How To’s

The Architecture of Fear: Level Design Lessons from Haunted Houses

 

Los Angeles celebrates Halloween better than any other city on Earth. Maybe it’s because so many Hollywood special effects artists live here, or because there are so many theme park enthusiasts who create their own home-made attractions. Or perhaps it’s because LA is home to many famous Halloween-o-philes including Tim Burton, Danny Elfman, and Guillermo Del Toro. Whatever the reason, there is something special about Los Angeles at Halloween time.

Every year at Halloween, instructors from the New York Film Academy (NYFA) Game Design school give the same advice: If students really want to learn some great lessons about level design, they should visit a haunted house. Not a real haunted house, but one of the dozens of fabricated haunted houses that can be found around the greater Los Angeles area during the Halloween season.

It doesn’t matter if it is an elaborate one like Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, one of the many walk-through mazes at Knott’s Scary Farm, or a neighborhood haunt, there is a lot to learn from these haunted houses.

Here are seven scary hints from Halloween Haunts to make the most out of your spooky video game levels:

  1. The three S’s.

While an amateur horror level designer might only concentrate on creating scares for their haunted level, there are actually three ways to engage a player: Story, Scares, and Spectacle. Use story to capture the player’s curiosity. A strong story will make the player want to see “what happens next” and continue their way through a level. Spectacle are those epic moments that will dazzle and impress the player, making the player say “That was amazing! I wonder what’s next?”

Scale often plays a big part in epic-ness. The bigger, the better! Scares actually slow down the player as they creep their way through a level, especially if they think a scare is coming. However, if you can engage your player with story or distract them with spectacle, they won’t see the scares coming!

  1.   Foreshadowing.

While many horror movies and games rely on jump scares and shocks, the best scares come when the player is actually expecting them. The horror game demo P.T. on the Playstation 4 might be the scariest game ever made, but it isn’t frightening just because the game looks and sounds scary.

It’s scary because the player knows they have to pass by that stupid bathroom door yet again and something horrible is going to happen when they do. The anticipation is what makes the game terrifying.

  1.   Sound is your ally.

Nothing unsettles a player like sound. Blowing wind, the creak of an old house, the scrape of a foot along the floor. Use sound effects to not only to set the mood and augment scares, but also to foreshadow them. Think of how sound is used in the Friday the 13th video game to announce the presence of the murderous Jason. Once the player associates a music cue or sound effect with an upcoming scare, watch them start to panic!

  1.   Use sense.

Players can’t use their sense of smell or touch when playing a video game. Horrific environments like filthy or blood-splattered rooms lose its impact if the player can’t smell or feel it. Limit these types of locations to maximize their impact, or at least have the player character react to them to help cue the player that this is a gross place to be.

  1.  Limit the field of view.

Players get nervous when they can’t see what’s ahead of them. Use darkness and dense fog to obscure players’ field of view. Or if you are inside, corners are a great way to hide what’s coming next. There might be something horrible lurking right around the corner…

  1.   Spread out your scares.

Fight the temptation to fill your level with wall-to-wall scares. The anticipation of a scare is much more frightening to a player. However, avoid predictability with your spacing.

For example, you might want to have a player move through two empty rooms before encountering a scare. Then switch it up to frighten them after three rooms, and then change it and frighten them in the next room. Your player will be expecting to get scared, but they will still be surprised when it happens.

Rhythm is the key to good scares. At the end of the level, you should ramp up your horror to a frightening conclusion; either let the player escape or lure them to their doom!

  1.   Scares come from diagonals.

Haunted house experts have revealed that a guest is more frightened when a scare comes from an angle rather than straight on. The reason? Evolution has honed a human’s peripheral vision to watch for danger that comes from behind and the sides of a person. When a danger “appears” from out of nowhere, the result is much more startling!

The best way to learn more from a Halloween Haunt is to experience one for yourself! If you can overcome your fear long enough to take note on how these fear-masters use psychology to maximize their scares, you too will be making scary levels like a pro!

How To Pitch to Game Developers

Are you wondering how to pitch to game developers?

In 2009, twenty-nine year old Markus “Notch” Persson started work on RubyDung, a procedurally generated construction sim that was a mash-up of Dwarf Fortress, Dungeon Keeper, and Roller Coaster Tycoon. By the time he had reached Alpha with his game, Notch had changed the game’s name to MineCraft and decided that he needed to monetize his efforts.

In June of 2009, he sold over 1,000 copies at 10.00 € apiece. As the game gained over 20,000 registered players, Notch was able to cut his day-job’s hours back and dedicate his time to finishing the game. By 2010, MineCraft had won game of the year, and Notch had quit his day job. By 2014, he sold his company to Microsoft for 2.5 billion dollars.

But Notch’s story is an unusual one. Most game developers will have to pitch their game to someone – be it a publisher, a developer, or a crowdfunding audience – before it reaches market.

What is a pitch? A pitch is a presentation created by a game developer in order to obtain a publishing contract or financing. Pitches contain information about your game, how it plays, what it is about, what is special about it, what platform is it for, who is its audience, and more.

While there is no hard and fast rule to the format of your pitch presentation, (you can find a pitch presentation outline in my book Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design) there are several guidelines you can follow to make sure your pitch goes as smoothly as possible.

Set the tone from the beginning; you are entertaining, not just selling.

A pitch is an opportunity to make a publisher excited about your game. This means showing your game in the best possible light. Showcase whatever is most exciting about your game using images and examples. A little humor doesn’t hurt either. However, a pitch is not a talent show. Save extreme activities like singing, impersonations, and jokes for the talent show.

A powerpoint presentation is the most common method of pitching. However, be aware that your audience can lose interest quickly – never linger too long on one slide and never show a slide that only shows words. Have at least one compelling image per slide and make sure that image is related to whatever you are talking about. Use concept art, screenshots, or even inspirational images from other games. If an image looks good and gets your point across – show it!

How you present yourself is just as important as what you are presenting. Treat a pitch presentation as if it were a job interview. Dress nicely. Make eye contact while speaking. Speak clearly and not too fast. Be mindful of your body language – avoid crossing your arms and alternate who you are looking at as you give your presentation.

If public speaking isn’t your strongest trait, consider pitching with a partner. Recruit another member of your team to help you out with the pitch. Take turns describing the game, the story, the features, and gameplay. You’ll feel much more confident with a backup.

