So you’ve decided to plunge yourself into the world of game development, have assembled a team of mighty warriors to tackle all the big issues, and are ready to create the next best game in the industry… trumping WoW, Guild Wars… (you get the point). You’ve chopped up all your brainstorming and assembled some really keen concepts for a storyline, and you’re ready to go. But amongst all the programming, character concepts, dungeons, and quests, what are the most important aspects of your game that will determine whether someone enjoys themself? Read on, and allow me to share with you what I think.
When we do decide to take that plunge into the development of a new game, there are five things you should consider very carefully and pay a great deal of attention to. There are probably more of these that will hinder or help you along your way, and your ordering may be different than mine, but these are what I always hold to be the most important. Over the next week, we will reveal each aspect, culminating with the complete article at the end of the week. For today we’ll begin at the top, with the number 5.
Number 5: Storyline
Some may balk at this statement, claiming that storyline is easily overshadowed and unnecessary when you have intense graphics that make your fingers tingle or when you have combat so intense that you’re literally ducking out of the way from behind your monitor. There is no better inspiration for features and activities, quests, and dungeons when crafting your game than your very own highly developed and custom-tailored storyline. While these things definitely contribute to an awesome game and can lead to a lot of excitement (in fact, they’re on the list, too!), they cannot make up for the lack of storyline. One thing many players crave, whether consciously or not, is a strong storyline that leads them into caring about the game – it entices you – and makes you feel as though your wildest dreams may, in fact, be possible in this environment. The storyline can be simple and to the point, while being so flawlessly done that it serves as the crux of the entire game (EVE Online: We’re flying through space, blowing people out of the sky…) and at the same time being so rich and deep with lore (the complexities in lore and story surrounding EVE is so great that it entangles even the most basic ships and inventory items) that it compels players to write their own histories.
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Not only does the storyline help players become engaged with all that you’ve slaved over and worked for, but it helps you, the developer, along the way. If you’ve been smart, and from the beginning, dreamed up an intoxicatingly deep history of your game setting, it will constantly serve you throughout development. It will provide clues into what features want to be a part of the game, what doesn’t need to be included, and what does or doesn’t fit. An architecture professor of mine once said, when referring to the site analysis portion of architecture, that we could find out a great deal about what we should be building on the building site by simply visiting the location and “envisioning the invisible building that wants to be built.” This is true in architecture, and it is especially true in game development and dreaming up your storyline/game setting.
The storyline may be important, but is it more important than a snazzy game setting so vibrant that you are tempted to stay indefinitely? Well, maybe – just as long as your 3d representation isn’t bogged down by hundreds of thousands of nasty polygons or quads. Why in the world is Artwork important, anyway?
Number 4: Artwork
I’ve heard many, many times that the artwork/3d models/characters found in your game won’t make or break things. I agree with this because it won’t make or break the entire game, but the artwork and professional-looking/feeling models definitely help you out along the way. Think of any movie you’ve seen recently where the sets were absolutely incredible and stunning – one such example (although not necessarily as “recent”) is the Lord of the Rings movies. Rich and diverse settings abound throughout the entire set of movies and help the immersion factor like you wouldn’t believe. Would the movie have been “broken” by less awe-inspiring scenes? Probably not, because in the case of The Lord of the Rings, there were a lot of other incredible aspects. Did the awe-inspiring scenes make the movie just that much better and give it just that much *more* to drool over? Yes, Definitely. The same kind of effect can be seen in the game industry. I play games with incredible graphics (EVE Online) and others that don’t (Dark Ages). I am addicted to both of these games for different reasons, but you can bet that the stunning environment in EVE certainly helps to inspire its large player base.
