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Column: Design Lesson 101

Design Lesson 101 - Uncharted: Drake's Fortune

August 10, 2009 8:00 AM |

drake.jpg['Design Lesson 101' is a just-resurrected, regular GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Manveer Heir, lead designer at Raven Software. The goal of the column is to play a game from start to completion, and learn something about game design in the process. This week, we take a look at Naughty Dog's action-adventure Uncharted: Drake's Fortune.]

Monsters are a key part of our culture. Whether it's vampires, werewolves, zombies, or any number of weird creatures we've created in video games, monsters have always been a huge draw. Much of Greek mythology revolves around the slaying of monsters such as the Hydra and Medusa.

The concept of something wholly sinister, wholly inhuman, and wholly foreign to us scares us and enthralls us. These creatures don't exist in the real world, so instead we read about them, watch them on film, and of course kill them in video games.

The thing about monsters is they often represent something very supernatural and different. As a result, they can act anyway we want them to and players will buy it. A monster can fly, teleport to any location, or turn you to stone by looking at you and players are willing to suspend any disbelief because monsters don't need to act like humans. However, when we put monsters in a game, this freedom can pose a problem. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, by Naughty Dog, exhibits this problem towards the end of the game with the introduction of monster enemies.

Design Lesson 101 - Fallout/Fallout 2

October 30, 2008 4:00 PM |

['Design Lesson 101' is a regular column by game designer Manveer Heir. The goal is to play a game from start to completion and learn something about game design in the process. This week, in honor of Bethesda's release of Fallout 3 we take a look at Interplay's classic post-nuclear apocalyptic role-playing game Fallout and its sequel, Fallout 2.]

Every single day of my life I make choices. I choose what clothes to wear. I choose what food to eat. I choose who to be friends with. These choices I make affect my life and the lives of those around me. My choice to eat yogurt this morning probably doesn't have huge consequences, beyond how hungry I am later. However, my choice many years ago to work towards being a game developer has has major consequences on not only my life, but the lives of others around me.

These consequences and the choice that fuel them are the heart of the Fallout games and the focus of this week's design lesson.

Design Lesson: Fallout and Fallout 2 use choice and consequence to deliver a world of enormous opportunities to the player and give the player agency over the type of character they develop.

Design Lesson 101 - Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway

October 10, 2008 8:00 AM |

['Design Lesson 101' is a regular column by game designer Manveer Heir. The goal is to play a game from start to completion and learn something about game design in the process. This week we take a look at the latest installment in Gearbox's World War II series, Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway.]

Brothers in Arms is a series I've always enjoyed, thanks to its mix of first-person action and strategic gameplay. Being able to order squads of infantry to suppress and flank opponents in order to get the drop on them was always satisfying for me, and I enjoyed that change in formula from the rest of the run-and-gun shooters that were prevalent at the time.

What made the series so different for me was the requirement to stay hidden to survive. Most shooters you can run and strafe to kill enemies, but not Brothers in Arms. You had to crouch behind cover and choose your spots carefully to kill the enemy. A full-frontal assault was suicide.

Design Lesson 101 - Strong Bad's Cool Game For Attractive People - Episode 1: Homestar Ruiner

September 24, 2008 4:00 PM |

['Design Lesson 101' is a regular column by game designer Manveer Heir. The goal is to play a game from start to completion and learn something about game design in the process. This week we take a look at Telltale's episodic Strong Bad's Cool Game For Attractive People, which recently commenced with Episode 1: Homestar Ruiner.]

Dialogue trees are a standard part of many RPG and adventure games. These games usually narratively center around interactions with characters, so allowing the player to at least choose what to speak about with the character is important.

Often the designer will present the options to the player in a verbose text format, then have the other character in the conversation respond. Strong Bad's Cool Game For Attractive People – Episode 1: Homestar Ruiner (which I am just going to call Homestar Ruiner from now on) chooses a different approach that made me consider the execution of dialogue trees in games and features that could be useful.

