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The Ten Commandments of Game Design – Part 2

Posted by Eric on 07.04.11

So Let It Be Written…

Either I want to be lazy right now or I just can’t think of an inventive intro ( probably both, ) so let’s jump right into it.  Here are the Commandments of Game Design, numbers 4 – 7.

#4: Thou Shalt QA Thy Text

I’m a writer so I know how easy it is for a minor typo to fall through the cracks ( chances are you may find one or two in these pages. )  But really, I’m only one man that serves as writer, QA, and editor.  Don’t studios have a small army of game testers?  How is it then that 100 people with three months to test the game didn’t catch the misspelled word that I saw on my first playthrough?  And this isn’t just dialog subtitles either.  Item descriptions, quest chat bubbles, quest journal entries, menu descriptions, all written text in the game needs thorough review by many sets of eyes.  And that means checking for more than just misspelled words ( and my sympathies to those who have to spell check all the crazy names sci-fi and fantasy games make up. )  Character strings can have all sorts of “invisible” special characters like new lines, tabs, carriage returns, and extra spaces that can screw up the way text is displayed on screen.  A single typo may not completely ruin the game atmosphere, but it always makes me think, “Really, they didn’t catch that?”  And then I start to wonder what else they missed…

#5: Thou Shalt Not Allow Bad Voice Acting

Many blockbuster games now have budgets that rival those of small Hollywood movies.  And with many games claiming a “cinematic feel,” I’m happy to see professional voice actors used in many of them and hope the trend continues.  So when I come across a game that has poor voice acting, I just have to ask, “Why?”  Audio is half the experience of a game, and surely voice dialog is half the audio, so why shouldn’t the budget be allocated accordingly?  If you can, get skilled actors and a good voice director.  I’m not saying every title needs to spend top dollar on people like Nolan North, Jennifer Hale, or James Arnold Taylor, but don’t just throw Larry from the marketing department in a sound booth and call it good.  Then again, soap operas are technically staffed with “professionals” and that doesn’t always translate into authentic sounding dialog either.  Bottom line, if a stranger off the street can’t listen to the voice without thinking it’s extremely flat or over-the-top, you might be better off dropping the voice-overs and going with text only.  And remember that no amount of good voice acting can compensate for poor writing and dialog.

#6: Thou Shalt Honor Thy Players’ Saves

Most gamers know the mantra: save early, save often.  Adventure and role-playing games especially need this.  You never know when you might get ambushed or make a hasty decision you want to undo.  If you want to try a different tack in a recent conversation or a different tactic in the last battle, you likely don’t want to play an extra hour just to get back to that point.  So why do so many games still have those restrictive save points? ( why is this one of the few things that carries over from every Final Fantasy? )  I realize old hardware limitations may have had restrictions on when a game could be viably saved.  But in this age of computer hardware and programming, why can’t I save at any point I want?  I understand if I can’t save in the middle of a fight, because saving the exact location of every bullet and spell countdown timers may be more complicated than necessary.  But say you have to make it down a long hallway through four particularly nasty encounters with no saves between each one.  Isn’t that just asking for unnecessary frustration?

Final Fantasy XIII gives you an invisible checkpoint that rewinds the game to just before the encounter where you died, but it also loads all the monsters back on the board, even those you defeated before you died.  That’s not too bad, but what happens if you can’t get past fight three of four and you just want to save it and turn it off for the night?  So sorry, you’ll have to load it from the very beginning tomorrow.  Or there’s the Ratchet & Clank method that will save your weapon and character progression, but every time you load you have to start at the beginning of the stage.  I don’t claim to know all the intricacies of managing save game files, but I’d honestly be interested in hearing the limitations.  Otherwise, why not let the player save whenever, wherever?  At the very least, make checkpoints plentiful.  Like the other Commandments here, players will notice it and will thank the developers for it.

But saving the game is only part of it.  Few things are more disappointing than not being able to load the game.  In this I’m talking about updates and patches that make old saves incompatible.  I understand making changes to a game might require a save file to now hold different and/or additional info.  But is there a reason you can’t also make a save game conversion tool?  At the very least, please give gamers fair warning that an upcoming patch will invalidate older save games.  This gives us time to try to finish the current playthrough or at least warns us not to apply an update until we’ve beaten the game.

