Game Design: Failure to Launch

Building something doesn’t just happen because you want it to be built.  It takes effort.  A whole lot of it.  Something else it takes a whole lot of is the “F” word:


Lots and lots of failure.


When you are sitting alone daydreaming about the awesome game idea you have boiling in the front of your skull, the video game that is “going to be the next big MMO”, you can tell how seasoned you are by how many questions you ask yourself.  Questions like, “what are the controls?”, “how many players can play simultaneously?”, “what will the player be feeling as she does this, and this, and this…?” are important questions to ask.  Chances are as you’re sitting there stewing over that idea you are only vaguely aware of the control scheme, of where the players’ hands and fingers will be during play, or of how the music and sound effects will (or won’t) clash into a cacophony of white noise, pulling the player out of the experience and forcing them to think of games with infinitely better and more-well-thought-out sound design like Elite: DangerousThe Last of Us, or The Witness.

"Angry Bots" game kit that came packed with Unity until version 4.6

My point is: building games is not only hard work, but it’s probably the hardest work you’ll ever have to do in your life, unless you’re a SpaceX engineer or a neurosurgeon building video games on the side.  This is because video games are a summary experience.  They are holistic structures that draw upon a huge swath of human experiences in order to present a single false reality to a human being engaging with it.  Everything you put into it must gently (sometimes not-so-gently) force the player into believing that what they are doing is intrinsically important.  Whether it’s Tetris, Dance-Dance Revolution, or The Witcher, the more they believe, the more fulfilling the experience.  The better the game.  And this requires the intersection of many factors:

Base Mechanics
Game Flow
Art Style

Procedural Generation
Reward Systems
Win/Lose States
U.I. Mapping/Placement
Sound Effects

These are just some of the things that you have to consider when preparing to build a video game, and that you re-consider over-and-over as you continue to build it.  And this list is considered extremely broad and high-level, without even touching on skill trees, level systems, attack/defense combos, world-building.  The list goes on, and on, and on…

not far from the truth, but honestly, it's really fun!

DO NOT take my reality-check the wrong way: building video games is an extraordinary experience, and everyone should try their hand at it at least once in their lives.  It is pretty damn exhilarating.  But video game development is equal parts “Science” and “Art”, and the more complex the experience you’re attempting to build, the more questions you will need to answer and the more tools you will need to master.  Honestly, this is a large part of the fun.  Pushing yourself to learn more about yourself, your skillset, and by extension, other people.

When you find yourself whispering “it’s going to be the best MMO out there,” do you know what that means?  What is an “MMO” experience?  What comprises it?  What makes WoW different from Eve, different from Realm of the Mad God?  

All MMO's.  Compare and contrast.  Show your work.  Your homework is due Monday.

Chances are if you’ve never built a game before, or even if you’re still very early in the process of your game-building hobby/potential career, you have not taken the time to fully appreciate the depth and importance of these questions.  You’ve enjoyed games, perhaps a hell of a lot, perhaps more than anyone else you’ve ever met in your life.  But you have not studied games.  Not in the way that you are about to as you embark on your journey through building them.  And building complexity takes time, patience, attention, and yes, failure.  Getting good at it takes all of the above.  And you will not be good at it right away.  You will be bad for a long time.  Very, very bad.  You will be plagued with questions from people who play your games:

“Why can’t I go up there?”
“This doesn’t feel balanced…”
“This doesn’t make any sense…”
“What is that supposed to be?”
“How do I find what weapon I’m using?”
“This is boring.”

But remember, as painful as they may be, questions are not attacks aimed at you.  They are simply game design failures.  Little failures, little holes where the strings don’t connect, adding up to questions which will force you to learn and improve.  It will force you to consider something outside of yourself, to quite literally empathize with the other person and align your perspective to theirs so you can see the broken mechanics and fix them.  This is all par for the course of Game Design, and you must get better at all of it if you want to make good games in the long run.  You must get better at focus, at time management, at note-taking, and at empathy.

Since you’re still with me here, you must be serious about this “video game development” thing.  So I’ll reward you with a few helpful pieces of focused advice and maybe some links.

Nuff said.

  1. Time Management:  I highly recommend taking a look at Nicholas’ blog pieces focusing on exactly this subject.  He is both our resident programmer and our producer, so he’s in charge of all of our scheduling and making sure we run everything on-time months before it’s due, while still keeping in mind massive creative changes and potential mechanical overhauls.  As an absent-minded artist myself, his ability to keep us on task blows me away with every project.  Even if you’re not half as good as Nicholas, even if you're working by yourself, managing your time is one of the most important aspects of your work.

  2. Ludology:  This word literally means “the study of games”.  It’s something I’ve taken more seriously over the past three years since we began making games, and I’ve found it invaluable.  The field is both vast and deep, but even just wading-in up to your ankles is enough to get your mind working overtime.  I frequent the “Ludology” Reddit page often here to gain new insights into game theory.

  3. Game Feel:  Extremely important, and often overlooked.  “Game Feel” described here is a vague but ubiquitous part of video games that no game designer can really pin down, other than to say it has to do with the intersection of both the conscious and unconscious mind as you play the game itself.  It is the permeating “feeling” of the game you’re playing.  Ninja Gaiden feels like a ninja game, as much as that actually means anything, and this has to do with the perfect confluence of factors we’ve described above.  Everything from Control, to U.I., to Camera Movement comes together for the player to feel like they’re playing a Ninja game (or better yet, that they are a Ninja).  The ability to understand Game Feel, and then to purposefully manipulate it, come to you with lots of time and lots of practice.

  4. Audio:  Music and Sound Effects can make or break a game experience, helping to drive home a character’s actions, making them believable to the player and thus enriching the overall experience.  An incredible example of this is The Last of Us, which won over 240 awards in its short lifetime, one of which was a “BAFTA Games Award for Use of Audio”.  In The Last of Us Documentary here (linked to the relevant time in the video) the Director talks at depth about their use of audio, from music to sound effects, not only to enhance narrative but also to enhance game feel.  Audio is not something to take lightly.  (Neither is the rest of the documentary, which is chock-full of insights)

  5. Game Design:  We’ve learned a lot from YouTube poster Keithe Burgun’s video series “3-Minute Game Designhere, which are precisely what they sound like.  10 videos of game design tidbits and lessons, each only 3 minutes long.  Worth 30 minutes of your life if you're serious about this stuff.

  6. Juice:  This is a subject often derided in “purist” game developer circles as being too close to the “pay-to-win” sector of video games, particularly in the mobile market.  The reason for this is the sheer fact that Juice, simply-put… works.  Juice is basically nothing more than a form of player feedback: visual and aural feedback that the player receives which corresponds to a small spike in adrenaline and stimulation of the reward centers of the brain.  Bright flashing lights, upbeat sounds, screen shaking, animation tweening, etc.  The list, like most things here, goes on.  Here is probably the best presentation of video game “Juice” that there is.  “Juice”, like its nutritional counterpart, is mostly sugar, but remember: a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.  When you sprinkle some Juice across an otherwise solid foundation of game mechanics you can enhance pieces of it beyond their regular output.  Movements become more satisfying, visual systems become more interesting and rewarding, effects become more stimulating.  The game itself, while intrinsically enjoyable, becomes enhanced with the inclusion of Juice.  Maybe don’t build your entire game around Juice.  But don’t rule it out either.

Alright my video game-developing comrades!  That’s all I can pump out for this week.  Remember: Don’t give up.  Keep failing, keep learning, and keep building.  But most importantly, keep gaming!