the top 10 great decisions game designers make

Okay, if you read my last article about game design mistakes, you probably saw this one coming. But as a point to my own counterpoint, I thought this article necessary. I’m not all about the negative, I admire great design just like every gamer. Sometimes the little things that are actually huge advances get overlooked because before long, all games have implemented that same great idea. Eventually it becomes an expected design decision, at which point, its unthinkable that any game would do it differently.

Let’s celebrate those decisions.

Once again, these are not in any particular order. So let’s get on with it:

the top 10 great decisions game designers make

Great decision 1: tooltips and other great user interface innovations

This could be an article all on its own, no problem. You have to go pretty far back to be able to see just how far we’ve come with respect to games’ user interfaces. I’ll give some examples, but first, let’s talk about tooltips.

Tooltips are those floaty things that pop up a description when you’re trying to figure out what the heck some icon means. This is a fabulous innovation, and in many games, I can’t live without them. As stated in the previous article, I’m a bit of a loot whore. So if I have 45 different kinds of armor that I’ve picked up, Ireally don’t want to try each and every piece on to see which one is better. Tooltips make my life easier, and your game more fun. Torchlight did a great job on this, though they’re by no means the first – I’m just pointing the finger their way because they simply did it so well. In World of Warcraft (and probably every MMO since), they provide tooltips for the loot, then they auto-compared it to what you’ve got equipped, along with an easy system for determining which stats are better or worse than your currently-equipped gear. Smart. (green is better, red is worse) Do you know who did this first?

Other great user interface decisions (this list could go on and on)…

  • tips/hints/objectives that display when important, then auto-hide (most MMOs do this really well)
  • remembering what I was last viewing in my quest log/character sheet/inventory
  • making me aware of impending death with color and/or sound cues (pretty much all FPSes, as well as Diablo)
  • color-coding game items so that I instinctively know what they’re for
  • world maps marked with NPCs, quest objectives (I’ll cover minimaps below)
  • a changing cursor to indicate interactivity, with an icon that represents what type of interactivity
  • inventories with movable items (this wasn’t always the case)
  • stackable items
  • no interface at all (Dead Space, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth)
  • and of course, visible ammo/health
  • the fog of war/exploration
  • completely customizable UI (Guild Wars, you rocked this)

Great decision 2: rewarding me for success

This is one that could be argued is a design decision at all. Clearly it’s one that is all but invisible to the player, or at least it should be. This is basically the carrot on the end of the stick that keeps you playing, but the best games will implement it so subtly that you don’t even know it’s there.

This is the ding when you level, the quest reward, the gun that enemy drops, the building upgrade that I can now build, the next level (game level or character level), the armor you can now afford. This is that area that was previously unreachable, the boss you couldn’t defeat whose sword you now carry. The proverbial princess, if you will. Heck, this is eating the ghosts, the euphoria you feel when you have succeeded. Thank you game designers’ for giving me this.

Great decision 3: minimaps!!

Ah, minimaps. I can barely remember not having one in a game. I’m pretty certain it didn’t start with Dune II, but that’s where I first remember seeing one. Since that time, they’ve gotten better (most of the time) and allow zooming, navigation, tooltips for areas/NPCs, sometimes even they let you add notes right to the minimap. Some are even movable and resizable. This is a good thing, in my mind. Letting a user hide the minimap if they don’t like it is great too – it’s all about choice. But I’m a focused gamer – I like to check off my objectives, so being able to orient myself easily and get my bearings makes me enjoy a game more.

Great decision 4: making me feel like a hero

Nothing much compares to this feeling – for many people, it’s the sole reason they play games. You can’t leap buildings (trust me, I’ve seen the FAIL videos) in regular life, or take 14 bullets to the chest, or erupt jets of flame from the ground around your enemies. Making me feel like I can do all these things – priceless.