Know your USPs

USP stands for Unique Selling Propositions. These are the most unique and exciting features of your game. It’s what makes your game stand apart from all of the others. There should be three to five USPs in your pitch presentation. Even if your game has more, try to limit it down to no more than five or six – otherwise you start to “muddy the waters”.

USPs are the backbone of your marketing plan. If you need ideas to generate USPs, try looking at the back of a videogame box. USPs are almost always used to sell a game to a consumer. However, many amateur game developers don’t use the right USPs in their presentation.

Often “beautiful art” and “engaging storylines” are mentioned as USPs. Don’t use these. EVERY GAME should have beautiful art and an engaging storyline. Focus on what makes your game unique. Is it a novel control system? Is it a brand-new style of gameplay? Is it a powerful engine that can handle a lot of detail? Is a famous artist creating your characters? These are the type of USPs you will want to include in your presentation.

Know who you are pitching to

Everyone in the pitch meeting is there for a different reason. The head of production wants to know if your team has “what it takes” to make a game. The marketing director wants to know what the “X” and the “Y” of your game – what makes your game “X-citing” and “Y” should I care? The technologist wants to know how you are going to make your game. The project manager wants to know how much your game costs. The creative type wants to know what is cool about your game and how it will play.

Make sure your pitch addresses at least a little bit about all of these issues. When entering a pitch meeting, try to meet everyone at the table and find out a little bit about what they do, then cater your pitch accordingly. A good tip is to collect business cards and then lay them out on a table in relation to everyone in the room. That way, you can address everyone by name and have a reminder of what job position they hold.

Don’t be afraid to share your ideas

While you are presenting, don’t be afraid to go “off-script”, especially if someone in your audience asks questions. Questions will arise during your pitch and often they will be questions that you don’t know the answers to. Instead of making something up, it’s ok to say “I don’t know” or “we are still considering that” and move on.

Publishers know that things change over the course of a game’s production, so it’s ok to have a few issues that you haven’t addressed yet. That said, it’s always better to have firm answers than incomplete ones.

The pitch for BioShock changed radically after receiving feedback from publishers. If audience members start to offer ideas, it means that they are interested in your game. That’s a good thing! Make sure to write them down, as they will often be good suggestions. However, if someone offers an idea or suggestion that just doesn’t align with your game, don’t argue or tell the person that it is a bad idea – instead thank them for their idea and move past it. There’s no need to be rude or disrespectful during the pitch.

Be prepared for the worst

No matter how prepared you are for your pitch, problems can arise. When problems happen (and they will happen) try not to sweat it too hard. Try not to make excuses or downplay your game when it does. Instead, try your best to resolve the issue and continue with your pitch.

Technical issues will happen. I have experienced many pitches where the game didn’t work, the camera was broken, the controls were unstable, or the AI didn’t function properly. But that’s OK. You are pitching to people who experience technical issues in prototypes and games in development all of the time. If something doesn’t go right with your demo, just remind them that you are showing off a work-in-progress. Your audience will generally understand and be patient with you.

Try to resolve your technical issues quickly, but even if the situation is unsalvageable, don’t give up hope. The best pitch I ever experienced was for the game that became Evolve. The Turtle Rock team brought in their playable demo and of course, it didn’t work. Their Powerpoint presentation wouldn’t load. But they didn’t let that phase them and because they were so enthusiastic and knowledgeable about their game, they managed convince THQ’s management to sign the game!

Just remember to be prepared, be flexible, and remember to have fun. With some practice, you too will soon be pitching like a pro! Good luck with all your pitches!

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How to Design Your Game to Tell a Story

You don’t need to be a gamer to recognize the incredible success of Fortnite: Battle Royale and Overwatch — two of the most popular games in recent years that also happen to be multiplayer-only. As these types of games continue raking in millions of players (and dollars), whispers of shrinking interest in story-driven experiences have spread throughout the industry.

“Amazing gameplay can survive s*** storytelling, it’s true, but I believe it’s poorer for it. Great gameplay, infused with a strong narrative and story world, is the ideal.”

But several single-player games like God of War and Detroit: Become Human continue to capture the hearts of modern gamers. This includes Red Dead Redemption II, an upcoming game surrounded by incredible hype for its promise of a thrilling Wild West tale. It’s clear that whether they make the most money or not, games that tell good stories are as desired and beloved as ever before, if not more.

Fantastic games like these don’t just happen. It takes tremendous effort from start to finish in order to marry good game design with memorable storytelling.

It all starts with a fun, promising design…

The debate of what comes first — story or gameplay — has been argued for years. Everyone has different preferences — some of us are drawn to games mostly for their strong narratives, while others deciding what adventure to invest hours into look to enticing mechanics. Both are integral when it comes to designing a game that tells an unforgettable story, but games are different compared to other forms of entertainment because they are based on a unique foundation — interactivity.

“The question the developers of the Legend of Zelda series asked themselves before starting a game was, ‘What kind of game play should we focus on?’ rather than ‘What kind of story should we write?'”

-Eiji Aonuma, series producer of Legend of Zelda

This core of gaming comes with the challenge of having to create characters, stories and worlds where players make decisions. Whether you’re developing a complex 3D action-RPG like The Witcher 3, or a simpler 2D adventure like Blossom Tales, it’s arguably better to begin by piecing together fun gameplay elements that you will add story to along the way. No matter how great your characters or dialogue are, or that amazing plot twist you know will blow people’s’ minds, it will take engaging gameplay to keep your average player going long enough to see your story through the end.

Link Zelda

…Followed by flexible, captivating narrative elements…

Games have proven themselves to be a powerful storytelling medium thanks to titles that not only provide enjoyable gameplay but also leave an emotional impact via compelling stories. One way to help your game hook players is by hammering out the key story elements early on: a cool central premise, strong characters that evolve, an interesting world, and stirring conflict.

Of course, games are unpredictable beasts that almost always change throughout development, thus the best stories are flexible ones. Certainly do your best to protect your vision, especially if it was your primary inspiration in the first place, but you also have to be willing to change (or entirely axe) precious ideas. Whether it’s a boring boss that needs to be reworked, or a crucial playable flashback that needs to be cut due to lack of time or resources, you’ll always be ready to come up with another good idea if you maintain an adaptable and creative state of mind.

“It’s the easiest thing to change, to some degree. You can be much more adaptive. You have a scene that’s already written and recorded and animated and then something needs to change. The easiest thing to change is something in the story.”

