Thursday, January 28, 2010

How I Design Games: Three P's

The three P's is a game design approach that I believe in. If your desire is to increase your games' chances of being successful and reduce its risk in the marketplace, I think the three P's can help.

Use the three P's as a guide when designing a video game concept. You may ask, why is this important? Why not just make good games, right? I truly wish the video game business was as pure as that. It was a little more like that in the 8-bit / 16-bit era with the NES (Famicom), SNES (Super Famicom), and Genesis (Mega Drive). But, the Utopian approach of "build it and they will come" has become increasingly more difficult to achieve.

It is important to consider your audience(s). Now, this assumes that you're a commercial artist that is interested in more than just pleasing yourself. If your goal is to make an artistic statement with a personal expression of ones' inner self through the medium of video games, you should probably stop reading this and get back to your inner expressing. There are three audiences that you should consider, the three Ps':

The first P is Players.
The second P is Publishers.
The third P is Press.

You may find it strange, and possibly feel a little dirty, when seeing publishers and press listed as important audiences. This gets back to the desire of wanting your game to be successful. Publishers and press are integral to the success of your game. The folks in publisher and press land are nice people - give them a chance to prove it. Here's a breakdown of why each P is important to consider when designing your game.

This is the most obvious P, of course. The most important audience to please is the players. If players do not find your game interesting, fun, scary, challenging, cool, and/or awesome, then you have failed. Hopefully, you are a player yourself, and that is why you have the desire to make your own games. Tap into your inner player and ensure you're geeking out inside (or outside) about our idea. Have other people play your game. Make sure people are able to understand and play your game - without you coaching them. The game should speak for itself. Make sure they like it. Watch them play it. Take note of their successes, failures, and frustrations when playing your game. Players are the one audience you can not take for granted or over look. At the end of the day, if you miss the boat on this P it's all over.

Why are publishers on the short list? Because they give you the money you need to make your game (unless you go the investor route, but that's different story). They also put money into PR and marketing. They are the champions of your game. Get the publisher on board, and everything will sail much smoother. What is the ultimate desire of a publisher? To make money. Convince a publisher that your game will make them money, and you're a made man (or woman). That is not to say publishers aren't interested in quality too, but that's what the other two P's are for.

Press? Why should I care what the press thinks? The press are important in keeping your game on track in terms of design, quality, and value. Good reviewers will tear your game apart, measuring it against the best in the genre. Review scores are important. You'd better make sure your game measures up, or the score you receive will reflect any shortcomings. If you can get your metacritic / game rankings score in the 70's or above it will not only help the overall success of your game, but also help pave the way to making your next game.

Now, some of you may instantly want to look at the games that I've designed to see if this approach works. OK, that's fair. Let's do that.

Dementium: The Ward:
I'll be the first to admit that this game was not designed with the approach of the three P's entirely in mind. Due to the fact that Dementium: The Ward is a mature game on the Nintendo DS, its risk factor goes up, which equates to publishers not being convinced of its monetary value in the market place. However, when we shopped this game around (as a playable demo) we received offers from three publishers. Now, it is important to realize that this was in 2007. The DS market was a very different place then. And, publishers were willing to take a little more risk than they are today. In hind sight, I wouldn't have done anything differently. The game received awards and scored well, and it sold enough copies to warrant a sequel. The aim of Dementium: The Ward was to be different; a throbbing bloody thumb, sticking out in the sea of fluffy bunnies and blue skies. It made its' mark, and helped put Renegade Kid on the map. Well, the map of DS land anyway.

The design of Moon was slightly more in line with the three P's. A basic summary of the game could look something like this: "A game like Metroid Hunters in a market where player's want a sequel to Metroid Hunters". Is that the best way to design a game? No, perhaps not, but the game was a lot of fun to make and critics agree that Moon out-Metroid's Metroid Hunters. It scored higher than Dementium, and received multiple awards - IGN's Best Shooter 2009, Editor's Choice Award, etc. We delivered a title that quenched the Metroid thirst, while delivering its own flavor of space adventure, with a fraction of the budget and time afforded to Nintendo's Metroid Hunters. Success! The thing I didn't count on was the lack of advertising the game would receive. To be fair, there were some glossy print ads run in magazines in November 2008. But, we delayed the game to make it better, which resulted in a January 2009 release. I have to give credit to Mastiff for doing the right thing in terms of quality; allowing us to make the game all it could be. But, at what cost? Due to the delay, there was not enough funds to run ads on-line or anywhere else the day the game was released or any time after that. The result is a critically-acclaimed and award-winning game that not many people know about. Exposure of your game is key, obviously.

Dementium II:
This game is due out April 20, 2010. So, the jury's out on whether the game is good or successful. Our approach to this title was to build upon the success of the first game, rather than reinvent it. We improved practically everything, including the save system, enemy re-spawning, visual variety in locations and enemies. We added jump/crouch, and allow for dual wielding of the flashlight and single-handed weapons. I am truly proud of the game, and eagerly await everyone's thoughts on the game. So far, the previews have been very positive. So, we're off to a good start.

Anyway, I need to get back to work. I hope you enjoyed this little peak into our world. Let me know your thoughts.