Game Design

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.

 

On Game Literacy

By Andrew Ashcraft, NYFA Game Design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The 5 Ingredients of Successful Games and VR Experiences

By Felipe Lara, NYFA Game Design

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Image by Felipe Lara

What makes a game successful? The answer depends on your goals. Sometimes it is revenue, sometimes it is number of downloads, impact on your players, etc. However, focusing on these outcomes is usually not very helpful as a developer. It is much more helpful to define success in terms of engagement, because engagement can be linked directly to the kinds of decisions we need to make during development.

In a previous article (link to “A Roadmap…” article) we talked about how engagement follows a 4-step sequence: stand out, connect, engage, and grow. The next layer is to figure out which ingredients in a game can help you do that. In this article, we’ll look at five ingredients that will help your game or VR experience become more engaging in the long-term.

Your Ingredients

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Image by Felipe Lara

In the many years I spent developing MMOs for casual gamers (kids and families), I saw how there are four basic elements that can be combined very effectively to get the attention of players and make them want to 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

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.

Power Up With a Theme

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Image by Felipe Lara

What I’ve noticed through the years is that games are much more powerful and effective at engaging players when all the elements mentioned above (art, mechanics, story, and community) work together and reinforce each other.

Having a strong theme will help tie together the elements of your game and will make it much easier to connect emotionally with your players. But for a theme to do that, you need to have the right understanding of what a theme is.

Theme is not topic. Saying you want to do a pirate game is not enough. There are many different potential approaches to a pirate game: is it about gathering treasure? Is it about fighting the law? Is it about ship battles?

Theme is not about a conflict, either. Defining your theme as the conflict between pirates and the Spanish Armada is not enough. You need to pick a side, you need to have an opinion about the topic or conflict you are talking about, for example, “A pirate’s life is a wonderful life, because it is more free and exciting.”

When you state your theme as a clear point of view you get a much clearer idea of what you need from your mechanics and story. In this case, the elements would all need to revolve around the excitement of being a pirate and feeling free of responsibilities and commitments.

In his book “The Art of Game Design,” Jesse Schell relates an example from when we worked on a pirate’s virtual reality ride for Walt Disney Imagineering and DisneyQuest. In his book, he writes that as soon as they nailed down a theme for the ride, many of the design decisions about art style, game mechanics, story, and even technology became clear. As a result of clarifying the theme, all these ingredients ended up supporting each other to create a much more powerful and award-winning VR experience.

Conclusion

There are five ingredients that combine to help your game become much more engaging and successful: art, mechanics, story, community, and theme. When you put these ingredients together in a game or VR 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, and a theme that ties it all together and connects to points of view with which your target audience can resonate — you get a much more engaging experience, and your chances of success grow exponentially.

Ready to learn more about virtual reality and game design? Check out NYFA’s VR programs and 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

Analysis: the Advancement of CGI in Video Games

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

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

The Early Days

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

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

The Sprite Era

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

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

The 3D Takeover Unfolds

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

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

The Modern Age

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

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



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

 

Women to Know in the Gaming Industry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watch this video, “The Many Voices of Jennifer Hale in Video Games.” (She has quite the range!)

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

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

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

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

What is Virtual Reality (VR)?

First things first: virtual reality is a communication medium, not a technology.

Technologically speaking, there are three variants: virtual, augmented, and mixed. These exist on a spectrum of RL integration, or we can call it degrees of immersion.

  • VR refers to full immersion, entirely computer-mediated content presented in total isolation through a headset and optional headphones (although social exists through embodied avatars). Think Fruit Ninja VR and Oculus Rooms.
  • AR refers to complementary immersion — a screen projects computer-mediated information into the real world, where users can synthesize and contextualize the screen-based content. Think Pokemon Go and Google Maps.
  • MR uses light, projected into the eye via mirrors (HoloLens) or prisms (Magic Leap’s rumored approach), to present content that is completely integrated into RL, even interacting with/responding to the environment and actions of the user.

The future will likely see more points of RL+CG integration and synthesis, so I refer to the medium as “MAVR” when talking about aspects that are true across all the tech.

As a communications medium, it’s important to put the technological advancements of MAVR into context: this is a tool for sharing ideas, experiences, and information. Just like paint, print, photography, and film, it has limitless uses and applications.

