Game Design

Best Free Game Engines and Development Software

Is the only thing keeping you from transforming your great game idea from dream to reality your wallet? Well then, you will be happy to hear that there are excellent free / open source software packages in every discipline you need to build a great game. Sections include game engines, 2D art, 3D art and animation, sound design, and project management. Everything on the list below is used by professional game developers.

Best Free Game Engines – Unity and Unreal

One of your first key decisions as a game developer is which game engine you will use. Game engines provide you ways to quickly implement core game functions like physics, rendering, scripting, collision detection, and much more without the need to custom code them. They provide tested, reusable components that allow you to build more quickly and focus on making a great player experience.

The most prevalent platforms used by professional game studios today are Unity and Unreal. Amazingly, both platforms are now free to develop in. Both are great and do many of the same things, so deciding between the two comes down to user preference.

#1: Unity 

Our platform at NYFA Games is Unity for two reasons.

Firstly, Unity gives developers to build functioning games with little coding — e.g. through use of drag and drop features. However, it also has the full power of object oriented programming through scripting languages with the most prevalent choice being C# (pronounced “C sharp”).

Secondly, Unity allows developers to write their programs once and output to the top 25 game platforms including Windows, Mac, Playstation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Oculus Rift, and many more. Games made with Unity include: “Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft,” “Deus Ex: The Fall,” “Assassin’s Creed: Identity,” “Temple Run Trilogy,” “Battlestar Galactica Online,” and many more.

#2 Unreal 

Unreal was created for it namesake (the Unreal franchise) and is a top of the line game engine through and through. When using this tool you are given the full force of a AAA tool. Games developed with Unreal include “Gears of War,” “Borderlands 2,” “Batman Arkham City,” “Bioshock,” “Mass Effect 2,” and more.

Honorable Mention: Amazon Lumberyard

Lumberyard is a relative newcomer to the game engine space. It is a free AAA engine that is deeply integrated with the Amazon Web Server (AWS) platform and Twitch.

All of the engines we recommend are fully documented and come with a slew of tutorials online.

Best Free 2D Art Software – GIMP

Compelling art is the make-or-break point on whether a new player will be willing to try a new game.

GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) is the open source version of the industry standard graphic design program, Adobe Photoshop. GIMP is a freely distributed program for image authoring, graphic design, and photo manipulation. Use GIMP to start your game art. Check out a world of tutorials on the web.

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Best Free 3D Art and Animation Software – Blender

MAYA, MAYA, MAYA — is all everyone says these days when it comes to 3D asset creation, and for good reason! Yet Maya’s price tag of $180 / month leads some developers to the great, functional open source alternative, Blender.

What GIMP is to Photoshop, Blender is Maya. It is your one stop shop for 3D modeling, texturing, rigging, animation, and more.

Special note for those who have a .edu email address: MAYA reduces its price tag to $0 for three years! All you need is a .edu email and you can hang with the best of them. More info here.

Best Free Sound Design Software – Audacity

With the emergence of virtual reality and augmented reality, the demand for great sound design is stronger than ever. This is especially true because of the need to communicate location in VR and AR to create an immersive experience. The open source leader today is Audacity

This software is being used by game developers, musicians, podcasters, filmmakers, and other creative people. It is approaching its year 10 anniversary and going strong, so you know it isn’t going to disappear any time soon.

Best Free Project Management Software – Trello

There are many free online collaboration tools. Trello is our current favorite because of it’s ease of use, flexibility, and ability to integrate other platforms such as Dropbox and Google Drive. Trello also lets you run AGILE development and SCRUM with a little know how. Check it out here.

The Rise of High Quality Video Game Trailers

The evolution of video game trailers is comparable to games themselves. While 20 years ago we were content running across 8-bit worlds, now we expect vast 3D areas with lifelike visuals. As the video game industry became bigger and better, so too did the most powerful way of marketing a new game.

In fact, publishers hire people that focus specifically on creating cinematics and trailers that will make the game look as attractive as possible. While how well a game sells will mostly be determined by its quality, a game trailer plays a major role as well.

The following is a brief look at where game trailers began and how developers have in time improved them:

The Odd, Early Years

In the early ‘90s it was all about the Super NES and Sega Genesis. Sega pulled out all the stops to compete with Nintendo, who up until then had dominated the industry. As the console war heated up, both companies realized they needed to step up their marketing by providing top-notch commercials for young gamers all across the globe.

But much like that decade itself, the commercials were all about being “dope.” Not satisfied with just showing the games in all their 2D glory, developers and their marketing teams went with intense, action-packed commercials with people to hype up the game.

They Get Better

As video game consoles got got better, so too did the visuals they could produce. Consoles like the Sega Dreamcast, N64 and PlayStation could produce breathtaking 3D characters and environments. Now with impressive graphics to show off, game companies finally decided to use them in their trailers.

Live adults were ditched in favor of quick cuts of gameplay to give players a taste of what they could be playing. The trend to add dramatic music that wasn’t specifically in the game, which is still done often today, also arose during this time.

They Become An Art Form

Video games have become one of the most powerful ways to tell a story. Games offer an interactive experience that lets you feel like you’re actually in an enchanted forest, heated battlefield, or wherever your favorite games take you. In order to make their games stand out above the rest, developers began trying to make their trailers do the same as the games themselves — evoke emotion.

Companies began creating cinematics made specifically for commercials, even if they never appeared in the actual game. Moving soundtracks combined with emotional scenes helped some of the best games of the 2000s draw thousands to stores. The following are perfect examples of trailers that despite showing little to no gameplay, draw you into its setting and characters.

The Rise of Misleading Trailers

The video game industry is more competitive than ever. This puts a lot of pressure on game developers who must sell X million copies just to break even or be given another chance at a new project. Unfortunately, this has caused a lot of publishers to become shady when it comes to what they show in their trailers.

There are many ways a trailer can be misleading. For one, they might show footage of a game that’s a vast improvement to what will actually be in the game. Other times we’re given cinematics that are a completely false representation of what you’ll actually be doing or seeing in the game. Below are a few examples, including one of the many infamous “Metal Gear Solid 2” trailers that fooled us into thinking Solid Snake would be the main protagonist.

Interested in learning more about game design? Check out the New York Film Academy’s Game Design School.

The Table-Top Gaming Revolution: Just 40 Years in the Making

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by NYFA Instructor Andy Ashcraft

So, as some of you may have noticed, table-top games — board-games and card games — are really popular right now. You can find dozens of new games in the big box stores like Target, Walmart and Toys-R-Us, and even find well-stocked selections in the big bookstores. Local specialty retail shops are everywhere, and always have people inside playing a game or two. Board-game cafes are springing up in cities around the world, where you can enjoy a beverage and a snack and borrow a game to play from some pretty extensive libraries. In Glendale, my favorite local game café called GameHaus boasts a library with about 1500 games, and is packed full of people on a Friday and Saturday night. What is happening here? When did this start?

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Even though it seems to have sprung up overnight, our seemingly newfound love of table-top games has a history going back about 40 years.  In the paragraphs that follow, I’ll outline a timeline that shows how this hobby has grown to what it is now.

Pre-1974:  Wargames, Family Games and Abstract Strategy Games.

Prior to, say, 1976, the world of tabletop gaming could be split into these three reasonably distinct categories:

Family Games

Family games were those that you could easily find in a Toy-R-Us or in a small area near the toys in a department store. These are titles I’m sure you’ll recognize: Monopoly, Candyland, Stratego, Clue (or Cluedo), Trouble, and Scrabble. You would be hard-pressed to find any suburban home in the U.S. that didn’t include at least one of these games.  (My grandfather was a huge Scrabble fan, and taught me to play just as soon as I could read. Perhaps I come to my love of games through him!)

Abstract Strategy Games / Traditional Games

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Abstract strategy games are much older than many of the family games above, like many card games using a traditional deck of cards. They include games like chess, checkers, dominoes, backgammon, Pente, and Othello. Many of these games are old enough to not require a license, and therefore different manufacturers could make games for different market segments: kid’s versions, travel versions, or expensive, hand-crafted versions that are left out as objets d’art. Similarly, anyone can publish a standard deck of playing cards, with which literally hundreds of games can be played. You can buy decks of cards at dollar stores, or find very expensive and beautifully illustrated decks, depending on your taste and budget.  

Wargames

This last type of game is the lesser-known cousin of the other two, and in many ways, the predecessor of the gaming boom we’re experiencing today. Wargames were a niche hobby for adult men (generally white) who enjoyed strategy and history. Many of these games were set in a particular historical battle. Avalon Hill was a major publisher of many of these strategy games like Tactics, Blitzkrieg, Gettysburg, and a railroad game called Dispatcher. These games typically used tiny cardboard tokens on a map to illustrate the action.

Wargaming with these tokens led to using miniatures (usually cast in lead or pewter) as nicer-looking replacement game pieces. In 1970, medieval wargame enthusiasts Gary Gygax, Jeff Perrin and Don Lowry teamed up to create a medieval miniatures wargame called Chainmail. As “an afterthought,” Gygax added a section at the end dealing with fantastic and mythological creatures, notably elves, goblins, wizards and dragons. This turned out to be quite popular and lead to the first big breakout hit for this industry.   

1974-1994:  D&D, Hobby Games and Game Stores

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In 1974, Gygax (and some others) created a company called TSR and released Dungeons & Dragons, an expansion of Chainmail where each player played as just one hero character instead of as the commander of an army. It was the first role-playing game (RPG) and was enormously influential and innovative. There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of table-top RPG’s published since then, and an equally vast number of computer RPGs. A great deal has been written about Dungeons & Dragons so I won’t get into too much detail, except to point to this moment as a big expansion in the hobby.

At this point, game conventions began to grow from small gatherings where groups of friends spent the weekend playing games together to the 90,000+ people that are expected to attend GenCon Indy this year, it’s 40th anniversary. Gen-Con, the “best five days in gaming,” brings more money into Indianapolis each year than any other event outside the Indianapolis 500. Los Angeles alone hosts three much smaller game conventions each year.

These game conventions became fertile fields for design-oriented players to start making and sharing their own games, and some cult classics first appeared in these venues, often as self-published packages sold in ziplock bags: Wiz-War, Talisman, Cosmic Encounters, Battle Stations, and Insecta are examples of these “early” hobby games.

Another direct spin-off of Dungeons & Dragons is the British company named Games Workshop. Early on, this company had the license to publish D&D (and other American games) in Europe. They were both a publisher and a brick-and-mortar retailer, with a rapid growth during these 20 years. Games Workshop also published their own games, like Fury of Dracula and, more importantly to them, Warhammer and Warhammer 40K.

Warhammer (and the 40k variant) are a return to miniatures-based war-gaming, with players commanding large armies of elves, orcs, and other fantasy creatures. They teamed up with a miniatures manufacturer named Citadel Miniatures to create a line of figures that were a requirement to play the game. These fantasy tabletop wargames became their core business.  

During this time, the hobby began to acknowledge the best games for their excellence. The Germans were the first to start awarding prizes in the field of game-design. The Spiel de Jahres was awarded in 1979, and two other awards started in 1989/1990: the Kinderspiel de Jahres (for children’s games) and the Deutscher Spiele Pries. That same year, the American Mensa organization would also begin awarding the Mensa Select to games that promote thinking and learning. In 1991, Games Magazine gave their first Game of the Year award.

1994-1999:  The Years of Magical Thinking

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In the mid-’90s, the industry saw two big shifts that would help swing this niche hobby into the mainstream — Magic: The Gathering, and a simultaneous surge in creativity from Europe.

Magic: The Gathering debuted at Gen-Con in 1994. At the heart of this game was a then-revolutionary idea: what if there was a game you could play with trading cards? Instead of buying the entire game at once, players would buy smaller packs of cards, trade individual cards with each other, and play with the cards that they had collected. Each “booster pack” of 15 cards included one rare card, three uncommon cards, and 11 common cards. It was a huge hit, selling out their first few print runs, and ultimately changing the business of tabletop gaming across the U.S.

The game’s setting was a fantasy world, much like Dungeons & Dragons and Warhammer. Each card had a beautiful illustration, and the game itself could be played in 15-30 minutes. It took the company, Wizards of the Coast, a year or so to come to grips with their nigh-instant popularity and get their production pipeline flowing. The game — colloquially called “Magic” or shortened even more to “MtG” — was inherently open-ended so that Wizards of the Coast could release new sets of cards that could be added to each player’s collection. The growing community of players created a rich secondary market for the most useful cards, and some of these cards would be instantly worth 10 times the cost of the booster pack they’d be found in.  