Design Lesson: Homestar Ruiner presents iconic representation for its dialogue trees, which fails to inform the player what he is going to talk about and if he has exhausted the conversations on that topic

Design Lesson 101 - Castle Crashers

September 10, 2008 4:00 PM |

- ['Design Lesson 101' is a regular column by game designer Manveer Heir. The goal is to play a game from start to completion and learn something about game design in the process. This week we take a look at The Behemoth's new Xbox Live Arcade beat-em-up, Castle Crashers.]

Cooperative play in games is becoming a huge selling point and an almost mandatory feature in today's industry. From AAA titles like Gears of War 2 and Resistance 2 to downloadable titles such as Schizoid and PixelJunk Eden, co-op play is a regular feature that many games promote.

The Behemoth, creators of Alien Hominid, have released their foray into the co-op world, a four-player side-scrolling beat-em-up called Castle Crashers. The game supports co-op play over Xbox Live, and like with any multiplayer game, occasionally has networking problems.

The technical problems I personally experienced while playing Castle Crashers have led me to think about how design can help mitigate some of those problems, which is the focus of this design lesson.

Design Lesson 101 - Braid

August 20, 2008 4:00 PM |

braid.jpg['Design Lesson 101' is a regular column by game designer Manveer Heir. The goal is to play a game from start to completion and learn something about game design in the process. This week we take a look at Jonathan Blow's critically acclaimed platform-puzzler, Braid, available on Xbox Live Arcade]

In 1977, the Atari 2600 was launched with a joystick that had a grand total of one button to use. Today, the Xbox 360 has sixteen buttons on their controller. In other words, about every two years we get another button on our controllers.

This increase in interface complexity is the result of increased game complexity. Games have added features such as fully 3D environments, complex dialog trees, and crouch-jumping in recent years. Often in these games, the mechanics are layered on top of each other to create a greater challenge. Moving in a first-person game is simple. Shooting in a first-person game is simple. Moving and shooting at the same time, at a target that is also moving and shooting, is not.

So, it's refreshing when a game comes along that not only goes back to a classic genre that is under-represented in current games, but also keeps its unique game mechanics separate, rather than running them together until the game can only be controlled by an interface as obtuse as the Xbox 360 controller.

Braid is such a game.

Design Lesson 101 - Barkley Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden

July 30, 2008 4:00 PM |

['Design Lesson 101' is a regular column by Raven game designer Manveer Heir. The challenge is to play a game from start to completion - and learn something about game design in the process. This week we take a look at Tales of Game's homage to JRPGS, Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden, an independent freeware release.]

Narrative and story are the backbone of many games, like BioShock, Gears of War, and Crysis. These games use their back-story as a way to immerse the player into their world. Every element of these games, from their voice-overs to their level design, all tell a story that helps support the rest of the game.

Often what occurs in these games are little flaws that momentarily draw a player out of the game world. A character in a sci-fi game could say a line that is considered an anachronism from the 21st century; a game full of realistic enemies could suddenly introduce monsters that don't fit the rest of the world.

This is usually due to player expectations that are set by the production values, the story, and often a serious tone that games take of themselves. The indie production Barkley Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden, however, manages to avoid all of these issues through a number of design decisions and constraints.

Design Lesson: Barkley Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden's irreverent universe and style create a world where literally anything can happen, allowing the player to believe in even the most unbelievable of events and drawing the player into the world more than many of its commercial counterparts

To understand what I mean by irreverent, let's quickly recap the story of the game. The year is 2053 and you are Charles Barkley, former NBA star and citizen of Neo-New York. Twelve years previously, you performed a Chaos Dunk, a slam dunk so devastating that it killed many and led to basketball being outlawed and many of the great players killed in “The Great B-Ball Purge of 2041”. Now, 15 million have died in Manhattan due to a Chaos Dunk and you are being blamed.

Design Lesson 101 - Metal Gear

July 16, 2008 6:00 AM |

['Design Lesson 101' is a regular column by Raven game designer Manveer Heir. The challenge is to play a game from start to completion - and learn something about game design in the process. This week we take a look at Konami's PS2 port of the original Metal Gear]

Being once a PC gaming zealot, I missed a number of console games during my youth. After the Sega Genesis, I didn't own another console until a few years after the original Xbox was launched. As a result, there have been a number of big franchises and games I've missed out on, and I've been slowly trying to catch up on them.

