It’s 2.30 in the morning here in the good ‘ol UK and the workshop by Chris Senn for SAGE ’08 has been done for a while. A variety of things have been talked about and Senn even put together a small document explaining some of the basics of game design, which can be found here. I’ve spent quite some time typing up this interview and know that there might even be a transcript on the SAGE website by now. But take this as the ‘best bits’ brought to you by TSSZ News. Enjoy, now I’m getting some well deserved kip!
NeoHazard: So, what do you think makes a solid game?
Chris Senn: Good question… I would say for me a solid game is an experience that when I’m done, I want to play it again.
Kind of like some of the originals? Like Mario Bros and What not?
Oh yeah. I’m a big retro game lover. Back in the day when graphics, sound – CINEMATICS – etc were nothing to really speak of but the GAME, it was just addictive and fun.
DarkWarrior: I’d like to ask a question regarding games that were halted mid-development. If one person of the group wishes to continue development, and the others involved have stopped caring, what is the best way to proceed?
I’ve experienced this MANY times. I don’t think there is “one” solution to this, unfortunately. First of all… if you’re not a programmer, you need at least one programmer. If you are working with a coder who has lost interest or doesn’t have time, etc. you have to walk a careful line. Here are some simple things like a checklist to help insure interest and focus:
1) A solid, easy-to-understand idea. Is it so complicated that the team think it will take years to make? If so, this can make people lose interest quickly, especially if it’s a team’s first game together. It’s always better to go for a simpler game to start. Although – the natural feeling is to go “OMG I want to put EVERYTHING that I’ve ever wanted into this game”
The next thing to consider is:
2) Your team. Who are they? Who do you really NEED to finish the game? It’s great to do a project with friends but if your goal is to finish a game sometimes you have to cut a friend or two out.
So you have a simple game that is losing team participation…
1) Code it and drive the project yourself (which I can’t code so that’s no option for me)
2) You look for someone or other people to help out
3) You just continue to be patient and work on something else.
With the help of a friend I made an indy puzzle game called Cuboingo back in 2002… that took FIVE YEARS to finish for a f’ing puzzle game! Why? Not because we worked on it for five years… but because it took 4.5 years to get the programmer to get interested in taking the dirty demo to a level we could show the public. Talk about patience. Imagine if it was a more complicated game that would take longer to make??? Sometimes, you just have to wait… but if you love your game, don’t give up hope.
jman2050: When I attempt to brainstorm though I find that even if I get the idea in my head, it’s difficult for some reason to actually document this. Documentation is always important, but this seems to be a barrier to me as everything always sounds better in my head
Have you tried tape-recording yourself talking about your game? It may sound silly… but it can work well. There are always things to learn that will help you improve. Writing a document is kind of like writing an essay at school… and that can make you want to PUKE but writing skills take time to develop. Try to be patient and accept that it will take you more than one try to get something the way you want it. It might take a while but don’t give up
Cyber_Rat_101: Well, I actually wanted to ask about music in video games. How important should it be in general? I’m aiming at using it more than just background.
Good question… the answer isn’t so simple – because it really depends on what game you want to make. Let’s say you were making a game for the def. Music wouldn’t be so important (which is actually something I want to do… seriously). But let’s say you were going to make an adventure game. Music can be just as important – if not more important – than graphics. The music should shape the experience for the player – put them INTO the world… or the action… or the win… or whatever…So for me, I think music is critical for a game. But in the industry, the sound team usually gets the shaft. That means they have to do all their work after everyone else finishes theirs leaving little time to make the quality they would want.
The music and sound, I think, should be part of the development from the beginning. Unfortunately, not enough development companies do that – many still think of sound as “oh it’s something we can just add later”. Personally – I use music to inspire my game design from the beginning – whether it’s my own music – or others that seem to “fit” the theme
Cyber_Rat_101: So basically, music is underrated, but can be us to enhance the game greatly?
Yes, but if the music is a part of gameplay – the team had better incorporate it from the beginning!
Turbohog: Like DDR or Guitar hero
Yeah – but it’s not just about how much you spend (to get better musicians, etc.) – but when you have it done.
Nezoth: About economical reasons for developing a game, did you have no motivation for making a game but you had to look to the economical factor (design a game to SELL rather than a game that would be more fun)?
