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Game design - what is it, and how does it work?

Well, "game design" - this is not just about making games - actually it's about making good games. :)
But who decides if a game is good or not? The Developer studios, the publishers, or the guys from PCGamer? And what does the sketchy word "good" mean?
The answer is as easy as complex: A good game is fun to play, and only the player himself can gauge whether it is or not.

Now what makes a game fun to play?

1. Publishers and marketing

First of all, a game must be as bugfree as anyhow possible, simply because a game which doesn't work can't be fun. Of course, no program will ever be part of a perfect marriage or surpass Alice's wonderland, but it's always possible to find a compromise between time consumption for bugfixing and playability.
Sadly, many of the latest games already fail the first test, and this is really a tragedy. Not only for the player, who, curiously awaiting overwhelming eyecandy and never-ending felicitousness, will find himself watching at a black, blue or whatever screen, and waiting for the "BAANNG - uncaught exeption"-message. That is, if he has actually managed to convice his DVD-Rom of not spitting out his 50+$ DVD over and over again.

I think many of today's players wouldn't actually be players, if there wasn't google, because there would be almost no way to circumvent all the bugs by helping each other.

Most people will now want to ask why gamedevelopers don't just fix these bugs.
Isn't is all about time, Mr Freeman? Yes, it is! The publisher wants to see his game in the shop shelves at day x, no matter if it's as good as promised or not. People only have to buy it. Nobody cares a shit if they also like it, as long as the bucks keep flowing in. Publishers equal quality and profit.
Even bad ratings from games mags or websites can't help much there, the core of the target group are fans of the series and buy "their game" anyway.
Most of the rest can be influenced though, but there comes along another problem:
The press people don't want to hazard too much by "devaluating" a top title, because this will rapidly cross their names off the publishers' "friends list", and they will no longer get anticipated information about upcoming games or even beta versions to test themselves. The result of this is clear: Who buys a mag or visits a website to read things, other sources have already published weeks before?

But what can we - the players - do? Simply not buy the bad games? This might work in theory, but in reality it will hurt the developer studios instead of getting the publishers back onto the right track.
And we don't want to hurt the developer studios, because they make our games! A player should always decide himself if he likes a game, or not, and this can only be done by testing it - no matter if it's a demo/trial or a cracked or leaked version. Cracking a game is good as long as you buy it if you like it, that's my opinion, even though I am just about always satisfied with the demo versions in order to rate a game. Thus the amount of originals in my shelf is far above 90 percent.
Also, gamedevelopers will mostly not be angry if you crack their game, because they want you to play and enjoy their games - the publishers only want the money. So if you like a game, buy it!

I do seriously doubt that big publisher companies like EA will ever change - they are forced to maximize profits, because their stockholders want to see a continuous upwards trend, and EA is doing this very well compared to many other companies.

But something must be changed if we want to play really good games again. One way is small development teams going their own way without publisher, which is very risky, but a few of them don't go bust and manage their breakthrough releasing a Blockbuster.
A great example is LiveForSpeed, developed by only 3 people, and it is definately the best racing simulator on the market.
Developing a game on your own doesn't have to be as dangerous as it is, though. I have always been wondering why big companies don't sponsor the industry, like it's usual in many other branches. I mean - how many graphics cards would ATI and nVidia sell if there were no games? In my opinion, publishers and both games-related companies and other sponsors can find together and reanimate the games industry.
With more time for the same money, game designers can do a much better job and the quality of the games should increase a lot. But also the general way of thinking must change, because it does sound a bit nonsense at first to delay the release in order to make the game a bit better, which will cost a lot of money though. But game designers should not forget that they are artists, and imagine a Mona Lisa with an ordinary smile like on any other painting.
In the end, the best product will make it's way, and the additional work will pay off.

2. Play your games, devs!

Of course, the publishers are not the only reason for bad games. Many developer studios don't even understand how their own game works and why people like it, but why?
Some game designers might be surprised that people like totally negligible characteristics of a certain game, which might not even be noticed by the devlopers, but exactly this is the thrill of game design! You can't make the game exactly as you have planned it, game design is a very dynamic process and it can change totally within a few days! When developing a game, you never know how the final product will be.
The most significant default of many gamedevelopers is much, much more simple though: They just don't play their own games!
I guess this is not because they are too bureaucratic - actually I doubt this ;) - it's rather a lack of time.

2.1 Accessibility

If you actually concentrate on playing a game, you will notice completely different things and find very minor disadvantages incredibly annoing.
A good game is smooth, not only performance-wise, but also it must have a good handling, easy accessibility, and react very quickly on the user input. Input is much more than just the joystick or mouse interface. The user must be able to change anything, anytime, anywhere - exactly as he wants and without having to wait. He must have the feeling that the game is excatly doing what he wants it to do. The perfect game also DOES what he wants to do.

