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The Rules of Game Design

The Rules of Game Design

One of the new features we’ve launched lately on bit-tech has been guest columns. That is, columns written by developers and industry insiders on a rotating monthly schedule. We’ve had stories and thoughts from every corner of the industry, including budding indie developers like James Silva and writers for established studios, like Simon Hall and Rob Yescombe.

After reading Simon Hill’s latest column, which talked about difficulty balancing in computer games and why he thinks computer games have got progressively easier, I got thinking. The more I thought about the topic, the more I decided I wanted to do something about it – partly because I’m a pretty heavy gamer and I like my games to be worth the effort, but mainly because I'm just a nosey busy-body.

As I looked into the issue though, the more my mind raged with examples of how games had changed for the worse over the years – how simple concepts that had once been core to the design of every game were now being forgotten or dismissed. The rules that had governed and created the Golden Axe Age of Gaming were now no longer being obeyed.

Naturally, being a bit of presumptuous so-and-so, I decided to shove my nose in and take Simon’s complaint to the next level. Thus, I present what I think are the cardinal rules of game design.

The first rule of game design isn't ‘don't talk about game design’, it's...

The Rules of Game Design
Call of Cthulu is an example of a game which had unskippable cutscenes

Rule 1: No unskippable cutscenes

This is the first and most important rule of designing a game in my opinion. Nearly every game has cutscenes in some way, shape or form. It can be as long and tedious as one of Kane’s rambling speeches in Command and Conquer or it can be as simple as the sponsorship logos at the start of UT3. Either way, they should be skippable. No exceptions.

It can be very tempting for a developer to make a cutscene unskippable – after all, it took ages to make and it’s a great way to showcase the fantastic story, right? Players want to see it!

No, we don't.

Not all gamers are as pretentious as me and some of them just don’t care about narrative and plot twists, so the option to skip a cutscene can be the difference between reaching Level 10 and giving up at the introduction for some player. Plus, if you mess up a boss fight and have to go back to a previous save point then you’ll end up watching the same cutscenes over and over. Oh, joy. So, that's it – the first thing we demand of modern games is that they have cutscenes that can be skipped over if we decide the story isn't worth it.

The Rules of Game Design
The new Prince of Persia games had an inventive way of managing cutscenes

Rule Obeyer: The new Prince of Persia series found a nice way around this little rule, and I think that deserves a mention. The game has a fair few cutscenes spliced through it and the first time you play the game you have to watch it in order to understand the story. The second time you watch though the game remembers that you’ve already seen it and lets you skip right on through, which is handy because you can only save the game at certain checkpoints.

Rule Breaker: Black – this Xbox title was beautiful to look at, despite the somewhat flawed gameplay and the breathtaking brevity of the whole thing. Still, what really ruined it for many was the unskippable cutscenes which had players hammering buttons from the start in frustration. If nothing else though, it mindless action games and long, unskippable cutscenes don’t really go together all that well.