Archive for the 'Game Design' Category

Game Reviews from a Game Design and Development Point of View

Read any typical game review, and it’s quite likely that it will provide you with a quick summary of the plotline or storyline of the game, a comment on its playability and the actual gameplay (as well as how easy or difficult it may be), mention of any improvements over previous versions of the game, a quick take on the graphics and fluidity of the animation, and maybe a recommendation (or not) about whether you should go our and buy this game, NOW! And it will probably have a rating as well (5 stars, or 3 out of 10, for example).

These reviews serve a useful purpose, of course – they help provide consumers with a ‘third party’ recommendation about whether or not to purchase a particular game – but in the short form of 200 words or so, (which isn’t a lot of words!), there’s not a lot of space to provide a detailed critique of the game…

So it’s quite rewarding to find an ‘unreview’ that takes the time to “examine[s] the game design of [a] title and consider[s] some of the implications that these design choices had on the game’s audience”, as the post Super Mario Galaxy (from the Only a game blog) does.

The post assumes some knowledge of the game, so if you haven’t seen or played it, watch the following video review:

Read through the “review” (“Super Mario Galaxy“), paying attention to the following questions as you do so; feel free to search the Only a Game blog, or use the Digital Worlds custom search engine, to explore the questions a little more deeply.

  • What genre of game is Super Mario Galaxy? “Rushgames” and “virtual tourism” are also mentioned in the post in this context; what are the defining characteristics of “rushgames” and “virtual tourism”?
  • What is “kinaesthetic control” and how does it affect the gameplay?
  • What camera viewpoint is used in the game? What is a camera viewpoint anyway?
  • To what extent is two-player gaming supported in Super Mario Galaxy?
  • How is the notion of “lives” used in the game, and how does this compare to a normal use of character lives? What is the “normal” use of character lives in a game, anyway?

Another take on the “Super Mario Galaxy” development story can be found on the website, where there are a series of interviews with the Super Mario Galaxy development team.

  • According to the director of the game, what new move was created for Mario, and how is it initiated with the wiimote controller?
  • How was the music for the game recorded?
  • How does Shigeru Miyamoto, who was in charge of the design of Super Mario Galaxy, describe the gameplay of the Co-Star mode?

If you have a Nintendo Wii console and fancy trying out the game, you can find “Super Mario Galaxy” on (game guide); there are also several walkthroughs available – for example, check out this

Post hoc Game Documentation – Walkthroughs and Speedruns

In The Process of Game Creation & the Game Design Document I described how a design document provided a description of a game that could be passed to a technical development team and turned into an actual game.

Once the game has been completed, it becomes possible to tell the story of the game in a post hoc fashion, as a walkthrough of the game itself.

Game Walkthroughs

Game walkthroughs are often provided as ‘hint’ based miniwebsites or ‘official’ game ‘strategy guides’ that can help you to work your way through a game. Of course, some people might see this use of walkthroughs as ‘cheating’, arguing that to appreciate a game you need to play it – and work through the puzzles set within it – by yourself. But when the games are sold as entertainment, not providing a hint every now and again may prevent the player passing through the game, and may upset their enjoyment of it.

Some game producers provide official online walkthroughs of the game, that can act like a “tour itinerary”, almost, for a journey through a game. Sometimes these are also published as physical books that act as merchandise around the game franchise – for example, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker – Official Strategy Guide. Indeed, so popular are game guides that online bookstores such as Amazon even have genres dedicated to them – Any Category > Books > Computers & Internet > PC & Video Games > Strategy Guides!

Looking at these walkthroughs can often provide inspiration for working out how to describe particular actions, events or sequences in a game design document, “closing the loop’ or “round tripping” the description, from design document, to game implementation, to game walkthrough and back to a (designlike) description of the game.

For example, walkthroughs of some of the Zelda game franchise can be found on the Zedla website: walkthough of “Ocarina of Time” (text version), or the walkthough of “Ocarina of Time” (flash version, with screenshots and interactive maps).

Fans of a game may also produce walkthroughs that in effect become manuals for how to complete a game. For example, a submission by the user WishingTikal on the IGN game FAQs site prvides a comprehensive walkthrough for the The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess game. This level of detail would not be amiss in a technical design document where the controls for each game mechanic are described in such a way that they can be implemented directly.

