Play Study: Looking Closer at Games

Written by Ian Hertzberg

Playing games makes you a better game developer. Common sense, right? Of course, it does! Having experience with a medium as a consumer is important and will help you to better understand it. The same goes for a lot of other mediums. Musicians ,for example, are large consumers of music and much like game developers got into music because of their love for it.

Now, I’m not saying you should play a whole lot of video games and call that your education, that’s ludicrous. What you should do is play games and study them. Look closely at the game and it’s mechanics, then think about it as if you were a designer. What does this mechanic evoke in the player? Is it fun? Rewarding? Why? Is it intuitive? Do would the designer in this instance want it to be intuitive? You could probably think of 100’s of questions about game design if you tried.

Let’s think of a couple examples questions using popular games to help get you in the right mindset. You can provide answers in the comments if you like. We’d love to hear what you think.

1) How does the Dark Souls series create a feeling and atmosphere of dread?

2) What is (in your opinion) the most core part of a game like Skyrim’s design?

3)  What makes Minecraft so appealing to multiple audiences?

4) What in your opinion is the best, opening or start, of a game you’ve played? What made it the best?

4.5) Have you ever played through a game tutorial you thought was good or well done? Why did you think so?

Another good practice to get into is to take notes on games you play. Not to hint at any upcoming articles, but I personally have a good chunk of notes on the most recent Uncharted game, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End.  I looked for things like the game mechanics, how did they work, how did they make me feel, did they help or hinder the narrative, and then being a writer I have a ton of notes about the narrative structure itself.

So, if you’re interested in game design or are hoping to become a designer I would highly recommend thinking critically about the games you’ve played and taking notes on the games you play in the future. Journal your experiences and reflect on them. It’ll not only make  you a better designer, but also a better critical thinker.

Want to talk more about studying games? Well, you’re in luck! Play Study will be a reoccurring segment on The Game Library that will look into more fine points of analyzing game through the lens of design. I also have another similar column in the works called Case Study which will feature a breakdown of my or another member of the Game Libraries notes on a particular game.

So stay tuned for those in the coming weeks.

Until then play and think about: games.

Immortal Games: No Man’s Content

“My roommate is on her fourth play-through of Dragon Age: Inquisition,” said one of my friends. “She’s playing through it in French now, but she’s played it so many times she’d know what’s happening if she played it in Greek.” I know the feeling all too well having played Skyrim for 379 hours, according to Steam.

You totally want to explore that castle in the distance. Don't you?
You totally want to explore that castle in the distance. Don’t you?

What causes us to get lost in games like this? What makes a game last in comparison to other games we play through once or play very little of before tossing them aside? What makes a game immortal?

That’s what we hope to cover in our first series: Immortal Games where we’ll talk about what makes these games last and why people keep coming back for more. In this article, we’ll be discussing the worlds created for video games and what helped them to stand the test of time.

First, let’s talk about the two games that were just name dropped, Dragon Age: Inquisition and Skyrim. Both of them are sprawling fantasy epics with well over 100’s of hours of content each. Both feature a huge world littered with interesting sights, puzzles, combat encounters, and narrative elements. Both have hundreds of quests, big and small, to give the player things to do in the world and then reward players both through narrative means and through in-game rewards. In general, they have a lot of stuff. Yet, recent release No Man’s Sky has a full-scale universe to explore and has not met the same acclaim from critics and consumers alike. Why do you suppose that is?

No Man’s Sky may have a whole galaxy for players to explore, but it is missing something crucial, content. “But, Ian!” My imaginary readership cries out, “Didn’t you just lump in having a massive world space for your game with having content?” Okay, kinda, but more so as an element of content.

Everyone of those sun's has a planet with no real content
Everyone of those suns has a planet with no real content

Let’s use an overly complex and outlandish example: Let’s say you wanted to buy what was speculated to be one of the tastiest beverages ever, but when you bought it and removed the lid you found that you had only bought a cup. It’s a nice cup, very pretty and ornamental and it could certainly hold a lot of liquid, but there isn’t anything in there. That, in a sense, is why No Man’s Sky doesn’t hold up compared to games like Skyrim or Dragon Age.  No Man’s Sky has the world but doesn’t have much filling it. It lacks the narrative elements and personal touches that exist in the worlds of other great and lasting games. Their worlds aren’t just unique locals, they’re dynamic worlds that can tell stories from their appearance alone filled with various events and characters to entice players as they explore.

For example, in Skyrim players may encounter two skeletons in the harsh tundra. One has its leg caught in a bear trap and the other is sitting next to it. The player can then infer a narrative: That one person, free to go, loved or cared about the other person so much that they stayed and froze to death with them despite being able to save themselves. That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what Skyrim has to offer.

So many houses to explore and people to meet.
So many houses to explore and people to meet.

In No Man’s Sky players just discover new planets, species, flora, and fauna. This is exciting at first, but the novelty wears off. Despite the entire universe being unique & randomly generated, you only can see so many variations of the same thing before becoming bored. It is for this reason, I don’t see No Man’s Sky becoming immortal like Skyrim, Dragon Age, and many other impressive titles.

So, in short: Game worlds filled with content and incentive to explore such as narrative, puzzles, and combat are those that stand the test of time, the ones that capture our hearts and minds. The games that become immortal.