Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 137 / JANUARY 1992 / PAGE 94

Principles of good game design. (World of Electronic Games)
by Heidi E. Aycock

You saved up for months to buy a new game for your PC. You read the reviews, investigated the bestseller lists, asked your friends and relatives, and settled on a package.

As you lay your money down, you wonder if your diligence will be rewarded. Will the game be as incredible as everyone says? What makes a good game, anyway?

Ask game designers and they can talk for hours. Various themes surface in their answers--good games are fun, they balance challenge with success, they tell good stories, they have whiz-bang features. Good games are simple; they help you expand your mind.

Play enough games and you'll probably develop your own philosophy of game design. Certainly it will include a few of these principles.

Fun Comes First

Name: Paul Reiche III Recent Release: Star Control from Accolade Other Games: Archon and World Tour Golf

For Paul Reiche III, good game design starts with good fun. "I don't have any highbrow ideas of games as statements of social change," says Reiche. "To me the litmus test of a good game is how much fun it is."

His answer may sound obvious, but Reiche goes into great depth about this basic principle. He explains that designers can describe their newest games and nauseam but never say, "The fun part is. . . ."

"Consequently," he says, "any fun in the game is completely accidental. A good game has to have a fun core, which is a one-sentence description of why it's fun."

Exercising his sense of fun, Reiche spends time thinking about games we play in the real world. He picks out the fun core of the game. In hide-and-seek, for example, the fun part of being the hider is finding a good place to hide. Then he thinks about how that can translate to a computer game.

Besides looking to the real world for standards of fun, Reiche examines successful games of the past. His latest release, Star Control, was inspired by an old 8-bit Atari game called Star Raiders. Look at the graphics of Star Raiders and you'll smugly roll your eyes. But the game was great fun back then, and it's still fun today. "I think those games are overlooked as a source for fundamental game design," says Reiche.

He also plays games with friends. "We have a game night once a week when we play games we want to play or games that look interesting," he says. "We usually don't play computer games. We usually play board games."

Reiche's philosophy--that a good game design is simply a fun game--may seem too basic. But, as Reiche's contemporaries Brent Iverson and Dan Bunten agree, fun is the essential element of an excellent game. Isolating that element, though, can require many hours of sifting through unnecessary game details.

Of his own design process, Bunten remarks, "We go through these designing-playing-designing-playing-type iterations to follow the thread of what's fun and build on the foundation of what we think is needed." Iverson echoes this philosophy with his admission, "There are cases where you design something that looks good on paper and there's only one small part of it that's fun. You have to focus on that and throw the rest away."

Perhaps fun is too intangible a term to pin down--successful game designers can't readily define what fun is even though they continue to produce engaging games. As an old hand at designing popular games, Paul Reiche takes his "fun" seriously enough to build some of the most entertaining diversions around, with or without a working definition.

We Crave Simplicity

Name: Dave Jones Recent Release: Lemmings from Psygnosis Other Games: Menace and Blood Money

When Dave Jones and his cohorts built Lemmings, they decided to emphasize simplicity. They thought the best-designed games were also the least complicated.

"Tetris is the ultimate example of the most ultimately simple game, but it's so addictive," said Jones. "Lemmings is complexly simple. That's what's fun about it." He found, however, that attaining simplicity posed great difficulty. "We took a good six months to design this game," muses Jones. "That's an unusually long time."

Lemmings almost defies description. A group of rodents move irresistibly forward. You endow these creatures with special skills that help them overcome obstacles. Of course, the skills are limited and the solutions are not always obvious.

In the interest of good game design, Jones whittled down the skills from a collection of 20 to a group of 8. "The simpler you can make the control of the game, the more playable it is.

"We thought that with these eight skills we could throw anything at the players. When we started to take skills out, we figured they could do these things with these three skills. Can this lemming replicate what this skill can do with two or three other functions?"

The final product is a game that many designers call ingeniously simple but obsessively interesting. Origin Systems' Richard Garriott adds his opinion to the body of praise for this Psygnosis hit. "I would not have been able to predict Lemmings would be such a popular game, but it's slick and simple." Even the jaded Jones admits that this is the only game he has ever wanted to play after finishing the project.

Perhaps simplicity is an aspect of game design that more designers should note. Reiche extols the virtue of an uncomplicated game: "The really blisteringly original games are incredibly simple."

To Jones, however, the best game design would sprinkle glamour over innate simplicity. "The ultimate game would be one that's as playable as Lemmings but has the [cinematic-style] graphics of Wing Commander," he says. "That is something that people have to work towards and that is very difficult to do."

The Plot's the Thing

Name: Roberta Williams Recent Release: King's Quest V from Sierra On-Line Other Games: The Colonel's Bequest and Mixed-Up Mother Goose Roberta Williams designs games that have a discrete, victorious end. A good game, in her view, takes you to that final victory in an interesting way.

