Game Design Series

It’s not part of So Play We All, but I’m going to start writing about Oaqn’s game design on Mondays. I want to keep it fresh in my mind even as I’m hacking away at code internals, and it’ll give me an excuse to improve my design by thinking out loud.

I really love the book Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell. It presents 100 “lenses” for the game designer to take a new perspective on their game. Each lens is a series of questions that I’ll work through. The lenses are even available as a deck of cards, so each week I’m going to shuffle it up, draw one, and write on that topic:

~ $ irb
ruby-1.9.2-p0 > rand(100) + 1
 => 18 

Uh, yeah, that’s a Ruby prompt, not a deck of cards. It would’ve been silly to lug the deck around on my ongoing travels. Luckily the lenses are numbered sequentially, so I can still pull a random one easily.

Lens 18: The Lens of Flow

This lens is all about the psychological state of flow (definitely read the Wikipedia page if you’re unfamiliar), making sure that players have appropriate, engaging challenges.

Unless I start including minigames (which is a possibility for crafting), Oaqn isn’t going to deliberately induce a flow state. It doesn’t have a steady stream of challenges, it’s a game about long-term planning and scheduling a little bit each day. While the player may never be in flow, the questions about goals are still important to ask.

Does my game have clear goals? If not, how can I fix that?

Well, to a limited extent. It’s intended to be an “open world” game where players can explore and set their own goals. There will be some obvious things: improve their character’s stats, join and grow a guild, make profitable trades. All of these are mid-to-long term goals, though, I’m going to need to think a lot about what a compelling first five minutes of gameplay looks like in a game about travel and downtime.

One idea I’ve been kicking around is the idea that players have some kind of “travel meter” that charges up for each second they’re parked somewhere (generally while offline, and only up to some maximum of a few hours). When the player is online, they can use that stored time to skip ahead in their travels. I can imagine some abuses to effectively instant travel, but it would definitely help get people into the game at the beginning. More likely it’s just a one-time thing to show more gameplay and hook new players.

Because quests will be have significant effects, even after they’re finished or abandoned, I’ll need some kind of quest journal to track them. Admission time: I have never played a game with a serious quest journal. They got popularized right at the time that I lost interest in RPGs. I’ve seen some basic functionality in tactical games, but really could use a primer. If you, dear reader, have links to an overview, a must-play game, or any suggestions along these lines, please comment.

Are the goals of the player the same goals I intended?

Hope so. I really can’t say more without players getting involved, especially because I want players to invent goals. Dye all their caravans a rare color, or corner the market on a rare spice, or visit every city in the game.

Achievements can nudge people into thinking of new challenges, but I don’t want to displace that intrinsic motivation with a to-do list of unfinished challenges. I don’t like it when games hide away their list of achievements. Some FAQ is going to have it anyways, but I have to jump through the hoop of finding that. And as a game designer, this means deliberately sending players and their attention away from the game. Maybe there’s a happy medium in listing all the achievements somewhere without prominently advertising uncompleted items to each player.

Are there parts of the game that distract players to the point they forget their goal? If so, can these distractions be reduced, or tied into the game goals?

Unknowable without playtesting.

Does my game provide a steady stream of not-too-easy, not-too-hard challenges, taking into account the fact that the player’s skills may be gradually improving?

Ideally, yes, because players can choose their own challenges and risks as they wander the world. In practice, this probably means prompting players with ever-slightly-harder quests to counteract the inborn tendency of players to eschew risk in favor of reliable but un-fun grinding.

Are the player’s skills improving at the rate I had hoped? If not, how can I change that?

Because goals are so flexible, it’s going to be hard to make sure players get the accurate and timely feedback they need to improve. At the least, this means a detailed event log with goods, travels, quests, and any other significant events. Hardcore players would take the opportunity to export this to Excel and play, but lighter players may not ever think to look at it. Perhaps some achievements can be tied to progression, like a series of “trade X resources in Y minutes” achievements to strive for.

Well, but that’s mostly goals. The player skills are mostly going to be in scheduling, good appraisal, and quest selection. I can judge quests by how many they fail and perhaps time-to-completion, but the others are hard.

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