Designing Play: A Crash Course in Compelling Video Game Design

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Video game design is always half inspiration and half execution. A great idea is nothing without the technical understanding to bring it to reality, and all the code in the world can't turn a half-baked idea into something anyone is actually going to want to play. When you think of some of the true marvels of video game design, like "Shadows of the Colossus," "Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time" or "Uncharted 3," what truly astounds is the sheer amount of details that most gamers never notice. These game worlds feel lived in, as if you’re merely temporary guests to a place that has existed well before you hit the power button and will continue to exist long after the last boss has fallen.

Where does one even begin to create such a place? For the budding game designer, it starts with finding a new way to think about the world around you, and then taking what inspires you and turning it into something compelling and artistic. Here are just a few ways to approach game design like a true artist:

Start on Solid Ground
No matter how fantastic the world in your favorite game, you can rest assured that the designers started by thinking about the nature of the world around them. Video games are experiential, meaning they serve to recreate the experience of interacting with the world. When you play "Metal Gear Solid 5," the tension comes from being dropped behind enemy lines with limited resources, but you relieve that tension by using what you know about your own physical environment, such as the way solid objects interact with light or the way sound travels down a long empty corridor.

These ideas don’t occur naturally in video games. They have to be designed. And as a game designer, you have to account for even the subtlest details. Betray that sense of reality (without offering a good explanation), and you risk frustrating your audience. Nobody likes an enemy soldier who can inexplicably walk through walls.

Balance the Abstract With the Concrete
Video games aren’t just about trying to mimic the real world. They are also a way to explore abstract ideas and to play with your logical expectations. And yet, even the most abstract gaming concept still needs to be tethered to reality in some way.

Take "Tetris," for example. This classic puzzle game is built on an abstract concept — organizing shapes into neat rows to make them disappear. Yet it relies on two very familiar concepts from the real word: gravity and time. The blocks fall like apples from a tree; however, the longer you play, the faster they fall. It’s a perfect balance of abstract and concrete game design.

If you’re looking for more great visual examples of this balance, check out Shutterstock’s video library, especially the “Objects” and “Art” sections. As you peruse the clips, think about how the artist is framing abstract ideas with concrete design elements. What you’ll find is that the best examples have a perfect blend of both.

Focus on Essential Elements
What makes the recreated Los Angeles of "Grand Theft Auto 5" so convincing? Is it the sheer scale of the city or the way that landmarks seem to perfectly mirror their real-life counterparts? These are important factors, but it also has to do with the small ways the game designer captured the “feel” of being in a coastal metropolis. It’s in the way the sun reflects off of the glass buildings or the way trash blows across the sidewalk before getting stuck against the lamp post. It’s in the banal phone conversations you overhear as you wait for a taxi or the stack of mattresses hidden beneath a freeway overpass.

These are what you might call essential elements. They are those little details that convince gamers that the world you created is legitimate. Even the most basic games use essential elements to hook players. "Tetris" uses that perfectly-tuned “thud” to signal to players that their block has made contact. It gives the illusion that these pixels have real weight to them. When you think about game design, identify the essential elements that can grab your players’ attention. Sometimes it’s just a sound effect, and sometimes — as in Mario’s case — it's a well-designed mustache.

Article by: Cherie Nelson

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