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The early 21st century has seen the medium of video reach true saturation. We don’t even notice that we’re using it, and that’s what makes it a tool rather than a technology, or a novelty. And it’s no accident that along the path from flat screen ubiquity to the novelty of immersion (surround-screen? no screen?) is just a hop, skip, and a jump, technologically speaking. It’s just wrapping screens around your head or projecting the light directly into your eye, thereby forgoing the screen entirely. Once you know how to direct the light, it’s only a matter of where you put the projector

So here we are, back in Plato’s Cave, just seeing the silhouettes of the visual spectrum through a new medium. It’s an exciting time ripe with possibility. But understanding it and using it require us as creators to redefine our relationship to our audience, and learn some 21st century skills.

First, you have to understand experience design. There are a bunch of complicated ways to explain what that is, but I’ll put it to you the way it was put to me: Ever been to a city park? Everywhere through the park there are paths — concrete, asphalt, brick, what have you — designed to take you the scenic route. Crossing over and around those paths you see dirt tracks that cut right through the grass. Those are the user-created paths, and your job as an experience designer is to anticipate the use and put the paths where they are most useful (and beautiful — never underestimate the importance of beauty).

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The second characteristic you have to understand about immersive design is framing. Though headsets limit the area you can see in any momentary gaze (just like your eyeballs do, but with a slightly smaller periphery), the “camera POV” no longer dominates. You’re surrounded, not compelled to look at a rectangle of information dictated by the director/designer. So, if you’re telling a story, the whole world is “on stage.” Very Shakespearean.

As a user, the most relevant feature of MAVR is agency. Video game designers understand this, because even though your designs only create the illusion of choice, you are rightly vilified if those choices are merely superficial masks for a golden path. But even when we’re not talking about entertainment apps, you still need to make room for the user who will co-create a personal experience. Whether you’re learning anatomy or meditating with Tron fish underwater or overcoming post traumatic stress, no one user will follow the exact same paths as any other. A whole new vocabulary of symbols, gestures, and space is being formulated to move creators beyond the limits of the frame.

Once you establish a conceptual foundation from these concepts, you can start focusing on execution. You will definitely need a computer, so building a foundation in programming, 3D modeling & animation, VFX, post-production, and 360 sound design (all rapidly evolving, complementary skill-sets), is a good start. You can try out 360 video, and experiment with cuts and transitions to move through time and space. But you may also want to make that live footage interactive, so you’ll need to learn compositing and utilize a game engine or webVR app to add those trigger points. And while we’re talking webVR, just wait until you can surf through a 3D internet (yes, it is just like Johnny Mnemonic and The Matrix … what does Keanu know that we don’t?)! Not happy with the design of the headsets, headphones, hand-held controllers, and other wearables? Look into AI, robotics, mechanical engineering, networking, human-computer interaction, product design, and software development.

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Career-wise, you can take one of two VR paths: technical or conceptual. Technicians will be the ones to build the content and solve the usability problems that will evolve into the same universal saturation for immersive content that we discussed with respect to flat screen media at the beginning of this article. Concept people will be the creative directors and storytellers of the immersive age.

The immersive age is upon us, how will you shape it? NYFA has programs in Game Design, 3D Animation & VFX, VR Filmmaking, Interactive VR, and VR Game Design. Choose your path.

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

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

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

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

It’s an interesting question.

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

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

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

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

Preserving a Fading Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

Identifying Trends for Art and Profit

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the holy grail right there.

Ready to learn more about Game Design? Check out our Game Design programs at New York Film Academy.

 

How Virtual Reality Might Impact the Future of Game Design

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

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

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

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

So, what are the possibilities for VR games?

Traditional Games Will be More Immersive

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

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

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

More Focus On Atmospheric Gameplay

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

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

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

New Gameplay Styles

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

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

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

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

What do you hope to see in the future of VR games? Let us know in the comments below! Learn more about Game Design and VR at the New York Film Academy.

No Man’s Sky Review: An Emotional Roller Coaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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That Minecraft Feeling

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

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

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

This leads to…

Utter Confusion

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

Who knows. Certainly not you.

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

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

Abject Wonder

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

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

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

… right after you fix this stupid spaceship.

