Game Design Elements #4: Variation – Basic Concepts

Its safe to say a lot of us get bored pretty easily, huh? We like to shake things up and keep it interesting!

If you want your video game to succeed, it needs variation! Nobody wants to do the exact same thing over and over and over and… you get the point. So why is this so blasted hard to master? I know I haven’t. I’m sure most of us have played games on both ends of the spectrum: games that are so lamely repetitive you could “do it in your sleep” and games that have such an overabundance of complexity or randomness you can’t keep your commands straight. Though repetition and complexity have their place in the gaming world, it’s as I’ve said before: balance and knowing what you need. Level design and related activities do not often come down to throwing game elements in a blender and hoping they make something nice. “Does my game have enough features and elements? Or do I have too many? HOW DO I KNOW WHEN TO KEEP OR STOP ADDING CONTENT?!?!” Well, calm down. Let’s see if we can answer some of those questions by diving into an overview of the variation element.

Element Overview

So at its core, variation has to do with how all the little pieces of your game work together to keep things interesting. While variation is concerned with the idea that you need different pieces in your game, it is also very much related to how everything comes together to make a single, unified game.

I’ve seen mistakes made before. People slap things into games that, really, don’t do much to enrich its gameplay. A common criminal of this, in my opinion, are upgrades. For the love of all that’s 8-bit, PLEASE stop buffing your game with all those useless upgrade systems! Don’t take a basic platformer and then suddenly give me a stat system for running speed, jumping height, and stomping power. Can you imagine if the original Mario Brothers was like that? It may sound cool in theory, but do you really think it would have made the game better? Look, upgrades aren’t bad in and of themselves; they just seem to pop up at times like “WHOA! I’m an upgrade system! LOOK AT ALL THIS COOL, AWESOME (*cough* mostly inconsequential *cough*) JAZZ YOU CAN GET!!!”

Maybe I’m being a little dramatic, but this kind of is one of my game design pet peeves, if you will.

One of the most important things to ask yourself when you consider adding a gameplay element to your game: does this enrich the overall gaming experience? Does your game get any better because your small gun upgrades to big gun and then to super gun? Are there any significant differences other than the size and power? This is not always an easy question to answer, for sure, but we can get into trouble because we begin to “assume” our games NEEDS element such-and-such.

“Nearly every platformer game has collectibles, so my game needs it too, right?”

Are you sure?

“Well… how else will my player get extra lives?”

Does your game need extra lives?

“Maybe it could activate a special power.”

Is that just a throw-in or are you actually giving some thought to how it fits?

“Well, maybe I could…”

Just stop. Why are you so dead-set on adding collectibles?

See how easy it is to ensnare yourself? A loose example, but I’m trying to make a point. In our quest for game design supremacy, sometimes one might come up with a single good idea but then add like five bad ideas as the foundational support for the good idea. Good variation is not simply being different. The parts need to come together cohesively!

Here’s the point: think hard about how each element–be it an enemy, a power-up, a field obstacle–adds to your game. Does it add to your game in the first place? Is it contributing, or is it mindless filler? Hopefully we can continue to answer those questions.

Element Incorporation

So now that we’ve touched on some broad ideas about varying elements, let’s think about how they actually appear in game. As I’ve already stated, you can’t just throw them in nonchalantly and expect them to stick well. Although variations in your gameplay can be hard to quantify, let’s look at two very relevant “extremes”:

Speed Bumps: Though their impact as only a single unit may be small, their significance (especially in groups) should not be understated. These are the elements that can provide a constant sense of awareness without bearing down too hard on the player. An example might be a small gap into a bottomless pit, or the weakest grunt enemy in the game. When used tactfully and within reason, they help preserve the beat and pulse of your game, keeping the player fresh… or at least, theoretically. They can sometimes also be the biggest problem for a player when they drop into “auto-pilot” and glaze over them at their own peril; forgetting something as simple as bringing a health pack for battle could alter completely how you approach the situation! Speed bump usage can be colorfully diverse and interesting, so learn to use these well.

Gamechangers: The stuff of legends, no? I’m talking about the bombshells a game drops on you… an “OOOOOOH SHOOT” moment or an “AAAAAAW YEAH” moment. Commentary and energy levels may vary. Basically, they drastically alter the current climate of your game. Your survival run could be going well when suddenly a huge horde appears from the dark twenty feet away. Or maybe you just found that mega bomb that’s going to clear the screen for you and buy your crumbling defense some time. These moments, when executed to their prime, provide some of the most thrilling moments of your game. Though arguably they are used sparingly and with discretion in most games (though not all, trust me), their tactful insertion can give that adrenaline rush the player is really after.

Then there’s everything in-between, and managing all flavors of intensity is important. Some variations may have different effects depending on the context they are used in or depending on how they are grouped with other variations. That’s part of being creative, and how to manage it in your own particular game may simply come down to some instinct and logical thinking. Still feeling lost? It takes practice, but maybe the next section (I keep saying that don’t I?) will help us clarify yet still…

Element Optimization

To really wrap our heads around this, let’s take a look at some different models of variation use. Though inevitably some of these may call attention to our other two triad attributes (speed and progress), we want to make sure we understand how variation fits into the scheme.

Arcade Style: Remember GALAGA? Man, I like that game. Arcade games like that thrived on keeping it simple; they’d throw pretty much the same thing at you time and time again, subtly escalating the attack with small switch-ups here and there (and eventually things could get quite crazy). It may sound surprising that these games could have thrived so well on repetition, choosing to go with low-variation changes over time.