-Ken Levine, creative director of BioShock series (PC Gamer)

Game Controller

And finally, the two become one.

Not all game types and genres depend on storytelling in the same way. Role-playing games will normally have a bigger spotlight on narrative than, say, a racing simulator. But whether you believe story or gameplay is more important, there is a middle ground that most game developers will accept. In other words, a game whose creators worked hard to find harmony between mechanics and narrative is a game that players will not want to put down — and when they do, they’ll be talking about it.

“Amazing gameplay can survive s*** storytelling, it’s true, but I believe it’s poorer for it. Great gameplay, infused with a strong narrative and story world, is the ideal.”

-Rhianna Pratchett, award-winning video game writer (Gamespot)

Some developers make the mistake of tacking on story elements toward the end of the process. For them, narrative is an afterthought that’s eventually integrated, poorly, when the need for dialogue, cutscenes, etc. arrives.

Similarly, there are also many examples of games where the story was so important and untouchable that gameplay suffered for it. There’s a reason why many game development positions today require applicants to understand the intricacies of weaving story with gameplay: when done well, you design a game that people won’t soon forget.

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Movie Marketing: Video Game Tie-Ins Done Well

Gaming tie-ins for movie franchises have existed for nearly as long as people have been playing video games. When done well, these media can blend to create a hybrid marketing approach that will reach a wide audience.

The most common and familiar method of video game marketing is the tie-in game, which is produced and sold after the movie is released. These range from straightforward console adventures to immersive MMO games like Lord of the Rings Online or the now-defunct Matrix game universe. Occasionally, these games go on to take a life of their own, becoming a franchise in their own right.

A more recent trend in video game film marketing is more creative and flexible: creating social games to entice casual gamers. Facebook games and smartphone apps reach a wider potential audience than console games, and they can generate a sort of viral marketing frenzy that any film marketer would be glad to launch.

Social games usually rely on player interaction to solve puzzles or complete basic adventures. When these games are designed around a film or television show, they can incorporate elements of the story into the game to pique the player’s attention and create a sense of investment. Because of the social element of casual gaming, these apps entice players to talk about the game and its associated film, which can generate much-needed word of mouth and marketing buzz. This effect is multiplied when the game requires a collaborative effort for fans to solve clues or puzzles related to the game.

Successful Video Game Marketing Campaigns

Recently, The Fast and the Furious 6: The Game has earned a healthy following of casual players. Other successful casual gaming franchises include the nine-week episodic Salt tie-in, Day X Exists, and Disney’s Tron-based social game. Television shows like Dexter and Spartacus have also employed the casual gaming strategy to keep fans engaged between seasons, and the console adaptation of The Walking Dead earned an incredible amount of critical acclaim.

Of course, there are some limitations to what these games can do for a film. For the most part, video game tie-ins of all kinds primarily attract dedicated fans. It’s unlikely that someone unfamiliar or uninterested in an upcoming film will seek out these games, and most of the hardcore player base will be made of people who had planned to see the film anyway.

Where the marketing potential comes is from the friends and acquaintances of these die-hard fans. As these people see their friend playing the game, they may develop some curiosity for the game itself or the world it’s set in. If nothing else, they’ll have some name recognition for the film when it’s released.

Tips for Creating a Promotional Game:

  • Keep the target audience of both the film and game in mind. Certain types of games appeal more to certain demographics in players, and it won’t help you to market a film to players who won’t be interested in watching it. Unlike console games, a large percentage of social gamers are women. Social gamers also span a wide age range.
  • Match the tone of the game to that of the film. You don’t want to misrepresent the film by creating a game that’s wildly different, even if the game itself is quite good. A fun, lighthearted social game will not generate the right audience for a gore-heavy action thriller.
  • Provide an ample budget for the game and find a good developer, ideally one who has graduated from game design school or at least has a lot of prior experience. If you can’t afford to make a high-quality marketing game, it’s best not to attempt it at all. A badly made or overly cheesy game runs a high risk of creating a negative image for your film before it even comes out, which can drive away viewers who might otherwise have been interested in the movie.
  • Whenever possible, reward players for following through at the box office. With mobile devices becoming increasingly popular gaming platforms, it’s easy to provide rewards to your players. Try incorporating a code that will unlock a bonus level or special perks and make that code available only to people who watch the film. Before the movie starts, have the code displayed for viewers to input on their phones, or enable the ability to text before or after the film to receive special perks.

Video game marketing is not the right strategy for every film, but it can be a very powerful tool when used correctly and aimed at the right audience. Putting some careful thought into the benefits and logistics of developing a tie-in game can lead to substantial rewards once the film has been released.

The Right Concept Art Will Save You Money: 4 Steps to Develop

By Felipe Lara – Instructor, New York Film Academy Game Design

A good piece of concept art can be used as a prototype to test one of the essential elements that your game will need to succeed: You’ll need to connect emotionally to your player. Spending on concept art is sometimes viewed as a luxury or even a distraction, but if done correctly, concept art will save you money and put you in the right direction towards developing a successful experience. In this article, I’ll dive into the significance of art, and four steps to develop effective concepts.

We all have game ideas; some good, some bad. But having an idea is far from having a concept. A concept is something more concrete and more developed, and when it is done right, it is practically a prototype that will help you validate the foundation of your game or experience: the emotional connection with your players.

Finding an Emotional Connection

One of the most important qualities of a successful game is the ability to connect emotionally with players. If you are able to connect with players and involve them emotionally through your game, you are practically on the other side. Don’t get me wrong, there are still many hurdles that can take your project off track, but you have achieved a fundamental requirement: the ability to connect and be relevant.

In a previous article I talked about the 4-step sequence that successful games follow: stand out, connect, engage, and grow. In this article, I am going to talk about how, by doing concept development the right way, you can figure out and validate early on if your game concept has the potential to stand out and connect with your target players.

The Role of Art in Your Game

The art of a game is the window to all its other elements. You access the mechanics, stories, and social features through characters, environments, and user interfaces. The right art style will help you engage your players and communicate the humor and fun of your game mechanics, or the drama of your story. The wrong one will be more of a hurdle than a helpful connector and amplifier. The right art style will also help you stand out and connect with players by communicating the mood, emotions, and theme of your game.

Concept Art as a Prototype to Validate Emotional Connection

The right concept art will reflect all the good qualities of your game: the emotions it creates, its core story, and its theme. Even if the core mechanics or story details are not represented in your concept art, the emotions resulting from them will be present. This is why the development of concept art can be a great tool to test if players connect with the basic theme and emotions of your game. Developing concept art can be a faster and cheaper way to test and validate one of the foundations of a successful game: emotional connection.

