Let’s Play – How Designers Can Benefit from Playing More Games

This blog post has been written to encourage game designers to play more games and to highlight what game design tips and tricks can be learned along the way.

Mastering a Game

There is a wealth of knowledge to be gained from learning how to play a game well.  Whether this is 100%-ing your favourite single player title, or crushing the opposition in online multiplayer.  Being able to identify, analyse and even exploit the mechanics of a game enables you to understand how those mechanics can be used to generate fun gameplay.  Knowledge gained in this way can then be applied outside of this specific setting.

For example, studying frame data in a fighting game will not only tell you when it is safe to attack or block but will also translate to an understanding of startup, active and recovery frames of animation.  This will help you know how to set up a responsive animation system in any genre of game.

Learning all the different weapon types in an FPS can be broken down into an understanding of factors such as time to kill, damage per second and optimum range.  These fundamental mechanics are as important in many MOBAs as they are in FPS games.  Playing any competitive shooter at a high level also requires an intimate knowledge of map layout.  Learning a map inside out will incorporate aspects of level design such as line of sight, map flow, cover placement, choke points, verticality as well as consideration for character movement options.

Finally beat a satisfying boss battle? Now you can appreciate how animation and sound design can be used to broadcast gameplay cues to the player.

Putting in the hours to master a game will also give you insight into the design of progression systems and end game content.  The grind involved in reaching the end will give you a solid understanding of these systems, allowing you to feel for yourself what works and what doesn’t.  Another benefit is that areas outside of your immediate focus become more visible.  The more you play a game, the more time you are spending digesting all the individual aspects that make up the game experience as a whole.  The impact of factors such as UI flow, matchmaking times, performance, input delay, lag compensation or peer to peer vs dedicated servers all become more relevant.

Once you have mastered a game you will notice how small changes to core mechanics can result in a big difference for players.  Understanding this cause and effect relationship is a key part of balancing gameplay.  Study the effects of patches, absorb player feedback pre and post patch, identify what had the desired effect and what didn’t.

Play Multiple Games Within a Genre

You may already have your goto Action, FPS, MOBA or Fighting Game, but playing multiple games within a genre allows you to identify what makes those games distinct.  Look at how the core game mechanics vary and what the result of that difference is.  Think about why you may prefer one approach over the other and also try to consider the reasoning behind why certain mechanics have been implemented in contrasting ways between similar games.

Breaking down these differences and comparing them can help you understand what approach is right for your game.  Game mechanics are an array of tools that, when understood, can be used in a variety of ways to create new experiences for your players.

Play a Variety of Games

You will only learn so much playing games that you know you already like.  Stepping outside your gaming comfort zone can open your eyes to new design challenges and contrasting ways of approaching them.  My personal gaming preference is quite hardcore, but some of the most satisfyingly addictive progression systems I have experienced recently have been found in mobile games.  Smaller indie titles have impressed me with their captivating character designs, or novel, fluid ways of handling character dialogue.  I’ve enjoyed ‘walking simulators’ that have surprised me with the variety of gameplay present and highlighted how smoothly you can lead a player through your world simply by using well thought out level design techniques.

I think it is also beneficial to appreciate things outside of the current hot industry trends. There are many recent examples of always online, competitive multiplayer, games as a service. This can be a great way to engage and retain players but there are many singleplayer, offline games that have to deal with these challenges in a very different way.  Identify how these challenges can be solved under different circumstances.  Get involved in early access games, betas, free weekends etc. Not every game is going to be perfect but you can learn from mistakes, analyse the challenges that different titles face and think about how you would go about solving them.

Having a broad experience in multiple games also helps discussion around feature implementation and game feel within your own development process.

Play the Game You Are Developing

It is important to see the game you are making as a whole, not just the individual part you are responsible for.  Regularly playing your own game shows how all the individual aspects work together.  Being proficient at playing the game will make it easy to identify what game mechanics are working well and what parts might need adjustment.

Thanks for Reading

What game mechanics have you found interesting in a game you played recently?  When was the last time you played a game outside of your usual comfort zone, what did you learn from it? Leave a comment to let me know.

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