An email got me to thinkin…
There isn’t much good deconstruction of games out there. That is, someone who really knows how to make games trying to break down a game in a way that’s useful for themselves and for those looking to make better games. I’m pretty green on the subject, but I’m always interested when I come across a new way of looking at games that might be useful. What are your angles of attack for deconstruction? Some stuff I’ve seen that I think has merit:
Granularity (heard it first from Will W. – not really sure where it came from originally) Breaking the game down by various recurring time periods (heard this idea or a variation called loops as well.) What does the player do, what are they thinking about, and what are their goals at various increments – every 1 second, every 5 seconds, 10, 30, minute, 5 minutes, 20 minutes, hour, and so on. One example is from an FPS like Half-Life (via Matthew’s original IGDA talk:)
Fire the rocket launcher
Predictive aim the rocket launcher at helicopter
Take cover between shots as helicopter circles
Destroy the helicopter to cross the bridge
Find control room
Deactivate air defensives so friendly transport can land
Escape the compound
The Valve folks actually mentioned having a process like this in their Game Developer postmortem…they said they’d played through the game over and over again to make sure that the player would never go more than a minute without finding some puzzle, enemy, or item. Anyhow, I’ve found this useful for taking a game that’s mostly completed and looking for the area that could most benefit from extra love. If a game sucks at the lowest granule (bad feel, usability issues etc…) that’s really easy to see, and so is suckage at the largest granule (poorly written story, long-term balance issues.) But in the middle there are some great opportunities to pull stuff out and examine it, find out what’s going right and wrong and maybe change it for the better.
Reward Schedules. This is a sort of interesting idea, and one that gets applied a LOT when designing MMOs and other mass-market games. I feel a bit weird about it, like dirty or something, but it can’t be denied that when you understand the way that people respond to a given stimulus you can manipulate their perceptions and actions. Gamasutra article that goes into various reward schedules, if you haven’t read it: http://www.gamasutra.com/features/20010427/hopson_01.htm. I’ve found this useful for examining why people do what they do at particular moments in a game, especially with respect to when they stop playing entirely.
Flow Breakers. Frustration or boredom, yeah? I think it’s super interesting to look at a game with an eye for flow. The only way you can measure flow is by noticing when it’s broken. By definition, if you’re thinking to yourself, about yourself, or about anything, you’re not in the flow state. To examine a game for flow you have to let yourself zone out and try to write down instances when you start thinking things about yourself and how you’re doing, snapping back into self consciousness. In as much as the goal of lots of games is to get you into the flow state and keep you there, this can be an interesting prism through which to examine a game. I’ve found this useful as an experiential sanity check. As in, it’s a catchall for anything that’s detrimental to the experience. It could be the feel of the controller, bad level design, a weird art asset, a physics or motion glitch, or anything else that just seems a bit off. Anything which detracts from the overall experience of playing the game tends to snap you out of flow. Lots of stuff that isn’t a “show stopper” bug shows up under this kind of scrutiny. I haven’t tried it on a real project, but it seems like it might be interesting to rate bugs in severity not only by whether they break the game, but by whether they break flow experience (the flow.)
Emotional/Visceral Reaction. Genres are a pet peeve of mine. Like, Soldat is more closely related to Counterstrike or Tribes than it is to Worms. I feel the same way about playing Soldat as I do about playing Counterstrike. I have the same kinds of memories. They occupy a similar space to me experientially. But no one would ever classify them in the same genre. Why is that? It seems like there’s a huge opportunity here to look at the types of experiences a game gives you and try to relate them not only to other games but to other stuff in general. I think this is why I’m so struck by the idea of starting a design with an emotion or a experience – it seems like the only way a game can actually come full circle from idea to reality. In the end, that’s what we’re building, no? Experience?
If anyone reads this, I’m interested: how do you deconstruct a game? Does it help you make better games? How?