Additionally, your artwork can seriously affect the mechanics of your game. Many developers overlook a crucial aspect of their 3d models – the poly count… That’s to say, the number of triangles (or *shiver* quads) your game has. Many of the free 3d models you may find on the internet are gorgeous but are so incredibly detailed that using them in a computer, real-time environment would not be wise because you are typically trying to appeal to as many systems as possible. Console systems have the luxury of (for the most part) assuming that everyone’s running on an even playing field. Those of us developing games strictly for the computer don’t have this luxury. Suffice it to say, it’s important to find a quality, low poly game content, and there’s certainly enough of it out there that there’s no excuse for you to be shoving your game full of characters that are in the 10,000 poly range (many online companies limit their avatars, or characters, to around 2500-5000 polys).
The lower your poly count on your 3d models, the smoother your environment is going to run on the widest range of computers… usually. One thing to keep in mind throughout this entire process is how your engine handles polygons and to find out what the ideal poly range is that you want to aim for characters and scenery. Higher character polys are more acceptable in most cases, with scenery (buildings, trees, etc.) lower in poly. Another engine-specific feature to keep in mind is whether or not the engine supports Level of Detail (LOD). For those who may not know, LOD is a system where the engine will use shallow poly versions of a model if the player is far away, swapping the model in and out for high-quality versions the closer you get to it. As far as I know, almost every engine out there supports LOD, but some like Active Worlds do not.
Down the road, we go with Number 3: Music! Some may say (and argue) that music for an online game should be included in the category of “Artwork” – while this may be true depending on how you look at it, music in a game is incredibly important *aside* from your 3d models and 3d characters, and so it receives its own spot.
Number 3: Music
In many ways, music is the heart and soul of any environment you may create in 3D – it is literally the sound trick to which events occur, players win battles too, return home to, etc. Music is a vital tool used to set the mood in any setting, and without it, your game will feel dead and like something is missing. In many ways, music helps to express for the player the mood of a specific area. It enhances and emphasizes what you are relating to your player. Do you want them to feel sad, anxious, excited, fearful? Because hearing is one of our primary senses (seeing, smelling, etc.), one could argue that it is just as powerful in linking and creating memories. It should be one of your *top goals* to make people remember your game – making your game memorable is one of the tricks in making it enjoyable and something that people will tell their friends about. Hearing and the music in your game is one of the more subtle qualities that play a huge part in how an environment *feels*. Think about what your favorite movie would sound like without sound and music?
This highlights another important aspect that is a sub-category of music: sound effects. While music is the key to giving your environment some feeling and life, sound effects make the environment tangible and feel realistic. When a player can knock over a trashcan and, as a result, they hear the clanging of aluminum and tin rolling down the concrete they’re standing on, the player has an increased feeling of interaction with the environment. Please think of the effect and life the environment takes on when a player goes from walking on stone, where their shoes may be clacking, to walking on dirt or mud, where the sound would naturally change quite dramatically. Making good games is about mastering small (but powerful) details that immerse your player.
Many independent developers may shy away from placing such an importance on the music played in the game because, in some ways, it can be hard to come by for people with limited budgets. While music can be expensive (alright, no foolin’ it IS expensive) to have custom-made, you can find some great deals on royalty-free music for purchase online. In many cases, these tracks are professionally made and available for flexible licenses – either for independent folks or commercial studios. It’s not uncommon, for instance, to find 5-6 tracks on an indie license for around $100.
GarageGames.com has some great deals on music and sound effects – the sound effects found there is definitely a deal. You can find the page directly by visiting their content packages.
Gamedev.net also has some great resources relating to music in games and provides a nice directory of sites containing stock and royalty-free music. Check it out here.
Later, it would be nice to include a directory of our own of some great music resources. Look for that later. In the meantime, let us know what you think about Music and Sound Effects inside of games that you’ve played, whether you thought they were effective and important to your gaming experience… And if you disagree, you can let us know that, too!