Some examples:
  • not being able to change all settings ingame while playing, which can be changed in the menu. Nobody wants to stop playing just to assign some keys differently or change the screen resolution.
  • slow menus: A good menu does not obviously need stunning gfx effects, if it doesn't even work.
  • long loding times: The player wants to play and not to wait.

The perfect game menu in a prefect world is only used once. Then you have the ultimate setting which works exactly as you want, and you don't need to change it anymore.
But this only works if the player and the system will not change, and in these days of incompatibilities, the gaming world is everything but not perfect.
You are using the menu all the time in order to tweak things to improve gameplay. Online players will always want better performance and quicker responses, because it gives them the tiny advantages that can decide over victory and defeat.
In my opinion, the controls and their customizability have a huge influence on the gaming experience - it just sucks when you press a key and it takes like half a week until the game notices it.
The ultimate example here is the Splinter Cell series. The nice and smooth animations of the character make the response slow, and you often feel that the character does anything but not what you want.
In "close combat situations", there is only one thing that counts - quick reactions. If the player has to wait for the game, there is something wrong. The game has to wait for the player.

The player should also be able to change all settings, because he knows better than any gamedeveloper what works best on his machine, simply because he can test it.
I don't want to see things like "optimizing shaders for best performance" like in Battlefield 2, because those settings are not, and will never be the best.
Even some gamedevelopers seem to think that the eye can't see more than 25fps. Well, you need to consult an optician if you think so, too.

2.2 understanding Gameplay

Besides the accessibility, there are many other thigs like balancing issues, or mapping faults. If you play a game, you will directly notice them. Those are the small things that can be incredibly annoying, as I mentioned above.

Just to give an example: In Counter-Strike: Source you keep getting stuck in weirdly acting so-called physics objects (which are not needed at all, but they are there), and you can't even walk along a wall without getting strange stuttering.
A while ago, the player size was increased (nobody knows why), with the result that you can now hide behind crates being able to watch over them and see what's behind. You yourself are almost invisible though, resulting in completely destroyed gameplay.
Additionally, the maps from CS 1.6 were changed a bit while being ported to the new engine, showing that the editors haven't even had a lic of an idea how the game actually worked, because those minor modifications changed the gameplay totally. For example, you can hide behind any corner due to the far higher amount of detail. Thus you are almost always shot from behind, which decreases the fun rapidly.
I don't want to go into detail here, as I could write a whole book just about bugs in the source engine, but if you have played this game, you know exactly what I mean, and you will agree that this is so damn annoying that many people, who have bought CS:S, have switched back to CS 1.6.

2.3 Performance

The second point of this example is less the disadvantages of Carmack's old BSP-Engine in 2005, rather than the place where it's used.
Half-Life 2 Singleplayer is a lovely game, just a great work from the guys at valve software - indeed one of the best games ever! But CS:S requires a completely different game engine because the game works totally different, simply because you play against real people instead of AI.

"No need to be perfect if you look good" doesn't work for an online FPS game, because the most important part is that it DOES work perfect. This means the netcode must be extremely powerful, and the "internal engine delay" should be very low. The faster the game reacts on your input, the better it is.
Of course this can be achieved by high fps, but don't forget about the mouse input, frame caching (vsync), etc. And engines are far too complex that I could write more about that, and of course they differ a lot either.

Performance is the reason why almost all the successful online gamers use the very lowest quality setting in any online game that requires quick reaction times. Thus a game must also be developed to suit this target group, and eyecandy stuff should only be the cherry on the cake for people who just lurk around within the game.

But on the one hand, this doesn't really make the game easier to sell, as many people buy games only because of the graphics. On the other hand though, good performance doesn't imlpicitly mean bad graphics. Some old engines like the Quake 3 Engine are still looking very nice. Actually, a Quake 3 engine at maximum details looks much better than a new engine at the lowest settings, even if the fps are identical.
I guess you are quite surprised to hear something like this out of my mouth, me being a true graphics freak. :) But with every more minute you play a game, you will notice that it becomes less and less important how it looks.

3. Ingame advertisements

Due to recent discussions coming up in various German games forums, I have also added a bit about ingame advertisements into this article. Well, if you have read my article about webdesign, you will know my attitute towards general advertisements very well: I hate them!

If there will ever be any ads that interrupt the gameplay flow, or are obviously supposed to influence or be noticed by the player, I will stop playing within hundreds of a second. The worst case is scanning for user actions in order to find out how long and from what angle the player has been looking at certain surfaces.
Ingame ads can even have direct influence on the gameplay. For example, there are a couple of CS1.6 servers from the UK2 network, which can display sprites textured with ads, resulting in players hiding behind them and thus being absolutely invisible. The result is obvious: The game becomes unfair and people will likely stop playing it.
Despites, there is a nice way to implement advertisements into a game without erasing the user's experience: For example, LiveForSpeed allows to change the car textures and track banners, allowing teams to present their sponsors online, visible to others! This is a great step towards spreading the word about e-sports, and it will help a lot to make people accept it as a serious sport.
I wouldn't mind if there was a Coca-Cola automat instead of one with a fictional name. It will only increase realism and not annoy the player. For many games with fantasy trademarks, there are almost always mods available which replace the ingame ads with their real patterns.