  • Everquest II – you made me feel like a badass even though I was only a level 9 sorcerer.
  • Half Life 2 – you made me feel like the world was after me in that opening sequence.
  • All of the Gothic games – eventually, you made me feel like I could take on anything.
  • Dragon Age – you made my decisions so difficult, but no matter what, you made them feel significant.
  • Company of Heroes and Medal of Honor Allied Assualt – you made me feel like I was storming Omaha beach.
  • Quake I and II – you made me feel like I could pwn anyone.

Great decision 5: introducing the world/character/NPCs/story organically

This isn’t always done so well, probably because it’s so freaking hard to do. A game I just started, Hydrophobia: Prophecy does this really well. It doesn’t force me to sit and watch 25 minutes of cutscenes before playing (see below). Instead, it just puts me in a room, with my stuff in it. It lets me explore a bit, with some short CG sequences to let me get a feel of who I am, what I do, and who’s in my life. This is a great way to do it – it lets me, the player, learn to the extent I choose, why I need to save the world. Don’t just tell me I need to save the world because I’m the chosen one.. let me decide for myself that it’s worth saving.

Great decision 6: those fantastic cutscenes

Oh, the double-edged sword of cutscenes. Remember the ones from Diablo and how blown away you were? Yeah, me too. Same goes for Warcraft III, World of Warcraft, ummm, every Blizzard game ever. Yep, other companies do it fabulously as well. Some are so memorable, it’s like you are there, the ones you tell your friends about. Like the one a few months back for Dead Island. It’s still in my Youtube favourites list. But done wrong, an expensive cutscene can make gamers laugh at the game the designers are trying so hard to immerse you in. The best ones suck you into the world, immerse you in the characters and set the stage for the game, all at the same time.

What are your favourite cutscenes and why?

Great decision 7: encouraging exploration and discovery

The Gothic games have to be targeted for being the series to follow, as far as exploration is concerned. Since their worlds were hand-crafted, there was always some reward for exploration. Some little area to find, a fantastic weapon or scroll. Great worlds demand to be explored, so encourage me to do so with special encounters or awesome loot. Or even just a stunning vista to look at.

Great decision 8: allowing me to forget about the camera

From RTSs to RPGs to FPSs, the last thing you ever want to do in the middle of a game is to be constantly tweaking your camera because you can’t properly see what’s going on. Alone in the Dark (the originals), you were innovative, but MAN did your camera drive me crazy. However, that being said, the way the camera worked, even in that – much like in the Resident Evil games, pre RE4 – added to the tension of being chased, being unable to get away, being hunted. So for that, I thank you as well. But in most modern games, having a camera that is so seamless, so unobtrusive and smart, that I forget there is one. This makes me feel not just that I’m in your world, but that I AM the character – the camera is my viewport, my eyes.

Great decision 9: tell me, don’t show me

Wow, this is one you don’t see done well very often. That is, of course, voice acting. Countless games have tried to do this well, countless games fail. Maybe it’s the disconnect – the fact that I know it’s not real. Often it’s the simple fact that the lipsyncing is completely out of whack so I’m not sold. But when it’s done well… those times are special, indeed.

Dragon Age was immensely successful in making me believe that the people in my group, those that I met, pretty much everyone in the world cared about that world. That my actions mattered. I believed them, so I believed in the world. LA Noire, you showed me that sometimes I can’t read people at all, even though I think I can. You gave me the clues and made me think the people were lying, so it’s really my own fault when I couldn’t figure it out. Because of you, I’ve been to 1940s LA. Half Life 2, you let me wake up and smell the ashes.

Great decision 10: creating interesting, interactive open worlds

This one is a personal preference, clearly. Not everyone likes open world games. If they’re done poorly, they offer little more than gigantic stretches of time between actually doing anything. Done well, and they make you feel like you’re inhabiting the world with so much to do it’s hard to believe you’ll have time to actually go to work tomorrow. How will you fit it all in? After all, I’ve got this quest to finish, some harvesting to do, I need to climb that mountain over there, then there’s all these people to shoot… yeesh. Thanks designers, for giving me a world to play in that’s sometimes more interesting than the one I really live in.

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