As game designers or future game designers, we want our ideas to come to life, but if we don't have any programming skills this means that we will have to ask for somebody's help. Fortunately, this scenario is over, as Hands-on Game Development Without Coding will guide we through the basics to create your own video game without writing any code.
We will start this book by going through several game and level design topics to motivate our creativity, before starting our experience with Unity 2D and 3D Game Kits in the upcoming chapters.
The following topics will be covered in this chapter:
- Game design fundamentals
- Player psychology
- 2D and 3D gameplay
- Level design
- Game aesthetics
It is well known that game design can be tricky, and not having a proper, well-tested design for our game will eventually give us more than one headache. This is the reason why the very first thing to do before starting our video game development is to organize our ideas by following game design fundamentals.
By doing this, we will have the opportunity to address many inconsistencies and contradictions that will crop up in our game, as well as avoiding many dead ends and frustration for our game's players.
These fundamentals will guide us through each and every detail of our video game, focusing on players' interaction with it, and their reactions.
The six game design fundamentals are as follows:
- Player progression
The first fundamental of game design is anticipation, which means we have to give players all the essential information about our game. This means being completely honest with them, for example, explaining what the story's main idea is, what the gameplay will be like, how hard it will be to overcome puzzles or enemies, what the appropriate age to play this game is, and what the environment/theme is.
Of course, we don't have to tell players everything; it is always good to have some aces up our sleeves, but basic information explaining what players will encounter will avoid their frustration in the future, which could eventually lead to losing their trust.
A good example of this is Dark Souls. Imagine the first 30 minutes in Dark Souls is fighting with enemies that are really easy, with no chance of dying, and then we get to the Boss Fight, which, of course, can kill us in two or three hits. Then, the player would get the You Died screen in about 15 seconds perhaps, and it would cause a negative reaction because they didn't anticipate it. What is the solution for this? Basically, anything can kill us in between one and five hits, no matter how tough our player is, or which weapon we are wielding. By doing this, the player knows this is a tough game, in which we will be killed plenty of times, and we'll just have to get used to it.
If they know what to expect from our game, it is up to them to choose how to proceed, but it is our job to point them in the right direction, which leads us to the next fundamental.
The second fundamental is focus, and I like to use this word because it has two interpretations.
The first one is giving players something or someone to focus on. We should always give players some tips as to which is the right direction to go in, because if not, they will try to guess where they should be heading, and it is possible many of them will fail at in knowing where to go. If a player finds themselves wandering around with no direction for several minutes, they will become frustrated, and this is exactly what we are trying to avoid. But, usually, players to feel that they are not being taken by the hand through the game, and this is why these tips need to be as minimal as possible.
A good example of this is in Naughty Dog's Uncharted series. In these games, we will always find the right direction if we follow what I call the yellow tips, which means they usually use the color yellow to point us in the right direction by using yellow pipes, yellow flags, yellow edges, yellow straps, and so on. After we have played the game for about one hour, this becomes an unconscious decision and we feel nobody is helping us through the game, but deep down they are.
The second one is focus on players, which means our main attention has to be placed on them. They are the reason we are developing this game, they are the target of our ideas, so we need to challenge them, keep them satisfied, give them reasons to go on with the story, maintain their interest, get them through different emotions—joy, fear, happiness, and challenge them, depending on the theme of our game. We need to show the player, through our game, that they are the main focus of it, and everything revolves around them.
The third fundamental is announcement, which leads to one reaction from the player we want to avoid at all cost: Where did that come from?
Announcements to players are essential for the gameplay, and these may come in many shapes and many forms. We need to inform players in some way that something is about to happen. The player like to be prepared to react, and to make a decision, but in order to do this, some sort of hint has to be given at the right time.
We don't necessarily need to do this every time; in fact, going back to Dark Souls, designers chose not to do so (at least hardly ever), but that game is designed from its core to be as hard and frustrating as possible—it is kind of one of its main features. So, unless our targets are hardcore gamers, we should at least, in a subtle way, announce to our players that something is about to happen.
Let's try to explain this with an example.
