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Game Design 101 - Making Your Life Hard

Sean by Sean "Day[9]" Plott
on 14 July 2014

The first in our series of game design posts.

Welcome to Artillery’s very first game design blog post! We’ll have many more design-related posts to come in the future, so I elected to start with a little Game Design 101: what is the core job of the game designer? Other creative professions have a concrete output. A musician makes music. An author writes words. But the goal of a designer is to create fun. Unfortunately, fun is something intangible and subjective, so what does the designer make to achieve his goal? The job of a game designer is to create inconvenience, because inconvenience makes fun.

In my very first design class at USC, Tracy Fullerton examined golf in this frame. In golf, your goal is to put the ball into the hole. What’s the easiest way to do that? To walk over and put the ball in the hole. Not compelling. Not fun. Instead, golf makes you start hundreds of yards away and swing at the ball with an awkward metal rod. Remarkably inconvenient, but very fun. By imposing a series of obstacles, inconveniences, and constraints on the player, golf creates a system that allows for skill, style, mistakes, improvement, and fun. Nailing a hole in one feels great!

Inconvenience can also help create expression and strategy. In RTS games, economy and resourcing tells the player: “you can’t do everything. You have to pick something.” This restriction creates different strategies - attacking, upgrading technology, or growing the economy, allowing a player to show his or her stylistic taste. With limited resources, scouting becomes useful because an enemy can’t change their plan too quickly. There isn’t enough money. So if a player can spot a certain mixture of buildings or units, that’s reliable evidence for what the enemy’s next moves can and cannot be. Without a resourcing system, there’d be no reason to scout! The enemy could change their plan at any point.

Designing a game is not all that different from writing a story. In a story, the author creates a main character with a goal and throws obstacles in their way to create an interesting story. With few or no obstacles, there’s no conflict and the story is boring. In games, YOU are the main character! The designer gives you a goal, such as “rescue the princess” or “save the city,” and creates obstacles like moving platforms, fireballs, or pesky enemies to challenge you. You don’t have to read about the hero, you are the hero. The success or failure of these obstacles depends on the goal of the game.

In Atlas, we want our obstacles to feel like opportunities for achievement as opposed to frustrating roadblocks. For instance, one of our goals is for battles to feel skillful, so that smaller armies can defeat bigger armies if controlled properly. A great way to achieve this is by adding aimed/timed skillshots. Yes, it can be frustrating to miss, but the skill and anticipation of making that perfect shot is fun. A bad solution would be intentionally creating bad AI, so that units dumbly disobey orders and must be reissued commands in order to battle properly. We want to avoid such frustrating mechanics as much as possible.

At Artillery, we have to be especially mindful because Atlas is a competitive, multiplayer experience. Every player needs to have fun, even the losing team! In our upcoming design blogs, we’ll zoom in on certain aspects of our game like resourcing, the technology tree, and combat to reveal how we’re approaching the problems of making a really fun RTS. Our goal is for you to have fun!

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