4 Steps to Create the Right Concept Art

  1. The first step is defining who is your target player, what are your goals, and what is your point of view (or the reason you care about making this game).
  2. The second step is to define a theme that your players resonate with. The only way to know if your theme resonates with an audience is by testing: pick a few members of your audience and talk to them about your theme, see if they relate with it. Remember that theme is not a topic, but rather an opinion about a topic. People don’t resonate with a topic by itself like “zombies in a post-apocalyptic world.” People resonate with views about the world that those topics make easy to represent — and that they agree with. For example, in the case of the topic “zombies in a post-apocalyptic world,” a possible theme would be “only the cut-throat can survive in the world.”
  3. Once you have defined your theme, pick an art style that also resonates with your audience, and brainstorm some ideas about possible mechanics, stories, and social interactions. I am not arguing for being a copycat regarding the art style. It is about narrowing down possibilities and starting from solid concrete examples pointing in the right direction. Once you have those, you can innovate within clear parameters. As with theme, the only way to know if your art style will resonate with your audience is by showing them pictures of similar art styles.
  4. Finally, with a clear theme, a ballpark idea about the art style, and ideas about story, mechanics, and social interactions; create a piece of concept art. This piece should represent your main activity or conflict, and your theme. Once you have something concrete, get feedback from your audience and iterate from what you learn.

If you follow these four simple steps, you will end up with a concrete piece of concept art that connects with your audience and can help you as a guide or compass throughout development. You will not have a game yet, but you will have a good foundation to build one and something concrete that can guide your decisions for the rest of the development process.

Ready to learn more about game design? Find more info about New York Film Academy Game Design including student work here.

How to Be a Star in Game Industry Design Meetings

For aspiring game designers, we have created three tips to help you excel in design meetings in the game industry. Check it out:

  1. Make It About the Player
  2. Playtest Notes Beat the HIPPO
  3. Know the Canon

 Make It About the Player

Your job as game designer is firstly to be an advocate for the player. You make decisions based on what will be best for the experience of the person playing your game.

The primary way you know what the player wants is by playtesting with your actual players (the target audience for your game). Playtesting with your teammates and friends is nice, but you really want to test with people who don’t know you to get real feedback.

When in design meetings, frame your statements through the lens of what the player wants rather than what you think is cool or what is trending on Gamasutra.

Under the category of not-widely-known, check out the Gamer Motivation Survey by Quantic Foundry. You can use this to understand yourself as a gamer and get recommendations for games you might like to play.

You can also read this article about “7 Things [Quantic Foundry] Learned About Primary Gaming Motivations From Over 250,000 Gamers.”

Playtest Notes Beat the HIPPO

… That is, if you document what you observe in playtests as objectively as possible.

Some companies, like Microsoft Games, have dedicated user researchers, whose job it is to create playtest reports for the team to follow. Regardless of how you get the notes in design meetings, you want to reference them — as opposed to your own opinion — when talking about how to solve a design problem.

This means you would say things like, “Players keep getting stuck at this point on the map. I think we should provide a weapon drop here for them to keep it moving,” instead of, “I think it would be cool to have more weapons.”

This technique is not only professional-grade, but it is also important when dealing with the “HIPPO” in the room — the “Highest Paid Person’s Opinion.” Solid info from your playtests makes it easier for everyone to get on the same page.

Know the Canon

The word “canon” means “a collection of sacred works.” You hear the word used to describe the canon of great literature and film and music, but there is also a canon of great games.

As an aspiring game designer it is important that you know the great games, and play as many as possible. When you are in game industry design meetings, your colleagues will be mixing and matching points about game mechanics, art direction, story arcs, and other elements of a variety of different games. You want to understand what they are saying and be able to contribute.

Most of the games that come up will either be in the canon or were heavily influenced by the canon. Importantly, the canon includes great video games but also a diversity of lesser-known games that broke important ground — e.g. “Atari Adventure” is a simple game that influences the entire action-adventure genre, including all the Zelda games.

What is the canon, you ask?

While there is no definitive list, here are some good sources to read:

  1. 25 Video Games Every Game Design Student Should Play Before They Graduate
  2. Time Magazine’s “The 50 Best Video Games of All Time
  3. Metacritc’s “Best Video Games of All Time”

Finally, related to the canon: two titans of gaming education, design, and writing, NYFA Game Design Chair Chris Swain and Jeremy Bernstein recently took NYFA’s Twitch show “Schooled” to give their list of “10 Games You Should Play Before You Graduate from Game School.”

We highly encourage that you catch the episode here:

The two created their best games list because, as Swain puts it, “Designers are constantly brainstorming and incorporating bits of mechanics from other games. So it’s important to play and understand lots of different kinds of games so you can hang tough in these meetings. This list is not meant to be exhaustive but rather food for thought for a variety of different kinds of games and genres. You actually need to play lots more than what we talk about in the Twitch episode, but those games are a great foundation.”

Throughout the episode, two themes emerged: “innovation” and “gameplay over graphics.” The show kicks off with Swain introducing “Adventure” for the Atari 2600, the game that invented action adventure, top-down scrolling, fog of war, and easter eggs. He shows how it provides “primitives” for the whole action adventure genre including the “Zelda” series, “Uncharted” series, and even the “Grand Theft Auto” series.

Bernstein underscores the value of playing tabletop games as game design student, making the point that playing board games forces aspiring designers to get hands-on with rules, procedures, mechanics, and adjudication, intimately and in ways that are not accessible when playing digital games.

We have included their list of games below and encourage you to play them all.

# Title Platform Video Link
1 Adventure Atari 2600 https://youtu.be/LQZDRELOqoI
2 Dungeons and Dragons Tabletop https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-FeiNEsLElA
3 Tetris Soviet DVK-2 https://youtu.be/O0gAgQQHFcQ
4 Blokus Tabletop https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9LDM0xFDCFY
5 You Don’t Know Jack PC https://youtu.be/VheFU03JqAY
6 Sim City PC https://youtu.be/A54blk-ojA4
7 Dune 2 PC https://youtu.be/EiJLOjeyDxs
8 Magic the Gathering Online Tabletop https://youtu.be/GIlS4WwXoSM
9 Wii Sports Wii https://youtu.be/zqaPFAZS1K8
10 Pokemon Go Android https://youtu.be/vvFVBXLsBcE

To recap, here are three things you can do to be a star in game industry design meetings:

  1. Make It About the Player
  2. Playtest Notes Beat the HIPPO
  3. Know the Canon

All of them take a lifetime to fully master, so just jump right in by making games, playtesting games, and playing lots and lots of games.