Now that we’ve covered much of the meat of your game (Storyline, Artwork, Music), we’re going to delve a little bit farther into game design and really define the skeleton of your game – the backbone, the thing that ultimately keeps people coming back to your game day after day. Storyline, artwork, and music are important things that will really make your game feel complete and make it less likely that people will stand in your local village and look around wondering, “What’s missing?” But ultimately, when it comes to developing your game, we’re now getting into what really matters. That brings us to today’s post…
Number 2: Game Flow
In today’s world, a game can follow three primary flow types when it comes to game design. What exactly is game flow? The game flow, or structure, is how players interact with it and storyline events, quests, missions, etc. It determines whether players can branch out and make the game what they want it to be or if they’re locked onto a track that guides them into their pitfalls and excitement. Appropriately, the three types of flow are Sandbox, Roller-coaster, and a hybrid mix of the two. In many cases, how your game engages people and forces them to interact with the environment and progress will determine the types of players you attract to your game.
The most “traditional” gameplay style, or rather the most frequently used in the past, has been that of the “Roller-coaster.” This type of gameplay is just as the name implies – users begin the game (get on the ride) and are carefully lead through the build-up, the storyline’s climax, pitfalls, exciting twists and turns, and ultimately the game ends with a rush of excitement. This could also be equated with the experience reading a book gives with a definite beginning and a definite ending of things. Many RPGs out there fall into this category, where your goals in the game are explicitly defined (conquer the evil demons of the sea and save the pretty girl). While these games are a lot of fun, in some ways, this system doesn’t always work as well in massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG’s) where you have dozens, hundreds, even thousands of people interacting with one another. This isn’t to say that there aren’t MMOs that pull it off (Guild Wars specifically comes to mind), and this isn’t to say that MMORPGs that go the route of the Roller-Coaster aren’t wildly fun (as Guild Wars is). This IS to say that in more recent years, people have begun to favor a newer breed of game where the options appear limitless, and if instead of rescuing that pretty girl from the evil demons of the sea, you want to go and be an innocent farmer… more power to you!
Enter the “Sandbox” games. There has been a big push to these sandboxes where people can do what they’d like in more recent years. Similar to roller-coaster games, the name is synonymous with its real-life counterpart, the sandbox. The idea is that upon entering the game if you decide to ignore the overarching and present storyline (remember our pretty girl), you can do just that without any significant consequences. This type of gameplay is sometimes said to appeal primarily to hardcore-style gamers, although I’m not sure I fully buy into that philosophy. Often I’ve found many casual players in sandbox-type games who enjoy socializing with one another, mining together, exploring, etc., without all the insane time commitment of pursuing the major storyline events. In many of these games, political and religious systems can be found and various job occupations. However, from what I’ve seen, these games tend to be far more time-intensive than roller-coaster games, simply because of the amount of time you need to pour into your character to forge your own path (and be successful at it). While some may not agree with me here, I would say EVE Online is definitely classifiable as a sandbox, as most of Eves’s content, gameplay, and activities are created and inspired by the players themselves. GTA3 is also considered by many to be a sandbox game. That in itself is an important note: in sandboxes, you will normally find a wealth of systems run by the players themselves, like guilds and factions – usually, there is also an economy in-game that is facilitated totally by players selling their personally made goods.
Finally, recently, we’ve hit a time when some people are discussing ways to make what you could call a mix between sandbox and roller-coaster games. I have yet to come across a good example of how this has been done (or how someone is working on one); I’ve only heard slight mention of it here and there. From what I gather, though, there would be a few central overarching storylines taking place at one time, giving users their choice of how to proceed, and along the way providing ample opportunity for players to branch off onto their own paths while still allowing them to come back to the big storyline. Some may again classify this primarily as a sandbox. Still, I would argue that if at any time there is a great deal of direction coming from quests, storylines, and developer-driven content, that you begin to get more into roller-coaster elements. If anyone has run into what you’d consider a good example of a sandbox roller-coaster hybrid, please let me know! If you’ve ever read one of those “Choose your own ending” style books that plagued elementary and middle schools, you’ll understand what a sandbox roller-coaster hybrid might be like. While the player has choices (perhaps many, many choices!), things are ultimately “guided” by an overall storyline while leaving room for player-created content. At the end of the day, though, all of that is easier said than done.