Boredom

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

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

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

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

Annoyance

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

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

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

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Once that ship is up and running, however …

Mind-Blown.

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

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

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

No Man’s Sky: Closing Thoughts

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

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

This is probably going to change everything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Innovation and Accessibility

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

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

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

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2. Provenance… and even more accessibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Adults are Playing It

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

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

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

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It’s self-perpetuating marketing, and moreover…

4. The Marketing Does Itself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

P5

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

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

… in the mean time, happy hunting!

 

Breaking Into the Industry Design Program Vs Job As Game Tester

game design

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.

game testers

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.

Learning From The Best: RPGs

One of the most beloved genres in gaming continues to be the role-playing game (RPG). It’s in these games that we often truly feel like we are in the shoes of the characters as they explore different lands, face titanic enemies, and befriend others throughout their adventure. It’s the feeling of helping to shape the world by completing quests, defeating bosses, and progressing through the main story that has always engrossed us.

We can all think of an RPG that in our opinion serves as the perfect embodiment of a certain element that makes this genre so captivating. Below are a few of our own choices along with what any aspiring RPG developer can take from these superb titles:

1. Have a Meaningful Story and Characters

Even though there are plenty of RPGs that are known for their gameplay, it’s often the charming stories that draw us in. We fall in love with a good RPG narrative after spending several dozen hours with a group of characters as they overcome challenges, form special bonds, and perhaps even suffer unexpected fates. When it comes to characters and story, it’s hard not to bring up the Final Fantasy series.

Almost every title in the main series has boasted its own cast of interesting characters that must prevent a certain evil from destroying the world. Even if the plots sound the same, titles like FF6 and FF7 feel like entirely different experiences thanks to the unique characters, great protagonists they face, and more. Unless you’re able to yourself, there’s no other genre we recommend more that you find yourself a talented writer.

2. Go For Something Inventive

Considering how many RPGs release each year, your best bet at having yours stand out from the crowd is by having it deliver something that feels new. We know this is easier said than done, but we’re willing to assume that if a gamer has just dropped 40+ hours on a turn-based RPG with practically the same gameplay as yours, they may not be as interested. You don’t have to completely change the genre, but your RPG should have a gameplay twist of some kind that makes it feel fresh and exciting.

There’s no better example than the original Pokemon Red and Blue titles. Despite having the same turn-based combat and random battle encounters as other RPGs, these games started a revolution by offering 151 different Pokemon to catch and train. By also pushing the idea of trading with others, Game Freak created a franchise that to this day remains for the most part unchanged in terms of gameplay but still continues selling like crazy across the globe.

3. Give Players A World to Get Lost In

Even if your RPG boasts great characters and fun gameplay, having a dull world to explore may just be the reason why many will be turned off. If there’s anything we have learned in the industry when it comes to some of the more recent RPGs, it’s that gamers love traversing massive worlds in hopes of encountering new quests, hidden treasures, exotic towns, dangerous dungeons, and more.

Two fantastic titles come to mind when thinking about worlds that immediately entice players: Fallout 3 and The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. Despite being very different games in terms of setting, Bethesda Softworks was able to have both; offer fascinating worlds by sprinkling notable characters, moving quests, and interesting places to check out. At every corner we felt like the digital world in these titles were alive and connected.

4. Why Not All of The Above?

This is the part where we take the opportunity to mention why Chrono Trigger is a must-play for anyone who ever plans on designing their own role-playing game. There are countless amazing titles that released in the 90s, but very few have stood the test of time the way that Crono’s time-traveling adventure has. Spearheaded by some of the most creative minds in the industry at the time, this game perfectly embodies everything you should want in your own RPG.

From fantastic gameplay, an engrossing world, and memorable story, to the multiple endings, meaningful side-quests, and emotional dramatic moments, this legendary title was nothing short of groundbreaking when it released. We’re confident that those who have tried capturing the same magic of Chrono Trigger, whether they succeeded or not, were inspired to make an excellent RPG.

Want to design and develop video games? Learn more about the School of Game Design at the New York Film Academy. Campuses in New York and Los Angeles.

How to Make a Game Without Coding: 5 Game Engines That Don’t Require Programming Knowledge

It’s no secret that making a computer game usually requires a solid understanding of computer programming—they are “computer games,” after all. Unfortunately not all of us have a knack for programming, no matter how hard we’ve tried, which has led us to believe that we’ll never be able to make a game on our own.

