Blog Archive (The Orchard)

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Breaking Free

Some things are just "normal" in video games. Suppose you're playing an adventure or platform game. Most likely it involves picking up some variation of the coin to collect points. If you're playing a casual puzzle game, chances are it involves lining up multiple objects in order to form a combo. Am I right? A subtle smirk may have surfaced on your face because those statements resonate with you. If you've played several different games and game genres like me, it's quite likely that you've noticed certain patterns in game design.

It seems to me that video games--especially those within the same genre--exemplify several of the same features. They may be hidden behind a veil of creative thought or shiny theatrics, but they are there nonetheless. Developers may utilize similar designs, but they don't have to. To all those game makers out there: we don't have to follow tradition. There are new roads to be traveled, new paths to be blazed, and new techniques to be applied. That's what this article is about. In the paragraphs to come, I'd like to share with you some insight on the effect and importance of breaking away from the accepted normal into the new. As I gamer myself, I'm open--even eager--for something different. To the seasoned veteran, to the sprouting novice, and to the aspiring developer: let's give them something more to play.

What About Tradition

Tradition itself is not bad, and I do not  mean to imply that the games of today are a poor excuse for fun. Whether in the gaming industry or elsewhere, good traditions do exist. In regards to scripture, Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, "So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter." Other translations replace "teachings" with "traditions." One can see that, in other areas of life, certain traditions are valuable, just like the ones that Paul and others passed on to the Thessalonians; yet, one can also see that certain other traditions can be detrimental. So what elements in games are better off left in the cupboard? In the end, that's for you to decide. But I hope that at the end of this article you will be better equipped to make better choices in game design. I'm going to split up our exploration of tradition and their effects into three sections, "Making New," "Making Better," and "Making More." 

Making Better

If games have come this far since the Atari and NES, how much more progress can we make in the next ten years? But then again...what is progress? Some would argue that contemporary games are no better, perhaps  even worse, than retro games. There are many factors to discuss in such a debate, but let's just quickly look at the areas of advancement that have been made in the gaming spectrum. 

First off and perhaps most blatantly obvious, graphics have definitely advanced since those 8-bit days of pixelated endeavors. The use of polygons and the facilitation of more complex sprites has allowed for more realistic graphics, and has made paved the way for more creative ways to design such graphics. It's not just that games better resemble real life in their presentation. Graphic artists also have more freedom to express different art styles in their work than they did in the old days when they were only able to work with a relatively few pixels on a screen.

Secondly, sound effects definitely possess greater quality than in days past. We've come quite a ways from the depersonalized buzzes and beeps of the retro era. Was Johnny playing his Atari or was Dad starting the dial-up connection in the next room? No one could tell. I'm partly joking, but if you've ever played an older video game you know what I mean.

Thirdly, the physical interfaces have changed. Interfaces are gateways between the program (the game) and the user; it's where the player inputs data into the game so that the game can respond accordingly. By physical interfaces, I basically mean controllers and other hardware used to control the game. In the years that have passed, the analog stick has been invented, the D-pad has been moved around, buttons have been added and taken away, and controller designs have been developed that are more ergonomic. We've been able to use controllers as bats, we've been able to play games with a finger, and we've even been able to get rid of a controller altogether.

Fourthly (apparently, fourthly is an actual word), the gamer has been presented with more options in general. This is partly due to the increasing performance of game systems and their processing components. There could have been more complex games in the past I suppose, just not with all the grandeur and realism that today's systems can dish out. In general, today's games give us more choices and reactions as compared to games of the past. Gamers have more to learn about a game and the abilities they can use in-game. More options lead to more game responses, which leads to more to see, more to learn, and more to experience.

Another thing: the majority of mass market games (or the more popular games for sale, in other words) are lengthier than games of the past.

The last aspect I'm going to mention has to do with presentation. It's somewhat different than just graphics, in that I'm referring to the realistic and artistic value of a game's various elements. Among other things, more efficient processing components have,once again, facilitated things like dynamic cut-scenes; real-to-life physics engines; greater personality in characters; more pleasing character and environment reactions; and more.

Developers harness the power of stronger CPU's and better software to create better graphics, better experiences, and in the end better games.With all that behind us, let me get to the point of this discussion. Those in the gaming industry are doing a good job of creating enjoyable products for customers to play. In fact, it seems they are getting better at it in many ways (some more than others). Yes, there are those games that you or I may consider poor, but I'd say that good progress is being made in many areas of game design. But my point is this: you don't have to make games like others are.

As a game developer myself, one of the things I want to do is present something novel and interesting. There are certain "staples" in game genres that are prevalent in the games of those genres. Should they be there? If you're a game developer, what do you say? We don't have to mix together the same ingredients as the big bakers--the successful game making empires that are out there today. We don't even have to follow the trends of the emerging Indie market. We don't have to cook the same cake as the others; we don't even have to be making cake. I want you to realize that the way things are always done isn't necessarily the best, and that one can take a whole new path in producing a wonderful gaming gem. Be totally radical. There are still great ideas out there for the taking.