Imagine we are playing a Treasure Hunter game in which we need to walk through a secret cave in Bolivia filled with traps. If the player was never told that the cave had traps, it may cause a negative reaction. So, what we should do is have a Non-Playable Character (NPC) with him/her who says, remember there are traps in this cave, which can be triggered by stepping on the wrong spot, or finding bodies on the ground with injuries that could have been caused by a trap. Also, as shown in the following screenshot, we could walk the NPC directly into a trap, activating it. Some of these options are more visible to the user, and than others, so, depending on our target audience, we should choose the most suitable one:
We can see that the NPC character, colored in blue, steps on the trap. We can execute a click sound at the same moment to indicate that something happened and get the player's attention. Once we are sure we have got them looking at the NPC with our announcement, we move on to the next step, the reaction. The player will now see an NPC killed by the trap, so they will learn that they have to be careful from now on:
The fourth fundamental is behaviors, and it refers strictly to the behaviors of world objects and living things in our environment. Everything that happens inside our game must follow the same logic because, unconsciously, the player is expecting that, and as I mentioned in the previous fundamentals, we do not want to break our players' trust in or expectations of our game.
Not only should we maintain their trust, but we should also maintain environmental coherence, in which the player can move without being interrupted because something was off. This will cause a deeper relationship between the game and the user, which leads to a great experience.
Imagine we are back in the Bolivian cave and one trap makes the entire room flood; it would be more immersive to see how some objects are affected by the water, by getting wet and finally floating around. Anything that gives the impression that what is happening in the environment is consistent should be considered as a way to move forward.
Let's go back to the announcement example, for which we also have the following screenshot for reference. If the NPC walks over the trap and it isn't activated, then as a player, I will assume that if I walk over the same trap it won't be activated. So, if we don't follow this consistency and decide to activate the trap, the player will consider this to be unfair and will become frustrated, and of course we are trying to avoid this:
The NPC walks over the trap. If the rules apply to the entire world equally, the trap should be activated for both characters, or neither character, regardless of which one is the player and which one is the NPC/enemy:
The NPC/enemy steps on the trap and nothing is activated, so the player continues, with the player having in mind that perhaps the trap is stuck and cannot be activated. They trust us to be fair:
So, following that logic, the player decides to walk over the trap. Once the decision is taken, the player hears a sound, the trap goes off, and finally we see the spikes:
The trap is activated, the player character is dead, and now the player is mad at us.
Player progression is the fifth fundamental. Although it may sound redundant alongside focus on the player, I'm here to tell you the difference.
In Focus section, I explained that the game must revolve around the player, and through player progression, we, as designers, will make the player feel that. Why is that? Simple—once players go through several levels, they will get used to the gameplay and the mechanics, and will end up feeling that our game is no challenge for them. So, usually, we decide to create more difficult levels and enemies, but in this case, player progression will end up being a punishment.
This is why we need to keep on showing them that they are the center of attention, and reward them for them to keep on playing. There are many ways to do this, for example, we can add features to the player—some special skills, armory/weaponry, or skins for our player. Enemies have to keep up with the player's progression, because if not, the player will become overpowered and ruin the user experience.
The sixth fundamental is environment. It is one of the most important because we can speak to the player through our environment. We can achieve this in many ways, through sounds that can anticipate events that will happen in the future, always maintaining coherence, or through lighting, objects, animals, and backgrounds, among many other things.
On top of this, the environment has to affect the player because, as part of the world, in some way, it was shaped by them. But in order to make the player feel that every choice they make matters and affects their surroundings, we can make the environment change through player progress.
A perfect example for this situation is the environment changes in God of War 3. As soon as the game starts, we get to kill Poseidon and flood Greece in the process; then Hades, which liberates all human souls; Helios, hiding the sun forever after; and more when we move forward.
Not only do we communicate via the visuals and sounds we use, but also through the space we provide for the player to move in. For example, if we want the player to feel that they are trapped, we can reduce the amount of movement they can perform. Or if we want them to feel lost, we can provide a big map with a few things to find on it.
It is important that we have in mind that, if enemies appear in our environments, we need to plan our levels so that the amount of space is consistent with the amount of enemies, and provide the opportunity for the player to beat them.
These principles will guide us through a good design for our video game, always having in mind that the player must be and feel themselves to be the center of attention, feeling challenged and rewarded and never having their trust broken, in a coherent world that is constantly talking to them in many ways.
By doing this, together with attractive gameplay mechanics, well-designed levels, and nice aesthetics, our game will give the player an immersive and unforgettable experience.
