I’m writing this article about a paradigm for designing games I have been mucking around with since I started working on my latest game, Mr Runner. I’ve been trying to designing for user experience rather than mechanics. Before I dive into it, you should know all this is still in theory-mode, I’m nowhere near done with it and I know over the next couple of months I’ll be ironing bugs out and changing bits around. But for now it should be at the very least an interesting read, if not helpful.
So what does “design for experience” mean? When I first started thinking about Mr Runner (my latest game), I realized I didn’t start thinking about the mechanics and dynamics of the game or the levels and bosses and upgrades like I usually do, I started off thinking about how I wanted people to feel when playing the game. When I was describing it to Sam, I didn’t describe it as “a game where you do X”, because I had no clue what “X” was yet, but I described it as “a game where the player feels X”. You dig?
I know it seems kinda backwards at first, but the whole point of the game is to deliver an experience to the user. Usually this experience is in the form of a particular kind of fun. Especially with small games. So it makes sense to decide on the kind of fun you want the user to experience, then work backwards by tuning the rest of your game around it.
So what’s the alternative? Mechanic driven design. In this paradigm, the first step in designing any game was to come up with some game mechanic or context. Avoiding high speed obstacles, shooting terrorists, rescuing a princess, you know – awesome stuff. Next is to think about things you’ll be able to do with mechanics, and then starting thinking of all the different ways to fill the rest of the game out. There have been plenty of good games made this way and I’m guessing almost all are, but there is a problem in this methodology; there is no way of telling how fun the combination of concept, mechanics and depth will be until all of those elements are in place. There is always the assumption that once all the elements are in place, the game will just click, and be fun. This doesn’t always happen, and when it doesn’t, how are you supposed to go about making it fun?
So what’s missing? In the experience driven model of game design there has to be a decision made about what the game will make the player feel. From here on out, the concept, mechanics and depth can all be judged against how effective it is a producing this experience in the player. Essentially, it provides an overarching goal and a way to analyze the rest of your game, which can be applied every step of the way.
I should clarify here, using this paradigm doesn’t mean that you can’t then go about and design games the way you usually do. You just have to make sure that you’ve really thought out and researched what experience it’s going to produce. So it’s not mutually exclusive with the mechanic driven design.
Deciding on and researching a user experience
There is a gaping whole in the paradigm I haven’t covered. How are you supposed to know what experience the game will invoke? How do you know what you want them to feel? On top of that, its often hard to articulate why something is actually fun. The easiest way to overcome these problems and decide on an experience is to work out what experiences you personally enjoy in a game. Even though is different from person to person, chances are if you rate it, there will be a bunch of other people in the same boat. So, play a whole lot of games, find the ones you enjoy, and seek to emulate the type of enjoyment. Use your own experience as a blueprint for the experience your game will invoke in others.
I’ll give you an example of how I did this in Mr Runner. I played Yoshi’s Island to death as a kid, if you haven’t played it do so immediately! One of the things that kept me playing long after I had defeated baby bowser was speed running through levels, jumping from enemy to enemy by timing your jumps perfectly. Like this.
There was something incredibly rewarding for me about conserving Yoshi’s momentum, even though the game wasn’t supposed to be played like that at all. I never got as good at it as the dude you just watched, but I still played it for hours and hours. I would sit under the covers with my GBA replaying levels I had played hundreds of times. Years later, I picked up Trials HD on XBLA. Since then I have spent far too much of my life on that game. Again, there was a certain enjoyment in surpassing every obstacle skillfully, and especially in finally achieving gold in each level. So when it came round to Mr Runner, I decided from the outset that it was these two kinds of fun I wanted the user to experience. I went back and replayed these games, along with another few, just before diving into development.
The point of doing this research is so that you know exactly how you want people to feel when they play your game. I should also point out, you don’t have to do this before you come up with a game idea. You can start off designing a game based around a mechanic just so long as you then decide what type of fun you want this mechanic to produce.
Choosing mechanics to work with your experience
Next up, you have to choose what mechanics your game is going to have; how the gameplay will actually turn out. Even if you have already decided on one main one, it’s good to follow this process just for some supplementary mechanics which add to the experience. There are a few ways of actually honing in on these:
Good old fashion way, make them up. Straight from your very own brain. However while they always seem good when there up in your brain, unless you are exceptionally talented they usually won’t recreate the experience exactly as you envisaged it. Here lies the key difference in mechanic vs experience driven design, in mechanic driven design, the rest of the game would be molded around this mechanic. In experience driven design, the mechanic would be moulded to suit the experience you are creating. In other words, don’t get strung up on a mechanic just because it sounds awesome. Keep the overarching goal of creating an experience in mind.
There is another way; Isolate mechanics in other games which produce the experience you are trying to emulate. When you are having heaps of fun with a game, it’s often a direct result of its mechanics, although there are always other things that add to this. Its not always obvious, but if you can isolate what mechanics in the game are contributing most to your experience, you can then use these as a basis for the mechanics in your own game. I’m not saying copy exactly, but at the very least use them as inspiration. I’ll give you an example.
You might have figured this out already, but Mr Runner doesn’t exactly go nuts with creative mechanics. When I was plotting out the mechanics for Mr Runner, I looked at what I enjoyed most about a bunch of games. Yoshi’s Island I loved in so many ways, but the longest lasting type of fun for me was in the mastery of the controls that I explained before. After playing for a bit, I was able to start predicting exactly Yoshi’s jumps, timing them perfectly to hop from enemy to enemy and finish the level super fluently. The mechanic that made this possible was in part his floating, which helped to time his jumps. Also that you could jump variable heights, depending on the duration of the button press (check this video out again to see what I mean). I used these mechanics in Runner to a similar effect, to produce the fun of skill and fluency in controls, amongst other things.
I should just mention that I’ve pretty much just been talking about mechanics, but this isn’t the only thing to consider in experience driven design. In fact it might not even be the most important, but it’s the most relevant to gameplay designers, which is why I put so much emphasis on it. The visual direction and sound might be more subtle, but they play just as important a part. They’ve got to integrate seamlessly with your mechanics to fully produce the experience you’re after. This article has already dug pretty deep, so I’ll save it for another time.
So to sum up, this paradigm encourages you to design your games with what the user is going to feel when they’re playing it. To get a feel for this, look into other games which have successfully created a similar experience so you know what to aim for, and look at what key mechanics so that you can be influenced by these in the design of your own game. Do this right and you shouldn’t feel limited at all, just inspired. Got it?
Bit Battalion out.