#7: Thou Shalt Disclose ALL the Rules Clearly

I can’t believe that I’m the only gamer out there that likes to know everything that happens under the hood.  Perhaps it’s from my tabletop and D&D experience in the past.  When it’s just paper and pencil, you have to know all the rules and stats or you can’t even play the game.  The downside is that rolling dice and doing mathematical computations by hand can really slow down the game.  In this wise, having the computer handle the background math is great so the player can enjoy the game ( kudos Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and Knights of the Old Republic. )   KotOR even let you go back through the combat log to see exactly how everything was calculated.  So when such transparency has been used for a while, I get frustrated when games still hide their rules tighter than the Coca-Cola recipe.  And this isn’t limited just to item stats and combat rules.

If I can sneak around in the game, I want to know exactly what it takes for me to remain hidden and what will expose me.  If I take penalties for carrying too much inventory, what are those penalties exactly?  If I can persuade people in conversations, I want to know my chances of success ( this particular example might be a permissible exception since persuasive arguments aren’t an exact science. )  Let me go back to my favorite scape goat, Mass Effect ( actually, I really liked the game, perhaps it’s a testament to how good the story is even with the numerous, yet small, gaffes. )  The game says that heavier armors impair movement and weapon accuracy, but never explain exactly what those penalties are or how much they affect you ( and I didn’t really notice much difference either. )  Then there’s the hidden armor bonuses, with some giving you health regeneration or environmental protection, but the game only mentions it in passing at best.  These side-effects may not be huge, but as so many games use combat as a primary game mechanic, those combat rules should always be fully disclosed.

Sadly so many combat games still leave weapon and armor stats to arbitrary bars and graphs.  But it’s not always evident what scale they’re measured in so comparing similar items can be very difficult.  Are they on a scale of 1 – 10, 1 – 100, or something else entirely?  I love MAG, but understanding weapons and armor in that game is a nightmare.  Gauging one weapon against another involves stat bars that don’t tell you much.  All I can see is that rifle A’s accuracy bar is four pixels higher than rifle B, but rifle C’s rate of fire is five pixels more than either A or B.  How much of an improvement is one pixel, seriously?  Ten percent?  One percent?  Half a percent?  How important are those attributes and how heavily weighted are they in the game engine?  Granted MAG makes it even worse since you can’t see weapon stats until after you’ve purchased them from the supply depot so it’s not uncommon to end up with something that’s effectively worse than what you were already using.  And then there’s the armor.  It says the heavier armors provide more protection, but it never says exactly how much.  Can I take one more bullet before dropping?  Three more?  How much explosive damage will this soak up?  It’s left to the player’s own experimentation to find out, which in the realm of server lag and network congestion is never empirical.  Now compare that to the excellent way Mass Effect presents weapon and armor stats ( I told you it had good things about it. )  Not only does it present the actual numbers for the item, but it also provides a graph bar that ranks the item against all others in that category.  The graphs give a quick view to see with item is better/worse in each aspect while the numbers let you know exactly how much better/worse it is.  Sadly, some systems are even worse than bar graphs.

Does anyone else hate those S, A, B, C, D, and E ranks?  What do they really show?  How much improvement does it take to get from one letter to the next?  Is one rank ten points better than the last?  Ten times better?  And how am I supposed to compare multiple items in the same rank?  Demon’s Souls uses a hybrid system that lists both hard numbers ( wonderful ) with attribute bonuses in letter ranks ( awful. )  The attribute bonus multiplies a corresponding stat ( strength, agility, etc, ) by an unknown value and adds it the the weapon damage.  When upgrading a weapon, changes in the the number stats are displayed, but if the attribute bonus stays the same rank, you’re only given a blue or red highlight to show if it’s going up or down.  That goes right back to my first question: how much is it actually changing?  Admittedly the weapon’s resulting calculated attack power is always listed numerically so you usually have a pretty good idea of overall weapon power.  But still, I’d like to see concrete numbers so I can better plan weapon and character upgrades.  Altogether Demon’s Souls use of letter ranks lists more details than Metal Gear Solid 4, but really, why use the letters at all?  Just give me actual numbers.  Please?

Bottom line, somewhere in the programming a variable is holding actual numerical data so why not just show the player what it is?  Why not disclose the attack/damage/persuasion calculator?  Sure, some players will take those rules, plug them into an Excel sheet, and go to munchkin town to find exactly how to play the meta game and min-max to their heart’s content, but why is this a bad thing?  If gamers are discussing pros and cons about different builds or load-outs, that means there’s a healthy community for a game which is essential for long-term success.  And personally I see that much more productive than people using opinions and best guesses.  Like many things here, it’s one of those things to add under the “Why Not?” category.

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