As you can see, you only have to make your games as the real life, but of course this doesn't mean that you shall add commercial breaks into your games, simply because they are not there in real life either. TV is fictional and doesn't represent reality in any way.
It's only the part of reality that survives the frenzy of our so-called sensation-addicted reporters. But the press business is hard - only the most sensational stuff can survive. They have no chance to do serious reports.
And we don't want the games industry to become like that! It already is on the wrong lane, and it can and will not heal itself, simply because it's all about money. All? No, not all. There was a small group of people defending against the roman superiority in person of the huge publishers. And accoring to Asterix and Obelix, they won in the end. :) But who is or wants to be this group in the games industry?

4. The press

To get back to the press people: Of course there are also reporters specialized in games, and they must be supported either, as they are a major important part of the industry. If you are not sure whether to buy a game or not, you get some mag from the kiosk around the corner and read the test to help you decide. Many players even buy those mags on a regular bias - once a month or so.
Those reporters are doing a though job usually. The expos are rather discotheques with stuffy air where you can't understand your own words even if you scream like an Orc, with bad sight and maybe even billions of 12 year old fanboys running for the stuff you can catch at many of the stands.
The E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo, in LA) has become a huge party for kids interested in games rather than a source for the press to get knowledge about the latest technology and products. Thus at least one day only for the press people is required.
The disco environment must become a working environment with "livingroom feeling". Therefore, silence, many seatings and good air are needed. It would be nice to have places with public internet connections, allowing the newswriters to plug their notebooks in and update their websites as soon as possible.
Let the press do their work themselves, and they will earn more money with a better coverage instead of using connections and publishing faked and payed crap articles. Information about new products must be published at the same time for all, and be available online.

Additionally, the shows from various big companies should not be at the same time and spread all over the world. No-one can buy all the airplane tickets, except for the big news agencies, of course. But they don't need to visit those shows anyway, as they are provided with special information and hardware even months before the ordinary reporter even gets to know about the existence of them.
Another story is the content of official booklets about new stuff, especially hardware-related. It seems to be usual that they are written in a way that only people can understand them, who know about the details anyway.
The result is, that the player will never know what he is buying. Example: nVidia's ugly image quality in the new 7800 series, caused by flickering low quality Anisotropic Filtering.


And actually we don't really need those huge Expos like the E3, because we are living in the 21th century - we have this thingie called "internet". Have you ever thought about making a digital show which can be viewed by the press people at home, if they are authorized by the according online systems? People could even set some rows of chairs and a beamer into the largest room of their press office and build their own cinema, following the show live and being able to discuss things and exchange emotions and experiences on the fly. THIS is what I call newswriting.

The process of developing a game can change like that, too. There is no need to get all people into one office - they are picked 'n' mixed from all over the world, and they could work more effectively staying at home. You will be stunned if you see how far communication can be optimized when exploiting the seemingly endless possibilities provided by the internet.
The developers should have regular meetings, though, because it's still important to talk to real people and feel their emotions instead of looking at their webcam stream or just plain text.
Also, we need more ways to buy a game, like it has been discussed on the last GDC (Gamedevelopers' Conference) already: Currently, almost the only way to buy a game is going into a shop and buy the DVD box. This box doesn't only include the disc and the manual, but also the incredible amout of money spent for advertisement, good ratings and cocktails. You won't notice this, until you take a look at the price of the game. It can't be that a current top title costs 50 bucks or more - and some gamedevelopers even think about increasing them even more - LOL! Not everyone earns 20k+ $ a month.

5. last but anyting else than least: Gamedevs, talk to your community!

If you can't play the games yourself, it makes sense to ask those who can. Apparently, almost all the current developers don't collect feedback from the people who are playing their games though, resulting in following releases of a certain title being worse than the previous ones.
In my opinion, game designers who don't want their game to get at least a rating of around 90%, are not worth to be called game designers, because this title has something to do with art, and art as quite a lot to do with passion, perfectionism and emotions.

6. That is

Well, I have written a lot now and before I started writing I didn't even think about what to write. :D This article comes directly from my mind, and I hope I can at least make the current gamedevelopers, publishers and also players think about what's going on in the games industry at the moment.
In the end, I wrote more about what makes games bad rather than what makes them good, but while writing I noticed that you can't really describe how game design works, not only because all games are totally different, but also because gaming experience is also very subjective. Otherwise we would all like the same games, and this would be damn boring.
As I'm an upcoming game designer and game design student myself, I am very interested in comments from known people in the business, and would be glad to see some posts below!
Thanks for reading, keep playing guys :)
post: game design