What comes to mind when playing a video game?
If we try to find an answer to this question, first we have to spend a lot time thinking about player psychology:
- What is their motivation for playing?
- What are they expecting from my game?
- Is this what they are looking for?
- How can I communicate my ideas through the environment or the mechanics?
These, and many more questions, are the initial steps towards analyzing our target players, but first we need to have in mind some common ground between all players.
A video game is a digital world in which, restricted by rules set by the creators, the players can take their own decisions and actions, and experience the reactions of the environment. Within these rules, they will go through different emotions and feelings, which will remind them why they are playing.
Now, going back to our first question, what comes to our mind when playing a video game, we should have in mind these main emotions we need to make the players feel:
Player motivation is the key reason why they will start our game and keep on playing. Of course, we can state that they already have an initial motivation that makes them buy or download the game, and later initialize it. So, now it is up to us to convince them to stay.
Our first step is to know our target audience. Everything we do is for them, every single detail decision in our game must be made only if it will be something good for our target. Don't get me wrong—this doesn't mean that we must give them everything they may want or need; what I mean is that they are the main reason we are creating this game, so we must keep our promise and provide them with what they came looking for in the first place. For example, if I am a hardcore gamer, I might want a video game to push me to the limit, and be extremely challenging and long, with different gameplay mechanics. Imagine we buy the next Bloodborne and, when we play it, it feels really easy, there's no blood in the game, no monsters, and no hunters. We wouldn't feel motivated to keep on playing and would end up quitting within the first hour.
Motivation comes in many different forms, depending on our target audience. Here are some key points:
- Casual game consumers: Simple mechanics, not heavy content, fun, challenging (but not frustrating), and few control settings
- Indie game consumers: Simple or normal complexity mechanics, fun, challenging, good story to tell, nice and innovative art style, and normal control settings
- Hardcore game consumers: Complex mechanics, extremely challenging, great story, filled with emotion, lots of content, rewards, and game plus (starting the game again with every skill and item we had on our previous play)
This and many more are some basic keys, but of course are also affected by the genre of the game, the platform on which the game is going to be played, and the age of the audience, among other factors.
Once we have players' attention and have motivated them to keep on playing our game, what we have to try to do is get them so interested in our game that they eventually feel immersed in it. The stronger the immersion is, the more motivated players are, the longer they will play, and the better their experience of our game will be.
But, how can we get our players' motivation so high that they feel they are inside the game? This is one of the hardest questions to answer, because it depends on our ideas, our mechanics, our gameplay, and our story. But there is another question as important as this one: once we get them immersed, what do we have to do to keep them that way?
There are some standards that we should follow, to both create interesting content to generate an immersive game, and to prevent us from taking the player out of that immersion.
The environment is our strongest weapon in this case. Through our environment, we can talk in many ways, we can communicate with the player and influence their decisions. Background music, art styles, epic backgrounds, wonderful characters and enemies, props, and objects. All of must be used to make the player feel the world is alive, changing around them. Interaction with these characters, and objects—being able to break some glass, throw some chairs around, change some local town's history by saving the princess—are the key to generating an immersive world.
The interaction between the player and the game is delimited by some standard rules we, as designers, set. These rules control the environment in which players will have to do some decision-making, which means, at some point, they will try to do something our rules won't let them. This is the reason why we need to show or teach these rules to players as soon as the game starts, because if they keep on playing, that means they silently agreed to all the standards that we established in the first place.
As I explained in the previous section, everything and everyone within our video game must follow the same rules. Breaking this rule would mean breaking the player-rules agreement, and would immediately take the player out of their immersion by making them frustrated, angry, or just wonder what happened. We must try to avoid this at all costs. So, if we are thinking about objects, enemies, or NPCs, make sure they follow the same basics as the player.
There is no satisfaction without punishment.
Punishment in a video game is as essential as satisfaction if we want the player to feel motivated. Do we mean players need to suffer throughout our game in order to enjoy it? Of course not; unless our idea is similar to Nioh, Dark Souls, or Bloodborne. What I am trying to say is that there are more ways to make a player satisfied than just giving them rewards.
