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The Art of Computer Game Design
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PRECEPT #2: DON T TRANSPLANT
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(Now our hero is plummeting earthward from the top of a cliff, furiously flapping makeshift wings attached to his arms.) One of the most disgusting denizens of computer gamedom is the transplanted game. This is a game design originally developed on another medium that some misguided soul has seen fit to reincarnate on a computer. The high incidence of this practice does not excuse its fundamental folly. The most generous reaction I can muster is the observation that we are in the early stages of computer game design; we have no sure guidelines and must rely on existing technologies to guide us. Some day we will look back on these early transplanted games with the same derision with which we look on early aircraft designs based on flapping wings. Why do I so vehemently denounce transplanted games Because they are design bastards, the illegitimate children of two technologies that have nothing in common. Consider the worst example I have discovered so far, a computer craps game. The computer displays and rolls two dice for the player in a standard game of craps. The computer plays the game perfectly well, but that is not the point. The point is, why bother implementing on the computer a game that works perfectly well on another technology A pair of dice can be had for less than a dollar. Indeed, a strong case can be made that the computer version is less successful than the original. Apparently one of the appeals of the game of craps is the right of the player to shake the dice himself. Many players share the belief that proper grip on the dice, or speaking to them, or perhaps kissing them will improve their luck. Thus, the player can maintain the illusion of control, of participation rather than observation. The computer provides none of this; the mathematics may be the same, but the fantasy and illusion aren t there. In one way or another, every transplanted game loses something in the translation. It may also gain something, but it always loses something. This is because any game that succeeds in one technology does so because it is optimized to that technology; it takes maximum advantage of the strengths and avoids the weaknesses. The transplanted version uses the same design on a different set of strengths and weaknesses; it will almost certainly be a lesser product. Any memorable artistic expression is as much a creature of its vehicle of expression as it is an image of a thought. Shakespeare reads best in Elizabethan English; translation to modern English loses some of the verve and linguistic panache that we find so entertaining. The rhetoric of Isocrates, dull and drab in English, acquires a compelling cadence in Greek that thrills the listener. Great books that touched our souls when we read them almost always disappoint us when we see their movie adaptations. Why should computer games be immune to this law of loss on translation
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PRECEPT #3: DESIGN AROUND THE I/O
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(Now our man is putting the final touches onto a gigantic and complex machine with pipes, valves, smokestacks, and many wires. On the front face of the machine is a sign that reads,
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The Art of Computer Game Design
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"Make your move". Underneath it are two buttons labeled "CHOICE A" and "CHOICE B". To the right of this are a pair of illuminable signs, one reading, "YOU WIN!!!", the other reading "YOU LOSE!!!" ) As I mentioned earlier, the computer s ability to calculate is a strength, but it s I/O is a weakness. Thus, the primary limitation facing the computer game designer is not in the machine s ability to perform complex computations, but in the I/O: moving the information between the computer and the human player. The game must be designed in such a way that the information given to the player flows naturally and directly from the screen layout and sound output. I have seen far too many games with good game structures that were ruined by poor I/O structures. The user was never able to appreciate the architectural beauties of the game because they were buried in a confusing display structure. Even worse are the games that sport poor input arrangements, especially poor use of the keyboard. Most game players find keyboards difficult to use smoothly. Difficulty can in some cases create challenge, but difficulties with keyboards generate only frustration. The implementation of the game will be dominated by the limitations of I/O. What can and cannot be displayed, what can and cannot be inputted, these things must decide the shape of the same. A comparison of two of my own games provides an excellent example of the importance of I/O structures. EASTERN FRONT 1941 and TANKTICS (trademark of Avalon-Hill) are both wargames dealing with World War II. Both provide reasonably intelligent opponents, complex detailed simulation, a rich variety of options, and thought-provoking strategic challenges. In all these respects, they are roughly equivalent. They differ primarily in their I/O. EASTERN FRONT 1941 was designed around its I/O; it provides clean, informative graphics and an intuitively obvious joystick input system. By contrast, TANKTICS was designed around its game structure; its keyboard input system is clumsy and confusing and its alphanumeric; screen display is cryptic. EASTERN FRONT 1941 has been acclaimed by the critics and has received awards; TANKTICS has been panned. The quality of a game s I/O structure is crucial to its success.
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