Ready to learn more about game design? Study at the New York Film Academy’s Game Design School.

Game Storytelling – 3 Rules of Thumb that Work

By Felipe Lara – Instructor, New York Film Academy Game Design

Adding storytelling to your game can help you connect emotionally to your players, add meaning to the experience, and increase long-term engagement. But stories can become a bit of a nuisance if not implemented properly. Following a few rules of thumb will help you add storytelling that does not clash with the rest of the experience.

Screenshot 2017-10-11 12.06.01

Why Story

As I mentioned in a previous article, a combination of good art and fun game mechanics is a very effective way to attract players and create immediate engagement. But even good game mechanics can get repetitive and tedious over time unless they are accompanied by a larger meaning or drive, which is often provided by other elements like story, and social connection.

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Events are much more meaningful if they are tied to a larger story. When playing basketball, scoring a basket is fun, but the experience is much more meaningful and powerful if that basket is the winning basket at the end of a game against a long-time rival team, even more if winning will let us get a scholarship to a renowned college … and will make us the first in our family to get a college degree … which will eventually let us to help our family get out of poverty and … you get the idea.

What is so powerful about stories is that they can wrap up the combination of ideas and emotions that form our experiences in ways that we can easily understand and link to our values and other experiences in our lives. A story can turn an abstract goal into something that relates to our values and views of the world.

Here are 3 rules of thumb to help you determine if you have a story that works to make your game more compelling without annoying players:

Rule of Thumb 1: Start with a Clear Conflict

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There is one single element that fuels a good story: conflict — says Evan Skolnick in his excellent book “Video Game Storytelling, What Every Developer Needs to Know About Narrative Techniques.” He is right. Story is not a lot of blah blah blah, it is not fueled by details about characters, feelings, and places; it is fueled by conflict, by someone wanting something and not being able to achieve it because of something else. Make that conflict clear as soon as you can in your game.

The more your players can relate to the story’s conflict and to what is at stake, the more compelling your story will be for them. The faster you can introduce your players to that conflict and why it matters, the sooner the easier it will be for them to find meaning in the activities and goals they need to complete.

The first conflict you show your players doesn’t need to be the only conflict. It doesn’t even need to be the main conflict, but it should be the conflict that helps the player makes sense of what he/she needs to do in the game next.

Rule of Thumb 2: First Do, Then Show, Then Tell

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There is an old axiom in Hollywood: “Show, don’t tell.” If you want to communicate how courageous a character is, don’t say it; instead, show the character doing something courageous. In the same book for video game storytelling I mentioned above, Evan Skolnick says that in games, where the players are active participants, this axiom can be modified to “Do, then show, then tell.”

If you want to communicate how courageous and powerful a character is, give her powerful abilities and give her big challenges to face. Instead of telling the player the attributes of her character, let her experience them herself.

If you cannot find a way to communicate story through actions, then use visuals as a second option. Only use dialogue or text if there is no other way of conveying important information that your player needs in order to make sense of what she is doing.

Rule of Thumb 3: Keep It Simple and Minimal.

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The right story makes the game more intuitive, but it needs to start simple. Story can get deeper and more complex as the game progresses, but focus on utilizing story to make your game’s goals and rules easier for players to connect with and easier to understand. If the story is not making it easier to play, chances are it is not the right story.

The story introduction should also be minimal. One of the main mistakes that game developers make when adding story is trying to communicate all the background to the players at the beginning of the game. Players do not care about your story details or your characters until they are more invested in the experience as a whole. It is important to provide meaning, but you don’t have to provide the player with more information than the bare minimum to make your immediate goals and activities make sense. The worst thing you can do is present your player with a bunch of information that they don’t yet care about. Long dialogues and explanations are usually skipped and all your work will be in vain. Start simple, and add complexity only if the rules and goals of the game require it.

Evan Skolnick divides story facts into 3 categories: first, facts that you need to know right now to understand what you need to do in the experience; second, facts that will be important later in the experience but you don’t need to know yet; and third, facts that maybe add flavor but are not essential at any time in the experience to understand what you need to do. As a rule, the only information you really need to give the player is the one related to the first category. Save the rest for later and even then try to convey it first through actions and visuals.

Chess

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Let’s look at Chess as an example. It may be an extreme case but it exemplifies the points I am making.

The conflict is simple and easy to understand: you are a king with a court and an army, your enemy is another king with his own court and army and you need to defeat him. There are other details in the story about who is in your court, which characters are important and powerful, how big is your army, etc., but all that information is communicated through actions and visuals.

You know whom your enemy is because your team is one color and your opponent is the opposite color. You know that there are different characters because your pieces have different shapes. You know who is in your court and how powerful they are because your different pieces have different attributes and behaviors, and some of these attributes prove to be more powerful.

The story is simple and minimal. It helps us make the rules and goals of the game more intuitive — like the fact that only knights on horses can jump other pieces, or that the most important piece is the king — but it does not give us additional information that is not essential to understand what to do next.

Conclusion

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Story is an important tool to help us add meaning and connect emotionally to an experience, but the wrong story could turn into an annoyance for the player. By following these three rules you can avoid wasting time and resources developing stories that don’t help your game: 1) Introduce a clear and easy-to-understand conflict as soon as you can, 2) Communicate your story through actions first, visuals second, and only as a last resort through dialogue and narration, and 3) Keep the story simple and minimal, give you player only the information than helps him/her understand what he/she needs to do in the game at that point.

Learn more about Game Design at the New York Film Academy.

Interested in applying? Click here

 

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. Have a look at Gamblingapps.com to find out which gambling apps make most money and developed on which software. 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. Game developers of this free slot games website have used Unreal to develop the slot machine games. Have a look at their website if you want to learn more about the games

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.

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 Clark 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.

 

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

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.

 

game designers

 

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.

games

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

Xbox 360 demos

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.

assassin's creed screenshot

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.

5 Tips For Standing Out At Your Next Game Fair

Tokyo Game Show

The Penny Arcade Expo, Game Developers Conference, and Gamescom are a few of the many huge trade fairs small developers dream of attending. Who wouldn’t want thousands of people checking out their game, especially as it’s preparing for release? There are plenty of gamers out there who would probably love your game, but they may never know it exists unless you exhibit it.