"More and more, we're thinking in terms of the plot," she says. "And is the protagonist a likable person? And who is the antagonist?"

Adventure games have changed a lot since she began her long-lived King's Quest series. "In the old days, when I first started designing adventure games, there wasn't much plot," Williams says. "You kind of ran around beating up trolls and gathering treasure."

As consumers have developed more sophisticated palates, game designers have spiced up their writing skills. According to Williams, "More and more, [games are] turning into interactive fiction, and more and more, we're concentrating on plot, the characters, and proper writing technique."

Williams equates her adventure games with movies and books. Her creations aspire to be as well crafted and as absorbing as those you would find in a motion picture. Players must be able to identify with the characters. Puzzles must fit into the plot without drawing attention to themselves.

Balancing a game's plot with an acceptable amount of interactivity is one of the toughest tasks in designing a good adventure game. "In the case of an adventure game, the protagonist is controlled by the player," Williams explains. "The writer has no control over what the protagonist does. The protagonist is kind of like a wild horse that you have to catch and rein in."

The only time she can direct the protagonist is during program control sequences. These are the parts of the game where the player is forced to find clues through overhead conversations and cutaway scenes. These sequences keep the game moving.

"It's at those points that you can rein the players in and make them dance to your tune," she says. "But then they're off and running."

With both good plots and good writing techniques, Williams designs games that double as escape hatches from everyday life. That escape, combined with the sheer pleasure of winning, is what she finds fun in the King's Quest games.

Technology First

Name: Richard Garriott Recent Release: Ultima VII, The Black Gate from Origin Systems Other Games: Ultima series, Martian Dreams

Like King's Quest, Richard Garriott's Ultima games have been around for a long time. Unlike King's Quest, however, Ultima's key to success is its technological sophistication--plot comes later.

"When I sit down to design a game, I usually have a few basic goals that I am very much aware of from the onset," Garriott says. "The message of the game and the major technological achievements I want to take on--I usually have these well in hand conceptually before I put a line of code in."

For Garriott, technological issues drive the game design process. He says he can write a good story and try to make the computer tell that story, but without close attention to the limits of the machine, he won't know how much code he'll have to write. He won't even know if the idea is possible.

"On the other hand, if you first develop the technology, then you can say, 'Okay, I can design a story that does that.' That story is well within the scope of the technology."

As he redesigns the technology for each new Ultima, Garriott carves the plot out of the new possibilities. For example, in each of the Ultima games, Garriott has been able to show the world of Britannia in more detail. By Ultima V, he could put furniture in the rooms, so he included a harpsichord the player could play--just because it was possible. Since he couldn't justify the harpsichord on aesthetic grounds alone, he rigged the instrument so that when players press a certain key, a secret passage opens and reveals one of the major parts of the game.

By creating more detail and more possibilities, Garriott has built a series that wraps players in the fantasy of another world. He says the fun part of the Ultima series is that immersion in a separate reality, a reality that grows richer and richer with each installment.

"Ultimas are fun," Garriott says, "because everything from the moment you open the box is there to compel you to believe that you might really be going to a real place. The fiction of the whole game is there to support the reality of your escape to the world of Britannia."

And Still More Fun

Name: Dan Bunten Recent Release: Command HQ from MicroProse Other Games: M.U.L.E. and Robot Rascals

Bundle up all the elements of a good game and give them a vigorous shake. What sifts through is a special kind of growth that comes from having a good time.

"Fun is not a fatuous activity," says Dan Bunten. "Fun is the meter on your emotional state. Fun is the summary feeling that you've got, but what's contributing to that are unexpected opportunities for growth.

According to Bunten, fun takes on an important role as an indispensable part of our lives. "It's a characteristic of intelligent species to engage in activities for which there seems to be no reward," he says. "As a culture, we class those activities as play. Those are things that don't have any extrinsic reward. The reward is all intrinsic."

He explains why we need fun. "As intelligence rises, the need for stimulation also rises," he says. "For every brain, there is an optimum level of arousal that your brain wants to get to." If your brain doesn't reach that level during the day, you've got to play.

By consuming your daily quota of stimulation, you promote your psychological and spiritual growth. You can also expand your intellectual capacity. "Some things have a certain amount of depth that pushes you, makes you think a little deeper than you have, makes you study a little more, makes you connect with things outside of the game environment."

According to Bunten, when you become completely absorbed by a game that pushes you to your intellectual edges, you feel like what you've done is more deeply significant than what you would have done otherwise. He asserts, "Because of the richness of the environment, the connection to outside, real-world experiences, you come away with a more profound experience than you would have had without those elements--even if the entertainment value is equivalent."

Good games are good for you, by Bunten's account. Fun is a vitamin for the mind, essential nourishment for your intellect. Or perhaps Reiche comes closer to the truth when he says, "A good computer game is pretty much the same thing that games were always meant to be: something to wile away some time with."

But whatever you rationale, whatever your excuse, don't worry. A little fun never hurt anybody.