Within two years, most tabletop game retailers were making the lion’s share of their income selling only these card packs. I remember hearing stories of game shops that were burglarized during this time where the thieves took nothing except boxes of unopened Magic cards.   

The market for this game was typically young men, and Wizards of the Coast realized something important: they were bringing new people into the hobby. They followed this success in 1996 by publishing a similar trading card game, slightly simpler, and based on a video game series popular among both boys and girls: Pokémon. The game’s slogan told you exactly what they wanted you to do: “You gotta catch ‘em all.”  

There were many other collectible trading card games that followed these two, but none as popular.   Wizards of the Coast created a rich and stable platform for a brand new generation of gamers. By 1999, Wizards of Coast had purchased the flagging Dungeons & Dragons publisher, TSR, and released a new version of that game, too. Wizards of the Coast has since been purchased by Hasbro, and now you can purchase Magic and Pokémon cards in very mainstream retailers like Toys-R-Us and Target.

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Meanwhile, in Europe, an explosion of creativity was also happening around board games. The story I heard, which may be apocryphal, is that a German marketing company did a survey asking young adults what they liked to do best on a Friday night. They expected to get answers regarding drinking and night-life, and were surprised to find out that a very large number of people liked to stay home and play games with the friends and family. It’s not clear from the story whether this caused publishers to pour money into tabletop games, or was the result of publisher money spent. What I do know is that by the late 1990s, a tidal wave of European board and card games were showing up in my local game stores, and they were wildly different than anything we had seen before.  

Some of these early “euro-games” were Settlers of Catan, Agricola, Carcassonne, Bohnanza, and Tigris & Euphrates.  These games were richly detailed, beautifully made, and introduced us to entirely new game mechanics. These were games made for people who liked deep strategy but with brand new themes: you could play as a tribe of people settling an island, or a plantation owner, or a city planner, and have that same strategic experience that had been mostly relegated to war-games.

1999 – Present:  The Mainstreaming of Games

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And so we come to what I consider the current era of gaming, a golden age for sure! I think it is also important to make two small digressions:  

  1. Gaming has grown in prominence in parallel with the popularity of manga, science fiction, fantasy and the supernatural genres on TV and at the box office.  
  2. Globalism (and the internet) has made it much easier for a small game publisher to make a much more high-quality product than was possible even in the 1980s.  

But let’s talk about the games themselves, the kinds of fun they create, and the affect they have had on the hobby.

Cooperative games have had a resurgence in popularity. There were a few early games (Dungeon! and Arkham Horror) that fit this description; games in which players work together to win or lose the game collectively. The title that really broke this type of game out is Pandemic, where the players are CDC (Center of Disease Control) Agents racing around the world attempting to find cures for rapidly growing, and thankfully abstracted, diseases. One of my other favorites is Red November, where you play as the grog-drinking Gnomish crew on a sinking submarine.  The fun of these games is intensely social, and their steep challenge — the players frequently lose these games — creates their delicious tension.  

Werewolf (and the similar game called Mafia) originated as party games that you could play with a group of people and a few normal playing cards. These are called social deduction games, where the players attempt to figure out which one (or more) of them are secretly playing against the rest. In the case of Werewolf, most players play as villagers, but among them are also secretly werewolves. Each round, the entire group of villagers can eliminate one player in the hopes of getting rid of the werewolf, then, while everyone else’s eyes are closed, the secret werewolf eliminates one other player. The popularity of Werewolf spawned a multitude of other social deduction games in a wide variety of themes. These games are meant to be played as party games, and are fun as purely social events.

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Magic: The Gathering is still going strong, of course, and the publisher of that game has refined its approach to the community of players. They have defined a suite of tournament types to appeal to different types of players. The truly hard-core players can play in “Unlimited” tournaments, which allow almost every card ever published to be used in the game. This appeals to those collector/players who have spent years and/or fortunes collecting the rarest and best cards. The “Standard” format only allows cards published within the last two years, basically, which means that newer collector/players can compete. “Booster Draft” tournaments are the most casual; players do not need to own any cards at all to play because they will “draft” cards from a brand-new booster pack before passing the remainder to the next player. Afterwards, they use these cards create their decks and play. They also created a world-wide database of players and track their wins and losses, ultimately leading to world championship tournaments that only the best players are invited to.

A few other new genres of games spun out of the collectible card games, like MtG. 7 Wonders is an example of a “card-drafting” game, where the entire game is just “drafting” cards — players choose cards from sets being passed around. Another game, Dominion, was the first of many “deck-building” games, where you start with a small set of cards and acquire more cards to add to your deck as the game progresses. Both of these game mechanics are part of the larger Magic game, but as these clever game designers realized, could be fun experiences on their own.  

One of the most recent innovations in game design is the Legacy game. The first Legacy game was Risk Legacy, developed in-house at Hasbro by Rob Daviau and Chris Dupuis and published in 2011. Risk Legacy takes the classic Risk strategy game-play and adds elements that persist from one game to the next. For example, a faction might gain an ability, or a territory space on the board could be modified in the first game, and that change would persist through the games that followed. These games are meant to change and evolve as they are played, and generally have a limited number of plays in them before the game once again becomes static and unchanging. This idea of persistent changes is at the heart of most tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, but had never been applied to board games before.  

As a counterpoint to that, some tabletop games are role-playing games reimagined as board games, card games or dice games. These experiences have pre-made player characters, pre-written adventures, little (or no) persistence, and tons of interchangeable tiles and miniatures. Good examples are the traditional fantasy-themed Descent and Thunderstone, or the adorably anthropomorphic Mice & Mystics.  

All this innovation brought new players to the table and the hobby continued to grow. In 2000, a website called Board Game Geek was founded and hosts a vast, user-edited database of table-top games, reviews of games (and an important game-rating system), tutorials on how to play and/or make games, pictures of games, and discussion forums.  Gamers can share their game collections and their experiences with others around the world.   

Now: The State of the Union

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Finally, since we’re talking about the internet, we must include Kickstarter. Kickstarter, launched in 2009, is a popular crowdfunding site that, has really clicked for the hobby games community. The first tabletop game sold on Kickstarter (Alien Frontier, I think) funded in April of 2010 for about $15k. As of this writing, the largest amount of money raised for a complete game was $8,782,571 for a game called Exploding Kittens. There are, as of this writing, 245 different table-top game projects with active Kickstarter campaigns.

$8.7 million is an outlier of course, but it does show how big the market for a game can be. Typically, the budgets for games are much, much smaller. The average publishing deal, in which a game designer licenses a game to a publisher to publish, is for five years. That publisher will print maybe 3000 copies of the game, which is just enough to get a few copies into most specialty retail shops and sell a handful at conventions.

An average MSRP for a game is around $40, so math tells us that an average game is expected to earn about $120,000 over five years, which must cover the cost of goods (and shipping) and also pay the retailer, the distributor, the publisher and the inventor/designer. That is to say, no one is making a lot of money on these games. This is still a hobby market, even if the entire industry earned $1.2 billion in 2016 (according to this article), a 40 percent increase over 2015.

The biggest change over the last 30 years has been the cultural change: where games are played and who is playing.

I’ve already hinted at this, but to be more explicit, this hobby is now multi-generational. The kids who are playing games now have parents who still play those same games. My friend has a boy, who at 6 years old was a fanatic about trains. He couldn’t have cared any less about games until he saw us playing Ticket to Ride, and now at 14, he is a gamer. This also illustrates that there are games themed for everyone now, from war-games to gardening-themed games.

Because more kids are playing more games as they grow up, and because the parents of these kids are still playing games now, the biggest change has been in the gender-balance of the players. In short, more females are playing games now than ever before. Thirty years ago, games not for kids/families games were made for and by men. Thankfully, that is no longer the case. There has been an active push by the community to make the hobby more accepting of, and attractive to, women. As a result, the places we play have become more open, cleaner and friendlier spaces to be in. Gone are the dimly lit retail stores stacked to the ceiling with games. Gone are the dank basements where mom never wanted to go.

Further, because of the immense popularity of Magic, these retail stores have had to change their business models. A store that only sells games is not competitive anymore; your store must also have space to play games. On Friday nights, you need to have space for Friday Night Magic, the weekly MtG “booster draft” tournament. During the rest of the week, you want to have people in your store playing games, or painting miniatures. In short, retail spaces have become the gathering spaces for gamers.  

A recent game prototyping event I attended, called Protospiel, was held in a retail shop in Mountain View, CA. It was a little crowded, but the store had enough space to hold 50 tables, each with room for 6 players. The amount of space this store dedicated to play-space was much larger than the amount of space dedicated to selling games (and snacks).  

And in conclusion…

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I wanted to provide an overview of why this hobby has suddenly (over the last 35+ years) exploded in popularity. I’ve given you the long answer, but the shorter answer is this: The time was right for innovation along multiple fronts — creative, business and technological — to turn a very niche hobby into a much more mainstream hobby. New games are being made, and the best games (and designers) are praised for their excellence, which raises the challenge to the next game designers to make even better games, which then attract even more people to the hobby.  

This is also a good place to add that many of us spend much of our day slaving over a hot keyboard or staring deeply into the soul of a computer screen. Perhaps tabletop gaming provides exactly what we need right now: fun, safe, human interaction.

3 Questions That Will Help You Make a More Engaging Experience

By Felipe Lara, NYFA Game Design

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How can you make your game more engaging and effective? In a nutshell, by making engagement stronger at the different levels of the experience and by making engagement connect to your ultimate goals: monetizing, teaching, or changing behavior.

There are three questions that can help you figure out how to best do that and they can be applied not only to games, but also to education, VR experiences, and other software that needs to engage users. Let me elaborate.

In this article we talked about how successful games and experiences share certain features. First, they stand out so that target players notice, then they connect with target players at an emotional level, so players are willing to give a few minutes of attention. Finally, successful games engage players and keep them for longer time, which in turn helps the game grow.

To do that, games can use different ingredients like compelling art, fun game mechanics, resonating themes, etc. Some ingredients (like art) are better at helping a game stand out, while others (like mechanics) are better at keeping engagement going. The challenge is how to mix and match these ingredients to take players to full long-term engagement.

Game design is an art and a craft that can take years to master, so I don’t want to oversimplify the art of engagement. That said, these three questions can often help you figure out what is missing and find possible solutions to make your game more successful at reaching your goals.

Question 1: Do You Have a Compelling Core Loop?

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All games have a core set of activities that the player repeats over and over to advance through the game. These core repeatable activities are usually called loops. Clarifying and analyzing the core loop in your game can be very enlightening and can help you specify why your game works — or doesn’t.

Games like “Clash of Clans” have perfected the use of loops to keep players engaged for a long time. At a basic level the loop is pretty simple:

You complete rewarding activities that compel you to come back and do more rewarding activities. Game designer and start-up consultant Amy Jo Kim identifies three rules that core loops need to follow to drive re-engagement:

  1. “They have a set of compelling activities. In “Clash of Clans” these activities are all related to building up your village and battling other villages.
  2. “Those activities give you positive feedback that make the completion of activities much more satisfying. This feedback makes you feel that you are getting better at something, and getting rewarded for it. In “Clash of Clans,” as your village grows and as you defeat other villages you get access to more resources and better troops.
  3. “Built into this cycle there are triggers and incentives to keep you going back to the game. In “Clash of Clans” all the building up, collecting resources, and troop training takes time, so there is an incentive to keep coming back to reap the benefits of what you have already done. Also, as you put more time into developing and customizing your village and improving your troops, you feel more invested in the experience, which makes you want to go back again.”

Amy Jo Kim’s analysis is very useful and provides interesting sub-questions to help identify potential problems and opportunities with your core activity loop:

  1. “Are the activities in your core loop compelling enough? How can you make them more compelling?
  2. “Are you giving your players enough positive feedback about the activities they completed? Do they feel they are progressing and mastering a new skill? How can you amplify that positive feedback?
  3. “Does your loop have triggers that pull players back into the game? As they go through the loop, do players feel more invested in the game? Can something be added to lure players back? Can something be added to make players feel more invested?”

If you want to go a little deeper on how these 3 rules work in different loops, take a look Amy Jo Kim’s full article here.

Question 2: Is Your Core Loop Tightly Connected to Your Goals?

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Connecting your core activity loop tightly to your goals is key to making a successful game. There are many for-profit, free-to-play games that don’t sell enough items to be sustainable, and many educational games that are not very good at teaching what they were suppose to teach. Some of these games are even fun, using proven fun mechanics copied from other successful games, but still, they are unsuccessful at connecting those mechanics to their goals in any meaningful way.

