Hey guys, I’ve been playing a lot of great indie games lately, and have been wanting to note down some ideas about what makes them so fun. This post is for personal reference, but I’m sure a lot of other people will find it useful too. A lot of these notes will apply to some genres of games more than others (I’m mostly thinking about single-player games here), and some of them are even in conflict with each other, but I’ll try to keep as many of them in mind as possible while working on my games.
Anyway, here’s a list of game design elements that I find are important to making entertaining and memorable games…
1. Challenge and Mastery!
I love learning and getting good at things, and I think most people do to some extent or another. Having a high skill ceiling in games is important to keeping players hooked and increasing replay value, and also creates a competitive social aspect where players try to show off their skills.
In a platformer like Super Meat Boy or 1001 Spikes, you may play the same level dozens of times before you beat it. But you’re not playing it exactly the same way every time. With each attempt you’re getting better at it – you keep finding faster paths through the level, you’re no longer distracted by objects that don’t matter, your timing begins to match the rhythm of the obstacles, and you start relying on muscle memory rather than reacting to what you see.Once you’ve beaten the level for the first time, you’ve also mastered it – you’ll easily be able to beat it again. You’ve progressed in the game not just by spending time on it, but by actually improving your skill at it, and that’s a very satisfying feeling – much more than just leveling up to overpower a boss.
And this feeling of mastery isn’t always easy to implement. It has some of the following requirements:
• The challenges in the game need to have different ways of approaching them, so the player can learn what works and what doesn’t, and can optimize their approach with each attempt.
• There needs to be clear feedback for the player to show them when they’re improving: Timers, life bars, achievements, whatever. The game mechanics must be reasonably transparent so that the player can see exactly what they’re doing wrong or right.
• There needs to be no way of cheating. If the player can lower the difficulty setting, or use some cheap trick to complete the challenge, they will!
• The challenges should not involve much random elements – the player should feel the results are totally dependant on their performance, and not down to luck.
Platformers and shoot-em-ups are good examples of skill games that I’m familiar with. I try to add a lot of room for skill in the Epic Battle Fantasy games: It’s usually much easier to try different tactical approaches than it is to spend time grinding for level ups. I try to do this by giving the player a huge choice of in-game skills and equipment that they cannot sell, the option to flee battles and re-prepare without penalty, and by making leveling up against weak enemies slow and pointless by comparison – but the option is still there for those who need it.
A lot of turn-based JRPGs don’t seem to do this, and in many of them you’re better off just grinding, which is kind of sad and makes the gameplay quite boring for me personally.
Obviously some players just want mindless fun and no challenge, and that’s fine too. Just look at the popularity of idle games! So I wouldn’t rule out an “easy mode” completely, but I’d do my best to encourage players not to use it.
2. Accessibility in Difficulty and Play Styles!
When making a game, you want it to appeal to as large an audience as it can. If you’re smart, you’ll do this without making it obvious – you don’t want players to think that they’re playing the game “wrong”, by choosing easy mode or whatever. You don’t want skilled players to think you’re dumbing down the game for casual players – you want every play style to feel correct! You don’t want to look like a lazy game designer by just changing monster stats to create different difficulty settings! (I still do this though…)
I think Shovel Knight is a good example of how to create different difficulty settings secretly:
• Huge portions of the game are completely optional – usually hard parts that you can do for extra gold. You can obtain the gold through easier means if you prefer.
• You can play it safely, or try to be greedy and take more risks - you can destroy checkpoints for cash, or choose to wear shiny gold armor that does nothing!
• You can prepare for levels by spending some time to stock up on limited-use helping items – it’s kind of like cheating, but it doesn’t feel like it because you pay for them with your gold or time. (there’s actually a long cutscene that you have to watch to get certain potions!)
• You can try different items and approaches when stuck on a level – you can either use brute force, or take your time and experiment with sneaky tricks.
As a result, the game adjusts to different play styles, without having any explicit difficulty settings, and it just feels like you can play it however you want.