There is always a balance between what you think will be COOL and what will sell. When making games in the industry – you have the developer – the company that creates the game – working with the publisher – the company that might pay the company to do it – but will also pay the money to market the game (marketing is crucial because it gets everyone excited and to know the game even exists). First of all I don’t make games because I love money I make them because I love making games. I make a living doing it so I get paid enough to live comfortably. That is enough for me so my motivation remains: Make the game as fun as possible within the time available using the available resources.
Anyone making a game – a fangame or industry game must face many decisions about games One thing people miss is: Will the audience like it? Sometimes people focus on what THEY like when making a game, which is important, but you always have to think about who will be playing (and/or buying) your game.
Turbohog: aka the target audience
I haven’t worked on a game, with the exception of Cuboingo the indy puzzle game, where I didn’t worry about it selling or making money – just trying to finish the game. If you are making a fangame, and either live at home with your family or have money to survive it’s better to make a game that will “sell”. But for your own personal growth of skills it’s always good to make the game the best it can be. Make a game you will want to play – but make sure it’s a game OTHERS will want to play too. =)
jman2050: Who determines the target audience, the developer or the publisher?
The publisher is usually in charge of the marketing which means they have people who analyze what games have sold and to whom. So using a record of all that information the marketing department may determine “Look, we need a game targeting teenagers that is M rated”. Then the publisher says to the developer “We have a spot for a M-rated teen game, pitch us something”
Sometimes though the developer looks at the games out there – and someone on the team says “How come everyone is doing dungeon MMOG’s… how about a futuristic version?” They think there’s an opening for something nobody has done big enough yet then they put together a pitch and then pitch it to a publisher. They know either because they look at the “data” of what’s sold (Activision is a CLASSIC example of this – they follow market trends; what sold, what is selling – now do more of that!) or they take a risk which is VERY unusual for someone with money to do (So you have to be lucky to get a “new” game type or a game that is based on a new character sold to a publisher they have to see “dollar signs” in their eyes)
If you’re just starting out though, I wouldn’t worry too much about this stuff, just focus on coming up with ideas and building something. As you learn skills, you’ll get experience about how the “business” works. If it HAS sold, and other games like it ARE selling chances are it WILL sell. Now – this doesn’t mean “make a game that is a copy of another game”. Sometimes you run the risk of the game tanking because it’s too much like another game (or other games)… and has no uniqueness of its own…
Turbohog: What do you think some good ways to increase a game’s replay value are in an adventure game?
An adventure game should be full of exploration, finding things, encountering other characters, the basic idea of going into the unknown. There should be action and excitement, some mystery… etc. Sound good so far?
Kiddo: Keep throwing in “Little new things” every time you pop in the cart or the disc.
Kiddo has a good point. If the game is a disc or cart that cannot be updated (like an online game can, for example) you’ll have different options for adding replay value. Let’s take a limited disc/cart as our example, since it requires you to design the exact replay into it before shipping the game to the consumer. As a developer, you need to be careful about what you offer the player – as a player, you’d LOVE to have different paths to take, new things to explore every time you play. But, all of that takes more time to make and unless you are making an indy game with outside income you are probably going to have a deadline to meet, which means you need to consider everything necessary needed to finish. So with replay on a basic level, you want the act of simply playing the game to be fun. Replaying it by nature should be something you WANT to do not something you HAVE to do.
For an adventure game, offering the player multiple ways to progress using their style of play can add replay value. It can create a feeling of “hey, how about I try it THIS way and see what happens”. Some games are geared towards providing this more than others…
Kiddo: I think one kind of replay value that I haven’t seen in a long time is Guardian Heroes’ branching story
Branching stories are always cool, but again, you have consider if you’re going to make a whole section that the player may never even see?
The more different you make your characters – the more unique their abilities – the more stories you provide – the more complicated the entire game becomes to make, so there is always a careful balance you need to strike as a developer to insure timely completion.
Turbohog: Like…adding secret areas and stuff?
You can always do that (and I love that stuff!) but those are usually added in near the end (on Shrek 2 I spent a month doing just that). You just have to ask yourself what kind of game do you want to make? I prefer old school games that let me replay them because the act of playing it is just fun. I still play Battlefied 2 today (just did earlier) and haven’t gotten tired of it. Why? Because I just love to play it! No more unlocks, new stuff, just the basic game.
Cyber_Rat_101: What is the best way to reward a player in a game?
To reward the player, you want to challenge them first so that they feel they “earn” a reward. Imagine if you got one thoughtful gift. Now imagine next year you got 1000 gifts. After the first 10 you’d start to get bored. I meant why you’d get bored with lots of gifts because you didn’t have to work for it, too many rewards for nothing. Sometimes it may take replaying it just to develop the skill to overcome the challenge.