If you are familiar with any games, see if you can find a walkthrough for it, for example by serching for the name of the game alongside the word “walkthrough”. To what extent do you think the walkthrough could act as a design document for the game? For example, see if you can rearrange the walkthrough so that it resembles the structure of a design document. What is missing from the walkthrough that is required in a design document?

Speed Runs

Not being a gamer (?!), the first time I came across mention of speedrunning was in an article in the Spetember 2007 edition of Edge magazine (number 179), Speed Freaks, which describes it thus:

There are two distinct camps in speedrunning. The first, ‘regular’ speedrunning, is dedicated to running a game as quickly as possible using whatever tricks and glitches can be exploited within its engine. There are a multitude of variations on this theme, from completing a game with all items and secrets found to completing it with as few items as possible.

The second, and the most recent, is tool-assisted speedrunning, or TAS. Typically dedicated to older games that can be emulated, TAS runners aim to complete a game as quickly as possible using frame-stop techniques and often otherwise inaccessible bugs. On one team, runners dedicated to cracking a game from the inside using whatever tools it gives them; on the other, runners dedicated to breaking it from above by whatever means necessary. [“Speed Freaks”, EDGE magazine #179, September, 2007]

Read the “Speed Freaks” article. What different techniques are used to complete a speedrun as quickly as possible? To what extent do you think these techniques might be seen as ‘cheating’?

Speedruns are documented as videos, and particularly when filmed from a third person point of view, may be considered to be a particular form of machinima (which I’ll cover at more length in a future post).

Speedruns are often recorded using screen recording software, although some games are released with demo recorders in them. Typically, these demo recorders make a recording of the on-screen action using a screen recorder built in to the game.

However, the Halo 3 game which was released in 2007 included a special “Saved Films’ feature which actually records game data rather than ‘screen images’, thus allowing the game to be replayed ‘by machine’ – and hence viewed, and possibly recorded, from several different viewpoints.

Read the official Saved Films: How to Use Them document. What are the claimed advantages of using the “Saved Films” technique? In what ways does the Saved Film idea resemble the use of MIDI for recording music?

If you manage to make a recording of a demo or speedrun of one of your own games, then please post a link back here. (A quick web search for something like game screen recorder should turn up some candidate tools. I generally use Jing to make screen recordings, though I did notice a

Listening to the Game – A Brief History of Game Audio

One of the things I keep mentioning in the context of game design is the role of sound. Go to any games arcade, and one of the first things you’ll notice is that it’s an attack on all your senses.

Audio can play an important part in manipulating the emotions of the player – and their engagement with the game – as well as providing feedback when a particular action has occurred – or equally as a warning about something that is about to happen.

Today, many games consoles have part of their hardware dedicated to managing the sound – even surround sound in some cases. But high quality audio production was not always the order of the day!

Read A History of Video Game Music (GameSpot). As you do so, see if you can use the article to answer the following questions – or at least act as the starting point for a wider search that will turn up the answers!

  1. The Grammy Awards are best known as music industry awards. To what extent are game soundtracks eligible for recognition in the Awards? Is there a category for game soundtracks in the awards?
  2. How was sound used to create tension in Space Invaders? (Unfortunately, the links to the audio clips no longer appear to work. If you can find copies of sound files for any of the games mentioned, please comment back here with a link. If you want to share your own recordings, DivShare is one place to share them from (it’s not quite ‘YouTube for audio clips’, but then, is anywhere?).
  3. what is claimed to be “the first stand-alone audio soundtrack in the video game industry”? And just what is a “stand-alone video-game audio soundtrack”? ;-)
  4. when did stero sound start to appear in video games?
  5. to what extent was sound supported in the original GameBoy? How does this compare with audio supported in the current generation of handheld consoles (such as the Sony PSP, or Nintendo DS Lite?)
  6. when did sports titles first start to use continuous “play-by-play” commentary? What exactly is continuous “play-by-play” commentary anyway?;-)
  7. how did games from the late 1990s start to use music as an important part of the actual gameplay or game mechanic?