Although these can’t truly replace the flexibility and offerings of computer programming, here are a few tools that could help you make simple games without the need to learn a language.

You probably won’t make the next triple-A RPG or FPS with these programs, but they’re perfect for those looking to prepare for a game jam, make a small indie game, or just play around.

GameMaker: Studio

GameMaker is probably the most popular game creation tool, and for good reason.

The drag-and-drop options and other easy features allow anyone who has never programmed in their life to make a game. Despite the simplicity, it’s still possible to make good games as evident by the fact that Hotline Miami and Spelunky, two popular indie games, saw their first version made on GameMaker.

The best part is that GameMaker does come with a built-in scripting language that allows people with some programming experience to do more with the tool. This makes GameMaker perfect for those looking to get familiar with a game creation program in hopes that they can continue learning more and not run into the limitations of other programs.

Currently YoYoGames offers three versions of GameMaker. The first is a FREE version, which is only good for trying out the system. If you want to get serious about making a game with GameMaker, the $50 Professional version is what you should get as it offers a lot more tools. Seemingly overpriced, the $800 Master Collection version offers everything YoYoGames has to offer, including the ability to export to current-gen games.

Adventure Game Studio

Aimed at developers with more experience than beginners, Adventure Game Studio lets you make point-and-click or keyboard-controlled adventure games like the Monkey Island series.

A few recent indie titles that saw success used this tool, including Wadjet Eye Games’ Gemini Rue and Blackwell series.

Even if you’re just starting out, Adventure Game Studio is still pretty easy to use as your first game making software. The editor used is a Windows-based IDE that lets you do just about anything fast and easy, including writing game scripts, importing graphics, and so on.

Adventure Game Studio is completely free to download and even offers plenty of resources such as templates, fonts, backgrounds, characters, etc.

Unity

Perhaps none of the tools on this page have seen as much growth in use and popularity as Unity.

Unity not only supports an incredible library of platforms, but it also comes with its own built-in IDE. It is also used to make both 3D and 2D games and boasts a massive store of assets and resources.

Many high-profile game developers like Obsidian Entertainment (Pillars of Eternity) and inXile Entertainment (Wasteland 2) have started using Unity. Several successful indie devs like Facepunch Studios (Rust) and Press Play (Max: The Curse of Brotherhood) have also jumped on board.

The good news is that Unity is completely free. However, if you make more than $100K a year then you must purchase the Unity Pro license for $1,500, which does offer a few extra features. No big deal if you’re making that kind of money though, right?

RPG Maker

Remember that awesome RPG adventure idea you’ve had for years now? The one with cool locations, memorable characters, and a story players will never forget? You can finally make it happen with RPG Maker; the best tool that, for years, has helped developers make simple RPG games.

It has everything you’d want from a game creation tool: easy-to-use interface, tons of tile sets to use, and systems that take care of all the numerical elements that come with an RPG game. Plenty of features have also been implemented over the years that make this tool very powerful, which means you won’t feel limited despite a lack of coding knowledge.

There are currently several versions of this tool available, with RPG Maker VX ACE being the latest and costing $59.99. Fortunately each version offers a free trial so you can check it out before considering a purchase.

GameSalad

GameSalad is similar to GameMaker in that it allows you to make and publish games on several platforms, as well as having its own intuitive drag-and-drop interface that’s easy for anyone to use.

Most impressive is the behavior library which allows developers to implement complex behaviors that someone without coding knowledge would have a hard time executing if they had to use a computer language.

Thousands of games have already been made via GameSalad, and most of them have seen success in the mobile market. GameSalad Creator is currently available for free while a $300 PRO version offers some additional benefits.

Ready to learn more about game design? Check out NYFA’s Game Design School to begin your journey with the world’s most hands-on, intensive programs.

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Getting Your Game Noticed: What Smart Game Developers Do

Author: Chris Swain, Chair, Game Design Department, New York Film Academy

Getting Your Game Noticed

There are literally hundreds of thousands of great games available via digital download to gamers today. They are available through the app stores, Steam, Xbox, PS4 – even the handhelds.