If you are trying to sell items, those items should enhance your core loop experience.

A successful example of connecting your loop to your goals is “Pokemon Go.” In “Pokemon Go” your beginner core activities are basically three:

  1. Walking around searching for Pokemon.
  2. Catching the Pokemon you find by throwing PokeBalls at them.
  3. Walking to PokeStops to get more PokeBalls and other items that will make it easier to catch Pokemons.

At first you have enough PokeBalls and catching Pokemons is very easy, but as you level up you will find it harder to catch Pokemons. You will need many more PokeBalls and will run out of your supply faster. You can always walk to a PokeStop and get more PokeBalls, but since you are already somewhat invested, spending $1 to get extra PokeBalls doesn’t sound bad. You could keep playing for free by continue walking around to different PokeStops, but by spending $1 here and there you can make your play much more convenient and increase your chances of catching rare Pokemon faster. The items that you can buy directly make your core loop easier, so even if the game does not force you to buy anything, many players end up spending a few dollars here and there to improve their experience.

In the case of an educational game, the set of core activities should produce learning. In her article “Why Games Don’t Teach,” Ruth Colvin Clarke talks about some examples where the game activities do not align with the educational objectives — which makes the games very ineffective.

Clarke presents some experimental evidence that concludes that narrative educational games lead to poorer learning and take longer to complete than simply displaying the lesson contents in a slide presentation.

One of the games she tested is a game called “Cache 17,” an adventure game designed to teach how electromagnetic devices work. The problem with this game and the other games she mentions in her study is that core loops are only vaguely related to the topics they are supposed to teach. In the case of “Cache 17,” the players need to solve a mystery about some missing paintings that disappeared during World War II by searching through an underground bunker. The link to the topic is that players occasionally need to build an electromechanical device to open some doors and vaults in the bunker. The core loop is about exploring a bunker and finding clues, not about experimenting with electromechanical devices.

Not surprisingly, Clarke’s study found that reading a slide about electromagnetic principles was quicker and much more effective at teaching the topic than playing the game.

When the educational objectives are more aligned to the core loop the results are very different. Using a resource strategy game like Sid Meier’s “Civilization” as a supporting tool to teach the relationships between military, technological, political, and socioeconomic development has been so successful for educators that a purely educational version of the game was announced for 2017. Here, the core loop is closely aligned to the educational objectives: The core play is all about figuring out the right combinations economic development, exploration, government, diplomacy, and military conquest to create a successful civilization.

Question 3: Is Your Core Loop Connected to All the Ingredients of an Engaging Experience?

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The ingredients of engagement go beyond game mechanics; they include other things like art, theme, story, and community building. When you are able to connect your loop to these other ingredients the engagement is much more powerful.

For example, “Toontown Online” is a game developed by Disney. It’s overall goal was to defend a cartoony world from invading business robots. Designers wanted to make sure that the core loop reinforced the overall theme of the game. This theme was something like: “Work is always trying to take over our play time, but play most prevail.” So, the need to play was built in as an essential part of the core loop.

Without playing arcade-like mini-games, “Toontown Online” players could not earn jelly beans — the main currency that was essential to buy gags that would help players stop the business robot invasion. So even when the story and main conflict was about defending Toontown and battling business robots, players couldn’t do it without playing and having care-free fun. The result was a core game loop that reinforced the theme of the game: The conflict between work and play. Because the theme resonated with many players beyond the original target audience (kids ages 6 to 12), the game ended up being very popular with players well beyond the target demographic.

As players repeated the loop, the game prompted them to explore other parts of the world, team up with other players and make friends, and unfold new stories. In other words, the loop pushed players to discover new art and stories, build community, and master the mechanics, which made the game much more engaging. The result was an average player lifespan much higher than most other family-oriented games at the time, which made the game very profitable for over 10 years.

The more you are able to connect your core loop of activities to the ingredients that make a game engaging, the stronger and longer engagement you will have.

Conclusion

Your core activity loop is a powerful tool to make your game or experience more engaging. Once you clarify your loop, these three sets of questions will help you shortcomings and opportunities to make your game more engaging and successful:

  1. Are the activities in your loop compelling enough? Do you provide enough positive feedback when players complete the activities? As players complete a loop do they get something that makes them feel invested?
  2. Is the loop directly linked to your objectives? If you are selling something, does that make the loop more satisfying? If you are teaching something are the core activities directly linked to the topics the player needs to learn?
  3. Does your loop reinforce the different ingredients of an engaging experience? As players go through the loop, can you provide more things to discover and get mesmerized by? Can you add more interesting pieces of a story? Can you guide the player into forming a tighter community?

Do these questions trigger for you new ideas on how to improve the game you are working on? Let us know in the comments below! And, if you’re ready to learn more about game design, check out NYFA’s game design programs.

 

On Game Literacy

By Andrew Ashcraft, NYFA Game Design

One of the biggest benefits of playing games, whether we’re playing for fun or to learn how to design, is that we learn a kind game literacy. We learn the language of games, and we can learn to “hear” or read the intentions of the designers. Other people have written more about game literacy.  In fact, here’s a very good academic primer on the subject by Eric Zimmerman. Here, I’ll give some concrete examples of exactly how useful game literacy will be in the 21st century, when so many of us have grown up gaming our entire lives.  

Games are central to our culture: we live and eat and breathe games every day. I’m not only talking about games we play for fun, although there are more of them now than ever. I’m talking about games that are played for real-world stakes. Once I started to think about games, I realized how many games are being played with me, whether I’m a willing participant or not.  

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Johan Huizinga wrote about the magic circle (in his book, “Homo Ludens”) that separates the world of the game and the game’s actions from our real world. When we choose to play a game, we step into this magic circle, and everything we do inside is for the game. When we’re done, we step back out into our real lives. (Read more about Huizinga here.)

For many games, the magic circle is completely true. But there are many, many games that blur the distinction between game-life and real-life. Certainly, winning or losing a game can have long-lasting ramifications to your real-life: an obvious example is the state lottery. Here in California, you can buy a $1 lottery ticket which gives you a very, very, very small chance of becoming an instant millionaire. This is a game, obviously, that you enter into with a $1 purchase at your local bodega or supermarket. But when you step back out of that magic circle, the game may have changed your life very profoundly!  (Much more likely, though, the only change will be that you are $1 poorer.)

Similarly, you’re at a stoplight in your fancy sports car when another driver pulls up beside you and revs his engine, peering over his sunglasses at you. You’ve been invited to a street race! You can step into this magic circle and pit your sports car and driving skills against his … but I don’t recommend it.  In this case, a failure can have epically disastrous effects on the rest of your life.  

(As a side note, I feel that the entry for “Earthling” in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” should be updated to read “Most harmless and REALLY BAD at risk assessment.” Doing crazy and risky things in the safety of a video game does NOT prepare you for doing the same thing in real life.)

But the goal of this article Is not to make you a saner driver. The goal is to help you recognize when you are in a game, because the magic circle is not always easy to spot.

But let’s start with some basic ideas about games in general.

Games have players. Games result in, as defined in “Game Design Workshop” (by Tracy Fullerton), “unequal outcomes.”  More specifically, players can do well or they do poorly, and doing well in a game is not equal to doing poorly.  

Winning and losing mean different things in different games. For example, in an Olympic marathon, winning means running faster than your competition. Your reward is to stand on the tallest platform wearing a gold medal while your national anthem plays — and, you get some cash! I didn’t know this until recently, but you also get cash! But winning might also mean breaking a world record (racing against previous fastest runners), or beating your own personal best time. The time on the clock for each racer is the “unequal outcome.” Everything else is just comparing that outcome with other outcomes: other runners (past or present) or your own.

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The players are the other runners (and their support teams) in the same race, or they are all the runners in Olympic history, or they are your past selves.

Let’s look at an example of something that is less obviously a game, but has real-world consequences (i.ei: stakes): an airline-sponsored mileage-earning credit card. The players are the credit-card holder (me, for example), the bank issuing the credit card, and the airline. The next step is to think about how each player wins this game:

  • I win (or do well) by using and paying off this convenient line of credit: I gain mileage points toward free travel or free upgrades. However, I lose (do poorly) if I spend more than I can easily pay back, because…
  • The bank wins (or does well) by charging me high interest on this line of credit, and by charging me a yearly fee for having this line of credit. They also get financial data about me: they know what I purchase and know how likely I am to pay off this credit.  
  • The airline does well when I choose them over another airline because either I have enough points to travel, or I need to buy a few more, which they are happy to sell to me. (This is why these are called loyalty programs. They gain my loyalty to them over their competition.) The airlines also gain some financial data about me because (at the very least), they know how many points I earn by using that credit card, if not exactly what I purchase.     

Every time I use this card, I’m making another move in this game that the three of us are playing. I must decide if the move is a good one to take at this moment. The bank and the airline are always happy to see me use the credit card: The bank may get to charge me money, and the airline gains more of my loyalty.  Given all that, you can see that this game is semi-cooperative: everyone is happy for me to use the card. But at the same time, you can also see that neither the bank nor the airline actually want what is best for me. What is best for me is to use the card and pay it off completely every month. To them, I am less a player and more of a resource to be harvested.  

This analysis is only possible because of the way I understand games. Even the language I use — “semi-cooperative,” “resources,” “players” — is common game terminology. Game literacy allows me to see that games have players and that players can win or lose in different ways.

Let’s look at a social game that we all play: how we dress. I bring this up because my sister-in-law just had this conversation with her daughter. My niece, at 10 years old, is just starting to realize that there are social rules regarding how she dresses. She has begun to understand that other people (other kids mainly) care about the way she dresses and that she can do well or do poorly. But sadly, she doesn’t know what these rules are, so choosing clothing in the morning is really stressful! She knows she’s making a play in a game and she senses that the stakes are high, but she doesn’t know how to make the best choices. Of course, these rules probably change from day to day and are created by the group mind of all the other 10-year-olds in her class. So, God help her, because we adults cannot.

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However, we can offer insight to her about the game we adults play when we choose our attire. When we dress ourselves, we choose based on two criteria:  

  1. Are the clothes appropriate to the weather and activity? This is usually pretty easy: wear a jacket when it’s chilly; don’t wear sandals in the snow; ice-skates are prohibited on wood floors.   
  2. What do we want to say about who we are? For example, I wear red leather lace-up shoes as often as I can because I want to say that I take a little extra effort to stand out from the crowd. I like to say that I think differently, perhaps even more creatively than the average guy. Of course, my red shoes are an affectation. The jury is still out on whether any of what I want to say is true. But I dress the way I do because I want to say it. I get compliments on these shoes, too, and each time I feel like my statement is being understood. That feels like a win to me.

And so the advice to my niece is this: the dressing game is about telling people about yourself through your clothing. You win when you dress in such a way that people understand something about you that you want them to understand. You lose when they think something about you, based on how you dress, that you don’t like. That simple rule is true for 10-year-old girls, and also true for 40-year-old game designers.

Again, I bring this up because getting dressed in the morning is not usually considered a game. However, if viewed as a game, and thought about as a game, using the terminology of games and our understanding of games, we can make moves that allow us to do well in that game.   

There are other games that get played at us, too. How many of us have been targeted by someone playing Outrage? Outrage is a game played through conversation against an opponent who does not realize that they are in a game. To play Outrage, wait for your opponent to make some tiny error or offence and then attack with it! Blow it way up! Be as outraged as you can be about this small gaff. Use your opponent’s surprise to gain some small social advantage, like a confused apology. You win! You are now better than they are. (Not really. In fact, this is an awful thing to do to someone.)

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a game of Outrage, you know that it can feel pretty horrible. However, once you see it as the game it is, you have a say in the outcome. You can mount a defense. You can say, “I don’t wish to play this game,” and walk away, or ignore the outburst and continue the conversation as if it didn’t happen. When the other person asks why you ignored their outrage, you can say, “I’m game-literate!”

Ready to learn more about game design? Check out NYFA’s game design programs!

 

A Roadmap to Make a Successful Game

By Felipe Lara, NYFA Los Angeles Game Design

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We all want to make successful games: innovative, loved by players, and profitable.  The question is: Is there a path or recipe to let us make successful games more consistently? I think there is, but to find it we need to define more clearly what is a successful game. Once we clarify our goal we can better figure out how to get there.