Haven't you ever felt the need to beat that level that took you so long? I am sure when you did, you felt extremely satisfied. And what about finally beating that enemy against whom you held a grudge? Shut up and take that Liquid Snake! I am sure you felt satisfied when you finished a game, and of course, when you were rewarded with some cool skill or weapon for saving the day.
We shouldn't confuse aiming for player satisfaction with giving them rewards or making everything easy for them; actually, they usually don't want that. Of course, we can't continually keep on challenging them, non-stop, because this would cause an inverse process: the intensity that the player experienced may be too much for some players.
So, thinking about pacing is a solution. We have to balance moments of action, fun, tension, and small versus difficult challenges—basically, balance every situation. Every extreme is a bad decision.
What we should also consider in these moments is that, if we are aiming for a great artistic moment, which could be musical or visual, we should give the player some time to enjoy that; walking around a digital world with a great Original Soundrack (OST) is always appreciated by the players. After, player will be ready for the next challenge, so we better be prepared world, here we come!
When we start brainstorming a video game, there is a question we always ask ourselves: how can we define the best gameplay for this game? Before we go through some basics, we should have a clear understanding of what we consider gameplay to be.
Gameplay is the essence of our game; it defines the challenge for our players, how our world will communicate with them, and how they will communicate with it. We should not consider visuals, sounds, our plot, or history to be part of our gameplay, but different ways we can express it.
An easy way to understand this is to relate gameplay to the playability of our game. Although this doesn't mean that it can only be defined as game mechanics, we can say that it involves everything about them, for example:
- The genre
- The features our character or our enemies have
- How we can interact with our player
- How can we move them?
- What they we can? (jump, run, swim, fly, craft, and destroy)
- Features that our environment has
We find many mechanics repeated in many games, usually because they are part of what we call genres. Video games that belong to the same genre tend to be similar in some of their basic mechanics, which means in their basic gameplay.
There are many genres in the video game industry, so we will point out the one that we are going to be working with in Hands-On Game Development without Coding and talk about it in detail, which is the platform genre.
Whenever somebody mentions platform games, also known as platformers, we can't stop ourselves from thinking of one particular game, Mario Bros. But is it OK to think of platformers only as 2D side scrollers? Of course not, there are many ways in which a platformer game can grow, and depending on whether we are planning 2D or 3D, it might grow in very different directions.
This genre gets its name from its early beginnings, where levels were levitating platforms. Through levels, players had to avoid obstacles and enemies, jump from one platform to another, usually at different heights, and, depending on the theme of the game, among many orientations; we can point out the most used:
- Action-oriented, where we fight different kinds of enemies in constant dynamic battles throughout each level. Facing different kinds of enemies, and probably bosses, will be one of the key features of this kind of orientation, as will having different skills and weapons that we will be adding to our character. The game will have to increase in difficulty as long as our player grows in experience, skills, and equipment.
- Puzzle-oriented, in which we will have to think of the key to beat each level so that we can progress. Usually, in these games, we don't face many enemies, but we are placed in certain situations in which we will have to use our brains to proceed. Riddles, secret doors, and tool combinations are commonly used in this type of game.
- Adventure-oriented, where we will be taken into a great story. This can be considered a balance between puzzle and action, but usually, in this case, the creators of the game have a beautiful story to tell us. In addition to this, usually, adventure-oriented platform games have an interesting OST and great artwork styles.
2D platformers don't have to be side scrollers such as Mario Bros; we can think of Donkey Kong as a puzzle platformer, Bubble Bobble as an action platformer, or even isometric platformers such as Sega Genesis' Sonic 3D Blast.
What unites the platform genre is jumping mechanics, and usually simple character controls. This is the reason why it has become such a hit in the last few years for indie game developers. A great story, awesome art style, challenging puzzles, and simple mechanics always make a great game. Good examples are Braid, Cuphead, Limbo, Ori, and Blind Forest, among many other 2D platformers:
This gameplay can also be found in 3D, which of course came later in video game history. In this case, platforms are shown in different forms, sometimes part of the terrain, other times as part of the level environment. Super Mario 64 is another side of the same coin, as a 3D platform game.
