Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Art of Computer Game Design: What the Player sees in the Design Process

In the 1983 book The Art of Computer Game Design Chris Crawford begins with comparing traditional art and its design process with computer games. He believes that “the computer game is an art form because it presents its audience with fantasy experiences that stimulate emotion.” Just as the painter uses strokes and colours to evoke fantasies deep within the audiences mind, the computer game uses codes and rules as well as audio and visual stimuli to draw the player into a fantasy world. Yet as Crawford says “art is nevertheless difficult, because there are so many practical problems associated with stimulating fantasies deep inside another person's mind.” It is for this reason the design process of computer games is so difficult to master. When we listen to a song, for example, we can automatically detect the tension or harmony that occurred during its design process. If the composer was writing to a deadline we often can tell the song feels rushed. If he/she hadn’t used a particular instrument before we can tell it feels amateurish. Crawford argues that computer games face the same problems. He believes that players can see the points of tension and planning that occurred during the design process in the finished product. In this essay I aim to discuss what exactly becomes visible of the design and production process through gameplay. To do this I will draw on Crawford’s own experience with designing his game called Eastern Front 1941 as well as the experiences of Richard Rouse the Design Director at Surreal Software as he recalls the design process that occurred during the making of a stylised horror shooter called The Suffering.

In Chapter Five of the Art of Computer Game Design Crawford suggests “a set of habits that the prospective game designer might wish to assimilate into her existing work pattern.” These habits are laid out in a sequential order and depict the “ideal” process when designing a computer game. These steps include: Choose a Goal and a Topic, Research and Preparation, Design Phase, I/O Structure, Game Structure, Program Structure, Evaluation of the Design, Pre-Programming Phase, Programming Phase, Playtesting Phase and Post Mortem. When one designs a computer game artistic tension or harmony occurs within these stages. It is this tension or harmony that becomes evident in the final gameplay.

Crawford says “a game must have a clearly defined goal”. This “goal must establish the fantasies that the game will support and the types of emotions it will engender in its audience.” A designer who does not layout a clearly defined goal at the beginning of the design process will inevitably face problems when they must make trade-offs due to limitations. If the goal is murky or vague, when it comes to choosing between certain features the designer will most likely make the wrong choice. However if the goal is clear the designer will only include features that truly reflect the fantasies the game supports. Rouse tells us in his post-mortem of The Suffering that “having established [the] high-level design goals from the start, [they] were then extremely frugal about adding features”. These goals aimed to produce an action horror game that explores the issues of the prison system and the death penalty. They found that they had to omit mechanics that were non-essential, for example, beyond the main character’s weapons and flashlight batteries he is not able to carry any inventory items. The team at Surreal would have like to incorporate keys into the characters inventory (since it was set in a prison) but they realised that this would not add much to the “core gameplay experience”. In cutting such features out they were able to focus more on the features that did enhance the gameplay. For example, the inclusion of a first-person mode was able to be developed. This provided the player with a more immersive way to experience the action and horror and was very popular during playtesting. Rouse believed that “overall our strict policy paid off nicely and allowed us to refine our core features while staying on schedule.” The choices made through this “Choose a Goal and Topic” stage of the design process were made visible in the gameplay.

According to Crawford, following the creation of the goal the designer must then implement a game structure that reflects the goal in every way. However, “the central problem in designing the game structure is figuring out how to distil the fantasy of the goal and topic into a workable system.” Crawford uses his title Eastern Front 1941 as an example. The goal of EASTERN FRONT 1941 concerns the nature of modern war, and especially the difference between firepower and effectiveness. To implement a game structure that effectively reflects the goal of the game Crawford focused on a key element: movement. Movement is the key element through which many other aspects of war are expressible. It is easily understandable and easily manipulable. The result of designing a game structure focused on a key element which clearly expresses the goal is that the player is able to easily express him/herself within the fantasy of the game. If there are too many key elements trying to be tackled at once the game loses its focus and the player’s ability to express themselves becomes disjointed from the goal of the game. The player experiences a disjointed fantasy through gameplay when there are too many features that aren’t directly related to the apparent goal of the game.

Once the game has taken shape playtesting ensues. According to Crawford, “ideally, playtesting is a process that yields information used to polish and refine the game design.” Playtesting is not only used as a program debugging tool but also as means through which to gather information regarding the effectiveness of the key elements in expressing the overall goal of the game. Playtesting will tell the designer if the elements are too disjointed to convey an effective fantasy for the player. Hopefully this is not the case and the flaws within the game aren’t so fundamental. However if it is the case, the designer must make a crucial choice; try and fix that which may already be broken, or abandon the game altogether. As Crawford says there is a temptation to “fall back on a quick and dirty patch job”. The designer should only choose to carry on if there is a solution that promises to further the faithfulness of the game to its goals. Crawford uses his own experience as an example, “I ran into a severe problem with unit counts: there were far too many units for the player to control conveniently. After wasting much time trying to devise ways to shrink the map or directly reduce the number of units, I eventually stumbled upon zones of control, a standard wargaming technique that extends the effective size of a unit. The inclusion of zones of control in the game not only solved the unit count problem; it also made the logistics rules more significant and gave the game a richer set of strategies.” Crawford was able to repair this design flaw in a way that still kept true to the goal he set from the beginning. When playing Eastern Front 1941, instead of confronting a flaw within the game, the player now has access to another layer of strategy that fits coherently within the fantasy of the game, due to an effective playtesting phase.

Overall, the most important design aspect is a clearly express goal set out at the beginning of the project. It is the harmony and tension within the expression of this goal that becomes visible to the player through gameplay. Every design phase that Crawford suggests is dependent on a clear goal. If the goal is ambiguous then the game structure will be disjointed and filled with tension. If the goal is not clear, no amount of playtesting will help. Once the goal is defined, its expression within the fantasy of the world becomes next priority. The balancing of key elements becomes a juggling act between too little or too many. It is this balance that is crucial to the success of a game. Whether the balance is struck or not, it is nevertheless the case that the player experiences each and every choice the designer makes throughout the design process.

Chris Crawford's The Art of Computer Game Design can be viewed in full here

1 comment:

  1. As much as I want to agree with that there are a few points within I find hard to swallow. I agree with the spirit, that largely how a design had been made can change the effect of a scene, but my own experience in both developing a concept, and selling it to others, not in any professional or academic sense, there is a spirit, and in keeping to that spirit how you make those choices can be unimportant.

    While I won't describe the concept in detail, the spirit of one I effectively sold to a fellow student at university had her very interested, not in the choices, but in the totality of those choices. While some of the factors she asked why I broke it down, others didn't interest her at all, and she seemed to show no interest in other aspects of my design and the choices I made.

    Now while I understand her stance, to say that every player will see these same questions, which I feel the text, and your commentary implies is not accurate or fair. I started this concept out as a way to tell a story of two characters, hardly a clear goal as I am still working on the story, yet the universe it takes place it is already well developed, perhaps the most of the many ideas I work on.

    Can you pick moments where they made design calls, certainly, but I doubt that anyone apart from that team will ever know the full extent of them.