What makes a good video game? In this article, I am going to give you the five key elements you want to include in your video game design and a Game Design Document that is perfect for a STEM/classroom activity. These elements are what the best video games have had for over 30 years.
Here are the stages you want to follow:
When done with your game design you can begin building a game using my video tutorial playlist that will guide you to make your own video game using a game creation tool that REQUIRES NO PROGRAMMING EXPERIENCE so you can build your game fast. But, if you want, it allows you to also add your own programming code.
Want to get a better understanding of ‘CODING’ read my blog Is Web Design Considered Coding
I realize GetMeCoding is about learning to code but there is also something to be said about designing, creating and seeing results to get motivated and then learn more!
On any given day in the summer of 1982, my friends Jimmy, Chris, Mark, Ronnie, and I would hop on our bikes and pedal a few miles to a local video game arcade, called Aladdin’s Castle. Our “Tough Skins” pants pockets would be stuffed with quarters as we would enter the arcade and play video games as long as the quarters lasted.
We didn’t realize it at the time but the video games like Space Invaders, Pac Man, Donkey Kong, Asteroids, Dig Dug, Galaga, Defender, and Galaxian would stand the test of time.
They all have these FIVE elements.
Video games mesmerized us as kids. Having spent years playing board games and card games that lacked entertaining media (sights and sounds), we experienced a new form of game that put us in the action.
We could control characters digging into the earth or flying a spacecraft with no prior experience.
You didn’t have to read instructions like those that came with a board game, often delaying the chance to ‘get started’. It was new. Very new.
Since those early summer days in the arcades, video games have evolved. They have evolved from quarter based arcade games to being in the palm of our hand played in our homes. The graphics are often beautiful, sounds are realistic, and the storyline is complex.
The stories are engaging and immersive like movies with the production effort about the same. Today’s video game development for titles such as Call of Duty, the Legend of Zelda series, and Star Wars Battlefront 2 require script writing, set designs, actors and actor voice overs, and music.
It is a long way from Pong on our black and white televisions.
Like many movies that flop, so do video games. They flop even with all the production elements noted here.
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Why do video games fail?
Part of it can be summed up by what they do very well at Pixar, the animation production studio, where it is all about the story. Story. Story. Story. The games that flop are often concerned with everything else but that.
It is not only that but also saturated genres (categories of games). Jumping games, first person, and so on get ….boring when there is no innovation.
Read Greg Costikyan paper here that details even more on good game design. A must read for any aspiring game designer.
Granted, there is not much of a story to Space Invaders and yet it endures. Nor are there any shocking plot twists in Donkey Kong.
There are five key elements in great games.
If you create a game with these points in mind…who knows….maybe you will create the next Dig Dug, Defender, Tron, Galaxians, or Pac Man that will also stand the test of time.
As you read through the following you may begin to realize game design takes thought and planning.
You may also find that on your first try, it isn’t good and you have tweak something…then something else. This is known as iterative design.
This is a great realization but not always the most fun. Everyone wants to just jump on the computer and start making their game. You can but the result will be something less than what you wanted to create.
Just as I enjoyed being the Dungeon Master (the guy who controlled the events) in our weekly game of Dungeons and Dragons as a kid while growing up (yes….I played and LOVED it!!) where I crafted the story, video game creators do the same.
It is creativity at the highest level! Heck…it is art.
Let’s get started with your game design…..
What is a computer video game?
Let’s start here. What if video games were not your thing and now, well, you want to learn about them? We need to define it.
Technically, a video game, is a software program where one or more players make decisions through the control of game objects using resources in pursuit of a goal.
The bolded terms here are where we will focus.
But I will also say, making games can be an enjoyable and often frustrating exercise. Whatever you do, start with a plan and design your game first…then begin building it.
What is your game object - aka character?
Mario, Earthworm Jim, Sonic, Donkey Kong, Link, Megaman, Max Payne, Duke Nukem, and Master Chief are just a small sampling of characters appearing in video games over the years.
Race cars, spacecraft, boats, planes, and even blocks are objects we see in video games.
Your game object is central to your game.
Before you start building your digital character, consider these questions:
How will the look of your character tell you about their personality?
Does the environment they live, change the way they look?
There are tons of tutorials online that can get you started. (NOTE: a graphic tool does not make up for your own lack of creativity).
So look to what all great designers do….observe your world. You want to take some time in planning this as this is the core of your game.