If you are maintaining your own timeline of notable events in game and interactive media history, why not add some important dates in the history of in-game audio to it? (You might also like to refer to the alternative game audio timeline given in the first part of Adaptive Audio: A report by Alexander Brandon.)

If you have access to IEEE Explore, for example through you local library, this paper provides an interesting technical history of game audio: Video Game Console Audio: Evolution and Future Trends, K Chang et al., Computer Graphics, Imaging and Visualisation (CGIV ’07) 2007 pp. 97-102, 2007 (doi:10.1109/CGIV.2007.87).

For more general reading, try Game Sound Design at

An Example Game Design Document Template

In The Process of Game Creation & the Game Design Document I introduced the idea of a game design document, briefly considering the purpose of such a document in the game development process, as well as looking at its general structure.

I have added a draft outline for a Game Design Document as a template page on the Digital Worlds wiki, based on example documents form Creating A Game – Milestone 0 – Design Phase – or: “Writing a Design Document” and Game Design Document Template (from the Game Design Novice).

How does the structure of my draft design document compare with structure of the design documents mentioned in the The Process of Game Creation & the Game Design Document post? If you have developed your own design document structure, what similarities and differences are there between your document and mine?

Feel free to use the draft design document as a starting point for your own design document for any games you care to develop in the future. Simply add a new page to the wiki, select the Game Design Document template and the page will be prepopulated with the draft design document structure. Change at will… :-)

The Process of Game Creation & the Game Design Document

If you’ve been following the Game Maker activities, or if you had a look at the Skillset Industry Standards, you’ll probably have realised by now that developing a ‘major’ game title can be a significant task – writers, game designers, sound designers, visual artists and more must work together to create the actual game.

So what sort of team – and what sort of development process – is involved in developing a game?

To get you in the mood, read section 1 of the Gamasutra article A Primer for the Design Process, Part 1: Do.

What questions do game designers need to ask before they start to work on the design of a game? Which key team members need appointing right at the start of the game design and development process?

Now, let’s consider the case of an educational game, where as well as the game development team, we require input from educational specialists.

[Game Development Process –]

With respect to the above diagram, which is taken from the online article Game Development Process, write down a sequence of activities you think are likely to be involved in the game development process, and identify when you think people filling each of the roles will be involved? Are any roles missing from the diagram?

Here is one possible view of the Game development process, (again taken from the online article Game Development Process):

The concept development phase takes the germ of an idea for a game, works it up as a game outline, and tests it out on potential audiences. This phase ends with the production of a concept document, as discussed in Quick – Find Out About Some Platform Games….

The aim of the Design phase is to produce a design document that can be given to a game development team – the actual programmers, artists and sound designers – and turned into a working game. The game itself is likely to go through several stages of development as it tested.

What do you think the testing phase is designed to uncover?

The testing phase is a crucial part of this style of game development process. As well as uncovering potential programming bugs – such as in-game objects not working properly – it must also check for inconsistencies in narrative structure of the game, consistency (and completeness) of artwork, as well as testing the gameplay: is the game engaging, too easy, or too hard, for example.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves…

The Game Design Document

Arguably the most important phase of the game development process is the creation of the game design document.

Program Ace is a game development/project management company that offers a range of services from “Full Cycle Game Development”, through “Art Assets Creation”, “Animation and Cinematic” development, “Level Design” and “Programming”. If you look at their Game Development Process (they have removed part of the process diagram for commercial reasons), you will see an outline of how they structure a game design document.

Design Document

The design document defines the game concept as well as functional and technical specifics of the game. A design document consists of 3 parts:

  • Game Concept Document
  • Game Design Document
  • Technical Design Document

Game Design Document:

  • Game Foundations (Game Features, The Essence of the Gameplay, Characters, Gameplay Elements, AI)
  • User Interface (Navigational Chart, Functional Requirements, Objects of the User Interface)
  • Graphics and Video (Graphics and Animations, Animated Insertions)
  • Sounds and Music (General Description, Sound Effects, Music)
  • Plot
  • Level Description (The graph of the Positional Relationship of the Levels, Queue of the New Objects Implementation, General Level Design Description)

Make a note of the common features across the Program Ace design document outline and the educational game design document outlined here: Instructional Game Design Document [archived]? Write down the major differences between the two document structures. Now read section 2 of A Primer for the Design Process, Part 1: Do. Write down any similarities or differences between the structure and approach to the game design document described there compared to the other two design documents referred to above?

