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The Rules of Game Design

Rule 2: Make the game work

Patches – at bit-tech we both love them and hate them. On the one hand, they can add in new features and game modes like the Arena Mode in SiN: Episode s but, on the other hand, they are symptomatic of an unfinished game at the same time. Some patches and minor fixes we can tolerate. Critical updates, we can't.

Games shouldn’t need critical patches really anyway – they should be tested and proven to work from the offset. This was another topic which Simon tackled in a column about the process of testing and quality assurance, highlighting how segregation of testers and developers is just one of the many problems facing bugfinders.

There are exceptions to this rule though, especially in the RPG genre. We gamers are pretty demanding, but we don’t want to take the mick, so if a few quests are a tad broken in Oblivion or KOTOR then we can accept that. Some games are just too massive to be completely bug-free.

However, there is a level of brokenness that it’s impossible to forgive and games with bugs like corrupting savegames and system reformats should be hunted down, shot and gutted. And then patched back together so the process can be restarted.

Rule Obeyer: It’s depressingly hard to think of games which don’t need patches nowadays, but I suppose if there was one good guy in the bunch then it’d be Steam. Not technically a game, true, but the system does at least mean that all games attached to the platform remain perfectly up-to-date – for better and worse.

The Rules of Game Design Patches and Endgames
Vampire The Masquerade may have been a great game, but it took dozens of patches to get it that way

Rule Breaker: Gee, where to begin? Boiling Point? Vampire: The Masquerade? So many games are released in broken, unplayable states that it’s hard to keep track. Worst of them all though was probably Gothic 3. The final release was nought but a myriad maze of bugs with enemies appearing as floating black boxes and skills not working properly. Apparently the game is now in a workable state but personally, I haven’t been bothered enough to go back and check.

Rule 3: Communicate goals clearly and immediately

There’s nothing more infuriating to me than an objectives menu in a game and this rule stems from that hate.

Games are a simple enough concept when all the chaff is thrown away – players, whether single or multiple, participate in a competitive activity that challenges them to complete a series of goals in exchange for a reward. This definition is probably a bit flawed as far as Merriam-Webster is concerned, but it’ll do for now; basically a game tells a player “If you defeat the last boss then I’ll show you something cool. Probably a big explosion or some barely-covered boobies, m’kay?

Or at least, that’s what the good games do. Bad games don’t dish out all that information, forcing us to plow on blindly, hitting all the brick walls until we find the door.

It’s a very sad state of affairs when we see games that don’t have defined victory scenarios, like The Sims, having goals that are more clearly communicated than those in a shooter like The Darkness, which has players dumped into weirdly twisted landscapes halfway through the game.

The Rules of Game Design Patches and Endgames
The Sims didn't even have an aim, but at least it communicated that clearly!

So, developers, the lesson is thus; Learn from The Sims and, even if you have a part of the game where the goal is to explore the area, tell us that somehow. And don’t do it through an objective screen that we have to access ourselves – it just defeats the point.

Rule Obeyer: Half-Life 2 is a classic example of how goals can communicated without ramming them down a player’s throat. While the overall goal of the series is still a mystery thanks to the enigmatic G-Man, immediate and game-long goals are given to the player through a variety of means.

The very first thing players see is the G-Man encouraging Gordon to wake up and look around. Immediately after there’s a plethora of visual clues, like the looming Citadel and Combine propaganda – these make the overall goals clear. From the very start of the game every player knows one thing; that skyscraper is coming down one way or another.

Rule Breaker: Quake may be untouchable in terms of nostalgia and retro appeal, but as far as game design goes it seems it was very much a case of throwing ideas at a wall and seeing what stuck.

Unfortunately, the one thing which didn’t stick was the aim of the game and the story itself. Take the unexplained last boss for example, Shub-Niggurath. This blob like beast can’t attack or react to players at all, so it just sits in the middle of the room like a piece of scenery while players fend off dozens of Shamblers and spider women. With no clue that the blob is actually the end-game boss and no clue how to kill it, it’s no wonder I only figured it how to telefrag it by accident.