If you’ve been to a trade fair before and have seen all the different booths, you probably didn’t notice all the hard work that went into attracting your attention. We’ve offered advice before on preparing for an event like this so everything goes smoothly. The following are a few more tips to help you get the most out of your next trade fair:

1. Make Your Booth Easy To See

If you’re at a massive event like the Tokyo Game Show (more than 268,000 attended in 2015), it means lots and lots of people are going to be walking by your booth. Knowing this, the biggest mistake you can make is designing your booth so that they can’t see easily see it. This includes making walls around your space so that it feels more enclosed and personal. The problem is that some people will see walls and not your game.

Rex Rocket at game convention

It’s also a good idea to face your booth toward where you think (or know) the most people will walk by. This of course doesn’t apply if your booth is against a wall, which means there’s really only one direction you can face your booth. But if you’re somewhere in the middle, try setting up your booth so that the “back” of it is facing an area where the least amount of people will walk by. This way, more attendees will catch a glimpse of what you’re showing off.

2. Be Unique

As we’ve mentioned already, the biggest challenge that comes with exhibiting at a big event is getting the attention you know your game deserves. But with so many booths surrounding yours, how is this possible? One thing you can do is refrain from doing what all the other booths are doing, even if it looks like it’s working for them.

Instead, try making your booth unique and appealing. If everyone else has neon lights and bright colors, go for something darker yet intriguing. This might be tough since trying to put something together at the last minute is a very bad idea, so it’s hard to react to what other booths near yours are doing. Use your brain and come up with designs, shapes, and colors that you think no one else will also try pulling off.

3. Make Your Booth Approachable

Your game should of course be the biggest reason why anyone approaches your booth. However, there are small things you can do to entice walker byers to spend time in your “area.” The longer they hang around there, the more likely they are to finally pick up your controller and play the game you’ve worked so hard on.

Indiecade exhibitors lounge in a booth

One small tip is to have some kind of seats, even if they’re metal folding chairs that no one finds comfortable. But to someone who’s been walking around for several hours, they’ll look very inviting. Sometimes it’s also a turn-off seeing a dev standing next to their setup with the same “please try it” look as the people giving samples at Costco. There are those who like talking to devs, but some people will only approach a game if they don’t think someone’s going to distract them by talking.

4. Prepare for Problems and Exhaustion

We touched on this before on our last five tips. Exhibiting at shows means staying active for more hours in a row than you’re probably used to. This means you need to make sure you get plenty of rest when the doors are closed and stay well nourished during the event. Bring snacks you can munch on whenever you get the chance, such as when there’s a big event elsewhere and so there aren’t a lot of people in your area.

It also helps to go in knowing that something can (and probably will) go wrong. This way, you won’t panic when a disastrous bug that renders your game playless pops up precisely when you have a line of people waiting to play. If you stay calm and tackle one issue at a time, you’ll eventually sort things out and get back to demonstrating your game.

5. Set Up An Event Or Two

The truth is, video game trade shows often boil down to a competition for attention. Perhaps this is why Nintendo has reduced their presence at E3 each year and instead focused on their own Nintendo Direct presentations. To get people to look your booth’s way and not the one nearby, setting up fun events might do the trick.

cosplay contest at convention

Since people love free stuff, frequently contests where the winner gets swag. This can include your game, such as seeing who can get the highest score out of X amount of participants, or something random and silly like a pie-eating competition or who can twirl a hula hoop the longest. People show up cosplaying so you can even set up a cosplay contest. The goal is to capture their attention and hopefully engrave your game’s name in their minds.

How To Become A Game Artist

Batmobile from Arkham Asylum

Do you fancy yourself creating the virtual worlds where players explore and get lost in? The job of Game Artist is becoming more and more sought after, and it’s no surprise. You get to work with a team of designers to bring ideas to life, whether that be 3D or 2D. Maybe it’s all the same to you just as long as you can help create games for a living.

Below are a number of things you should make a list if you want to become a Game Artist. The more you can check off, the more likely you are to make it:

1. Actually Enjoy Drawing

To be a game artist you may be required to draw— a lot. While this may seem obvious, it’s not hard to find someone who enjoys drawing a sketch or two a week, or maybe even a quick drawing every day. But show us someone who almost always spends their free time drawing and I’ll show you a Game Artist ready to one day help make something great.

And while it’s possible to become a 3D modeler or art software expert without being good at drawing, having that skill does make you more versatile. Being able to draw your idea before spending time creating it in a 3D graphics program is a big plus. A game artist that can draw is usually more flexible and creative, which is what every studio wants in their team.

2. Learn The Software

Drawing skills are great but they’ll only get you so far in today’s gaming industry. Even a sketch artist makes use of different photo editing programs to sharpen up their work. If you see yourself as a 2D artist, the latest softwares like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator should definitely be in your repertoire of skills.

Game artist at work

If you fancy yourself a 3D artist instead, there are a number of programs you should be familiar with. Autodesk Maya is one of the more popular 3D programs that is used used by big developers like Naughty Dog and Quantic Dream. 3DS Max is also a common one.

3. Know What You’re Good At

The term “game artist” is very general and unspecific. When you look at the credits of most games, you may not even see it used. Instead, you’ll see things like Character Animator, Character Artist, and Marketing Artist. Unless you’re a part of a small indie team, chances are you’ll be hired to work on a specific area of the game.

So the sooner you learn where your strength lies, the better. Are you good at sketching things just based off of words and ideas? Maybe the role of Concept Artist is for you. Someone who prefers working on the game world may find an interest in a career as an Environmental Artist or even Level Designer. Other common ones are User INterface Artist, FX Animator, and Art Director.

How To Sabotage Your Game’s International Chances

Yokai Watch gameboy DS game cover

The game industry is more competitive than ever, enough that finding success in any one country is hugely challenging. Imagine then trying to create a title that is popular in multiple countries at the same time. While luck is always a factor, global success isn’t going to happen unless you prepare.

The following are oversights that 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 territories. The most obvious reason for this is language. Your English-only game won’t have much success in China or Brazil or France if the people in those countries can’t read the text. But what many fail to realize is that merely translating to additional languages is only part of the process.

Localization also requires an understanding of the respective territory’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 acceptable in specific countries.

