Anna Marsh is design director at Lady Shotgun Games, a co-operative of freelance game developers.
Game design is like sex: it's right when it feels good.
Having switched from console to mobile development, I think we mobile developers are lucky to be able to concentrate on making games feel great. In console development, graphics and technology are often the focus, as well as 'aspirational' characters and 'cinematic' narratives.
But console development's focus on high level can sometimes mean overlooking the low level satisfaction of what a game feels like to play, resulting in experiences that are not as satisfying as they might be.
Perhaps because our budgets are smaller, or our vision of our audience wider, we can concentrate on gameplay hooks that feel good.
Just can't get enough
So how can games be designed for that special mojo that makes them feel right?
We all know when a game feels good, but it's difficult to describe exactly what makes it feel that way, and to work out what's going wrong if your game doesn't. Feel is created by a complex mix of gameplay elements, some of which operate at low, pre-attentive brain levels before they've been consciously registered.
Thinking of the player's gamer experience as an intimate, passionate physical relationship is something that helps me to focus on designing for good feel.
Try spending some time thinking of your player as your partner, a real person who is going to spend a chunk of their life with the experience you create. You want to make this an experience that feels so great that they can't get enough!
And although there are many parallels between real life intimate relationships and game design, I'm going to concentrate on just three here: trust, communication and rhythm.
It's essential that your partner, the player, learns to trust you so they will have the confidence to tackle the increasingly daring challenges you set them.
They need to trust, for example, that you won't instantly drop them to their death from a cliff edge where previously you'd kept them safe with invisible walls. They need to trust you'll always give them the tools to progress, and you won't allow a glitch to trap them.
Trust means setting rules and then not breaking them arbitrarily for some high level reason. If the bulk of your game expects players to kill all enemies before moving to the next area, it can break your partner's trust to have a section with respawning enemies that can only be clearing by reaching a certain location for the sake of the story.
Especially if you don't clearly communicate that.
It doesn't really matter what rules you set if you want to be a severe dominatrix making a very challenging game with instant deaths and stingy health drops, go ahead as long as your player understands your rules, finds them fair, and trusts that you don't break them.
If you break that trust your partner will feel dumb, annoyed, and insecure. The more your partner trusts you, the more they'll relax, explore and have fun with the experience you've created for them.
Communication works hand in hand with trust. If your partner doesn't understand what you would like them to do, or what they've done right or wrong, things will go downhill pretty fast.
Communicate not only though tutorials, cut scenes and objectives, but the whole audio-visual language of the game. Let your partner know if they're on the right or wrong track by giving graphic and sound feedback for every screen touch and action they make. Simply changing the colour of a button when it is pressed will let your partner know that you've appreciated what they've done and you're reacting to it.
This communication can be obvious (highlighting interactive objects), or almost subconscious (using differently pitched sounds to telegraph enemy attacks), but make sure the audio-visual language you use is consistent. Chopping and changing your communication will make your partner feel less secure, and less able to let themselves go.
It may be game design 101, but it can be so easy to forget.
Once your partner has been seduced and learned to trust you and your communication, rhythm really is everything. You need to guide the player through ramping and falling peaks and troughs of excitement that build to mid-game climaxes until the big finisher.
But don't think of pace only in terms of linear level design or narrative. Rhythm is fractal and can exist in practically every element of the game from a single enemy encounter (as the enemy first appears, ducks in and out of cover, and then finally dies), to one level design, to the way you select weapons, collect ammo, and even press buttons on a menu.
Pace can be delivered through the controls themselves, too.
Console FPS controls are not mapped 1:1 to the controller thumbstick, but use inertia, acceleration, and other tricks to make them feel good. Using physics to guide thrown or fired game objects gives satisfying acceleration and deceleration rather than a consistent, dull trajectory.
Examine the pace of different elements of your game from simple button presses to the entire gameflow by making graphs. Try measuring it by actions per minute, heart rate of player, or the action and movement happening on screen.
What's important is not the rhythm of your game compared to other games, but the internal changes in pace. Whether your game is a super-fast paced shmup or a slow burn adventure, you should be looking at nice ramping changes in pace not a uniform flat line.
Analysing the pace of other games you find feel good is a great way to get insights. You can compare the frequency of enemy encounters in an FPS and a survival horror game, for example, to get an idea of how the pacing of a level design affects the player's experience.
Good, satisfying rhythm in all aspects of a game is in my book the best way to keep your players hooked.
I could go on. Perhaps I'd mention how an analogue element in your game can make players feel like 'the only one.' Or I might argue that seducing the player with a strong opening is equivalent to a first date but it's time to wrap this up!
Hopefully I've persuaded you that 'good game design is like good sex' is a useful design mantra that you'll be able to put to good use when considering all aspects of your game. Your player might have a brief fleeting fling with you, or a long-term affair, and if you disappoint they'll drop you for someone else very quickly.
But give them a thoroughly satisfying, feel good time, and they'll be back begging you for more.
You can find out more about Lady Shotgun Games, and peruse artwork from the studio's first game, on the Lady Shotgun website.
To keep up with the latest Lady Shotgun developments, you can follow the team on Twitter.
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