation = Instincts
  • Emphasis on Progress and Variation = Discovery

Maybe you’ll happen upon something too. Just experiment. All this game design theory may be nice, but ultimately let it flow freely. Practice the science and the art of game design together. Work hard, be persistent, and have fun!

In Conclusion

Coming up with a solid game concept can be tough work. Just remember to use your head and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Keep moving forward!

Posted in Design

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