Sketch out an outline for a game design document of your own based on the above examples that incorporates what you believe are the key elements of a game design document. Does it include or omit any items compared to the example documents? If so, why?

See if you can find further examples of game design documents on the web. (The Design Documents resource area is a good place to start…) How does their structure compare with your outline design document (that is, what are the major similarities and differences between the documents?

If you are interested in what’s involved from a computer programmer/software developer perspective, read Game Development: Harder Than You Think, Jonathan Blow, ACM Queue (Special Issue on Game Development) Vol. 1, No. 10 – February 2004

Emergent Stories

Comparing the story structures described in An Unfortunate Sequence of Events with Adrian Hon’s six story types – story as reward, story as experience, branching narrative, pseudo AI, sandbox games, dungeon master games – we see that Hon is actually more interested ways of negotiating the role of stories in games in terms of how the players act, react and engage in the development of the story, and the way the games develop at a narrative level, rather than mapping them out in an abstract structural sense.

Designing a story that suits a linear narrative structure is relatively straightforward. Everything about the story, and the pathway through it, is known at the outset.

Designing a branching tree story is time consuming and unlikely to be very rewarding: the number of possible branching pathways means that it is likely that many of them will not be explored (so why go to the trouble of plotting, designing and developing those elements at all?)

Foldback narratives often a reasonable balance in terms of ease of construction and a fictive world that provides opportunities to surprise the player even on repeated plays of the game.

However, wouldn’t it be even more rewarding if the story could be created as it is played, providing opportunities for the layer to surprise the designer with the story the game tells as it is played out, as well as the player, whilst still remaining coherent? That is, can interactivity extend as far as allow the player to interact with the creation of the storyline of the game, as well as interacting in some way within a particular story line created by the designer of the game?

A distinction that has proved fruitful in considering this possibility identifies two sorts of narrative within a game since it was first introduced by Marc Leblanc in a presentation at the 1999 Game Developers’ conference (Formal Design Tools: Feedback Systems and the Dramatic Structure of Competition): embedded narrative vs. emergent narrative.

In his 2007 lecture course on Foundations of Interactive Game Design, Professor Jim Whitehead of the University of California, Santa Cruz, (following Salen and Zimmerman in “Rules of Play“), clarifies the distinction in a lecture on “Narrative elements of games” (listen here: (Winamp or iTunes) Narrative elements of games (audio/ipod audiobook format)):

Embedded narrative
‣ Pre-generated narrative content that exists prior to a player’s interaction with the game
‣ Cut scenes, back story
‣ Are often used to provide the fictional background for the game, motivation for actions in the game, and development of story arc
Emergent narrative
‣ Arises from the player’s interaction with the gameworld, designed levels, rule structure
‣ Moment-by-moment play in the game creates this emergent narrative
‣ Varies from play session to play session, depending on user’s actions
• Game design involves employing and balancing the use of these two elements

That is to say, in an embedded narrative, the story exists to a certain extent even without the interaction of the player. In the case of games designed according to a foldback structure, with cut scenes advancing the story at each inevitable point in the game, the cut scenes could almost be placed back to back to reveal the plotline of the whole game.

In an emergent narrative the players interaction with the game is such that a storyline unknown to even the game designer may be the result. Taking a game such as The Sims as a prime example, the player manages and develops various goals and desires amongst some of the Sims characters, and a story of everyday life in the suburbs emerges as a consequence of player choices and random events and interactions programmed into the game.

(For a further, short article on the differences between embedded and emergent narrative, see Emergent Narrative: What is the specific quality of interactive stories?.)

Whilst at first it might seem as if this suggests that emergent narrative creation would correspond to a ludologists’ view of how stories are told by games, and embedded narratives correspond naturally to a narratological view, I think the relationship is a more subtle one. If pushed, I would probably suggest that they can both be accommodated by the ludologist and narratologist positions. For example, in the case of an emergent narrative, the player may interact with the rules to create the story (ludologist position) or interact with the story to create the story (narratologist position).

