Not to be forgotten aspects of videogame design

When we, developers and enthusiasts, discuss the design of videogames, we invariably focus on the formal system of the game, the sets of rules and goals, challenges and rewards that define the gameplay aspect of the experience. We do this because we feel that gameplay design is at the heart of the creation of interactive entertainment. This may or may not be correct, but gameplay design is certainly not the only aspect of videogame creation worthy of our consideration. And certainly not the only one that makes use of the unique qualities of the computer as a medium.

I would like to devote an article to these “forgotten” aspects of videogame design. I want to discuss why they are important and how they take advantage of the medium. I came up with the list below in no time. But if you can think of any other forgotten or neglected or undervalued or underestimated aspects of videogame design, please post your ideas in the comments. It will help me write the article.

If I ever find the time to do it -feels like there’s a whole book to write here…

Atmosphere is often quoted as an important aspect of the enjoyment of games. But it is hardly rewarded in game review scores and rarely discussed among game designers. Yet videogames have been able to use the interactive and generative medium of the computer to create moods and atmospheres in a way that no other medium has. And it feels like we have only scratched the surface.

Character design
The importance of the appeal of a well designed videogame character cannot be underestimated. Several books have been published devoted solely to pictures of videogame characters. The most widely known thing about videogames in the mainstream is not the clever open world design of Grand Theft Auto but the smart character design of Laura Croft.
And it’s not just the looks of characters that deserve our attention. Designing a character for a videogame also requires inventing a life for these people and a personality. And most of all, finding a way to express all this through the interactive medium.

Avatar control
An aspect more closely related to gameplay design is control design. But often videogame developers suffice with the bare functionality of run-jump-shoot. This is a pity because avatar control can be very expressive. It can give the player an instinctive understanding of the personality of the avatar. Controlling a character can also be a fun activity in and of itself, completely separate from the challenges and rewards of the game.

Interactive storytelling
Videogames are getting better and better at telling their stories through the medium. The stories themselves are still somewhat on a pulp fiction level, but we are getting very good at telling them. We still rely on cut scenes and non-interactive and non-generative elements quite a bit, although we’ve managed to integrate them better. The next step seems to be in finding out how we can experiment with interaction to tell a story, or perhaps better: to make the player experience a story, rather than merely witness it. And perhaps the player can even be involved in the creation of the story in some way.

Environment design
I’m am not the only person in the world who thinks of playing videogames as a form of travel. To go to another place is a very appealing aspect of videogames. But how do we design these places? It is not simply about modeling an actual space -though we could probably learn a lot from architects. There’s always technological constraints that forbid this. But more importantly, simply walking around in a virtual space is not necessarily very interesting. And a waste of a great opportunity for pacing, interaction, emergence and storytelling. So there’s a lot more to designing an environment for a videogame.

The camera is one of the most important aspects of cinema and should not be neglected in games either. An entire language has already developed around the camera’s framing, angles, motions, editing, and so on. The interactive medium adds the elements of control and response to this list. How do these enrich the language? What can game camera’s do that film camera’s cannot?

Playing a well designed videogame can feel like a flowing through a wonderful musical composition. Creating this composition is very much about finding a balance, a harmony of different elements. A way of making the player always feel good about playing the game. However, editing, pacing, punctuation and progression are rarely discussed outside of the functional realm of balancing gameplay. Yet, many videogames already excel at the much more subtle art of flow design.

Even on a purely functional level, designing the way in which one navigates a videogame’s content or virtual world is an opportunity for formal elegance that can be very enjoyable in its own right. But navigation offers a powerful narrative tool as well, not in the least because it can generate a linear thread, often useful for storytelling.

Interaction design
It seems like game developers look down on designing the look and feel of the user interface of a game. Very often, I get the impression that game typography and buttons and menus are designed ironically, to be kitschy on purpose, as if the designers were trying to tell the player that these things are irrelevant. But when they are done well, they can greatly contribute to how the player feels about the game.

Art direction
It strikes me as odd that there is an art direction position in videogame production. It makes it sound like art is only one element in a game and games are not artworks in their entirety. Of course, often, this is indeed the case and the art director only fulfills a function much like the person with the same title would in an ad agency. Personally I’m all for putting this person in charge of the entire production of games and dropping the word “art” from his or her title. But in the mean time, we should probably develop a little bit more respect for this crucial aspect of video game creation.