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

It only takes one look at the highest selling games of a territory to see how different each culture 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. In contrast, Americans favored console games like Batman: Arkham Knight, Call of Duty: Black Ops III, and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

Players with Nintendo DS machines

By studying a specific country’s culture 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’s 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,however,that same person sees a $5 game on the App Store and thinks “too expensive” and instead opts for a free 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 selling a game in a country where the average wage is less than that of US. That game’s US monetization model isn’t guaranteed to work in every country it is released on. Maximize your chances of success by studying the prices of games in other cultures, including cash shop pricing in free-to-play titles.

Mistake #4: Starting the Localization Process Late

As mentioned, localization is more than just translating text. There are also art and sound assets such as currency symbols and voice-over dialogue that may need to be changed. Starting too late may require expensive re-engineering to accommodate the new files.

Japanese game cover

Developers who plan properly code their games do so with localization in mind. In doing so, the process goes more smoothly and takes less time, especially if you plan on releasing in more than two territories. You’ll also avoid bugs that may rear their ugly heads when code is altered in a hurry.

How To Design The Best Boss Battles: 4 Must-Read Tips

Young girl and soldier in game screenshot

Boss battles are arguably one of the most exciting things about video games. Ask the average gamer what their favorite boss battles are and they’ll most likely smile while recalling the first time they faced them. In case you are not familiar with the term, the “boss” is typically the super difficult character you face at the end of a level or sequence of levels. Bosses have been around since even the earliest video games and show no sign of disappearing any time soon.

But just like we can all think of great bosses, we’ve all also encountered terrible ones that were either boring, too easy, or felt impossible to beat. That is why we’ve shared four things to consider while designing your own bosses so players always remember the moment they first got clobbered by them.

1. Make The Build-Up Memorable

Have you ever noticed how in most sports you’re getting excited before the match or fight even begins? Whether it’s ‘fake’ like WWE or a huge boxing match, there’s promotion going on to make the contenders seem bigger and better. The same is done with a good boss fight. This is usually done with a cutscene that demonstrates how dangerous and powerful the boss is, but it can also be through dialog from characters or text logs seen beforehand.

For the perfect example, consider the last fight in one of the best Action Adventure games ever madeThe Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. The player is forced up a long stairway as ominous organ music plays before encountering Ganondorf himself. As he plays, a helpless Zelda can seen floating above him. Ganondorf then floats into the air and pounds the ground, almost destroying the floor entirely and setting up the arena.

2. Make Bosses That Prepare Players For Future Challenges

The first minutes of Batman: Arkham Asylum are pretty straightforward. Players learn basic moves like how to attack enemies, counter their attacks, throw a Batarang, etc. But when Batman encounters what are called Deformed Titans for the first time, players quickly realize that the same routine isn’t going to work.

Batman punches Joker
The Deformed Titan teaches players that sometimes the best thing to do is simply dodge, then quickly jump in to attack. The fastest way to defeat it is by making it run into an electric force field, showing players that their environment will play a big part in getting through the game successfully.

3. Make Bosses That Enrich The Story And World

The coolest bosses are always the ones that play an important part in the story. Usually this involves squaring off with the main antagonist at the very end of the game. For example, it’s always exciting encountering Ridley in a Metroid game since you know he’s served as Samus’ biggest rival during her bounty hunting career.

Story aside, bosses can also make the world more captivating and believable. Who could forget the first time they made the mistake of attacking a Big Daddy in Bioshock, only to get pummeled to death? Despite having mowed down plenty of Splicers, players realize they aren’t’ the only force to be reckoned with in Rapture.

4. Make Sure Each Boss Actually Tests Certain Skills

Usually the first boss you face is merely meant to make sure the player has learned all the basic controls and understands the game. If it’s an RPG, the player might learn how to attack, defend, use items, or that elements play a big role. In an Action-Adventure or First-Person Shooter, players will learn the importance of avoiding damage while moving in or aiming to hit weak points.

Super Mario RPG screenshot

Of course, this isn’t enough for future bosses. Later ones should force players to use a new item or ability they recently obtained in order to succeed. Otherwise, players will find the game boring from lack of challenge. In Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, players fighting Croco will have a rough time if they don’t give Mallow the healer role and stick with Mario’s Fire Orb attack. This fight also teaches players to always have a healthy stock of items (Honey Syrups in this case) and to level up their characters so they can unlock new abilities.

How To Write A Compelling Game Story In Three Steps

Marston from Red Dead Redemption

More people are realizing just how powerful video games are as a storytelling tool. Movies are fine and books are great too, but there’s just something about jumping into an interactive world where you can choose who to talk to and explore wherever your heart desires— within the limits of the game, of course.

Whether you’re playing a two-decade old role-playing title like Chrono Trigger or an atmospheric 3D first-person shooter like Bioshock, a story can sometimes be the reason you fall in love with a game. The following are some of the main ingredients you want to think hard on when developing your own video game, especially if you’d like players to be impacted by its narrative.

The Characters

“It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.” ― William Faulkner

First, and arguably most important, is the characters; especially the one who your player will be taking the role of throughout the adventure. Characters that players can relate to are the ones that act human, even if they’re actually a robot, fantastical creature, or something else familiar. Unless they have a backstory, strengths, weaknesses, and genuine intentions, your characters will feel fake and uninteresting.

 

Scene from Uncharted 4

When building a character, start by settling on an idea of where they come from. Were they born to the king of a powerful kingdom or a humble father barely surviving by tilling the land? From there, come up with their personality, their skills, and what they look like. Even a life-changing event that occurred prior to the game’s story can help shape who your character/s are.

The World

Focus on building worlds where you’d like to spend time, no matter who you are in the game. When franchises don’t succeed is because the focus is too narrow from the outset, too singular. I think Halo from the very beginning was an IP where you could tell any story you wanted.” — Joseph Staten

Next up is deciding what the world of your game will be. The world is obviously very important to the story since it will determine what the player will encounter. Since this step can sometimes feel overwhelming, it’s a good idea to separate your world into different pieces and them put them together.

For example, after deciding on a time and setting, think about what cities/villages exist and who live there. Are there nations or kingdoms present? And if so, are they at war? Why? Thinking about what technologies exist can also help you come up with cool story events and even gameplay mechanics. Note that it might not be until you’re world-building that you really start fleshing out your characters.