Defining game success in terms of profits is the simplest, but thinking about profits does not help us much to figure out what ingredients and processes we should use to make a successful game. What art style will bring me more revenue? It is hard to know and hard to test. Furthermore, in some cases success might not even be about profit but about teaching something, calling attention to something else, or about creating a change in behavior, like in educational games, promotional games, and other transformational games.

To find a path to game success that is useful to game developers, it is better to define success in terms of player engagement. Player engagement is in most cases highly correlated to game success, but the important thing here is that engagement is something that we have more control over as developers, and it is something that maps more directly to the ingredients and decisions we deal with during game development. Asking what particular story will bring more revenue is usually unclear and hard to test. On the other hand, asking what story will be more engaging for our target players is not only more clear, but also much easier to test.

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What Does a Successful Game Look Like In Terms of Player Engagement?

A successful game needs to do four things in a sequential order:

  • STEP 1, STAND OUT: The game needs to stand out or be noticed. If nobody is aware of your game, nobody will play it.
  • STEP 2, CONNECT: The game needs to connect with players and make them interested in finding out more. Somebody yelling in the middle of the street will get noticed, but the act of yelling itself won’t get people interested. People will only respond if they connect or resonate with what they hear. The same happens with games that get your attention in the app store or in the first couple of minutes of free-to-play game.
  • STEP 3, ENGAGE: The game needs to engage players and keep them playing for a while. This may not be true for all games, but in most cases, the longer players stick around the more profitable the game becomes: more chances to monetize, more chances to get subscriptions, more chances to get recommended to friends, etc.
  • STEP 4, GROW: Finally, the game needs to find a way to scale or grow its player base.

What is useful about defining this sequence is that now I can look at the different ingredients I need to build my game (art, mechanics, story, social features) and figure out if they are working to help my players go through the engagement sequence or not.

But First Clarify the Why and the Who

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Of course, none of the previous stuff matters if you are not reaching the goals you were trying to achieve with your game in the first place. You might be attracting players and keeping them around, but if you are trying to make an educational game and your game fails to educate you are not succeeding even if you have tons of players sticking around.

The same goes for monetization: if you have hundreds of thousands of players but you are not monetizing or reaching the profit you were looking to make, you are failing. You need to make sure that, as your game connects and engages, it is also teaching and/or monetizing. That is a big part of the trick, but I’ll save that discussion for another article down the road. For now let’s stick to the basics: you need to have a very clear idea of your goals for your game. Make sure that everything you do revolves around those goals.

It is equally important to have a clear picture of your target player. The things that I need to do to stand out and connect to kids are very different from the things I need to do to stand out and connect to young adults. To identify the right ingredients to use, you need to know your target audience.

The Ingredients of Player Engagement

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In the many years I spent developing MMOs for casual gamers, I saw how there are four basic elements that be combined very effectively to get the attention of players and have them stick around: art, fun mechanics, story, and community building:

  • ART: Art is what first catches your players’ eye and makes them want to take a closer look at your game. At first, players won’t know much about the specific mechanics and stories in your game. They decide to pay more attention after experiencing visuals that resonate with them.
  • FUN: Art by itself, no matter how cool it is, won’t keep your players for long. Finding fun stuff to do that is easy to understand, with clear goals, is what makes players want to stay more than a few seconds.
  • STORY: Even fun activities get repetitive unless there is a larger meaning and purpose behind them. Having a longer-term purpose or story that players can relate to is what makes them want to keep coming back. Shooting hoops is fun, but doing it everyday for hours can get boring quickly unless the activity is part of a larger story — like training to defeat an old rival team.
  • COMMUNITY: All good stories need an ending, but the meaning and purpose that you get from being part of a community can last for years. The games that we keep going back to over and over are the ones that let us form connections with people that we care about.

All these four elements are important to create a successful game that follows the sequence:

  1. Stand Out
  2. Connect
  3. Engage
  4. Grow

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The importance of art, fun, story, and community may shift from one step of this sequence to another. For example, standing out depends much more on the art and how things look like than on the details of the story. Then again, engagement depends much more on the mechanics and story than the art, and growing depends heavily on the community building aspect. I’ve seen many good games that don’t succeed because they lacked one or more of these important elements.

It is also important to notice that most games, from free-to-play mobile games to VR experiences and educational games, will benefit from having all these ingredients. If you decide that you don’t need one of these key ingredients — if you think you don’t need a story or you don’t need community building mechanics — at the very least, you should have a very clear reason why not. You should also have an idea of how you are going to get your game to stand out, connect, engage, and grow with the ingredients you choose to include.

There are other elements in a game that are very important that I’ll mention quickly.

  • Montetization
  • Marketing

Monetization is essential to make the game development sustainable. Marketing can help your game get noticed. Even more important than the marketing promotion itself, is defining and thinking about your target market, and getting feedback from your target players all throughout the development process. Then, your art, mechanics, story and social mechanics will resonate with your players, and your marketing will be embedded into your other elements.

Conclusion

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Defining 1) your goal and 2) a successful game (in terms of specific steps around player engagement) are the most important first steps in creating your roadmap toward making successful games.

As a second step, you need to look at all the ingredients that can help you find the right recipe: art, mechanics, story, and community. When you put those things together in a game or experience — art that resonates with your audience, mechanics that are fun and have clear goals, a story that adds meaning and context, a community makes you feel part of something larger than yourself — your game experience becomes more engaging.

It is important to point out that finding the right mix of ingredients is a big part of the challenge. What art style should I use? What about mechanics? What is my story and how much of it do I reveal? All these questions need to be tackled and tested during development, and using the right processes makes it easier to find the answers.

Another important thing to notice is that these ingredients are much more effective when they work together. A cartoony art style might not be the best match for a scary story. Your ingredients need to match and support each other to make the overall experience better.

Ready to learn more about game design? Check out NYFA’s game design programs!

Avid gamers can also check out more of our featured instructor Felipe Lara’s writings here

25 Video Games Every Game Design Student Should Play Before They Graduate

By Scott Rogers, NYFA Game Design

Developers of new games constantly reference existing games when collaborating with their teammates. There is nothing worse than seeing the team latch onto an idea inspired by an existing game, but you have no idea what they are talking about.

The following is a list of 25 video games every game design student should play before they graduate. It’s not supposed to be a list of the best games of all time, but rather a list of important works that will let you contribute in any design meeting in the industry. Pro tip: If you can’t get access to play the games in full, try watching game play videos on Youtube.

“The Stanley Parable”

Developer: Galactic Cafe

Platform: PC
Published: 2011

Why it should be played: “The Stanley Parable” was one of the first “walking simulators,” which used level and sound design to tell a story rather than cutscenes and cinematics. Its dry sense of humor and meta-theme about player choice – which results in over 20 different endings to the game – is a great example to future game designers of how branching narrative works and can be told through level design.

“Super Mario 64”

Developer: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo 64
Published: 1996

Why it should be played:  To this day, “Super Mario 64” has the best 3D camera in video games – the secret is treating it as if it were a separate character from the player. The revolutionary analog controls are a perfect complement to the camera and the level design artfully translates traditional 2D gameplay into 3D space.

Batman: “Arkham Asylum”

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Developer: Rocksteady

Platform: PS3, XBOX 360, PC, XBOX 360, PS4
Published: 2009

Why it should be played: Everything in the game is designed to make the player feel like they are Batman, from the masterful story to the reactive controls to the surprisingly deep stealth-based gameplay. This results in the first Batman game that is actually true to the license.

“Portal”

Developer: Valve Corporation
Platform: PC, XBOX 360, PS3
Published: 2007

Why it should be played: The game is a master class in how to introduce and combine mechanics using level design to create ramping challenges to the player. Another rare example of the use of humor in video games.

“Super Mario Bros.”

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Developer: Nintendo

Platform: Nintendo Entertainment System
Published: 1985

Why it should be played: A classic in 2D scrolling level design. Its first level – World 1.1 – is considered the best level ever designed.

“Bioshock”

Developer: 2K Games
Platform: PC, XBOX 360, XBOX One, PS3, PS4
Published: 2007

Why it should be played: “Bioshock” is a first person shooter game that employs intrinsic storytelling through level design, collectibles and gameplay. It is a rare example of a game with a moral point of view, and it utilizes an unreliable narrator as a storytelling device.

“Ico”

Developer: SCE Japan Studio
Platform: PS2
Published: 2001

Why it should be played: “Ico” is revolutionary in its use of a sympathetic second character to generate player empathy and create puzzle design. It is notable for having a story told without using dialogue, thereby increasing its accessibility to audiences.

“Fruit Ninja”

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Developer: Halfbrick

Platform: Mobile, XBLA, XBOX One, PS Vita, HTC Vive
Published: 2007

Why it should be played: In addition to its simple concept and satisfying player feedback, the mobile game in particular is an excellent example of how to use consistent touch screen controls in all aspects of the game.

“Tetris”

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Developer: Elorg

Platform: Too many to list
Published: 1984

Why it should be played: This historically important example of casual video games is an excellent example of abstract game design and the go-to “exhibit A” in the academic discussion of gameplay vs. story (answer: they are both important).

“Oregon Trail”

Developer: MECC

Platform: PC, XBOX 360, PS3
Published: 1971

Why it should be played: Not only the first educational game but one of the earliest games to use a parser. It also evolved into early graphic adventure game. It teaches while still being fun.

“M.U.L.E.”

Developer: Ozark Softscape

Platform: Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Atari 8-bit
Published: 1983

Why it should be played: This historically important early economic sim showed that games can more than just dexterity based, action games.

“Dragon’s Lair”

Developer: Cinematronics

Platform: Arcade
Published: 1983

Why it should be played: “Dragon’s Lair” is the first laser disc, traditionally animated arcade game with a complete story. Its gameplay is a precursor to Quick Timer Events — and it is an interesting milestone of the time when the film industry recognized games as an emerging and profitable form of entertainment.

“Myst”

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Developer: Cyan

Platform: Mac, Saturn, PS, 3DO, PC, PSP, DS, 3DS
Published: 1993

Why it should be played: This early CD-ROM game was one of the first to utilize 3D pre-rendered graphics, and inspired game developers to incorporate CG graphics and story into their games.

“Journey”

Developer: thatgamecompany

Platform: PS3, PS4
Published: 2012

Why it should be played: An example of an “art” game that delivers an emotional story despite simple, almost non-existent gameplay.

“Donkey Kong”

Developer: Nintendo

Platform: Arcade
Published: 1981

Why it should be played: The first game with story, the first platform game and a great example of making lemonade from lemons.

“Darfur is Dying”

Developer: TAKE ACTION games

Platform: Browser
Published: 2006

Why it should be played: An important example of “serious” gaming and browser-based gaming that is also quite playable.

“Uncharted 2: Among Thieves”

Developer: Naughty Dog

Platform: PS3, PS4
Published: 2009

Why it should be played: A modern classic of 3D level design, AI design, controls, camera and storytelling.

“Pokemon Go”

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Developer: Niantic

Platform: Mobile
Published: 2016

Why it should be played: A modern example of using Global Positioning and Augmented Reality in gaming; how the real world can be used as a game space.

“Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos”

Developer: Blizzard Entertainment

Platform: PC, Mac
Published: 2002

Why it should be played: Not only a classic of real time strategy gaming, but also contains a robust gameplay editor instrumental in the indie movement of gaming.

“Call of Duty: Ghosts”

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Developer: Infinity Ward

Platform: PC, XBOX 360, XBOX One, PS3, PS4, Wii U
Published: 2013

Why it should be played: An excellent example of the first person shooter genre that uses intrinsic storytelling and shifting perspectives as well as classic level design techniques.

“The Walking Dead: Season 1”

Developer: Telltale Games

Platform: PC, XBOX 360, PS3
Published: 2007

Why it should be played: A fine example of the postmodern adventure game genre, featuring gameplay with moral choices and multiple pathing.

“Red Dead Redemption”

Developer: Rockstar Games

Platform: XBOX 360, PS3
Published: 2010

Why it should be played: A prime example of an open-world environment gameplay, how to direct gameplay despite an open-world and how to provide gameplay that appeals to all four of Bartle’s classes of players.

“LittleBigPlanet”

Developer: Media Molecule

Platform: PS3, PSP, PS4
Published: 2008

Why it should be played: LittleBigPlanet is a top-notch platform game that also has a fantastic level editor to teach you how to make your own levels.

“CodeCombat”

Developer: CodeCombat

Platform: Browser
Published: 2014

Why it should be played: A great educational game, where players learn how to write code while fighting monsters! Also good example of how to incentivize a player through monetization

“Superman 64”

Developer: Titus Software

Platform: Nintendo 64
Published: 1999

Why it should be played: Although this suffers from horrible controls, camera, gameplay and storytelling, it is important for game developers to learn how not to make a game.