These days, getting your game noticed is almost as hard as making your game in the first place. Given this environment of extreme abundance, there are basically two ways game projects can succeed – both require you to differentiate or die.

Option 1: Blow Them Away With Production Values

This means take a genre of game that works – such as first person shooter – and make the world’s best version of it.

This is the strategy followed by giant publishers who have the know-how, brand, and budget to create world class production values. Examples include the Call of Duty series, Grand Theft Auto series, and Zelda series.

If you are a beginner, I don’t recommend trying to compete in this category. Rather fight the fight on your terms you control via Option 2.

Option 2: Blow Them Away With Gameplay Innovation

This means consciously do not start with a known genre of game. Start by creating a type of game play that no one has seen before.

The beauty of innovating via gameplay is that it does not cost anything in dollars. That is free. And once you have figured out a new playable system you don’t have to build a large amount of content nor execute at GTA-level production values in order to attract an audience. Early adopters will come because of the new mechanics and spread the word for you.

Examples include: Narbular Drop (which was created by college students and became Portal), Flow (which was created by college students and became the hit on Playstation 3 that launched thatgamecompany), and Threes (created by a college student and took the App Store and Google Play by storm).

The bottom line is that to win in games today you have to get noticed. Getting noticed means differentiating from an extreme number of competitors. For beginners, the smart route is to differentiate via game play versus production values.

 

Image Source: Flazingo Photos

How To Break Into The Game Industry In Three Basic Steps

Author: Chris Swain, Chair, Game Design Department, New York Film Academy

Break Into the Game Industry

First, the good news: the game industry continues to grow as more and more people turn to interactive entertainment on their phones, tablets, handhelds, consoles, and PCs. The top grossing category in the Apple App Store and Google App Store is games. All this means that demand for talented and passionate game designers is as high as ever.

Now the not so good news: Lots of people want those dream jobs. There are a handful of best practices that differentiate the people who break in and those who don’t.

Best Practice: Portfolio

The number one thing that will help you break into the game industry is proof that you can build good games. To do that, first make a personal website at yourname.com. Next, start posting your projects to your site.

With portfolio sites ‘more is more’. That means post your pictures of your paper prototypes, links to your mods, design notes, concept art, and anything else that shows that you are a real builder.

Pro tip 1: Playable games count much more than concepts. If you can make your game play in the browser (versus as an EXE) more people will actually play it. Likewise, providing game play videos of your projects will make it easy for prospective hires to see your work.

Pro tip 2: The people who want to hire you are really busy and won’t play more than a few minutes of any one of your games. That means it is better to make a variety of short games than one long game.

Best Practice: Network

Starting right after you read this post start a LinkedIn profile. Then, add your portfolio site to it. It’s okay if you don’t have much work in it at first. Networking takes time.

Next, join a number of LinkedIn game groups and become an active participant.

Finally, go to Meetups, IGDA events, game conferences, and any other events where game developers congregate. If those things don’t exist in your town then start your own Meetup. If you can’t afford to get into a conference then a) contact the organizers about being a volunteer conference associate and/or b) lobby crash.

Even getting a gig as a volunteer takes time and is competitive, so look at the calendar of events for the coming year and start contacting people now. “Lobby crash” means hanging out in the lobby and talking to people. You will find out about parties and events.

Pro tip 1: Get business cards printed that include the URL to your portfolio site. Do not get cheap paper. High quality cards are available at low cost these days from online printers. It’s economical to order small runs of cards – e.g. a box of 100 at a time. Check out Moo.com, 4over4.com, and Overnightprints.com for prices and design templates.

Pro tip 2: Every time you meet a game developer give her a business card and follow up with a LinkedIn request. I mean every single time. In short order you will have a legit network that you can call on for job recommendations, informational interviews, internships, etc.

Best Practice: Hard Skills

The fact is people with hard computer skills have an easier time getting jobs than those who don’t. Examples of hard skills are Adobe Tools, programming languages, SCRUM master certifications, etc.

The reason is that when companies are hiring for entry level jobs they want you to help them execute on their vision for a game. Much later – once you are established in a company – you can be the one that comes up with the vision. In the meantime, being able to show that you have hard skills – on your portfolio site – will differentiate you from the competition.

 

Image Source: H.Adam