Undertale is another good example, with the easy style of playing just being “do whatever you want”, and the harder ones being more specific types of gameplay: either killing everything, or killing nothing. The player isn’t explicitly told which style of playing is “correct”, they’ve got the freedom to play how they like and adjust the challenge to what they are comfortable with.
Despite all that, I think a simple difficulty setting is still better than no difficulty options at all. But please: don’t put it at the start of the game and make it unchangeable. How are new players supposed to make such an important decision?
I like challenging games when they’re a genre that I’m familiar with. But there’s many genres that I’m not very familiar with and I feel punished for not playing them correctly. An example being fighting games: I’m not going to practice enough to pull off any cool combos. I just want to play for a few hours and see some cool character animations and get some cheap thrills, but it’s hard to enjoy them when most of the mechanics take some serious dedication to learn.
While my games all have a difficulty setting, I think they also give the player a lot of options in play styles. They can grind for level ups, they can experiment with tactics, they can stock up on items, they can play levels in different orders – I think all of those are nice to have in a game and make it easier for the difficulty to balance itself. If the player gets stuck, they should have different options available to them so they don’t rage-quit out of frustration. I find it interesting to see what strategies players use in Let’s Plays – some play very safely and try to plan ahead and save up their items, while others skip all the fluff and jump right into battle.
3. Call To Exploration!
Humans are really curious creatures and we love exploring new things!
If a game manages to create a world that begs to be explored, that’s awesome!
This one’s quite simple – the game just needs to have hidden stuff the player wants to find. This is quite easy to implement in something like an RPG – where you can raid NPCs houses for hidden items or notes of dialogue. It’s a bit more work in some other genres.
A good example of exploration is Castle In The Darkness, a NES-style metroidvania game:
• Some secrets have practical use - you can find items that make your character stronger, or notes that give you useful advice. The game is made easier as a reward for exploring – but it feels fair because you put the time and effort into it.
• Some secrets do nothing but put a smile on your face – there’s hidden jokes and fleshed-out references to other games. They serve no purpose, but they show the player that the developer had a lot of fun hiding things, and motivate the player to explore further.
• Some secrets are so well hidden that the player feels an incredible amount of accomplishment for just finding them - They’ll think “wow, I wonder how many other players have found this?! I need to tell everyone about it!” It may be a tiny cracked block in the ceiling, or a very steep cliff that appears un-climbable.
Exploration isn’t limited to finding items and easter eggs. You can explore the very game mechanics too! Just look at Minecraft – you don’t get many instructions, just an endless world with many types of objects that interact with each other in complicated ways. The player naturally wants to figure out how they work, how they can be exploited or played with. So they start building ever more complicated contraptions to test what is possible, and often they’ll be surprised. I found this to be the best part of Minecraft – and once I eventually figured out how everything worked in the game, it became incredibly dull for me. If you’re making a game with many different mechanics, you should think about how you can connect them in creative but intuitive ways, without telling the player about it. They’ll feel great when they discover them. An example of this in Epic Battle Fantasy 4 is combining the poison status effect with poison absorption, therefore allowing poison to be used like a regenerative healing effect. I plan to open many more similar possibilities in EBF5.
For me personally, I think exploration is the most important thing in making an exciting and memorable game – most of my favourite games have a lot of it. Zelda, Pokemon, Mario Bros, Final Fantasy – they all have a lot of very well hidden secrets that feel great to find.
The EBF games involve a lot of exploration – but so far it has mostly been for practical purposes, and a lot of it is quite predictable. I want to put more effort into secrets that have no practical uses at all, or are uncovered in very unique and interesting ways. I want to include more hidden mechanics that aren’t explained or even mentioned in the tutorials. I want players to think “What the hell did I just find? Was I even supposed to see this? I’m so smart for figuring this out!”
I think a lot of exploration is lost when games hold the player’s hand and explain too much to them – that’s the lazy way of designing a game. That’s not to say games shouldn’t nudge the player in the right direction – but they should do it in a subtle way. The player should feel like they figured things out on their own – even if the game was secretly giving hints. Mario and Zelda were great at this: If you noticed a strangely specific configuration of blocks or boulders, you knew something was probably hidden there – and they always eased you into these concepts without explicitly telling you.