The same subgenres of platformers—action, puzzle, and adventure—are the basis of many games, and though it may be hard to understand, try to think about this. Crash Bandicoot could perfectly be a 2D side-scrolling runner with the exact same logic the game has nowadays; this is why we are talking about a 3D platformer runner. The same logic applies to Zelda: Majora's Mask, for example. This game can easily be considered an adventure 3D platformer, because it has many platform levels, jumping from one to another, with enemies to fight in each of these levels, puzzles, and more of the features every platform game has. But what about 3D puzzle platformers? Easy—have you heard about Portal? There isn't a better example of this; we have platforms, we have puzzles, and we can move in every axis:
You might be thinking, OK, I get it, now how can I create an interesting level with these mechanics? Come, follow me to the next phase.
We have been talking about players' trust, motivation, immersion, rewards and punishments, and mechanics. Each one of these fragments is put together inside our levels, so it is our job to balance everything in order to keep players' attention and belief.
With this in mind, our level has to fit with our characters, both player and NPC, and the elements that are present have to be appropriate. This congruence is in art style, sound effects, and behaviors. So, do you mean that if the level aesthetics are the same as the characters and the objects, and these have the appropriate reactions, that would mean I created the perfect level? Sorry, my friend, but no, that is just a small part of it.
Appropriate behaviors also mean that characters in the game must act according to their history and the world environment. We can't be playing a fantasy medieval game and, when we get to talk with the King of the Realm, he says to us, Yo, dawg, I heard you like killing some dragons. So, you wanna kill me some dragons so we can live in peace? That would be really weird; please, I beg you, don't you dare.
Once we have worked hard to get every piece balanced, we must face the most difficult challenge; we have to create something self-explained, entertaining, and challenging.
Instructions in a level are critical for anyone who chooses to play our game. These instructions can be shown in two ways: either we can choose to play a tutorial with a heavy User Interface (UI) showing buttons and texts, which is the classic way, or we can choose to give players instructions while they are experiencing the game:
Many level designers believe in using this second option, because it sticks in the players' minds. The first thing we do in Mario Bros is smash a brick, step on Goompa and grab a mushroom, so this means that after playing for 15 seconds, we know the basics for the rest of the game; no gameplay mechanic will surprise us, at least for several levels more:
Whenever we choose to show a basic concept, it is always good to encapsulate the situation as much as possible. We have to try to let the player face that unique situation and learn from it, in a logical way, not being influenced by any other external effect that might change the final outcome.
Entertainment is usually related to gameplay and the story. We must try to think of game mechanics that belong in our world, and its history. Don't forget that, usually, through the game we will be telling a story, so if we leave this out, at some point, players will lose interest in the game, because they will feel that nothing they do influences the world they are in. The player has to be continually looking forward to the next level, the next piece of the story.
So, don't hesitate to give a tip in the form of a bar encounter, a photo we have been given by a treasure hunter, a story told by a local musician, or any other way that comes to mind!
How do we become better at this? Read books and stories, play any type of game, then play the same genre and subgenre of game we want to create, type down everything we like and everything you hate about those, and try to find better ways and answers. But, don't forget, our game has to be unique—the player is not looking for the next Shadow of the Colossus; they have Shadow of the Collosus for that, so give them something different, innovative, and new.
People buy games because they want to be challenged, of course in many different ways, depending on the game. The challenge is related to the difficulty we add at certain points of the game; this can be provided by puzzles, by enemies who last longer and hit harder, by adding more enemies, or by strategy planning.
Be careful, as I mentioned before, we have to keep in mind players' frustrations, so be sure to balance every critical moment of our game. Frustration leads to quitting.
In order to avoid this, it is always a good practice to present small challenges at first, and only then give the player a big challenge, which will require different skills learned on previous challenges. Also, taking into account player progression, we can choose to present a certain situation to a player they can't beat at that time, in order to show them that, in the near future, they will learn a new skill, and the user will then look forward to it. With this, we also avoid using many different gameplay mechanics all at once, at the beginning, which may create the impression of a complicated controller setting. Unity 2D Game Kit boss fight is as shown follows:
This level is difficult for someone who hasn't played the game. This is why we always play a few level, before finally facing a boss. The same goes for the following screenshot, where the player is facing two bosses at once in an epic finale:
Whenever we talk about game aesthetics, we need to keep in mind that they are considered to be the way we perceive beauty. Of course, we can relate this to video games, because, as players, we are involved in a continuous sense interaction with the game we are playing, not only visual, but auditory and experiencing sensations.
