My “Rules” of Game Design

This is the DESIGN portion of a two-part post containing lessons learned from developing games in my career thus far. The DEVELOPMENT portion can be found here.

These are the rules I use for designing games. This is a list I’ll add to, change or delete from at any point. Also, a good reason negates any rule, but kill your darlings. Game design and development is an artform, not a science.

UX vs Design

Gameplay

  1. Gameplay > Story. I love story. I’ve been writing since I was six, but telling a story should not come at the cost of playing the game.
  2. The default/top dialogue option should be the quickest route back to gameplay. Use the other options to expand the lore. Mass Effect has a great presentation for this.
  3. If the control system is fiddly or annoying, scrap it rather than keep it. Bad controls ruin game experiences.
  4. No companion apps (looking at you Assassin’s Creed: Unity and Destiny especially). Don’t put stuff in the game that players can only access from another device.
  5. Hidden objects are great if they aren’t critical, but awful if the player needs to see it.
    1. Sub-rule: Obvious glowing hidden objects are not hidden objects, so therefore pointless. I’ll write a post about the Sherlock Problem at some point.
  6. QTEs should represent actions that occur in the game. If I have a QTE that includes firing a shot, it will use the shooting button. Kept to a minimum if used at all. Too reflexive and when the player fails it, all they have to do is repeat it. Boring, frustrating, unnecessary.

Menus and UI

  1. The default/top option in the game main menu should be “Continue”, not “Start” and it will reload the last save game.
  2. Subtitle options go under Audio settings, not gameplay. Come on people.
  3. Display and Graphics as separate tabs in Settings menus? Really? It’s all about the visuals, so put them together.
  4. On PC, the pause menu should have an option to exit directly to the desktop.
  5. Floppy disks are still OK for saving icons. Kids might not get it, so we can teach them. The current trend of using an up or down arrow in a circle looks like the game is loading, whichever direction the arrow faces.
  6. Multiplatform games should recognise and change the UI text for different inputs – controller, click, tap etc. Mostly an issue for indie developers.
  7. Unskipable splash screens are the devils spawn. I don’t want to see animated logos for Nvidia, EA, the developer and three others when I’m trying to boot the game. None of these will convince me to buy the next game/graphics card developed/powered by them just because I saw their logo here. Spacebar to skip one, ESC to skip them all.
  8. Subtitles: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/IanHamilton/20150715/248571/

Story

  1. Cutscenes need to be skip-able. Metal Gear Solid 4 is not the game for me.
  2. Cutscenes should be concise. Metal Gear Solid 4 really isn’t the the game for me.
  3. Any information delivered in a cutscene needs to be reinforced during gameplay. You can have the prettiest, most explosive cutscenes in the world but as soon as you take control from the player, you lose their engagement. Any and all information you feel should be delivered in a cutscene can and should be presented in gameplay. If you really, really, absolutely, positively feel you need a cutscene, then repeat the story information and gameplay objectives in it somewhere in the gameplay too.
  4. Pass the Bechdel test. It isn’t the be all and end all of female equality in games, but it should be a simple bar to pass. Then do better.
  5. NPCs should react to events players can assume they would’ve heard of. I.E, if the big evil sets off a bomb that blocks out the sun, the mayor of the town should probably mention it, not just carry on with his day.
  6. Always have at least one whimsical character. Their dialogue doesn’t have to make the player laugh, it just has to make the player smile.
  7. A little fun one for me: Add a Doctor Who reference. Usually a line from the show. This is just a personal rule for me, because I think it’s a fun thing to add.

Graphics and Animation

  1. No boob jiggling unless beards jiggle too.
  2. If players won’t notice it, don’t market it. Waste of time and money, and it’ll earn you ridicule. Looking at you Call of Duty: Ghosts, with your fish.

Tutorials

  1. Don’t handhold your player through each and every menu as the first thing they do. Give them some gameplay first. Show the player the relevance of the menu before you take them through the menu. I.E: If you teach the player how to assign an Admiral to your fleet, maybe show them the fleet first and what the Admiral does?