“Gameplay first.”

It’s the motto of indie developers everywhere – it doesn’t matter how pretty your game is, as long as its fun. Here at the University of Abertay, its game development lesson #1 … and lessons #101, #107 and #225-#778. We’re pushed at every stage of development to test, prototype, block out, to the point that I’ve had artists refuse to submit models and animations because they fear being chastised by lecturers for adding too much content too early. Good practice – according to our lecturers and a number of industry peers I’ve spoken to – is to use the most basic assets when first trying out a gameplay feature.

However, based on recent events, I’m starting to understand that gameplay is only part of the overall experience, and that focussing on simplicity and using basic assets can produce misleading results in prototyping. There’s more to playing a game than simply the level layouts, movement speeds, controls and timings. “Gameplay” is just one part of the process in designing a game. This is why you can shoot down a title like, say, LA Noire (or even my beloved The Secret Of Monkey Island) on the basis of not being a great quote-unquote “game”, but its still fun to play. Designing a game is about creating an overall interactive experience – a responsive cycle of input and output between a user/player and a software system. Communication, responsiveness and character are just as much a part of the experience as the pacing or level layout. Abstract images can, after all, only convey so much information without setting or context.

I witnessed this personally on my current project.

It was decided from the start of the project that, although the programmers would work from the ground-up on a completely separate platform, we would produce a rapid prototype of our game in Unity. You can see from the shot above that it was as basic as it comes – our Lead Artist knocked up a curved terrain and a blocky castle mesh, and our Producer (who happens to know Unity inside and out) put together a basic prototype of the game. This was then handed off to me, as designer, to test out movement speeds, waypoints, and new game features.

Overall, I knew that there was a need for the game to be tense. The cubes marching towards the castle would, by the project’s end, be a horde of marauding zombies. The closer they came to the wall, the more danger I needed the player to feel. The thing was, try as I might, I just couldn’t seem to do anything to increase the tension as I played with the prototype. Faster movement, slower movement, a limit of number of shots fired over short spaces of time … nothing seemed to produce quite the right sensation.

Finally, on a whim and tired of staring at blank cubes all day, I fired up Photoshop.

Woah! Suddenly, the game just got a lot more fierce. These weren’t just cubes moving towards me – these were BAD cubes! By association, my little pill shaped avatar wasn’t just a placeholder any more – he was a hero.

A couple months later, I was given more feedback from my tutor: the game was good … fun … but it lacked “oomph”. What it was lacking in particular he couldn’t put his finger on – something in feedback, something that just said “yeah, this is fun”. Of course, the game was still unfinished. We were working on putting in sounds and particle effects – things that, during the planning phase, we’d earmarked as “slightly more important polishing” elements, not essential to the gameplay. As soon as we addressed these, I started catching coworkers giggling with glee and bouncing up and down when they test the latest build. It might not be perfect, but the “oomph” factor is there now, and it seems to be a big part of the experience of our game – and it all came down to things we previously figured to be extraneous to the “gameplay” and thus – in a pinch – expendable.

Artists might already understand this idea – after all, there’s more to character design than drawing a pretty picture of a person. A character design should go some way to communicating a character’s personality. Without this, even the prettiest and most well-painted concept art would be seen as a poor design. In the same way, things we might see as extraneous to the play experience of a game – such as textures, camera effects or sound – are actually a very big part of the experience as a whole.

Of course, block meshes are important. Level layout, object placement and pacing are things you can set early on in the project while waiting for other assets to catch up. What I feel I’ve learned is to appreciate how little that can tell you about the overall finished experience of the product. As such, I think there might be a solution in drafting artists in to make sure that block meshes and early prototypes can, at the very least, contain some basic imagery which conveys the context of a block, or evokes a similar feeling to the intention of the final asset.