Ready to learn more about game design? Check out NYFA’s game design programs!

Analysis: the Advancement of CGI in Video Games

 

CGI and video games: computer generated images (or, at least, computer interpreted images) are, by definition, the visual recipe for every video game we play and part of what makes games one of the most complex and captivating forms of entertainment on the planet. From great stories and characters to awesome gameplay and sound design, there are numerous reasons why video games are a part of more people’s lives than ever before. But if there’s one aspect of games that has evolved the most over time, it’s the element many care about most — visuals.

For as long as video games have been around, people have gravitated towards games that are not only fun to play but also look amazing. In fact, even the film industry is now studying how game developers create realistic graphics and movement to tell a story. Of course, much like movies themselves, games have gone through an evolution in becoming the visually jaw-dropping experiences they are today. And CGI has played a major role in the evolution of game visuals.

The Early Days

In the beginning, or the early ‘70s, all you had was a few white pixels over a black screen. Although Pong wasn’t officially the first video game ever made, it was one of the earliest arcade games to become popular across the globe. Other games like Midway’s Boot Hill and Gotcha only used black and white computer-generated images, but this was enough at the time to fill arcades.

The success of these black-and-white titles led to a desire for more attractive visuals and shapes. Namco’s Galaxian astonished gamers everywhere in 1979 with its brightly colored ships, and a year later the enormously popular Pac-Man arrived. Developers would continue pushing the limits of the video game consoles at the time to deliver games that were a joy both to view and play.

The Sprite Era

In 1985 a little game called Super Mario Bros. jumped onto the scene, almost single-handedly resurrecting the video game industry after a devastating market crash. At the same time, games like Street Fighter II, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Strider revived arcades as a social and game hub. Revolutions in memory, storage capacity, and graphics cards/ screen resolution allowed these games to offer more vibrant colors and diverse shapes than ever, leading to improved user experiences.

The increased hardware power of systems like the Super NES and Sega Genesis also inspired developers to create jaw-dropping visuals for their time. Games like Chrono Trigger, Sonic The Hedgehog, and Super Metroid are to this day considered masterpieces of an era when designers were able to craft charming worlds and atmospheric places with sprites alone. While 2D graphics still have their fans to this day, the mid-‘90s are arguably the period of greatest CGI advancement in video games.

The 3D Takeover Unfolds

Increased power in the average home computer gave developers the freedom to use tricks to simulate 3D. One of the games to do this best was the critically praised Doom, a pioneer in perhaps the most popular genre today: first-person shooter. True 3D graphics finally took over in the mid-’90s with the release of the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation.

With these consoles, gamers could truly begin exploring fully-3D worlds. There was nothing more incredible than seeing Mario jump, fly, and slide in Super Mario 64, the first successful 3D platformer. Games like PlayStation’s Crash Bandicoot and PC-favorite Quake continued pushing CGI in games until developers needed better hardware to take things further.

The Modern Age

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The jump from 2D to 3D still stands as the most significant advancement of CGI in video games. Ever-improving technology in the early 2000s opened the door to head-turning games like Halo: Combat Evolved, Grand Theft Auto III, and Metroid Prime. Never before were video game visuals so capable of creating environments that sucked players in and made them feel like part of the virtual worlds.

Today, 3D continues dominating the industry as games become more and more realistic. The latest video game consoles allow for the best cinematic realism ever to grace the industry, while computer users are able to constantly boost their system’s graphics capabilities. With the advent of virtual and augmented reality, there’s no telling where video game CGI will go next.

What are your favorite video games visuals? Let us know in the comments below!

 

Women to Know in the Gaming Industry

Wondering where all of the diversity is in the video game industry? Don’t worry — it’s not all guys. Of course, it’s not surprising that that is the perception. According to a survey distributed by the International Game Developers Association in 2016, 75 percent of the 3,000 respondents identified as male. Meanwhile, 23 percent identified as female and 2.5 percent identified as transgender or “other.” For women looking to get into the industry, those numbers may be discouraging. But rest assured, there are role models to be found.

Take, for example, NYFA’s own Phoebe Elefante, who chairs not one but three departments at our New York campus: game design, virtual reality, and 3D animation and visual effects! Phoebe’s game credits include Wonder City, a superhero adventure game companion for the award-winning documentary, Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines, and a list of games and apps that target the intersection of play and pedagogy.

Looking for more inspirational role models in the gaming industry? Here are four incredible women to know in the gaming industry.

1. Bonnie Ross. Ross is the corporate Vice President at Microsoft and the head of 343 Industries. That means that she is the queen of the Halo kingdom. She established 343 Industries, the studio that manages the full Halo franchise. Her job involves running the business side of studio. That’s a lot of responsibility, considering that Halo is — to borrow Bloomberg’s words — Microsoft’s biggest video game ever.

Watch her talk about how merging art and technology fuels storytelling in this video she did for Glamour Magazine.

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2. Kiki Wolfkill: Wolfkill is the studio head at Hallo Transmedia in 343 Industries. Her job focuses on the Halo universe and she made major contributions to the creation of Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn. These contributions included helping develop the story, script writing, and creating the new Promethean enemy class. She counts supervising digital cross-media Halo entertainment, managing and producing Halo: Nightfall, and developing the Halo Channel among her other accomplishments.

Listen to an interview Wolfkill did with The Women in Tech Show in 2016.

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3. Jennifer Hale: Someone has to voice the characters in video game, and Hale voices a fair number of some of the most recognizable female voices out there. In fact, the New Yorker called her “the Meryl Streep of the medium,” so she must be good. Most recently, she did the voice for Pellinore in World of Final Fantasy, Sharon Carter in Lego Marvel Avengers, and Sarah Palmer in Halo: Guardians. See her full list of credits on BehindTheVoiceActors.com.

Watch this video, “The Many Voices of Jennifer Hale in Video Games.” (She has quite the range!) To get in touch with her, go to her official website.

4. Corrinne Yu: Yu is a gaming programmer. Today she is the principal development manager at Amazon Prime Air. Previously, she worked as the graphics programmer at Naughty Dog, the principal engine programmer for Halo, and the studio wide director of technology at Gearbox Software. In 2010, Kotaku named her one of the 10 most influential women in gaming in the last decade — and it looks like she continues to live up to the honor years later. She currently sits on the SIGGRAPH Game Development Committee, the Microsoft Graphics Advisory Board.

Yu doesn’t have much in the way of recent interviews (due to shyness or modesty, maybe?), but you should check out this video interview she did in 2009

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For more inspiration, read Den of Geek’s list, “25 Awesomen Women in Gaming.”

Who are your game industry role models? Want to give a shout out to more women to know in the gaming industry? Let us know in the comments below!

The Past in the Present: Why Games Set Long, Long Ago Matter

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The beauty of video games is that they can take you to any point in space and time you can possibly dream up. Want to run a cobalt trading operation between two regions of the Milky Way? Elite: Dangerous has you covered. Want to play as a mutant monster hunter caught in the middle of an empire-wide war? Look no further than The Witcher franchise.

But if you’re a game designer, there’s a strong case to be made for setting the action in a real-world, historical setting. To illustrate, we’ll delve into the example of World War I as a setting for games.

“Where Are All the Good World War I Games?”

It’s an interesting question.

The number of games set in a post-apocalyptic future is gigantic. Game developers have also seen a lot of success using World War II as the backdrop — in fact, the list of WWII games is longer than you could shake a bayonet at.

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On the other hand, the list of World War I games that have ever been created since the infancy of video gaming is surprisingly stark (and of those, the majority are flight sims).

There are some very valid arguments to be made as to why The War to End All Wars isn’t an ideal setting for a video game (or, at least, less ideal than WWII), and they’re perhaps deserving of their own separate article. But suffice it to say, nobody thought a game about processing paperwork in a grey, pseudo-Soviet setting was a thrilling idea until “Papers, Please” came along.

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If the idea of turning one of the darkest, bloodiest and most senseless wars in recent history into fodder for a video game sounds like it would be in bad taste … well, it doesn’t need to be that way.

Preserving a Fading Time

While the principle purpose of video games is entertainment, it’s not the only benefit that can come from playing them: they’re also a medium for education.

Continuing with our WWI example, very few — if any — among us can truly appreciate the realities of WWI. An interactive medium like gaming, perhaps even more so than extensive reading about the war, has the capacity to help us empathize with the situation in which millions of soldiers found themselves.

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The reason this is both poignant (when handled right) and important is that this is a monumental world event that is quickly fading from living memory — the last surviving veteran of World War I, Florence Green, passed away in 2012.

Two reasons game developers shy away from this period? Firstly, it’s a war from which there are comparatively fewer records, first-person accounts or artifacts from which to draw inspiration. Secondly, it was a very complicated war from a political standpoint, set it a world markedly different from our own (the political climate behind the second World War are more readily understandable, and it’s easier to differentiate between the heroes and evil parties).

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But these are also precisely the reasons why video gaming should step up to the mantle and represent this time for the benefit of modern players (and it’s not as if there isn’t a market for gamers who want to see historical accuracy in games).

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If done well, any historical games — not just those set around WWI — can be a big win all around: profitable for developers, entertaining for players, genre-pushing for the industry and preserving a little slice of history to boot.

Identifying Trends for Art and Profit

It may well be that non-RTS games set around WWI are fundamentally difficult, but that era does serve as a good case study and opens up a wider discussion on how public interest in certain historical periods influences the game industry.

It’s little surprise that COD and Battlefield games set in the Middle East dominated the charts during the 2000s, given the real-world events of that decade. Outside of modern warfare, we’re seeing a lot of Viking-inspired games coming out on Steam this year — it could be the case that this trend is being fueled by the spectacular HBO show “Vikings” and the success of the “How to Train Your Dragon” franchise.

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Or, alternatively, the slew of archeological findings from that period may have spawned a resurgence in public interest, which in turn has shaped gaming and movie trends.

Whichever way around it may be, it’s our job as game designers to identify such trends and deliver a quality gaming experience around them, ideally before everyone hops on the trend and it becomes oversaturated. After all, it would be somewhat foolhardy to make a COD-esque FPS in the current market.

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But if you can be the first to identify a nonfiction story or era that has yet to receive an amazing game treatment?

That’s the holy grail right there.

Why You Don’t Want To Miss NYCC 2016

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As the biggest pop culture event on the East Coast, New York Comic Con (NYCC 2016) is always on the radar of every comic fan out there. For students studying at NYFA’s New York City campus, the opportunity to check out this highly-anticipated event should not be missed.

Here are several reasons why NYCC 2016 is going to be bigger and better than ever before — and why you should consider participating:

Awesome Panels for NYCC 2016

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The amazing panels alone make this anticipated event worth the trip. DC All Access will offer talks from the people behind “The Flash,” “Supergirl,” and the “DC Comics Bombshells” series, as they give a sneak peak at the anticipated “Justice League vs. Suicide Squad.” Robert Kirkman will also make an appearance in a “The Walking Dead” panel to discuss what’s next for the Image Comics series.

Other notable panels not to miss include Tales From the Tardis with Matt Smith, Alex Kingston and Jenna Coleman, as well as World Premiere & Adam West, Too: Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders. Check out the official NYCC 2016 panel schedule to get your chance at meeting the creative minds behind your favorite works.

Unforgettable Parties at NYCC 2016

The night doesn’t end when the panels are over. Each day of NYCC 2016 also comes with awesome parties where comic book fans can relax, mingle, and dance their costumes off. The best part is that each party has its own exciting themes. Here’s a list of the biggest ones:

  • NYCC Kick-Off Party
  • Anime Dance Music’s Annual NYCC Party
  • Rock Comic Con followed by BATDANCE: NYCC’s Official Video Dance Party
  • GBX: Electric Underground
  • Boozy Bowling Afterparty
  • Skint! Disco Inferno Geeks OUT Dance Party
  • New York Comic Con ’90s party

Great Cosplaying at NYCC 2016

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The art of cosplaying has exploded in popularity thanks to a growing subculture of die-hard fans. To see people dressed as their favorite characters or join them yourself, NYCC is definitely the place to go. There are also plenty of events aimed to encourage people to cosplay and have a blast.

In fact, things kicked off a week before the actual event with a Pre-NYCC Cosplay Cruise — in other words, a cosplaying party on a yacht. The biggest cosplay gatherings during the main event include Crossplay Cosplay Contest & Celebration, We the Heroes Ball, and Comic Con Vixens. Of course, you won’t have to attend any specific affairs to see great cosplay, since participants will be walking around all over the exhibition floor, ready to pose for a pic.

