Friday, 8 March 2013

Elements of game design, part four: environment

Environments within games, films and books are extremely important when telling a story. Although people may interpret a description of a place differently, it is dependent on a genre and the story that is trying to be told. If the style is not a justification of the targeted genre, then the whole game or film can collapse. This is why artists work on making the character match the environment’s style in most cases. This can make the world seem balanced rather than two styles trying to erase one another.

In games, level designers are usually tasked in opening up the world to the player. Obviously they won’t make a controlling free-roam game which restricts you as a guide to its true linear path… Operation Flashpoint 2: Dragon Rising! That is just false advertising and leaves a massive amount of work which no one will see. The level design has to match the style of the game, so a controlled path in a game will guide the player along the right path, and a free-roaming game will give freedom to where the player goes. However, the designer will not make a linear path seem obvious. It will be subtle in most cases… after all, gamers are not idiots and they know this; for example, if there are two possible paths, one that has some climbable rubble and another covered with lava then you’re not going to try and wade through 2000˚c. That’s just stupid.

The designs of the levels don’t just help guide players through them; they are also there to add to the games whole look and atmosphere. The architecture must relate to the characters as well as the genre and style of the game. This gives the whole look of the game balance which adds to the possibility of this world existing in reality. If the game is too stylised when it doesn’t suit the genre, it can sometimes make the game feel like it’s actually designed for a different genre. But again, this is a problem with realistic games as well.

Environments don’t necessarily have to have a lot to them. I mean, obviously this depends of the skill of the artist as well as the type of game, but sometimes environments are more simple and minimalist in order to avert focus onto the character. An example of this is LIMBO, in which there is no colour throughout the entire game and the backgrounds are extremely similar and linear. This art style works, but only really for this game.
One game I like in particular with its environmental art is Far Cry 3, again as with Vaas, the environments are designed very well. Although the in game, Rook Island is made up, the artists have managed to replicate it realistically, giving the illusion that it could exist, adding wildlife which you can hunt around the island. Obviously this will more likely be seen in a free roam game, but with a game that has such believable characters, you would expect the same from the rest of the island/environment. But again, there is balance in the game. Some of the minor objectives require you to climb radio towers in order to unlock vision of an area of the map. Although I’m not sure how realistically they’ve been located or made, it adds to the features and the game, and takes that thinking process away from the player.

Elements of game design, part three: character

Characters… Characters are kind of the main requirement for any film, book, game or story in general. I mean they act as the focal point of that visual story. I never said it can’t be a human or necessarily living character, but there must be at least one character that drives the story forward. I mean look at Rubber for example. It’s a story about a car tyre! Obviously the film makers knew that selling a video of a tyre just lying in the desert for almost 2 hours is nearly impossible. But they knew that if you gave that tyre telekinetic powers where it can blow things up with it’s… tyre… mind, then you have created a character with mystery and to be quite honest one of the weirdest films out there.

When you compare a character in a book, film or game, you may notice that they are in fact very similar. They usually have a very intricate and leading story in which a viewer, reader or player can follow and gives them depth. But this all largely depends on their genre. All of these media creators understand that a story can drag you into that world and push out thoughts of reality, and if they do it well enough it can lead to more story’s, more money and all together their one main goal… a franchise with a fan base.

The characters I enjoy in games and films however, have to be the classic action/war hero, and also, clever genius’. I like to play as a hero as I like to feel like I’m in that world for a reason. Usually being a powerful war veteran or an assassin fighting for a cause, you can find yourself being led along a path through the story. Elements around a free roam world or background dialogue in a game can lead to understanding the character and the story even more and it leads players to want to find this out.

I mean looking at a character such as Vaas Montenegro from Far Cry 3, you can see that a lot of work went into him, not looking like a lean and fear evoking leader of pirates, but bringing out the fear in the player by making Vaas insane and very unpredictable. Every encounter with him makes you feel on edge as it keeps you second guessing a somewhat obvious outcome. They also made him somewhat chillingly realistic, in the sense that it could actually be a real person. And when you witness him kill your playable character, Jason’s brother, you somewhat feel Jason’s anger and sense for revenge, which swallows you into the adventure.

I feel its many elements which brings this together. With the acting of Michael Mando through motion capture being so superb, his amazing interpretation of the script and the style of an insane pirate accurately being portrayed, I think that this adds depth to one of the best characters out there. For a game to be able to produce a better character than many films out there, it’s no surprise as to why more and more people are playing games and giving these franchises such large fan bases.  

Elements of game design, part two: art direction for games

Art Directors are the glue that holds a games development and production together. Without an Art Director, a game will have no real artistic or stylistic structure. This structure is paramount for their success and with 80% of games losing money in the current climate; it’s no surprise as to why games have such a long and intense production cycle.