The Main Conflict

The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Almost every good story, whether it be from a book, film, or game, pushes an overarching conflict. Without it, the characters would have nothing to fight for or have no need to develop. This is especially important in video games since most of them have enemies you must defeat. But if the “enemy” or problem the character is facing isn’t interesting, you’ll have a hard time captivating players with your story.

Carmine from Gears of War 3

In JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, a book/film trilogy you’re probably familiar with, the main conflict is the struggle to destroy the Ring while making sure Sauron doesn’t obtain it. The characters face Black Riders, Saruman’s army, and even themselves (Boromir failed) to make sure they overcome the conflict. If you can write a main problem for your story that has players caring about the characters and world, you’re on the right path.

Learn the skills you need to succeed as a game designer at the Game Design School at the New York Film Academy by clicking here.

How To Write Dialogue For Games Worth Reading

Chrono Trigger character dialogue

If there’s one skill everyone thinks they have, it’s creative writing. The programmers coding the game and artists bringing ideas to life have no trouble getting respect, but the art of storytelling is one that’s not seen as challenging. Of course, we’ve all played more than one game where the storyline and dialogue was so cringe-worthy that you found yourself skipping it all.

It’s usually the games developed with the help of skilled writers that stay in our mind the longest. Bioshock, The Last of Us, and Telltale’s The Walking Dead are only a few of the many beloved titles with conversations that helped captivate players into their rich worlds.

If you’re an aspiring game writer tasked with crafting dialogue for a game, consider the following tips. Learning how to write dialogue that actually helps make the story and characters more interesting for the player instead of boring and/or annoying them is a key in creating memorable games.

Give The Regular NPCs Character

Most writers will go all out when it comes to the main characters of the game. Plenty of time is spent on conversations between the player-character and his arch-nemesis or party members during an important scene, and that’s OK. The problem is when every non-playable character feels like they can be swapped with the next and nothing will change.

NPCs (non-player characters) play a big part in making the game’s story meaningful, but the ones with little character of their own will result in a boring world that players have trouble getting sucked into. This is especially true when quest-givers lack any personality whatsoever, which means the player will find the quest boring before they’ve even started it.

Super Mario RPG dialogue with Mario and Toadstool

Do you have an NPC that wants the player to collect 10 apples from an enemy-filled orchard? Give him or her a cowardly persona so at least you know why he or she won’t do it. Or make him or her sound cautious and sneaky to imply that he or she is asking you to steal the apples without you knowing. Small injections of character can go a long way and can even make an OK quest sound exciting.

Try Keeping It Short And Sweet

One of the best books every aspiring game writer should read is On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft written by the legendary Stephen King. In a section called “Imagery and the Third Eye,” King offers a valuable piece of advice for those who feel the need to overwhelm readers with words:

Too many beginning writers feel that they have to assume the entire burden of imagery; to become the reader’s seeing eye dog. That is simply not the case. Use vivid verbs. Avoid the passive voice. Avoid the cliche. Be specific. Be precise. Be elegant. Omit needless words.“

 

When it comes to game dialogue, you’re very likely to lose the player if all your lines are long. It’s normal to feel like you need to say more in order to create interesting characters and quests. However, this can all be done by omitting “needless words” and chopping down as many useless words as possible while still keeping the important information. Even if every line is gold, players want to jump back into the action as soon as possible and will skip it if it goes on too long.

Make The Backstories And Lore Optional

Dead Space text box

Lore is easily one of the best tools for making your game’s world feel more real and alive. Learning about events that took place in the past and the history of races and kingdoms is awesome, but only when the player actually cares. The fact is, many players could care less about anything outside of the main story.

This is why it’s important to keep lore out of dialogue as much as you can, unless it’s during an optional side quest. Even then, there’s a reason why most games have collectible codex and info logs that players can open up and read if they so choose. Players don’t want every character they speak with to feel like a history lesson.

Learn the skills you need to succeed as a game designer at the Game Design School at the New York Film Academy by clicking here.

Tips For Keeping Gamers Challenged But Not Overwhelmed

Bloodborn screenshot

Difficulty has always been an interesting subject when talking about video games. Some people have no problem playing a single-player campaign on Easy or Normal mode. A lighter challenge they can enjoy the game’s’ storyline and world without running into a barrier or getting slowed down by the gameplay. Others, however, cannot gain satisfaction from a game if it doesn’t test their skills and push them to get better and better.

This is the reason gamers today still have respect for classic titles like Super Metroid, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, and Battletoads. In fact, some of the most popular titles today are admired for being more difficult than the average game. This includes big-budget titles like the Dark Souls series and Bloodborne as well as indie favorites like Super Meat Boy, Cave Story, and Braid.

But for all these “hard” games that became successful, there were plenty that did the one thing that should never be done— frustrate the player into submission. The problem that every designer faces is finding a balance of difficulty that leaves the gameplay demanding yet rewarding. The following are a few ways you can avoid over-punishing your players to the point where they’re no longer having fun.

Frequent Save Points

There’s nothing more intense than working through a tough room or fighting a boss while knowing full well that if you die, you’re restarting pretty far back. While this can help suck you into the game even more, it can also serve to annoy players since they’ll have to repeatedly do the same thing over and over if they keep dying.

Samus in tube in Super Metroid 7

But with enough save points, players don’t have to facepalm every time this happens. The best part about saving is that it’s usually optional (unless you have an auto-saving feature), which means players who think they’re good enough can skip it. The ones who don’t want to spend time traversing a tortuous corridor just to reach the boss that keeps killing them don’t have to because there’s save point just outside the room.

Let Players Keep Things After Death

For some gamers, losing tons of times is all part of the process and not a waste of time at all. Each death helps them figure out what they’re doing wrong, bringing them one step closer to adapting and overcoming the challenge. For other players this isn’t enough.

They hate the idea of losing anything they earned. For example, you gain a bunch of experience points exploring a dungeon but then suffer a dumb, careless death and lose it all. It can get annoying never feeling like you’re progressing or advancing your character. Thus it might not be a bad idea allowing players to hold on to items, currency, etc. even after they die.

Don’t Slow Them Down

If there’s one thing all of us gamers have in common, it’s the urgent desire to jump back in after failure. We recognize our defeat and are ready to try another option that may be the key to overcoming the current obstacle blocking our way. The sooner we get back into it and see if we learned from our mistake, the better. It’s the reason why long tutorials are frowned upon; we just want to play!

Learn the skills you need to succeed as a game designer at the Game Design School at the New York Film Academy by clicking here.