4. Make Me Feel Lots Of Things!
Humans have a lot of emotions and psychological needs that a game developer can play with, and I think a lot of games feel bland because they only focus on a few of them.
I already mentioned greed, curiosity and mastery, but here’s some others a game can exploit:
Subsistence – Gamers love food and shelter and comfort. Make them really feel the need for those in the game. Make them salivate when they collect food items. Make them feel warm and fuzzy when they see a cute animal.
Safety - Take the player in and out of dangerous or scary situations, make them crave moments when they are safe. Make them care about the safety of the other characters in the game.
Creativity and freedom - Give the player the ability to create or customize things and express themselves. Make them feel attached to the game because they created a part of it.
Love and lust – Make some attractive characters that the player wants to protect or get involved with or just stare at!
Leisure – Make some minigames or other relaxing activities that allow the player to take a break from the action so they don’t get too stressed out!
There’s a lot of different triggers you can use to make players feel things – you can find lists of emotions and needs on Wikipedia or whatever, and see how many of them your game might invoke in a player.
What’s most important though is variety – too much of anything will make it boring.
If I see a super cute game, I might assume it’s just a generic casual game for kids. But if I see something cute in an otherwise scary adult-themed game, it’s going to be much more powerful and memorable. I’m usually guilty of the opposite – my games have cute graphics but there’s the occasional adult joke, and I get hundreds of comments about how inappropriate they are.
First person shooters are boring to me because you shoot so many people that you no longer feel anything when you do it. If you give me the option to kill or spare enemies – I’ll think about my actions. If you give the enemies stories and personalities – I’ll actually feel guilty about harming them!
I think that’s the key to what made Undertale so fantastic: All the characters in the game are developed and have strong distinct personalities, and you have options in how to treat them. I don’t want to spoil anything, but you feel a lot of emotions in the game because there’s such a variety of circumstances that you have direct influence over.
I have a long way to go before I make anything like Undertale, but I do try to invoke a variety of emotional responses in players, by using: funny, serious or awkward dialogue, delicious or disgusting looking items, creatures that look anything from cute to terrifying, puzzle breaks from the action, and hot anime girls. I think something I can do better is writing more interesting characters – especially enemies and NPCs. I’d like to write characters that feel more alive – especially in battles, which can get a bit monotonous if there’s no interesting dialogue added.
5. Collecting Is Fun!
I’m not sure if collecting is something that all humans like, but a great deal of them seem to really enjoy it. I love it when game developers go out of their way to make interesting collectable items. When you pick up something new, and you see that’s it part of a set, you instinctively want to find more.
There’s tons of different collectables for all sorts of purposes: they can have practical uses (power ups, weapons), be used for bragging rights (achievements, ranks), provide extra information (bestiary, maps), provide more story (story pages), or provide busy-work (quests). Some of my favourite collectables are just artwork: concept art, character trophies, alternate costumes, background music, etc.
Collections often show that the developers put a lot of love into their game – they want you to find every item, they want you to read the description for every enemy, they want you to see the concept art that was made behind the scenes.
Even just watching pointless numbers go up can be fun, it gives you something permanent for all the time you spent messing around in a game. It’s nice to have some stats that say, “Hey, we remember all the time you spent!”
However, a lot of games go overboard with collectables. If collecting stuff is a major part of a game, it better have an incredible amount of variety to it. I feel collectables are generally better off as a progress indicator rather than a central goal – otherwise you just end up mindless idle games. Additionally, the collecting aspect can sometimes pressure a player to backtrack and hunt down items that they’ve missed, even if they don’t really want to, and this can be quite frustrating for completionists. Finding the last few items in a collection should never be a chore – a challenge is okay, but it shouldn’t be boring or tedious. Think of games that give you some sort of item map towards the end that makes finishing collections much easier.
So basically, use collectables responsibly and make sure they’re fun!