Video Game Events at NYCC 2016

Although NYCC 2016 is still primarily focused on comic books, it’s also become a great place to go if you’re a video game fan. In fact, a large number of cosplayers that show up every year are representing characters straight out of their favorite digital worlds. This year there’s plenty to check out if you’re a gamer.

New York Comic Con ’90s party will have a Spectacular Video Game Room complete with a Mario Kart 64 World Championship tournament. Gaimova’s After Party 6 will also have tournaments for Smash Bros Wii U, Street Fighter V, and several classic Xbox live and PSN games. Square Enix is even throwing a Demo Night featuring Deux Ex: Mankind Divided and the new Hitman. Mashfest NYCC Kickoff Party will have more than a dozen games available to play as well.

Must-See Exhibitors at NYCC 2016

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The heart of NYCC 2016 is the near-endless number of exhibitors ready to show off their latest comics, video games, and more. It’s your chance to buy awesome merchandise, get a first look at new stuff, sign up for giveaways, and meet artists.

Just like every year, NYCC 2016’s event will bring together an incredible number of worthwhile exhibitors. These include BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment America, BOOM! Studios, DC Entertainment, Doctor WHO Store + Alien Entertainment, Double Take, GoComics, Black Mask Studios, and many more.

Are you planning on attending NYCC 2016? What are you most looking forward to? Let us know in the comments below!

How Virtual Reality Might Impact the Future of Game Design

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Two decades ago, the video game market got its first taste of virtual reality thanks to the Virtual Boy. The device promised “true 3D graphics” that would immerse players into their own digital universe. As a Nintendo product, it was destined to sell millions of units just like the Game Boy and Super NES.

Instead, the Virtual Boy was a complete disaster. Players criticized the console for lacking realistic visuals, more colors, and head tracking. Its commercial failure would haunt the industry for years, convincing companies to avoid releasing their own VR devices even as technology advanced.

Skip forward to 2016 when virtual reality is once again poised to take the industry by storm. From the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift to Sony’s PlayStation VR and the Microsoft HoloLens, the stage is set to see who dominates a new market. Even more VR-compatible games than ever will be available to try at Gamescom 2016, Europe’s largest games fair.

But how will the rise of virtual reality change the way we design games? Just like when games made the leap from 2D sprites to 3D graphics, game designers are already preparing for the challenges that creating a fun virtual reality game will bring. Phoebe Elefante, chair of NYFA’s Game Design School in New York, notes that the possibilities in VR have barely begun to be explored: “The relative accessibility of VR equipment — especially through something like KitSplit — makes this technology super accessible for creators, and so it’s just as likely (maybe even more so) that a 3-woman studio from Poughkeepsie builds the ‘killer app,’ as the experienced game teams in major studios. Having expertise in the screen-based game industry isn’t necessarily the best qualification for exploring this new tech … much like the shift from stage to screen that movies created. Right now, most game designers — especially those porting games like Bioshock to VR — are building stage-on-screen games, because they don’t know the possibilities of the medium yet.”

So, what are the possibilities for VR games?

Traditional Games Will be More Immersive

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When we think about VR games, we imagine completely new experiences designed around the concept of being inside the digital worlds. While many titles will be made from scratch, it doesn’t mean developers aren’t looking to apply VR to “traditional” games. After all, if a game’s’ world already blew us away on a flat screen, it will probably be even more incredible with a VR headset.

Many games have already been made with VR support. You can use the Oculus Rift to play recent hits like The Witcher 3 and Dragon Age: Inquisition. Even older gems like World of Warcraft, Bioshock, and the Dead Space trilogy are now compatible. What could be more frightening than actually walking down the dark, necromorph-infested halls of the USG Ishimura?

Of course, VR compatibility doesn’t change the gameplay. Aside from moving your head to look around, you don’t have to worry about a new control scheme or any major change in mechanics. However, big-budget titles now supporting VR may at least push developers to create even better jaw-dropping visuals.

More Focus On Atmospheric Gameplay

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Many game studios have succeeded in bringing a specific genre to a platform that isn’t considered suitable for its style of gameplay. When it was announced that Ensemble Studios would be creating a real-time strategy game for Xbox 360, many laughed at the idea of using a gamepad instead of a mouse and keyboard. The developer proved it could be done after Halo Wars received excellent reviews from all major publications.

With virtual reality, developers are already looking at which types of games will work best and which won’t — and realizing that games consisting of simple mechanics and exploration are the ones that provide a better virtual reality experience. In other words, expect to see a lot of simulation games.

Edge of Nowhere, Windlands, Star Citizen, and EVE: Valkyrie are perfect examples of games that require limited button input so that seeing and exploring plays a larger role. If you were expecting the same complexity as our favorite Action Adventure or Fighting games, you may have to wait until better add-ons release.

New Gameplay Styles

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The only way virtual reality will have a major impact on game design is if it offers something unique: an interactive experience that can only be enjoyed through the lens of a VR headset. But unless designers come up with fun, groundbreaking gameplay styles, VR will only offer a “better” version of what we can play on other platforms. There are also some bugs VR game designers will have to address. For example, many users get headaches after VR experiences that last more than 20 minutes. That’s a big challenge, especially for gamers who want to immerse and play for extended periods of time.

Remember when motion controls became popular? Nintendo’s original Wii console has stood the test of time as one of the best-selling video game devices for offering gamers a different way to play. Microsoft and Sony followed suit with their own motion devices — Move and Kinect. 

Although motion control didn’t become the norm, these systems still had their day in the sun for offering a fresh experience. What does this tell us about the future of VR? Many, many things. VR may expand the very definition of what we think of as “games” — for example, lots of popular VR experiences don’t require a player to reach a certain outcome to progress forward, and are more experience-based. Designers will have new exciting opportunities to redefine what a game is, packing in more story, emotion, and meaning, something like this that gets people to play on a massive scale.

Designers who can think outside the box and take advantage of VR’s strengths will help this new, promising platform make a bigger impact on our industry.

What do you hope to see in the future of VR games? Let us know in the comments below!

No Man’s Sky Review: An Emotional Roller Coaster

No Man’s Sky: a game with 18 quintillion planets, all of which are unique and fully explorable.

It’s quite the tagline, and thanks to some extremely impressive tech demos and convention appearances it’s little wonder that No Man’s Sky has generated an unprecedented amount of hype over the past year.

To put the scale of this thing into perspective: the number of grains of sand on the Earth is estimated to be around seven quintillion. That’s not only beaches — think all the world’s deserts, too. Now double it, and add in a few quintillion more for good measure.

That’s how many individual planets there are in No Man’s Sky.

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But, of course, scale doesn’t necessarily mean depth of gameplay. Close parallels can be drawn between No Man’s Sky and Elite: Dangerous, which is similarly gigantic but has been criticized as having gameplay that feels a mile wide but an inch deep. (At least during early stages of development.)

So let’s get down to business. While the PC community chewed its fingers down to the bone waiting for the Steam release on August 12, we’ve joined the legion of PS4 players who are already planet hopping. Here’s our review of No Man’s Sky, and a tour of the emotional roller coaster you’ll be on during the first hour of play.

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That Minecraft Feeling

Remember that feeling of giddy excitement and curiosity you had the very first time you played Minecraft?

Of course you do. We all do. It was one of those seminal moments in gaming for many of us, and we can happily confirm that the first 10 minutes of No Man’s Sky lives up to that exceptional sense of wonder given to us by its predecessor.

And, like Minecraft, very little is explained to you in No Man’s Sky. You’re stranded in a strange new world, and left to figure things out for yourself.

This leads to…

Utter Confusion

What am I doing? Where am I supposed to go? What’s all this stuff? Am I supposed to collect it?

Who knows. Certainly not you.

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But slowly and surely, you start to put all the pieces together and figure out how to repair your semi-broken ship. You’ll see what’s needed, and begin setting out across your own unique starting planet to gather it all.

And that’s when you’ll be hit by the first sense that you’re really, really small.

Abject Wonder

The sheer expanse of the game slowly starts to dawn on you, which comes with a wave of both wonder and terror. Much like staring out at our own Milky Way here in the real world, there’s something a little unsettling about realizing just how miniscule the scale of you and your operations are in context.

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And just as you get to grips with the enormity of your own world, your mind will creep back to the fact that there are 17,999,999,999,999,999,999 more floating around above your head.

And you’ll get to explore a tiny proportion of them …

… right after you fix this stupid spaceship.

Boredom

The grind is strong with No Man’s Sky, and once the initial wonder has worn off that’s when ennui sets in. (It does start to become obvious that it’s all algorithmically generated after a while).

You’ll plod around mindlessly collecting … well, stuff. Will you need the stuff later? Can the stuff be traded? At this stage, it’s a mystery.

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Despite there being a lot of stuff — some of it living and roaming around — there’s not a whole lot to interact with. And very little interacts with you. One of the problems here is that it’s quite easy, and not a lot threatens or interrupts your endless grind.

Except the “survival” aspect. Which brings us onto …

Annoyance

No Man’s Sky is billed as both an exploration and survival game. Unfortunately, in its present state the latter gets in the way of the former.

The exploration aspect is hugely enjoyable and very thrilling on a deep level, so it’s somewhat annoying to have all the fun jarringly interrupted by the constant need to top up your carbon or whatever. It gets mundane fast, and never eases up.

The exceptionally tiny inventory is also frustrating, and you’ll find yourself grinding to a halt often as you have to spend a few minutes rejigging everything in your quest to get spacebound.

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Once that ship is up and running, however …

Mind-Blown.

That sense of excitement and wonder you felt at the very start of the game? That’s nothing compared to the emotional suckerpunch that hits you when you leave your starting planet for the first time.

The sense of scale really is every bit as awesome, in the truest sense of the word, as has been hyped for all these months. It’s an unprecedented marvel, and to think that it was achieved by an indie game design team of just 10 people is nothing short of staggering.

It may not be living up to the hype right now — and really, how could anything live up to the hype that has surrounded No Man’s Sky? — but there’s a real sense that the excitement for the very idea and potential of this game is justified.

No Man’s Sky: Closing Thoughts

Typical first-day bugs abound. There’s a lot of room for improvement, and at times it feels more like a tech demo than an actual game. A better balance (and more variance) in gameplay elements is needed, and perhaps slightly more structure would help.

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But as you first break through the atmosphere and experience first-hand the scale and beauty of No Man’s Sky, you’ll smile to yourself.

This is probably going to change everything.

Have you had the chance to play it yet, or had you eagerly awaited August 12 for the PC launch? Do you agree that it’s a game changer, or see it as simply a weak Minecraft-in-space?

Share your thoughts in the comments below. See you at the center of the galaxy!

The Perfect Storm of Game Design: How Did Pokémon GO Become so Popular, So Quickly?

If you went back in time, even just by twenty years, and told the first person you met that one day millions of people would suddenly start running around their neighborhood looking for imaginary creatures with their mobile phones, they’d suspect you’d gone nuts.

And who could blame them? Who could have possibly predicted the future in which something like this would be a reality:

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But here we are, and we’ve barely even begun. Pokémon GO is performing better than any game designer could ever dream of, and it’s not even been out a month. This phenomenon is borderline immeasurable in its scale – not only has it done the impossible by beating Candy Crush and Mobile Strike (by a huge margin), but its become more popular than Snapchat, Tinder and even Twitter. By some metrics, it has even overtaken porn.

Rightfully so, every game designer and developer on the planet is now staring, mouths agape, at the figures and wondering how to emulate this kind of viral insanity.

There’s no telling where the apex is yet, but it’s certainly not too soon to at least begin examining the ingredients of this recipe, because it’s undoubtedly one that will be discussed at game design school for quite some time to come.

1. Innovation and Accessibility

Augmented reality is a new thing, but it was a little slapshod in the early days of mobile gaming – usually added as an afterthought – and the technology instead got put to better use in the health and fitness niches of app development.

Pokémon GO, on the other hand, is the first to put AR at the center of the gaming experience in such a big way. Coupled with the fact that you go from download to chasing Pokémon in less than two minutes, it’s of no surprise that the sheer novelty has gotten players deliriously excited.

It’s almost like it had to happen sooner or later–it was just a question of who would be the first to make a viral AR masterpiece. That someone was Niantic.

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2. Provenance… and even more accessibility

Building a strong franchise pays dividends for game designers further down the line, but it’s also a double-edged sword.