Now in looking at the subject of "making better," there are many ways that certain game design institutions can be improved upon. Some examples are the saving system (how games are saved), character control, or dialogue between characters. If you think about it, you could probably take something from a game--let's just focus on saving the game for now--and come up with a better system than one you are familiar with. The key is shaping it to make it easier and/or more enjoyable for the person playing. If you have a game franchise that you really like, they you've probably experienced improvements in one or more of the sequels in regards to one aspect or another. You can do the same with your own projects, basing your game on other games that you've played.

Making New

There's a game project that I've been working on for quite some time now that has to do with amoebas and adventure. One idea that I had was to have the game go straight to the opening cut-scene the first time it was played. So the opening menu would not be seen until the player came back the next time (this is to create an engaging movie-like effect). Recently I purchased a game that did just that--the first time we played, it opened up with a cut-scene. So I wasn't the only with that idea, hm? This game that I speak of included the searching for fruits to prevent the demise of a certain alien civilization.

This concept--breaking the ice with an opening cut-scene--is something I have not seen before. It's a new and potentially beneficial idea. Just like this, there are many more ideas out there that have yet to be tried, yielding new experiences that have yet to be enjoyed. So you're making a fighting game. Instead of giving each player an HP meter, perhaps you could try something different like giving the player fifty chances to get hit before he loses or making injured limbs deal weaker damage. If it's your game, feel free to try something new! The point is not to add something different just because. If you make use old techniques and paradigms, that's alright. Just don't assume that the old way of doing things is always the best way. And if you're after making excellent games, it would be ideal to give it your best.

Here are a few example questions that you could ask yourself in considering something new:

  • Instead of 1st or 3rd person point of view, how about a 2nd person point of view for my game? The player would see the world not through the character's eyes, nor from an omniscient perspective, but would view the game's progress from the standpoint of some other mysterious character.
  • In your adventure game, how about making the main character take a defensive position instead of an offensive one? It could be a small, feeble character (like a mouse) that won't fight offensively, but must keep himself out of danger.
  • Instead of taking direct control of the main character, perhaps the player can change the character's surroundings.
  • What if you made a game almost entirely based on dialogue! The main character would take actions according to the words you chose for him. For example, if the character told her friend that she wants to go to the movies with her, the character would indeed go to the movies, which would in turn affect the game's story somehow.
 These are just ideas. You can come up with your own. Lean toward realism in your game's personality and design, make the interactions intuitive, and be creative; then you'll be better positioned to finish with something great.

Making More

Improving upon old ideas and adding your own new ideas and concepts is a part of making your game something more for the player. New ideas seem to be the normal these days. At least here in the U.S., supposedly "new" ideas come up frequently, even daily, and hit the store shelves and TV commercial slots in the form a new gizmo than can enhance your life or a "magic potion" that can ease your burdens. Not all of these are mediocre, but not all of these are what they claim to be either (anyone who's bought a few infomercial products knows what I mean). Besides the small inventions, there are greater ones that have marked their place in history like the airplane, the microprocessor, and crustless bread.

But new doesn't always mean better. Sometimes what people want is not necessarily something new but something different: an old idea resurfaced or a new idea that's something special. Often what consumers want is something more. Making more means making something that exceeds what compares to it. As a game player, what do you look for in a game? Doing the same old thing as everyone else isn't going to bring many fans to your doorstep. But it's those trail blazers of game design--those producers, those graphic artists, those directors, those level designers--working together or as individuals, that have made something different and have made gaming history. Those shining trophies of the gaming world aren't just another game. They're not just another first person shooter or two-dimensional platformer. They are something different, something better, something more. Mass marketing helps too, of course. But if what you're selling isn't something different or something better, you won't get very far. Be bold; be creative.

The Bottom Line

We live in an age of constant change. Think back to when you first started playing video games. Do you remember what the popular game of the day was? If that game were introduced to the world today--without any foreknowledge of the franchise or characters thereof--I doubt it would receive as good reception as it did back then. Why? Because another game would have surpassed it by now. When you get to the bottom line, what makes those great games stand above the rest is either originality or improvement; either they brought something different to the gaming world or they improved upon current game mechanics. Think of your own favorite game, and see if these traits do not apply in some way. The lesson learned: if it's for the better, break away from tradition!

Let's not assume that the normal way is the best way anymore; it's time to give the world something better. I believe there is much more to be grasped and applied to video games that will create more enjoyable and pleasing game experiences, such as the world has not seen. These are only games, and I do not mean to imply that these virtual diversions can solve mankind's deeper problems. Only God can do that. But using the video game as a tool--even as a conduit to bring the Truth to this entertainment-influenced world--perhaps you and I can make a difference. A big difference. I'm excited to see where the gaming industry will go in the years to come--new places, new heights, new worlds. And maybe you'll be the one who will help it get there. -Amoeba of light

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