Watch how people and things react in different situations.
Once your character is established you can move on to creating their goals in the game.
What are your video game goals?
A video game should challenge the player to reach the goal of the game. What is the object of the game?
Consider some of these:
- Defeat a ‘boss’
- Collect all the objects
- Create or build up your character and their environment
They should not be too easy to achieve during the early part of playing the game but get harder to achieve as the game progresses.
If you make it too hard causing players to fail early in the game, players will not want to not play again.
During the first few moments in your game, you can teach the player the game by having them experience activities where they have no choice but to complete a task.
For example in Nintendo’s Mario Brothers, you begin the game on the LEFT part of the screen. You can only move to your right. This shows players the direction of the game you want to head to progress.
Further, the first time you learn to jump in the game, you have no choice but to hit the head of Mario on a block floating above his head. This releases a special reward. Now you know you have bump into blocks.
Players keep learning. As they learn they get better allowing them to progress.
Progressing makes you want to keep playing.
What are your video game decisions?
The more interesting the decision, the more interesting the game. These choices will define your game.
When a player makes many bad decisions it eventually means the end of his character.
In early video games, bad decisions meant a loss of your character’s life. I am a huge fan of the 3 Lives model. However, games have changed and the 3 lives has been replaced with overall health or damage meters and you are able to generate a life more frequently.
In some of the more contemporary video games, such as Firewatch, a player not responding to a dialogue prompt can be a game decision with consequences.
You as a game maker can even create situations that force a player to respond or make a decision. In the game Bioshock, game creators add to a player’s health during important battles to create a feeling that you barely survived instead of having your character player end.
Learn more of video game developer tips here. https://www.polygon.com/2017/9/2/16247112/video-game-developer-secrets
You can present your player with a bunch of different choices. Here are just a few we see in games today that may help in your first game:
What are your video game rewards?
No, this is not when you go to the store and swipe your store card for reward points. Did you know that it is a form of gamification and part of game theory for decades. You are essentially shopping and earning points.
This technique came from the game world and is used extensively in business today.
If you are really into the theory and how to apply to education, check out this chapter I contributed to in a book on gamification called GAME ON (Amazon.com affilate link).
The author is Kevin Bell, a good friend, and avid gamer, and a really smart dude! (“Hey Kevin!”)
Rewards are earned by making good decisions in a game and can come in many different forms:
- an extra player life
extra health points
- visual effects and sounds (think Pac Man break away scenes between levels)
They often become more advanced or enhanced as you progress. The bottom-line, they are used to motivate the player to continue playing.
What about your video game graphics?
Graphics are the computer generated images we see in the games and are created (rendered) by your computer or console hardware.
Over the past several decades we have seen the computer processing capabilities increase and with that we get amazing visuals.
We have the ability to make images look almost real….if not real. Fog floats effortlessly around player characters, snowflakes fall following independent paths from teh sky to the ground, wind blowing characters hair, one of my favorite effects, light reflecting off metal surfaces.
However, graphics, although an important factor can be simple. Once again think Nintendo. Better yet, grab your mobile device and play SNAKES or ANGRY BIRDS or FLAPPY BIRD.
All these fun to play but not very realistic looking.
If your game is building these elements here and it leads you to a point where you also need a realistic visual, then you will want to focus on tools that will help with that. This will be a later blog post.
For now, focus on Goals, Decisions, Rewards and ….
What is Immersion and Presence?
If you are planning out your game and you have thought about your character, their story, the goals, decisions and rewards you have a strong foundation for making the player connect to the game emotionally.
This connection is the beginning of making them feel they are in the game (Immersion).
When you feel you are in the game, then your decisions seem more important (Presence).
You are now on a path to creating a game that players will want to play.
Back to graphics… true you may feel that you need to have realistic looking terrain as your character moves around in your world, or the weapon they have has realistic looking grips on the handle, or the rain falling makes it hard to see.
I want you to ask yourself. Have you ever played a game and after the initial “wow” effect of the visuals, the game play slows down and you simply are not feeling like playing anymore.
What may have happened is the game didn’t incorporate the elements presented here that are present in all great video games.
This brings you right back to these five elements.
If you read this whole article, THANK YOU…it was lengthy!!!
Now, go get started.
Better yet, CLICK the button below and use this Game Design Document download to help you frame up your game. Then access a video playlist to learn how you can build your game.
Happy game building!!
– Mr. Fred
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