This is where I need to talk about speed: it would appear that, in the gaming world, people are much less forgiving of repetition under quick-instinct situations where things are happening fast. In fact, I contest its even welcome. Moving fast and doing it fluidly, especially when your bobbing and weaving through enemy fire or something similar, can be quite the thrill. Good arcade-style games are good at throwing just enough at the player to maintain and heighten the created urgency; they aren’t concerned so much with trying to directly inflict mental lapses through large amounts of complexity, but try to let the heat of the moment and building tension slip the player into making simple (but costly) trip-ups.

Puzzle Style: There are so many different styles encompassed here: arcade-style puzzlers (like Tetris), physics puzzlers, math puzzlers… you name it. It’s kind of hard to quantify under a broad blanket as a result. Personally, I think the important recognition is this: puzzle games tap a particular skill or skillset of the player, and then base their variations around how to challenge and sharpen that skill or skillset. Math games, for instance, don’t usually do something stupid like introduce a new fake number (at least… not that I’ve heard of?). It depends on how thought-provoking and intensive the skill is to use, and variations fluctuate in intensity to accommodate that.

Tactical Style: Turn-based to real-time, board to console, these can be some of the most thought-provoking games to play. Tacticals, very much so, are about the sum of the parts, and frequently are about garnering and preserving momentum. The competitive player is looking to tip the odds in his favor. Tacticals provide meaningful and strategic variations to the player’s arsenal that focus on details. Tacticals are slightly more accepting of “small-gun to big-gun” upgrading at times, though the effect of such and the actual transition is almost never that straightforward; it’s more of a generalization.

The interesting things about tacticals is that they often involve the smaller pieces coming together and culminating in huge moves/plays… some of which could classify in intensity all the way up to gamechanger status. If you are familiar with tactical games, seizing those momentum-shift opportunities are big and quite satisfying. Of course, tacticals have to be sure they are well balanced even at the lowest levels of detail, making sure potential mid-to-high intensity variations aren’t flying around too haphazardly or freely. This often leads to a perceived feeling of momentum and player control being fickle… a feeling that cripples a player’s enjoyment and relegates victory to “dumb luck”. 

Shock & Awe: This has got to be one of the hardest styles to pull off in my opinion. Shock & awe or thiller/suspense games live and die by amplifying mistakes and changing excellent situations into “CRUD!” situations in a matter of seconds. This style is nefarious for throwing the kitchen sink at players and making no apologies for it. Expect gamechangers (or close to it) galore, and bring your A-game if you want to come out alive. This style, when done right, is some of the most well-oiled gaming you’ll ever play. It can be a total thrill ride with some of the strongest senses of accomplishment you can get.

OK, soapbox time, but brutal difficulty for the sake of brutal difficulty is just that: brutal difficulty. It doesn’t make your game an automatic “thriller”. Ask yourself if it’s really fun. Higher difficulties may not be for everyone, but this is where you might see people get confused: “It’s a tough game because I made it that way.” Fine, you made it tough, but did you make it fun? Shock & awe style has to be orchestrated and fine-tuned well to turn out correctly, and difficulty alone is not a suitable measure. Consider the game as a whole, and if it is too difficult–a possibility even with this style–balance it! And experiment: it’s possible a game in this style could feature only above-average difficulty, and there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with a soft difficulty curve to start the game out either.


This list, of course, is not all inclusive.

Before I close, how about homing in on some personal variation don’ts?

Sharp Repetition + High Difficulty: No. No. NO. Please don’t do this. In my opinion, it’s just not that good of an idea. What I’m talking about is when you do something like make this cookie-cutter pathway through a level and then overstuff it with absurd difficulty. It’s a combination I personally find to be boring and irritating. and it coincides with the razor-sharp margin dilemma from GDE #1. Who wants to “run, jump, die, run, jump, die, rinse, wash, repeat 50 times until I accidentally get it right”… ARGH. Some people like these games it would appear… but honestly, if you want my thoughts, DON’T DO IT.

Clutter, Clutter, Clutter: Let’s just reiterate this one. Especially when you find yourself running low on ideas and creativity starts to run dry (it happens!), don’t give into the combo of just throwing stuff down at random and calling it good. You may be entitled to some experimentation; I’m just warning against the lack-of-care settling we might do when it comes to certain levels or features. Just keep the right attitude and persevere!

Overload: Make sure variation isn’t causing literal headaches, and that your speed and variation balance each other out too. Too many things happening at once, especially with a lot of speed, can leave a player feeling helpless and confused. Remember, your player can only do so much to stay in control when trying to channel all input through a keyboard/mouse/gamepad. And again, don’t throw the difficulty excuse when its not legitimate; the player needs to stand some chance at success. Keep things adequately sharp and give the player a suitable amount of control so they can respond to the change-ups.

In Conclusion

Variation isn’t the easiest thing to talk about. By definition, it’s a very diverse topic that changes from game to game! But hopefully these basics can help us start to get a feel for how our games should look and feel when it comes to “shaking things up”. Remember, EXPERIMENT! Find what works, and try to figure out why it works that way. It helps to pay attention to how the experts have been doing it for years, too.

Take some puzzle pieces you like, brainstorm, and figure out what you really need and how to put it all together into a completed project.

Posted in Design

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