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Guidelines for Developing Successful Games

Part 2 of 3

Part 1 |Part 2 |Part 3

                                                                                              

Design by Playing

Once a playable prototype has been created, play it every day and make adjustments based on testing, thereby creating new versions quickly, evolving the game in the process. Rely on your instincts as a gamer for guidance on what is working and not working. Larger test groups provide valuable testing feedback and create games of wider appeal. Test for both hardcore and casual gamers. Everyone at Ensemble Studios is asked to test our current projects at least once per week and provide feedback.

The downside to designing by playing is that it is difficult and often costly to predict the product. It does, however, lead ultimately to creating a fun game.

Interesting Decisions = Fun

Presenting the player with interesting and well-paced decisions is the rocket science of game design. Players have fun when they are interested in the decisions they are making, when they are kept absorbed by the pacing of the required decisions, and when they feel a sense of reward and accomplishment when good decisions are made. When the required decisions are too trivial or random, the element of fun lags. You risk boring the player and driving them out of the game. The Age of Empires series demonstrated that our customers consider automating trivial activities (queues, waypoints) a positive improvement.


The Age of Empires series demonstrated that our customers consider automating trivial activities (queues, waypoints) a positive improvement.

Good pacing can heighten interest in decision-making. Real time games have an inherent advantage versus turn-based games because the continual ticking of the game clock adds a sense of desperation. If the player has a number decisions to make with a limited amount time, every aspect of the game becomes much more interesting.

When considering a new feature for a game, apply the interesting decisions test. Is this new element or twist going to add an interesting decision to what the player is doing? If the answer is not a strong yes, leave it out.

Provide a Great First 15 Minutes of Easily Accessible Play

A player must be actively engaged by a new game within 15 minutes of starting or we risk losing the player forever. There are three keys to getting a new player into a game: (1) an interesting starting situation; (2) minimal barriers to entry (interface, back-story); and (3) giving the player a few decisions to make initially, and increasing that number as the game progresses (this is the inverted pyramid of decision making). Get the player into the game quickly and easily so that they are absorbed and having fun without any frustration. When done properly, the player gets into the game successfully and significant time may pass before they are aware of it.

Games that require a lot of pre-play work from the player because of special controls, character introductions, or background story, must create tutorials or other clever ways to educate the player while providing entertainment. In-game tutorials are the best. Games that require uninteresting pre-play work or retard entry with frustrating interfaces are likely to fail.

The Player Should Have the Fun, Not the Designer, Programmer, or Computer

Although this principle seems obvious, many games fail because the wrong entity is having most of the fun. It is often the designer who allows feature creep to overrun the product or a designer performs a brilliant analysis and installs an amazing single path to victory that no one else could find. The producer can direct great graphics and cinematics to suck up the budget, making all the artists happy, but leaving little time for inserting actual gameplay. If a player finds himself waiting all the time while the computer grinds through some brilliant calculations, maybe the computer is having more fun than the player is.

Game development should focus on creating entertainment for players by engaging their minds. Everything the team does in development, and what the machine does in operation, is directed toward that goal. All code, game features, art pieces, sound effects, music scores, and computer operations should enhance entertainment. An exception to this rule may be elements included for marketing considerations, such as opening cinematics. There are two additional points to keep in mind when designing a successful game. First, the player should be the hero or heroine. Second, in single play, the player should sweat a little, but always win in the end.

Create Epic Games that can Launch a Franchise

The newer a game is (i.e. genre, topic, artistic style, technology, developer, publisher) the more difficult it is to get shelf space, media coverage, web following, and customer awareness; all of which relate directly to commercial success. Creating a great franchise makes those tasks much easier and makes it possible to increase the customer base for each succeeding product. Choose genres and topics that capture the imagination of the market and the media, thereby establishing a new epic series of forthcoming related games. Publishers want franchises and are more willing to invest in them.

Set Production Values High

While excellent gameplay is the key to creating great games, graphics, sound effects, and music have important supporting roles. Graphics and sound effects are key elements in the game interface. Graphics must be attractive, enticing, and inspire inquisitiveness. Graphics and sound effects should convey information quickly with minimum player effort. Acting together, these three elements set the mood of the game and help the player forget that they are playing a game. Graphics and sound have important ancillary roles in helping to market the game.

High production values for graphics, sound effects, and music enhance the player's experience and contribute to the game's overall cachet of quality. Low quality elements that are placed among higher quality elements stand out like off-key notes, greatly diminishing the overall impact of the product. A high standard of quality in production values enhances the reputation of the game, the developer, and the publisher.

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