Smidge204: What about Achievements?
Like anything in a game, it shouldn’t be there because it’s required for all games or because it “sells” but because it makes you want to play the game more… simple.
Kiddo: On the note of netplay, how about that kind of thing that allows player-generated creativity like the stage creator or the character maker?
Allowing a player to create something of their own is a great way to add replayability and to give the player the illusion they have control over the game. In reality, everything is “staged” beforehand by the developer though – so no game has true complete freedom… How do you give the player the “feeling” that they can play the game “their” way so they feel in control, they feel happy and they feel challenged with worthwhile rewards?
Kiddo: On that note though, how do you give a player a good balance between being “in control” and being “challenged”?
Well, you need both and they don’t necessarily affect one another. The controls should be simple enough to figure out, but the execution of your controls through the gameplay mechanics should be difficult only to master but not to just play. Too difficult too quickly is usually just a poorly designed progression.
I designed a level in Shrek 2 at the end of which you play as Donkey riding Dragon, a very simple game of flying to collect coins and avoid obstacles. I tuned that sucker so it got my heart pumping every time I played it. Unfortunately, it ended up being too hard for the casual gamer but it was too late to change it… On a personal developer level – I want to make an experience that satisfies the target audience. The big mistake is: Make it fun by making it difficult. Fun and difficult don’t necessarily belong in the same sentence!
DarkWarrior: What would the best way be to actually try and find some sort of team for a project that already has some progress?
You can start by talking to friends, you can visit forums in which people post the kind of skills you’re looking for (art, code, sound, etc.). Get in contact with people, see if they have any interest after you’ve seen their work (and you’re definitely interested). You really just have to not give up. Believe in what you’re trying to make and meet people until you find the right team.
FoxBoy: I’m more of a ‘gotta check this’ person. I dunno if I should try for QA
I’ve participated in Quality Assurance by testing my own games and dealing with the QA department (filling out bug reports, responding to ones QA submits, etc.). That is one way to get into the industry, for sure. It is a tough job. You have to love games and you have to be willing to explore every inch of them – even to the point of it being boring. Then you have retest it once a bug you find has been “fixed”. But, you learn more about the process of making games by being involved in QA for sure.
FoxBoy: It is likely the best way to get in the industry
Remember – any job you get that is in the industry is good and it is NOT the job you will have for the rest of your life. it’s just a stepping stone so take comfort in knowing that.
FoxBoy: Maybe I might get into programming and do that later.
Programming is probably the most important job in making a game. Game design is important, of course – but without a programmer, you will never have a game. Talk about job security!
Kroze: What is your take on the homebrew market (Fangames)? Because the big companies don’t like it at all
Sure they don’t and let’s look at why. Little company without a budget makes a totally popular game. That competes with another game in the same market created by a giant company that is losing. The company goes “WTF! BUY THEM!” Homebrew games are like free downloadable music in a way, it basically provides entertainment for cheaper prices
Games that require years and tons of people and a big budget to make can’t compete if a game without the same level of cinematics and length gameplay, for example, competes with their sales. The business isn’t about new though. Taking chances furthers the ART of games but the business of games rarely depends on new. As a player – I want new. In fact, don’t know if anyone here played/liked 2142. I didn’t, why? Not new enough for me to jump from my obsession of BF2. Now if you’re about Nintendo, they are all about innovation in games. That’s their business!
Chris Senn himself then asks a question
Who here has tried to make a game?
Many people in the chat point to the lessons learnt from failure
I think our character is defined by how we react to success but more so to failure. This applies directly to game-making because making a game is FULL of difficulties.
LarkSS: I find that whenever I work on a game, I’m initially very inspired. I work hard and I see my vision slowly getting pieced together. As I progress though, I start to feel lost from my initial goal and lose the motivation I once had. Sometimes I have to force myself to continue working on what I’ve already started. Do you ever experience this and if so what do you do to help yourself get back on the path you need to be on?
(Kiddo: I think that kinda describes what became of Xtreme)
Anybody who spends more than 5 minutes on something creative will feel this way and I have felt this way many, many times. Here are some suggestions:
1) K.I.S.S. (keep it simple stupid). The simpler the idea, the easier it is to create, to explain, and to finish. If you find you suffer from a lot of started projects that eventually get abandoned, think of simpler goals. You may need to simply finish things for awhile, smaller projects, to gain a sense of fulfilment that you actually CAN finish something.