Since the wave of indie games started, aesthetics have become a critical feature for some gamers. They would prefer to play an art-focused video game, rather than playing a mainstream sport or First Person Shooter (FPS) game. This type of player likes to be part of an experience, to enter a musical world that takes them through different feelings, or encounter situations in which the level design and our game mechanics make them perceive sensations. If we like this type of gaming experience and we haven't played Journey, drop this book, buy the game, and play it. We won't get a better example of game aesthetics than that masterpiece.
This can be achieved through music, character shapes, environment shapes, character body expressions, game mechanics, level design, art style, and with the use of color. Each and every one of these pieces must be in perfect balance in an artistic congruence. We can also create artistic incongruence, if we want to make the player feel like something is wrong.
Since I have been talking long enough about level design, game mechanics, and environments, I would like to delve deeper into some art styles.
In the last decade, we have had the chance to play a huge amount of artistic games, with very distinctive art styles. These have been influenced by the interests of consumers, and have faced constant changes. I would like to mention some examples to talk about art styles.
Images used were searched for in OPENGAMEART.ORG (https://opengameart.org/art-search-advanced) under creative commons CCo license.
Telltale's The Walking Dead, memorable games that recreated comic-like graphics with cell shading, a graphic process that makes colors flat and adds a black contour. This 3D toon/comic feel lets imagine that we are part of a comic book, living and interacting in it, making our own decisions and changing that fictional world's history:
Cell shading props look like they are painted, but are actually 3D objects.
Limbo was one of the most enjoyable horror games on a 2D platform. Simple in its mechanics, we can agree that its monochromatic art style, like 40s/50s film noir, was a great decision from Playdead. They barely use light, and we don't meet many other characters in the game, in order to emphasize the solitude of the player and the hostility of the darkness. We as players, we want to help that little kid, living that horrible nightmare, and any sign of light is a sign of hope:
The preceding screenshot shows how art noir meets pixel art (https://edermunizz.itch.io/free-pixel-art-forest).
Child of Light is a fairy tale told in a wonderful watercolor art style, using dark tones to accentuate the fact that the world is suffering because of the shadows cast by our enemy. There is consistency with this watercolor in every single aspect of the game, characters, environment, menus, props, and visual effects. The music flows great, together with the art style, making this a great experience:
The watercolor background is in congruence with the watercolor ogre.
Journey was an award-winning video game made by Thatgamecompany, a company dedicated to making experience video games. Every single aspect of the game makes players experience different feelings: solitude, hope, loneliness, the immensity of the environment, and smallness. The perfect use of color throughout the game contributes to a great atmosphere created by the game's wonderful art and great OST:
Minimalist background, great use of contrast and colors and how the encourage feelings of thoughtfulness.
Fez: as we are going through a vintage phase, where we like to play old video games, what better idea than creating new video games that look old. Pixel art was the answer to this, and it nailed it. This game uses pixel-based art, accordingly using 8-bit music so as not to break the congruence, making the player feel nostalgic. Adding its own mechanics of different planes, this game is a puzzle in itself:
Classic art style, created by the low pixel quantity.
Cuphead is one of the latest game-changing art-style video games. Using a 30s cartoon art style, we embody a character who bets his soul with the devil, and then must work for him. Everything in this game is well thought out: the design of the enemies we face, the environments, the visual effects, the bosses; even the jazzy music belongs to the same period as the art style used. Every single one of these aspects make this game a masterpiece.
We have covered almost all the basics of game design, so now we know that we need to think about holding players' attention, and consider key game mechanics, level distribution, art styles, and music to hold on to the attention our game is given.
We also learned how to communicate with players through our environment, props, enemies, and NPC in order to guide them without being obvious about it, and as a result, prevent them from quitting. Do not hesitate to reward and punish players, because both have the same effect if used wisely.
And last but not least, don't forget to keep on presenting challenges to players, as that is the reason they choose to play a video game and not watch a movie. Make puzzles for them, create difficult enemy bosses, and put them in situations they won't experience in real life.
In the next chapter, we will start our journey through Unity 3D. At the beginning, we will cover some of the basics and the UI, and as soon as we can imagine, we will be creating our first video game without programming a single line of code.
Now, let's turn on the PC and prepare for a game-changing experience. Come on, join me on this quest.