PS I recently came across a wonderful set of visualisations about the different pathways through several “Create your own adventure” style books: One Book, Many Readings.

Quick – Find Out About Some Platform Games…

Hopefully, hopefully, I’ll start looking at the basic design and development issues behind another ‘classic’ arcade game design pattern – platform games – in the next few days…

As with the Catch a Clown and Maze games, I’ll go through how to construct a game of that type in Game Maker, though if you are following along I hope you’ll feel confident enough to use my notes as a starting point for your own creative exploration of that game genre…

In preparation, I thought it might be an idea to flag up some background material to the classic arcade style platform games, and maybe even encourage you to start putting together a concept document for your own platform game. (The game I’ll describe will have a simple linear structure, but you might link to consider how the platform game could work using other narrative structures… ;-)

What is a Platform Game?

The ‘official’ Game Maker platform game tutorial describes a platform game as follows:

Platform games are very common, in particular on handheld devices. In a platform game you look at the scene from the side. The player normally controls a character that walks around in the world. This world consists of platforms. The player can walk on these platforms, jump or drop from one platform to the other, use ladders or ropes to get to different places, etc. On the platforms there are objects to collect, enemies to avoid or kill (often either by shooting them or by jumping on top of them), switches that can be pressed to open passages, etc. Also the player normally requires skill to jump over dangerous areas. In some platform games you see the whole level at once, but in most you see only a part around the character. In such a case, finding your way around becomes an additional challenge.

A reasonable introduction to platform games can be found here: Platform Game (Wikipedia). (Feel free to use that article as the starting point for a timeline history of platform games… if you do so, please make sure to post a link here if you do so…;-)

The Youtube user retrogamevideos has a wide selection of video examples of classic ‘retro’ arcade games; it’s well worth visiting as an ideas bank for your first Game Maker game in any particular genre (though you would be well advised to turn the sound down on many of the games!).

To get an idea of the mechanics of the classic arcade platform games, here’s part of a run through of one of the first games I remember playing- Jet Set Willy, on the ZX Spectrum, released almost twenty five years ago:

As you watch the movie, note how the opening screens are organised, watch closely for how the rooms are designed and how the player character moves (and how it is visually represented), and listen (if you can bear it!) to see how the sound is designed for the game. Having seen that clip, try to sketch out a simple game concept document for that game, that describes the platform game you’d like to develop (keep it manageable!).

The Game Concept Document

The first stop in the development lifecycle of a computer game is likely to take an original idea for a game and work it up it into a concept proposal that describes in general detail what the game is about. The concept proposal is the document that sells the game idea to a whoever is going to pay for it to be developed into a real game…

The concept proposal should have enough information in it to excite the reader, with enough detail to suggest how the game can actually be realised, without going into too much design or development detail.

The gamasutra article “The Anatomy of a Design Document, Part 1: Documentation Guidelines for the Game Concept and Proposal” by Tim Ryan suggests in the section Guidleines for the Game Concept that the game concept document should include the following:

* Introduction
* Background (optional)
* Description
* Key features
* Genre
* Platform(s)
* Concept art (optional)

Read Guidleines for the Game Concept and create a concept document for a platform game you are familiar with (or failing that, for a game for which you have watched a walkthrough video).

Start to think about the overall concept for a platform game of your own. As we work through how to build a platform game in Game Maker, you will be able to refine this document and use it as a guide for the development of your own unique platform game (hopefully!).

Feel free to join the Digital Worlds wiki on wetpaint, and add page there for your own game concept documents.

I have added a draft Game Concept Document template to the wiki; if you add a new page and select the Game Concept Document template, the page will be prepopulated with several headings that you might find useful for structuring your own concept documents.

(If you would like to take issue with any parts of the template document/suggest changes to it, please post a comment here…)

If you are itching to get ahead with Game Maker, you might like to start thinking about what ‘s actually likely to be involved in a technical sense in creating your own platform game… Alternatively, you might like to explore further how to keep the player engaged in a platform game, by considering the management of Difficulty in Dexterity-Based Platform Games, for example…