And while we’re on the subject, Xtreme was an example of something that I never gave up on, that lasted too long, and was chalk FULL of failures – including its ultimate demise. That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. That’s exactly why the simpler the idea, hopefully the less time you’ll spend picking over tiny details.
2) It’s VERY important to make sure you have a good idea of priorities. What is the most important part of your idea that MUST be cool? Forget everything else until you know that will work. Don’t get side-tracked too often, stay focused. Sometimes leaving what you’re working on (after communicating that you will with your team) is a good thing. Taking a breather lets you gain perspective. That break can either increase your resolve to finish or you may realize you’re just not that excited about it.
3) Some people are better starters than finishers. Others are the opposite. It’s important to try and practice both to be more well-rounded. It may be that you get excited and lose interest quickly – so perhaps you could be the “idea” person who poops out a bunch of ideas that other people ride through to completion (TSSZ Note – Eloquently put!) I mean – try to make sure you start things but also make sure you finish things too. You may not do both necessarily with the same project but getting experience finishing and starting (and the time in between) is important to get over time.
Ideas can come from anywhere – or anyone. Be sure to be as open as you can to listen to ideas from anyone (doesn’t matter if they’re an old lady crossing the street, a janitor, or a game industry veteran. Listen to the idea, not the person sharing it). Some people think that the lead of a group (say lead designer) should have the answer to everything. I don’t agree, I think a good leader has a brain (of course) but is willing to listen to different opinions and set the team on the best course after thinking about what’s been shared.
One lesson I learned: Don’t throw everything in to one game. In fact pick the top 3 things you love about your game idea. Drop more if you can; focus on only the most important, the most versatile of your ideas that will provide the most variety in the long run for the player. That will help you keep it simple and actually finish faster.
pKain: good teamwork is such an important rarity
Unfortunately, many companies don’t care about it. They’ll split up a team that has FINALLY learned how to work well together, finished a product, and are ready to take all they learned and actually make the next one GREAT. Why would anyone do that? Because the bottom line thinking tends to be: We can replace anyone. Sad but true.
Kroze: Like Clover Studios being split up by Capcom? (TSSZ Note – Later became Platinum Games)
Yeah, the split can be inside a company (so one team dissolves into other teams) – or entire companies… I believe that’s a total waste because again – good teamwork can’t be bought (unless you’re buying a team with good teamwork – which many publishers do. They buy developers; Activision’s method).
LarkSS: If you end up getting to a point where you can pretty much announce the game complete, is there anything wrong with going back to previously mentioned ideas and taking them into consideration/implementing them at that point in development?
It’s never too late to add something you think might improve your game but every time you change or add (or subtract) anything from your game, you run the risk of breaking it. So if you’re literally hours before release? I’d say don’t change it! Take the safe route if you’re in the final hours before release. Making last-minute changes doesn’t insure disaster by any means – but you just have to calculate if it’s really worth it.
Nezoth: about game deadlines/release dates, in certain cases, a game would benefit a lot if is was delayed (Sonic 2006 could have been, but —), now SSBB, it got delayed 2 or 3 times
I think it is better to release something better than on time. Why? Because consumers will remember whether it was good or bad and when you as a publisher or developer next want to approach the consumer with a game they will remember what you did last time.
Kroze: But what about Duke Nukem Forever? Being made by a perfectionist?
Why do you think it’s called “Forever”?
Kroze: Well its initials are “DNF” which also means “Did not finish”
Or Doesn’t Need Finishing…
I think if you take too long with a game that relies on how it looks, you are just chasing technology and will never finish – because tech is always advancing. So at some point you have to dig in your heels and just decide on what you’ll make and finish it.
Cyber_Rat_101: I personally liked the 2001 version, too bad it was scrapped because Half-Life beat them to everything they were going to do
That’s the other risk. Ideas come along all the time for everyone but it’s the people who turn the ideas into reality that make the difference and succeed.
I think a game without flaws is like a perfect person. Nothing is perfect for everyone but a game can be perfect for you. This thinking applies to friendships and relationships too. Nobody’s perfect so you learn to accept certain flaws and actually like things despite their flaws…
Well okay folks – I gotta run… but this has been fun! I look forward to seeing anyone interested on Thursday… if you’d like to discuss any of this or other things, feel free to visit: http://www.senntient.com/forums/viewtopic.php?id=268
This post was originally written by the author for TSSZ News.