One such franchise is Konami's Metal Gear series. With Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots having been recently released for the PS3, I decided it was high time I checked out the Metal Gear series, starting at the beginning. The real beginning, though, with the original Metal Gear for the MSX (or at least the ported version of it, which is available on Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence as an extra).

In playing the game, I was reminded how difficult and obtuse at times older games can be. What I found most interesting, however, was how the difficulty changed over time.

Design Lesson: By employing an inverse difficulty curve, Metal Gear is able to change the style of its gameplay as the player progresses.

Modern games do a fairly good job of introducing the player to new mechanics slowly. To help them along, designers often make sure the beginning of the game is the easiest, and difficulty increases incrementally from there.

Metal Gear's difficulty is flipped. While the player is introduced to new mechanics slowly, the beginning of the game is the hardest part. Solid Snake is given no weapons or items and charged with infiltrating an enemy base.

This means punching is the only method of attack available at the beginning of the game. Stealth is of the utmost importance during the early portions of the game, as a result. Sneaking around patrols to access new areas is how the majority of the beginning of the game plays. Being spotted alerts the guards, often leading to death or at least significant injury. Rations to restore health are rare at this stage in the game.

Design Lesson 101 - Ratchet & Clank

July 2, 2008 8:00 AM |

ratchetandclank.jpg['Design Lesson 101' is a regular column by Raven game designer Manveer Heir. The challenge is to play a game from start to completion - and learn something about game design in the process. This week we take a look at Insomniac Games' original Ratchet & Clank]

Once one of the predominant genre of games, the quantity of platform games has dropped off significantly as technology has matured and moved the industry to predominantly 3D titles. As that has occurred, the propensity to create hybrid platform games has increased.

Games like Tomb Raider, Metroid Prime, and the subject of today's column, Ratchet & Clank, combine the classic platform elements with different combat and puzzle styles, to create unique game experiences.

While I enjoyed Ratchet & Clank quite a bit, the latter portion of the game began to taper off for me. The game offers the player sixteen different weapons for combat, the majority of which must be bought at vendors throughout the game.

As to be expected, the different weapons are made available slowly and have varying costs, which forces the player to make decisions. Here's where the problem, in my mind, lies with Ratchet & Clank.

Design Lesson 101 - God of War: Chains of Olympus

June 18, 2008 8:00 AM |

God_of_War_Chains_of_Olympus_psp.jpg['Design Lesson 101' is a regular column by Raven game designer Manveer Heir. The challenge is to play a game from start to completion - and learn something about game design in the process. This week we take a look at Ready at Dawn's PSP prequel, God of War: Chains of Olympus]

The God of War series is known for its massive scale and fast paced, adrenaline fueled combat. When Sony announced a version of the series would be coming out for the PSP, many fans were worried. Luckily, the developer Ready at Dawn has done a great job of keeping all the core elements of the God of War series intact, and the series' antihero Kratos is back once again.

One of the core elements of the series has been the interactive events, where the player engages in scripted sequences by pressing buttons on the controller when prompted. Some of these sequences rely on timing (quick-time events), where one false move will force you to start over or die.

Other sequences allow you to interact at your own pace. For example, one sequence has the player make clockwise circles with the analog stick in order to pull down a statue and progress. You do not have to do this immediately, but you won't progress forward until you do so.

It seems that these events are either loved or loathed by most people. While they allow for scripted, specific events to occur within the game, the interactivity is limited to binary input (you either hit the button or you didn't). There is also the issue of the button to press appearing on the screen, something that can pull the player out of a state of sensual immersion. Even so, these events are capable of still drawing the player deeper into the narrative, thereby becoming effective plot devices.

At this point, I must mention that the remainder of this column contains a major plot spoiler for the game. Please do not continue reading if you would get upset at having major parts of the story revealed.