Narrative world concept
I don’t like the term “back story” because it implies that the story could somehow be separated from its expression in the game. It makes it sound like the story is just an excuse to justify the gameplay and ultimately irrelevant. I disagree. When done well, discovering the story that a game world came out of by exploring and interacting can be a wonderful experience. Potentially much more engrossing than the experience of narrative through one-directional activities such as reading books or watching films.

Sound design is well known as one those aspects of game design that are considered very important but always underestimated. It is often equated with the production of sound effects as we know it from other media. But the non-linear medium offers many more possibilities for sound.

The interactive medium offers an new gamma of techniques to imaginative composers who no longer need to feel limited by the traditional linearity of music. The first experiments with generative and dynamic music in games have already begun. I’m sure there is lots more to discover and learn.

Virtual life
The design of the autonomous behaviour of creatures and environments is an entirely new art form made possible by the computer and often seen in videogames. The term “artificial intelligence” does not really do credit to the artistic aspects that are involved with the creation of virtual organisms. Autonomous systems in videogames are very rarely simply simulations of reality. They are always defined by choices of the author and as such offer great potential for expression.

I came up with this list in a few minutes. I’m sure there’s many more aspects of game creation that I forgot. Please add them in the comments.
I think it is important that game creators start taking these aspects much more seriously and reduce the obsession over gameplay design. Not only because many of these aspects are far more important to the audience. But also because they offer enormous undiscovered creative potential. And they are every bit as unique to the interactive medium as gameplay is, if not more so, in some cases.

All these aspects are up for emancipation. Not in the least in terms of how we evaluate games and judge their quality. Review scores that attribute most points to gameplay, graphics, sound and replay value simply don’t cut it anymore. Because it’s not like the aspects mentioned above refer to some strange potential that lies dormant in the medium. Many videogames being created today contain excellent illustrations of many of these “forgotten” aspects. And I believe they form some of the key elements to the success of videogames. It is time we give them the attention that they deserve.

6 thoughts on “Not to be forgotten aspects of videogame design”

  1. Very inspiring.

    When coming to interaction design, I like having as little GUI as possible. I think it makes the game feel more alive without some info things glued onto the screen, not being part of the game world in any way.

  2. I agree, in general. Though in some stories, an on screen GUI can make sense, as in the heads up display of the space marine. There’s also some recent first person shooter (I forgot the name) where the map is rendered as an object in the game, like the gun. Quit charming. Though the recent Alone in the Dark went a bit over board (it renders interfaces as objects in the avatar’s coat pockets), I think. Sometimes it’s better to separate the two. If an integrated GUI cannot be supported by the narrative of the game, for instance. Or if it makes interaction cumbersome (which would defeat the purpose of immersion anyway).

    In the design of 8, there were no buttons or menus. Even the preferences like sound volume and such were going to be set by interacting with in-game objects. For The Endless Forest, however, we decided against this principle. Instead, we clearly separated interface from game, allowing the player to also think of their avatar as a third party (a pet or a doll).

    In The Path, the basket that Little Red Ridinghood carries around, is designed as a completely abstracted inventory. Simply because we didn’t want our avatars to have to carry around a basket all the time. And also because once in a while we want to focus the player’s attention on the story-as-story (as opposed to the story as simulation of a reality).

    So it’s not just an aesthetic choice. The design of the GUI affects how the play feels about the fiction.

  3. That was very interesting and good to that know someone shares your oppinions on things like this.

    I’ve been thinking about lots of these things lately and you just helped solidify them for me, thanks.
    Most of those aspects like avatar control and flow remind me of how well Mr. Miyamoto has done with his Mario games.
    Iteractive storytelling reminds me of Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain but you probably have heard of them, eh?
    And the bit about the ‘smart’ character design of Laura Croft made me laugh, a good *ahem* would have completed it. Although it would have killed the subtlety so it’s probably better with out it.

    I think the first person shooter you’re thinking of with the neat map is Metroid Prime 3.
    Also I quite like this commenting-box-thing it has a nice font. And thanks for posting regularly, it’s good to see someone who does.

  4. >I think the first person shooter you’re thinking of with the neat map is Metroid Prime 3.

    Well I think it’s Far Cry 2.

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