Game Design and Life

I spend a lot of time thinking about video games, from concept to completion and then some. Whether making, playing or being involved with the community, there are a few things I have noticed that I’d like to share.

Game design is equal parts organic and structure, but the more time I spend with both the process and the end product, the more I realize that there are hidden, underlying core values in game design that closely resemble the six human needs. The more of these values/needs the game hits, the subjectively “better” the game is.

Level 1: Needle in a Haystack

You may or may not know this, but there is a sea of video games available across many platforms that grows each day, and with each day, finding games that you’d enjoy becomes that much more difficult. Games on Steam, for example, are sorted by “featured”, popularity, new, and newly updated. Getting deeper into search options leads to genre, user keywords, rating, user rating, and individual specific features and categories.  While this is good, it’s definitely not great for telling me what games I would enjoy.  A close guess at best.
It then dawned on me, what makes a game “good” to me, might not be the same as what makes a game “good” to another, it’s entirely subjective.  A popular game doesn’t mean I would enjoy it, a new game doesn’t make it better than an old one.  We are bombarded with options and choice overload, and while Steam’s custom suggestions are heading in the right direction in finding games that might suit us, I think “space” “rpg” “roguelike” are still too broad, and don’t really tell me about the game’s design as a whole, or how they reflect my values.

Level 2: Under the Microscope

Until this moment I had never really taken a step back and examined what I like in a video game, what am I looking for, and why I would begin and continue to play it? So I made a list of things that feel really good in games, and not-so-surprisingly, these points happen to be reflected in some of my favorite games quite heavily.

Mike’s list of things that feel REALLY good in videogames

In my opinion, the more points a game hits on this list ( list is not complete by any means) the more subjectively “fun” the game is.

  1. A simple and fun core gameplay loop, duh
  2. If complex gameplay, then one that teaches me to think, grow and exist within the games limitations, rules and universe.
  3. Hybridity/New experiences – Combining genres and ideas that aren’t usually together to create something new altogether
  4. If lore exists, it is engaging and complimentary of gameplay, and if not, it should be skippable
  5. Elements of randomness – Not every play should feel the exact same
  6. Punishment and failure that feels fair – Nobody wants to be hand held though, difficulty curve should keep the user invested and constantly increasing skill or learning, also provides replayability
  7. Short term, in-game progression – Eg. Equipment, Level and Economy
  8. Long term, slow, incremental overarching meta-game progression – Unlocks / Stats / Skills
  9. Longevity – A way for the people who love your game to keep playing – New Game +, Hardcore Mode, Level Editor, Very Rare End-game Loot, PVP
  10. Community – A good game harbors their community, involves their players in decisions, listens to their likes and dislikes, engages them on a personal level.  Includes things like secrets, mystery and group problem solving puzzles too

Multiplayer acts as a score multiplier on games, anything worth experiencing, is worth experiencing with others.

1.5x Multiplier for Multiplayer VS and/or 2x Multiplier for Multiplayer Co-op

This is why games like Dungeon of the Endless, Risk of Rain, Binding of Isaac and Dungeon Defenders are so great, at least in my opinion.

Even though I had missed a few things, I felt like this is a strong skeleton for what makes a game “good”, and hopefully represents what others do too.  I would have stopped at this point, but I stumbled upon something that brought a sort of depth and clarity to this madness.

Level 3: Life, uh, Finds a Way

While working, I like to watch TED talks. I find them interesting and inspiring and they aren’t too distracting.  When creating the cover art for JumpJet Rex, a Tony Robbins talk came on.  In this video he talks about what he deems “the six human needs” are, and immediately I began to liken them to categories for the core game design values I had previously established.  The needs are:

  1. Certainty/Comfort.
  2. Variety.
  3. Significance.
  4. Connection/Love.
  5. Growth.
  6. Contribution.

I ended up making a graphic summing up most of this, and how they match up.

Certainty

Game rules that are established early-on and consistent throughout | Responsive controls | UI design that gives relevant information | Reliability/Stability

Variety

Elements of randomness | New Experiences and Ideas | Gameplay difficulty ramping | Staggered Content | Level/Character Design

Significance

Actions made in the game affect the game’s world | Success or failure is dependant on the player | Choices matter

Connection

Single Player: Meaningful dialogue and story, characters that matter to the player, ideas/themes that the player can relate toMultiplayer: Having a shared experience with others | Work together to complete common goals | Compete to prove your own skills

Growth

Gameplay rewards the player with a sense of progression either through in-game systems or player skill increase (can be both)

Contribution

Level Editor | Mod-able | Harbors community | More meta than the other values, but this is why I believe PC gaming is on the up

Near the end of the talk, he touches on the idea that humans value/bias each of these categories differently, and that’s what ends up being your “driving factor” for the decisions you make.  Applied to game design, it becomes a beautifully simple way to not only design better games, but categorize and find games suited for you more easily.

When designing a game, you might not be able to hit all of these points, but the more you hit, the more approachable your game will be based on the values of your end user. This is why I believe Minecraft became the smash-hit that it did: It hits all these points and wonderfully so, meaning there’s a bit of something for every bias.  This is also how poorly designed games can still be successful, as long as you do at least one of these things right.

If we could profile games under these categories, with ratings and features for each, and then have users create profiles to figure out where their biases lay, we could more closely suggest what people would like to play, but also find gaps in the gaming market and use that to influence game design and make better games for the people who play them.

Bonus Level

For fun, at the time of writing this post I polled my twitter followers and asked what they value most in a game’s design. Then took their answers and organized them into the six categories:

  • Certainty/Comfort ( 10 votes )
    • Great Controls x 5
    • Pleasing/Captivating Aesthetic & Immersion (graphics/sound/atmosphere) x 4
    • Feedback for actions x 1
  • Variety ( 16 votes )
    • Replay Value / Repetition without stagnancy x 7
    • Fun/Original/Randomness/Uniqueness in Gameplay/Mechanics x6
    • Outfits / Customization x3
  • Significance ( 3 votes )
    • A sense of purpose or meaning x 2
    • To “feel like a badass” x 1
  • Connection ( 9 votes )
    • Ability to play co-op with others x 3
    • Ability to compete with others x 1
    • Strong Narrative / Engaging Story x 5
  • Growth ( 5 votes )
    • To get better / accomplish things / be challenged  x 3
    • Difficulty ramping/increasingly challenging x 1
    • RPG/Leveling Mechanics x 1
  • Contribution ( 2 votes )
    • Twitch Integration x 1
    • Mod/Editor support x 1

So what is your bias?  Do the games you enjoy the most reflect it? What’s important to you and what kind of games would YOU like to play? Lastly, do you think that our current systems in which we find games and have them suggest work, or is there room for improvement?

Mike Gaboury

Mike Gaboury

Game Designer / Artist / Animator

@mike_gaboury