Developer experiences from the trenches
PCG uniqueness scale. Higher is more interesting.
The asset is a direct copy. If an asset is not perceivably different than the one next to it, it is effectively not unique, and is a direct copy.
The asset is visibly distinguishable from another of the same class but is otherwise not special. If an asset is not the same as the one next to it, it is locally unique. It must be perceivably different than the one next to it, but if there are a hundred variations, none of the variations are special. This is the lowest form of uniqueness: it is not a copy, but variants do not provoke further classification by the user. Perlin noise textures are an example of this. Many people believe that this is the true limit of procedural content uniqueness. Not even close.
The asset violates a sense of classification if placed in another area. If an asset would be illogical to a user to place in another area or seemingly makes sense only in the areas where it is placed, it is divisionally unique. Terrain generators that make use of biomes to generate palm trees in tropical areas are divisionally unique.
The asset is notably unique regardless of, or due to, spatial separation. The asset stands out from its surroundings due to properties which are unique from others in its perceived class. It is parametrically unique. A single tree which is larger than all the rest, burned and charred and on the highest hill is an example of this.
The asset has unique properties which simply enforce an entirely different classification by the end user. This may be in spite of a single set of algorithms generating each property under the hood. It is unique by genus. A watermelon in a basket of apples qualifies as being unique by genus.
The asset cannot exist in the same world as another asset. There is no logical way for two assets to exist in the same world. They are represented in such a different manner that there is no opportunity for them to reasonably coexist.
At Frogtoss, we are looking at a lot of different design directions and making decisions about what we are working on next.
We tend to avoid market calculations when choosing directions, preferring to look towards qualitative guidelines instead. Specifically, we aim to answer “Can this be really great?” rather than “What does it look like if we can capture 1% of the iOS market at \$1.99?”. The former question pushes us to make a game that is worthy of customers, thereby shaping our plan. We feel that the second one simply counts the money before we’ve earned it and does not allow for meaningful course correction.
The axiom “good is the enemy of great” comes into play here; it is easy enough to come up with a fun idea that is cool and plays well. It is also easy to weed out the truly bad ideas.
What is a much tougher challenge is separating the good ideas from the great ones. In our process, it is inextricably linked to gauging a game’s potential to be enjoyed by a large number of customers.
Whenever an idea is ready for evaluation, I run it against a set of questions. These questions are steeped in a personal philosophy of what makes a game have the potential to be great.
Is there one person anywhere who would consider this game to be their favorite? If so, why?
If there is one person in the world who considers your game to be their favorite it means that it has bubbled to the top of their consciousness and that they cherish it. If even one person can say this about your work, your game is truly special and should hold at least a strong niche appeal.
Is there an obviously new experience for players that is core to the game?
This question implies a philosophy: new experiences resonate the most. Without anything new, you are forced to do what someone else has done, but better. Make this concession consciously because if you do neither, your game probably does not have a lot of potential.
Picture the ideal player. What is being done to give this player a sense that they would be crazy to pass up the game because there is so much value in it for them.
My partner has spent over 300 hours in Left 4 Dead. She bought the game for \$50. When it goes on sale for \$10, she is completely amazed at how much gaming goodness opens up to you for such a small amount of money.
You need to be able to convince yourself that your ideal players need to find your game an extremely easy value proposition to agree with. This is important because everyone else is a step down from that.
Why does the game have the potential to create news stories after its launch window that prompt people to look into playing it?
They say that marketing is a tax you pay for being unremarkable. While not even close to the whole picture, having your game nurture conversation about itself is a huge contributor to the success of many games.
Are other developers going to be influenced by the advances you have made in the product?
Advancing the state of the art of game development — whether through design or technology — is a sign that your game is made of a unique fabric. This holds promise that you final product stands out and provides a unique experience.
In five years, is the game going to be remembered as a variant of a theme (Eradicator) or a gold standard in its genre (Duke Nukem 3D)?
Doing an honest gut check on whether your game is memorable helps you speculate what mindshare you can expect to have.
This question is saved for last because it is the macro question that summarizes your take on the product.
As an exercise, try running through the questions with your favorite classic game from the vantage point of the year that the game was released. You may find, as I did, how easy it is to positively answer the questions with truly great games.
Now pull up a good game on your Steam list that you tried out and put an hour into… perhaps a game that did alright but was not exactly a cultural shockwave. Notice how this good game does not make the grade.
With this contrast in mind, take the idea you’re working on and answer away. How does it stack up?
Good is the enemy of great and it helps to have tools to identify the enemy as early as possible!
The average video game has writing that is indistinguishable from filler. Writing makes its way into games through dialog and story. One approach to improving the quality of writing is to employ inspired writers. Unfortunately, this is as useful as a VHS repairman unless you design in reasons for the player to care about your writing in the first place.
It is not just the writing that needs to improve. We need to refine the techniques to bring narrative to the player, making the experience personal through integration into the core game. In the order of most to least effective, here are some examples of methods that have been used:
Giving the player a reason to care about the story is as important as the story itself. The humor in Portal 2 is a lot more personal because you are unfolding it by moving forward. Imagine the game popping away to cutscenes to crack the same jokes. It just wouldn’t be about you anymore.
Interactive story progression requires a set of techniques that, when employed, ensure the player is paying attention when the story unfolds. It also helps the story progress at a pace they can comprehend.
First person shooters have done a pretty good job of making people care about their stories. But what about platformers or turn based strategy games? There is a lot of work to be done before these genres have empowered their writers.
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