Wednesday, 20 April 2011

The Road to Shamballa - The Game Design Process

Game design. It’s kind of like that big pink elephant standing in the corner of the room, winking at you every so often with a coy little smile on its face. You kind of skirt around it now and again, giving a little, mildly frightened, and highly bemused nod to it as you pass by - but you never really ask.

Truth is, I never really wanted to either. I’d adopted a nice, cosy little picture of tiny imagination elves stealing the dreams of gamers every where, and hammering them out into the mythical final product with grins, elbow grease and maybe a jaunty little song or two.

The reality couldn’t be more different - well, apart from the elbow grease, and maybe the songs. Actually, I have to say, I was surprised at how different it is - at least, to my naive, preconceived notion.

Coming from an animation background, I had a fairly well rounded view on how movies, in general, were created, right from the initial idea, up to the final edit. I should have done, the class projects I’d been put through strictly followed that process.

I guess that’s why I went into doing Game Art thinking that the production pipeline would be the same. In some ways, it is, I suppose, but mostly, it’s not.

Game design has to be as structured as it is fluid, it has to think of everything, and leave enough room for change and adaptations. Nothing is set in stone, and that was a strange concept for me to grasp. In movies, everything is laid out plain and clear - you have a script, your storyboards, your acting, animation and sound. There’s a clear structure to follow, that works.

The game’s industry doesn’t really have that. You’ve a basic outline of what you have to do, the process you need to go through, but because you’re dealing with an interactive media - not to mention one that’s forever adapting, changing and becoming more advanced - you aren’t given the luxuries of certainty.

So many aspects have to be taken into account; the story, the game play, the emotion that the creator wants the game to evoke. There’s so much to think about that it kind of makes my head spin.

But there’s no denying that without that process, games just wouldn’t be what they are.

Earlier games like Pong and Pacman, when compared to games of the day are so vastly different, and yet so very the same. Your classic RPG, adventure game and first person shooter are all built around the same basic dynamic - play through a level, gather what you need, and possibly kill things along the way.

But when it comes to the emotion and involvement that they evoke from the player, they couldn’t be more different from those early 8-bits.

It’s the away the game’s been designed that gives them this distinction. It’s the attention to the story, characterisation, game play - every little thing down to how the levels are lit and what the music sound like. Actually if you ask me, music is one of the most important things in a game, next to art and story, for sheer amount of emotion it evokes. Take the video’s below for instance, while a simple example, illustrate this quite well. The original, while still creepy, is no where near as unsettling as the second. That’s because of the way it’s been cut, and the music that’s been added.

Who thought cat’s could be so creepy, huh?

It’s the same with art, you can take a normal room, and when lit one way it can be totally unthreatening, but with the right lighting, or the addition of certain minor features, or changing even just the way the walls curve can make it off putting, unsettling and scary. Colour palette is highly effective as well when trying to influence mood.

This process doesn’t just stop with environment’s though. Characters can be put through the same design process, to just as great an effect, continuing on into animation. A characters motions and body language are often far more telling than their speech.

It’s that attention to detail that can make or break a game. The player has to feel as involved as possible, especially in game’s where the story is a major aspect. Anything that can ruin that submersion into the game should be avoided at all costs.

For instance, Heavy Rain by all accounts was expected to be a great game, but with the constant character switching many people found it hard to follow as it forced them out of the story. Where as Legend of Zelda, a series that’s known for inducing déjà vu with it’s repeating plot line, constantly changes it’s world, but within parameters that are believable for the Zelda Universe.

Gaming is all about suspension of disbelief, about escapism on an interactive level, and at the root of all great game design is a single rule: ‘don’t screw up’.

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