When the universally applauded Witcher 3 came out, many people who were unaware of the series prior to its release asked “Do I need to play the first two games to understand Witcher 3?”

Luckily the answer was ‘not really’, because otherwise it could have turned off thousands of potential players who didn’t want to wade through two lengthy predecessors just to get up to date. A fine balance was struck between furthering the lore for fans of the series and serving as an accessible point for new players to jump in and pick up the backstory as they go along.

While Pokémon may be less literary in its roots than The Witcher, its history is even more extensive – nearly a thousand episodes of the cartoon show, eighteen movies and seventeen games (if you include GO itself.)

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That’s a hugely intimidating canon for anyone new to the series, but Pokémon GO reassures all newcomers that the slate is clean and the objective is as clear as it is singular: gotta catch ‘em all.

A game that is inviting – from the design to the branding – is a heck of a lot easier to market. And that brings us neatly on to another point…

3. Adults are Playing It

This sounds like a flippant point, but it’s an important one.

Historically, and without wanting to denigrate adult players who have enjoyed the series so far, Pokémon has always been seen (at least from the outside looking in) as a ‘game for kids’; that game your younger brother played while you pursued more ‘serious’ games like Magic: The Gathering.

That’s a hard misconception to overcome, but what better way to breach that perceived age divide than to have near countless numbers of adults suddenly join the craze?

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It’s self-perpetuating marketing, and moreover…

4. The Marketing Does Itself

You see everyone reading 50 Shades of Grey on your daily commute, and you wonder what you’re missing. You see everyone playing the Dark Souls 3, and… well, nothing.

You don’t see them, because they’re behind closed doors.

On the other hand, one of the key stories of Pokémon GO is the sheer number of people giddily running around the streets in the search for rare Pokémon. Even from the NYFA offices we’ve been watching – with no small amount of amusement – people zipping past the windows with their phones outstretched, pausing only to talk to other trainers, and when lunchtime rolls round, we tend to go out and join them for an hour.

This kind of visibility is what has truly pushed Pokémon GO into a league of its own in terms of viral success, above and beyond even the likes of multi-million dollar enterprises such as Candy Crush and Mobile Strike [LINK TO OTHER ARTICLE HERE.] Indeed, the latter had to spend vast sums of money in advertising just to get where they are, while Pokémon GO has relied primarily on its own self-generating interest.

By proxy, people running around the streets playing a video game naturally leads to some interesting headlines in a way that sitting at home does not. A lot of it is positive: the mental and physical benefits of roaming outdoors, the uptick for businesses listed as Pokestops, and the increase in visitors to cultural attractions.

Admittedly not all of it great – reports of muggings have been frequent, as have accidents and even a couple of grisly discoveries – but it has helped the game completely saturate the media, nonetheless.

Some of the images people are encouraged to take using the in-game camera are very shareworthy, too…

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Even the most reckless of gamblers wouldn’t put a bet on how far or how long this phenomenon with stretch, but it’s almost certainly changed the landscape of mobile gaming forever, despite its young age.

Over to you guys. Do you have any thoughts on the design of the game itself? Do you think the hype is justified? Let us know your experiences with Pokémon GO down in the comments…

… in the mean time, happy hunting!

 

 

The Top Ten Highest Grossing Mobile Games (And How They Got There)

At this point, you may have heard of a little mobile game called Pokémon GO. It’s doing rather well and is gaining a bit of popularity?

But while Pokémon GO is busy redefining everything we know about mobile gaming and the revenue potential thereof, it stands on the shoulders of giants. Over the past half decade, we’ve seen more than a few games go on to gross more money than stockbrokers would dream of earning in a lifetime.

Here’s the current top ten, and today we’ll be looking at them with a simple game design question in mind: how did they get so successful in the first place?

Highest Grossing Free-to-Play Games, Examined

Chart placements may vary if all platforms are considered, but for consistency we’ve stuck to the US App Store data as of 15 July 2016.

And bear in mind that the revenue isn’t the amount the app has earned over its life time, but per day.

Yikes.

1. Pokémon GO

Revenue: $1,635,048
Days on App Store: 9
Publisher: Niantic Inc.

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How it Got There: Needless to say, even at this very early stage in Pokémon GO’s life it has become a global phenomenon the likes of which gaming – mobile or otherwise – has never seen before. Its insane performance is down to a perfect storm of factors, which we discuss in more detail here.

2. Mobile Strike

Revenue: $1,271,560
Days on App Store: 246
Publisher: Epic War Llc
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How it Got There: Advertising as aggressive as a napalm firestorm. Mobile Strike was one of the first free-to-play app games to have gotten on board with TV advertising, coupled with an A-list endorsement by none other than Arnold Schwarznegger. If you haven’t seen Mobile Strike’s marketing campaign in action either on screens or across promoted social media ads, you’re probably on board the International Space Station.

3. Game of War – Fire Age

Revenue: $865,409
Days on App Store: 645
Publisher: Machine Zone Inc

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How it Got There: Having never strayed far from the highest grossing game spot since its release in 2014, Game of War has maintained its throne in very much the same way as Mobile Strike: sheer advertising bucks and celebrity endorsement.

$40 million was thrown at the game in 2014 and included a campaign with a very scantily-clad Kate Upton (since replaced with Mariah Carey.) In terms of return on investment, the developers came good – players spend a whopping $550 on average in the game, compared to just $87 typically spent a year in other titles.

4. Candy Crush Saga

Revenue: $442,296
Days on App Store: 1338
Publisher: King

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How it Got There: Before Pokémon GO came along, Candy Crush Saga was pretty much the first game anyone would name when you mentioned the phrase ‘addictive mobile game.’

While aggressive advertising is once again a big factor in Candy Crush’s app store dominance (particularly in the far East and with a clever spot in Psy’s then-to-go-superviral Gangnam Style), it’s the addictiveness that has really pushed the game to stratospheric heights.

And it’s literally addictive. By combining simple, accessible game mechanics with a perfectly sloped difficulty system as well as a reward system that physically releases neurochemical dopamine in the player’s brain, it’s a model of game design, which many developers are scrabbling to implement in their own apps.

5 and 6: Clash of Clans and Clash Royale

Revenue: $321,783 and $271,718
Days on App Store: 1043 / 136
Publisher: Supercell

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How it Got There: Arguably, it got there because it got there first.

Supercell’s two Clash titles aren’t wholly dissimilar to Mobile Strike and Game of War and they all share the same winning formula, but Clash of Clans beat them to the punch by a good couple of years. The fact that the gameplay is generally lauded as a good game and that the developers have kept on top of updates has helped keep it near the top ever since.

7. DoubleDown Casino & Slots

Revenue: $238,166
Days on App Store: 669
Publisher: DoubleDown

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How it Got There: Let’s face it, it’s a straight-forward gambling app – this essentially operates on an ‘if you build it, they will come’ philosophy.

Being installed nearly 20,000 times a day, most of the success here lies in the fact that DoubleDown have succeeded where similar apps have failed: making a real-money gambling app that abides by Apple’s strict policies while still delivering a slick user experience for the player.

Or perhaps we’re reading into it too much, and they may have simply been lucky with keyword searches. The app’s full name is DoubleDown Casino & Slots – Free Vegas Games, Win Big Jackpots, & Bonus Games!

8. Candy Crush Soda Saga

Revenue: $202,003
Days on App Store: 612
Publisher: King

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How it Got There: See above.

9. CSR Racing 2

Revenue: $174,150
Days on App Store: 15
Publisher: NaturalMotion

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How it Got There: While it may only stand at No. 9 on the highest grossing apps chart currently, this is exceptional given how recently it was released (rivaled only by Pokémon GO in growth) and it did peak at No. 1 in its first few days.

CSR Racing 2’s success can be largely attributed to the performance of its predecessor, which got healthy showcase promotion at the 2012 WWDC and went on to take a gigantic $12 million a month shortly afterwards.

10. MARVEL Contest of Champions

Revenue: $154,910
Days on App Store: 583
Publisher: Kabam

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How it Got There: The developers can thank the Chinese.

While a game based around a brand as strong as Marvel is almost always guaranteed to do well, it was only when Kabam carefully redesigned the game to appeal to the Chinese market and released it there in late 2015 did the game really take off. The lesson for game designers here? Don’t neglect your potential foreign markets!

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In conclusion, the take-home message for game designers looking to make a financial success from their work is this: there’s more than one way to skin a cat, but there are also proven tricks that seem to work every time, too.

Then again, Pokémon GO has completely changed the landscape of mobile gaming in less than a month.

 Whatever happens from here, it has certainly thrown the Meowth amongst the Pidgeys.

Kojima’s Standing Ovation

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For those watching The Game Awards 2015, it was very disappointing when Geoff Keighley gave the news that Hideo Kojima would not be stepping up to accept his award for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Waves of disbelief spread across the gaming industry when he revealed why— Konami forbid him from doing so. The same Konami where Kojima had spent decades turning Metal Gear into one of the most iconic series ever.

Shift In Focus

March of 2015 was when we first learned of the drama that would unfold throughout the year. Out of nowhere, the official Metal Gear website was stripped of any references to Kojima and Kojima Productions. This was followed by the renaming of Kojima Productions Los Angeles to Konami Los Angeles Studios. While many thought this was another one of Kojima’s pre-release publicity stunts, enough speculation arose that both Kojima and Konami had to release a statement assuring fans that Kojima was still working on The Phantom Pain.

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In the following months, reports would come up surrounding the struggling relationship between Kojima and his long-time company. According to Nikkei, a large Japanese media corporation, Konami had become a tension-filled workplace with very unhappy employees. This all seemed to have begun as soon as Konami started shifting their focus on small mobile games instead of big-budget console titles. In October, more reports of Kojima leaving Konami forced the publisher to say that he was merely “on vacation”.

New Beginnings

On December 16, 2015, not long after the Video Game Awards, Kojima revealed that a new Kojima Productions was born. Free from Konami, the independent studio would be focusing on creating exclusive games for the PlayStation 4. A statement by Andrew House, president of Sony Computer Entertainment, was released simultaneously. For the first time since 1986, Kojima was officially not an employee of Konami.

While no one likes the idea of the Metal Gear franchise continuing without its mastermind, there’s excitement in knowing that Kojima is free to work on something entirely new. Two of his closest colleagues from Konami, artist Yoji Shinkawa and producer Kenichiro Imaizumi, have joined him to form a team that will be kept small. As of this writing, only around 20 jobs are available on the Kojima Productions career page.

Recognition

Fast-forward to February 2015 and D.I.C.E. Summit, an annual event where the top people from the video game industry get together to celebrate games and vote for their favorites from the previous year. The winner for best adventure game was none other than Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, but neither Konami or Kojima went up to accept the award. The odd part about this was that earlier in the show, Hideo Kojima stepped up onto the stage to accept a Hall of Fame award from Guillermo del Toro.

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When doing so, Konima was met with a standing ovation. Developers and executives alike couldn’t help but give the man behind Metal Gear Solid the recognition he deserves. After almost a year of confusion, it’s great to see that Kojima is putting his past with Konami behind him and is ready to continue doing what he does best— make great games.

To both aspiring and veteran game developers out there, Kojima’s struggle is a reminder that the gaming industry isn’t perfect. From layoffs and crunching to publishers pushing developers to make something they hate, making games can be a tough career. But as Kojima has shown us, game development is also very rewarding. Why else would he come back to games after such a grueling ordeal with the company he called home for three decades?

How Developers Won Gamers Over With Story DLC

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There’s been plenty of discussion over downloadable content ever since it became the norm during the last console generation. Older gamers didn’t like the idea of paying more than the $60 price tag for extra content, especially when they grew up unlocking new stuff by completing tasks or entering a cheat code.

Some gamers also began accusing developers of intentionally holding back content in the main game so they could later sell it as DLC. It certainly didn’t help when content was being placed on the main discs but kept restricted in order to be made available later for extra cash.

But despite all the arguments against it, DLC has proven to be a huge moneymaker for developers. When gamers enjoy a title, they’re willing to pay a few more bucks to squeeze more entertainment out of it— but only if the DLC is good.

The following are examples of story-driven expansions that proved to be well worth the hard-earned cash of loyal fans.

  1. A Completely Different Scenario

We love getting a new chapter that fits into the main storyline, whether it was before or after. The Last of Us: Left Behind was a neat story campaign that let us learn more about Ellie before we met her as Joel in the game. But sometimes developers go a completely different route, and it works.