Art Directors have one of the hardest jobs within a studio. They are in charge of the style, mood and look of the game, while also having to be aware of every graphical asset within the game. They must know what is happening with almost every character, level, texture and object; and how these look from any and all angles within the games world. Every detail must be as accurate as possible, as these details help tell the story and give the illusion of the game world. These slightest details or errors can cause the mood of the game to die completely and can have an abrupt effect on the player during the game. So it is vital that these elements fit together like a jigsaw.

These managing figures are responsible for all the other artistic sections of a studio, such as concept artists, 3D modellers and texture artists. Although it’s a managing job, the role still requires an extremely artistic and creative knowledge and they must understand how each art role works. Their partnership and artistic bond with an artist helps them to convey ideas and artistic knowledge, which both ways, adds to the game’s integrity. They have to incorporate the game’s style and genre into this feedback, and make sure the style is consistent throughout the game. If the style changes from level to level, then it can leave the player feeling lost between levels and disjointed throughout the story line. So an art director always has to be on top of his game.

This art direction is similar to that of film direction in that they are ultimately in charge of the project and they control how it is run. It’s their job to keep the whole team in check, and understand the whole production cycle of the product. However, Art/creative directors are not in charge of the whole project. There are different managing roles depending on the studio; and usually there is a project manager overseeing every group of management. But largely, both film and game studios have very similar management and development structures, so the Art direction is largely the same, especially in animation studios.

To become an art director; if it turns into something I may want to pursue as a career. I’ll need to improve my skill in all departments, so that I would be able to relate to the area of work I may be directing, I would also need to understand genres, and how to set the mood for specific genres, just with basic and subtle changes, such as light/shadows, architecture, style. I would also need to grasp a mood advanced understanding of colour theory, not to mention an extremely good understanding of the anatomy and characters which may be relevant for a specific genre or game. One other major skill I need to sort out is organization. Although I may get assets and characters created in time, I know there would be some key details that would be a miss.

Elements of game design, part one: from Pong to next-gen…

Gameplay is the fundamental part of a computer game. Without gameplay a "game" wouldn't have a defining nature. Gameplay is usually the mechanics which allow the player to feel in control and drive the game forward. However, gameplay can either be enjoyable or poor, and this is usually determined by the developer’s skill in structuring the gameplay.
Gameplay is usually found to be more fun and fruitful throughout many higher budget AAA games, coming from developers like Ubisoft, EA, Crytek, 2K and many others. But these are usually based on structured gameplay used in many games of their selected genres. However, more often in recent years, smaller, independent game developers have started to think of new original and unique ideas which bring a greater depth of creativity to the way these games are played.
Game play is one of the biggest design features of any game. The game mechanics are built up of elements of story, combat systems, art style and many other things. But game design is usually in almost every aspect of the creation process. You will have story which gives the genre, scope and generally the style of the game. Based on this, artists in many departments can begin to design combat, characters, visual style, etc.
However, this is not a single person’s job. There are many dedicated teams, including; level editors, designers, technical artists, modellers, lead designer/design manager and many others. These all have a job of their own and all add their own little unique elements. When they come together, the game builds up so that the game can immerse a player and make them feel like they are actually in the game. With this idea, gameplay is not just the players interaction with the input of controls in a game, but the emersion and feeling of being somewhere else, that they are changing and moving the game alone and effecting the world as they play.
Not all games will have dedicated or segregated teams however; some smaller independent studios will more likely have less staff, and possibly some employees doing more than one job! This means that development time is longer and less games can be made in that space of time, however they get past this weakness by, in my opinion paying more attention to detail and making the gameplay elements present themselves more and to a much higher quality.

However, gameplay can depend on the genre of the game entirely. A horror game cannot allow the player to ride on unicorns as that takes the whole atmosphere and makes it unbelievable. Just as a Hello Kitty game can’t include levels where zombies jump out of dark rooms and expect players (a target audience of young children) to proceed in blowing their heads off with a shotgun. The designers have to understand the mood, style, and colour palette of the game in order to make it appealing to its target audience or fans.

I think the most important thing for a game developer to understand, is that players buy games because of the genre or style. It usually depends on age, with teenage boys liking FPS titles such as Call of Duty and racing simulations such as Need for Speed. I think the most important thing for gameplay is to get the game you have bought! It’s the best feeling as a player, when driving a car in a game moves like the real thing, or shooting a gun gives realistic recoil. I believe that a game developer should make sure the gameplay is as good as it can be before improving graphics. But it is still very important to have decent sound and graphics as it really adds to the immersion of games.