Why Games Design matters to me – Part I

Donkey Kong
Image by JD HAncock from Flickr with thanks

One of Ludogogy’s (very) regular contributors, Thomas Ackland wrote an article for this issue, way back in March, before it was postponed. He then developed his thoughts over the intervening months, and sent us another one on the same topic.  This is the first version.  You can find Part II here.

I think that the best way to start this particular article is to introduce myself, I’m Thomas Ackland, a budding games designer who strives to produce ‘non-serious’  and serious games that are both entertaining and as accessible by as many players as possible.

This appreciation for games was started by, no surprises here, a lifetime of playing a wide range of games from an early age and having the opportunity to begin learning about games design and development at college, I haven’t looked back since.

Whilst my list of played games is far too long to share without being boring and irrelevant to the point I want to make; I’ve decided to share a couple of games with you that inspired me from both a gameplay/level design and a character/narrative perspective.

Whilst these might not objectively be the best games available (and the games you make may require a different approach to their design), I hope you’ll find this interesting and informative enough to also give these games and design ideas a look for yourself.

Gameplay/Level Design

One of the many problems that game designers often struggle with is how to best teach a player how to play their games. Before the introduction of game design rules that we use now, many games were treated like traditional games, such as football or solitaire where you could teach someone by telling them the rules, showing gameplay or they’ll learn over time as they play.

Whilst there isn’t anything inherently wrong with this approach, the unique thing about computer games is that there are ways that you can teach a player as they play. Without the necessity to use; jarring tutorials, a bunch of notifications or voice lines that you have to read or listen to or a still image showing all of the game’s controls.

The first game series I wish to mention that taught me the rather valuable lesson that if the game levels are designed well, the player can learn about the nitty-gritty of the game just by playing through the levels is the Megaman series developed by Capcom (1987).

Megaman video game
Megaman (Capcom 1987): showing zipline functionality as the player discovers it.

The different levels of the Megaman game series are all designed in a way that allows the player to experience the game’s mechanics through play, without the need for the aforementioned information providers. Essentially emulating the “show, don’t tell” writing technique(THE HISTORY OF “SHOW, DON’T TELL”, 2016) in a way that shows the user how the game mechanics work within a controlled environment through gameplay and player experimentation, without implicitly telling them through dialogue or text.

After the mechanic is introduced to the player, they are presented with a corresponding challenge that tests them on their knowledge of the mechanic in order for them to proceed through the level. I feel that this is a more engaging and fun way of teaching and testing the player simply through an effective use of level design.

Megaman - Hammer Joe
Megaman 3 (Capcom 1990): introducing the Hammer Joe enemy in its own area.

Character/Narrative Design

The argument of whether plot driven stories or character driven stories are better than one another is a very divisive topic among authors and audiences alike. In the context of games, I feel that creating characters that I enjoy seeing and playing as, are very important to get right, especially if I’m going to be exposed to them for a large duration of my play time. With this being said, having a concrete plot that keeps the game’s story moving nicely can’t be neglected.
Overall, it’s important to strike a balance between having believable, fascinating characters and a riveting plot for the characters to interact with. You can’t really have one without the other in this context. (Weiland, 2010)

The next game I want to share that has a story that achieves a good balance between an intriguing plot as well as having memorable characters to both play as and interact with is Psychonauts by Double Fine (2005). The premise is you are a young man named Raz, who enrols into a summer camp for young psychics (people with the ability to levitate, set things on fire with their minds, that sort of thing) and works with an organisation called the Psychonauts to unravel a mystery of the camp-goers going missing. This is achieved by exploring the summer camp in the physical world and literally going into and exploring the mental landscapes of various quirky individuals in order to learn more psychic powers and acquire more leads in order to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Psychonauts video game
Psychonauts (DoubleFine 2005) Raz exploding a mental disco party

This game manages to work with both an engaging plot that is moved along by a large cast of interesting characters with the added benefit of having the mental landscapes you explore reflecting the character themselves, (an army soldier having a boot camp, a disco girl having a party etc.) adding an extra level of depth to the characters you interact with in the story.

My Serious Games Experience

While it’s nice to share some of the interesting commercial games that inspired me to pursue games design as a career, my time learning about games design lead me to the existence of Serious Games and I was lucky enough to be properly introduced to this format of games through a work placement with the lovely people at Imaginary SRL in Milan, Italy.

During my 1-year placement, I worked as a consultant games designer on a major training program that simulated the experience of working as a neonatal resuscitation specialist. The intention of the product was to be used by neonatal doctors in Singapore in order to test their knowledge of scenarios which were created to the client’s specifications.

I fulfilled several roles including; managing the games design documentation, communicating with the clients in Singapore, drafting designs from the scenario information provided by the clients and QA testing the product throughout its development.

Overall, learning about games design has provided me with a wide range of possibilities that I never expected to experience such as; learning another language, living independently in another country and showing me a form of games design and development which allows me to provide people with games that accomplish more than entertaining their users and I can’t wait to see what new discoveries emerge in the world of games design, serious or otherwise.

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Games Designer at Thomas Ackland Games
Thomas Ackland is a budding games designer with a background in serious games, who is always looking to get involved with interesting games projects, serious or otherwise.
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