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There’s no better example of this than the Undead Nightmare content for Red Dead Redemption. The original storyline was known for its serious tone, which made the idea of venturing through a zombie-infested Wild West ridiculous to imagine. Of course, Rockstar made it work and Undead Nightmare is considered one of the best DLC offerings of all time.

  1. New Mechanics

Adding new mechanics to a game can be difficult from a technical standpoint. Ever since Blizzard introduced flying mounts to World of Warcraft via their “The Burning Crusade” expansion, fans wanted use those same mounts in the original areas that weren’t designed to support it. It wouldn’t be until several years later that Blizzard would make it possible via another expansion.

Of course,the extra work can pay off immensely since gamers love seeing something new in a game they consider to have already mastered. A fantastic example is the Dragonborn add-on for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Among many other awesome things, it introduced the ability to tame and ride Dragons.

  1. A Look Into The Past

The best part about DLC is that developers often have more freedom. This is because the content they produce doesn’t necessarily have to tie directly to the main storyline in terms of chronological order. Instead, we can experience prequel story DLC that takes us back to an important event that happened before the beginning of the main storyline.

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There are many excellent examples of this. “RAAM’s Shadow” for Gears of War 3 let us see what it was like as soon as the infamous Emergence Day occurred. Perhaps one of the best prequel DLC of all time was Bioshock Infinite’s “Burial at Sea,” a two-part expansion that linked Infinite’s story with the beloved original BioShock title.

  1. Locations Worth Visiting

Creating captivating areas is a bigger challenge than most people realize. This applies even more to DLC since buyers may feel cheated if you give them more of what they already saw in the main game, even if it’s great. That is why many developers put extra effort into creating new locations for their DLC that feels fresh and satisfying.

FromSoftware accomplished this with their expansion to Dark Souls, Artorias of the Abyss. Players can explore a unique environment where they will meet new enemies, bosses, and NPC characters. There was also a ton of lore to discover within the long-lost land of Oolacile, allowing players to learn why it was swallowed by the Abyss long ago.

Breaking Into the Industry Design Program Vs Job As Game Tester

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The video game industry has changed dramatically the last few decades, especially when it comes to getting your foot in the door. For the longest time, you had to either be a good artist or programmer to be considered worthy of joining a game development team. But as games grew to become complex, story-driven beasts, more talents became useful for game development.

One of these roles is tester: the person in charge of playing the game build to catch technical issues. It used to be that the team itself did all of the testing, but now most studios hire people who spend their entire shift making sure the game doesn’t have any bugs or glitches.

To many, this is seen as the perfect entry-level position. Their hope is that by being a game tester at a studio they’ll eventually receive the opportunity to do something more exciting. And while it certainly has happened before, it’s actually quite rare nowadays for a tester to climb the ranks.

We’re certainly not here to bash game testers. We understand that quality assurance is the difference between a glitchy mess and a smooth, enjoyable experience. They serve a very important role and are valuable to the game development process. That being said, there’s a reason why most developers don’t mind hiring kids fresh out of high school to test their games.

Below are the two main reasons why a college game design program is a much better way to earn a career in game development.

  1. The Good Positions Go To College Graduates

It’s funny to think that some of the best developers in the industry got their job almost by accident. The legendary Shigeru Miyamoto was hired as an artist by Nintendo simply because his father knew Hiroshi Yamauchi. Ken Levine of BioShock fame simply responded to an ad by Looking Glass Studios he saw in a magazine.

These days, it’s a lot more challenging getting a job at a respectable video game studio, especially if you’re not a college graduate. Just like in other industries, companies prefer people with degrees because it shows they are committed to the field. If someone spent 4 years studying game development, it’s clear that they want to do it for a living.

We’re talking about jobs like level designer, programmer, narrative designer, etc. You’re not likely to get these jobs with just a high school degree, which is usually all you need to get hired as a tester. This is why quality assurance is not recommended if you one day want to see yourself in a better role— you’ll be stuck testing games while others get hired for the position you dream of having.

  1. Game Tester Is Not An Easy Gig

Being a game tester can sound like a dream job. Few thing sound better than having a career where all you do is play video games all day. You already spend a lot of time with them so you may as well get paid to play, right? The problem is that working in quality assurance is not as it seems from the outside.

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The truth is, testing video games can be quite grueling and tedious. You’re not told to play awesome games all day but instead asked to play the same level or area repeatedly for 8 to 10 hours straight. In this time you’ll make sure you’ve performed all the mechanics in every way possible in hopes of catching any bugs that need fixing.

Working conditions are also pretty harsh as developers may require their testers to test games for many hours at a time. Leading up to release you may even spend more than 12 hours a day testing the build as the rest of the team goes into “crunch”. Last but not least, there’s the lack of respect. Unfortunately, game testers are rarely seen as “part of the team” and instead as outsiders brought in to to perform a repetitive but necessary task.

  1. No Job Security

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again— it’s a big deal that anyone with a high school diploma can get hired in QA. What this means is that testers are seen as expendable since there will always be another teenager or college dropout willing to get paid to “play games”.

As you can imagine, this significantly affects the notion that testers move up in ranks and eventually find themselves in a better role. You’re more likely to get laid off as soon as the game ships since only a few testers will be needed during the beginning stages of their next project.

To be fair, competition for good game development jobs is hotter than ever. As more game design students graduate and experienced veterans get laid off due to closed studios, more job applications get sent to the same job you want. But at least with a college degree you’re fighting for a job that can actually help kickstart your game development career.

How To Make Sure Your Game is Competitive In Other Countries

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The Gaming industry is more competitive than ever, enough that finding success in just one market is a challenge. Of course, there’s nothing quite like learning that your game is now one of the most downloaded titles in several countries outside of your own. While luck is always a factor, global success isn’t going to happen unless you prepare.

The following are several oversights many game developers make when trying to turn their new game into an international sensation.

Mistake #1: Don’t Study Their Culture

Localization is the term used to describe when a game is prepared for other areas. The most obvious reason for this is language. Your game won’t have much luck in China or South America where English isn’t regularly spoken. But what some fail to realize is that language translation, although very important, is only part of the process.

Localization also requires an understanding of the respective area’s culture, including popular trends, the food they eat, country traditions, and more. So if the American version of your game has cheeseburgers or hotdogs as health items, it would make a big difference changing those to sushi rolls for the Japanese release. These little things can go a long way and even save your came from coming off as disrespectful, which is why the top developers always do what they can to make a game more acceptable in specific countries.

Mistake #2: Don’t Study The Country’s Market

It only takes one look at the highest selling games of an area to see how different each market really is. According to Famitsu, the 10 best-selling video games in Japan throughout 2015 consisted of 8 3DS titles. Clearly handheld games are much more popular in Japan than in other countries. On the other hand, Americans favored console games like Batman: Arkham Knight, Call of Duty: Black Ops III, and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

 

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By studying a specific country’s market you can learn right away if it’s even worth the effort to localize your game. If your game is similar to other titles that are big there, do some research to study their marketing strategies and reasons why they were successful. You’re setting yourself up for failure if you simply toss your game into another country without a plan.

Mistake #3 Use The Same Monetization Strategy

If there’s one thing that frustrated mobile game makers, it’s that the average American has no problem dropping more than $5 on a coffee that will be gone in a few minutes. That same person sees a $5 game on the App Store and thinks “too expensive” before opting for a free or $1 game instead. With so many freemium games out there these days, it’s tougher than ever for games with price tags to sell well on mobile platforms.

Now imagine a country where the average wage is less than that of Europe and the West. In other words, your game’s monetization model isn’t guaranteed to work in every country it is released on. Avoid overlooking how different other markets are by studying the pricing of other games, including cash shop features found in free-to-play titles.

Mistake #4: Starting The Localization Process Late

Like we mentioned before, localization is more than just getting someone to translate text and dialogue. There are also art and sound assets like currency symbols and voice dialogue that may need to be changed. If done toward the later stages of development, this will require getting messy with code in hopes of replacing the original content with the new stuff.

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Good game developers begin coding their games in preparation for this. In doing so, the process of localization goes smoother and takes less time, especially if you plan on releasing in more than two countries/locales. You’ll also avoid any bugs and technical problems that rear their ugly head when code is being altered in a hurry.

5 (Even More) Game Design Mistakes To Avoid

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Like in life, learning the hard way is never a pleasant experience. Instead of identifying your game design mistake beforehand and avoiding it, you get hit by it extra hard when players ask how something so terrible could be in your product. Although even the best and most experienced designers have launched a title with decisions they later regret, only a fool doesn’t study other games to see what mistakes they can avoid in their own.

We’ve talked about five common mistakes before, and then we went over five more. The following are five additional design choices that leave a bad taste in the player’s mouth and are way more common than they should be.

1. Bad Save Point Placement

Anyone who played games in the late 80s and early 90s—before save points were commonplace—knows that automatic save points are a good thing. There was nothing worse than playing for hours or defeating a tough boss, only to die and lose it all because you forgot to save. Our beef is with save points that seem to be placed just to frustrate the player.

For example, we’ve all played a game where a save point happens just before a difficult boss. The problem is that prior to the boss fight we have to watch a long cut scene that can’t be skipped, which means you’ll probably be forced to watch it a few times. Even though they’re also very proud of the cool cut scene in their game, good designers will have the decency to place the save point after it so you can jump back into the fight after every defeat.

2. Bosses with Insane Health

A good boss battle is the result of careful and lengthy design, testing, and iteration by the developer. All of our favorites were designed to give us a challenging yet rewarding experience that made the trek through the dungeon worthwhile. Unfortunately, we’ve also faced an annoying boss that felt more like a chore than an epic encounter.

One way to bore players with your bosses is by making them a “bullet sponge”. These bosses take a ridiculous amount of damage before finally dying, which often involves the repetitive act of shooting/attacking its weak point for a very long time. A good example is the final showdown with the boss, Shao Khan,in Mortal Kombat 9. Defeating him is a boringly repetitive chore of Down, Left, Square over and over until he is dead. Unless the boss changes tactics often and keeps this fresh, it’s better to avoid designing bosses that take several minutes of doing the same thing over and over.

3. Psychic A.I. Enemies

We’ve all been there. You see a group of enemies and creep near them, waiting until one separates from the group. Once it is safe to do so, you take the lone enemy out far enough away so that no other enemy notices. But instead, all the other enemies in the room magically know what you did and start charging straight at you.

Or worse, they find you no matter where you hide and can shoot you even though they’re on the other side of the room. An example of a game suffers in this regard is Assassins Creed Rogue. Specifically, the Aggro distance (meaning the cone of awareness around an enemy AI within which a player’s actions trigger the enemy to attack the player) is overly long and sensitive. In particular the vertical view distance and cone of vision of enemy Snipers are unrealistically large. As a result it feels like Paris is on hair trigger alert to attack the player. It feels like the enemy AI have eyes in the back of their heads. The end result is a frustrating play experience that does not allow the player to use stealth mechanics to her satisfaction. What’s the solution? Tweak and test the numbers for the enemy view distance to allow the player more satisfying stealth play. This issue is becoming less common thanks to improvements in technology, but it still happens. Instead of engrossing players into the stealth gameplay, they are taken out of it when enemies unrealistically seem to possess psychic abilities.

4. Escort Missions with Dumb NPCs

Escort missions aren’t the most common type of quests/objectives but they can be tremendously fun when done right. Players get frustrated with escort missions when the NCPs that the player must work with test the player’s patience. We’re talking about the ones that never seem to move at an appropriate speed.

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Nothing tests your patience more than an escort NPC that walks at a mind-numbingly slow pace. The destination is already in site, but if you run too far away from the NPC, you’ll fail the mission. So instead you have to walk alongside the snail of an NPC as he or she delivers some kind of monologue. This is even more annoying when you’re being attacked by enemies, which means you always have to babysit the NPC in case they fall behind or run ahead into a pack of enemies. A game that famously frustrates players in this regard is Resident Evil 4 wherein you have to save the President’s daughter, Ashley. Ashley is given to cowering when she should run thereby requiring you to expose yourself more than you would like.

5. Unbelievable Map Barriers

Designing 3D levels that both feel expansive and look believable is no easy matter. But the good news is that developers are relying less on invisible barriers that jar you when you run into one unexpectedly. The bad news is that a lot of the obstacles they place restrict players from moving outside the map are just as unbelievable.

A good example is a waist-high fence or wall in a game where your character is able to jump 10 feet into the air. You can hop over that fence/wall anywhere else on the map, but now it’s being used to indicate where the map ends. Even though we get it, it would still be nice to have a wall that is obviously unreachable despite the character’s jumping abilities.