Want to design your own video games? Let expert Scott Rogersshow you how! If you want to design and build cutting-edge video games butaren't sure where to start, then the SECOND EDITION of theacclaimed Level Up! is for you! Written by leading videogame expert Scott Rogers, who has designed the hits Pac ManWorld, Maximo and SpongeBob Squarepants, thisupdated edition provides clear and well-thought out examples thatforgo theoretical gobbledygook with charmingly illustrated conceptsand solutions based on years of professional experience. Level Up! 2nd Edition has been NEWLYEXPANDED to teach you how to develop marketable ideas, learn whatperils and pitfalls await during a game's pre-production,production and post-production stages, and provide even morecreative ideas to serve as fuel for your own projectsincluding: * Developing your game design from the spark of inspiration allthe way to production * Learning how to design the most exciting levels, the mostprecise controls, and the fiercest foes that will keep your playerschallenged * Creating games for mobile and console systems - includingdetailed rules for touch and motion controls * Monetizing your game from the design up * Writing effective and professional design documents with thehelp of brand new examples Level Up! 2nd Edition is includes all-new content, anintroduction by David "God of War" Jaffe andeven a brand-new chili recipe -making it an even moreindispensable guide for video game designers both "in thefield" and the classroom. Grab your copy of Level Up! 2nd Edition andlet's make a game!
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This edition first published 2014
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ISBN 978-1-118-87716-6 (paperback); ISBN 978-1-118-87719-7 (ePub); 978-1-118-87721-0 (ePDF)
Set in 10/12 Chaparral Pro-Light by SPS/TCS
Printed in the U.S. by Bind-Rite
Please note that the following characters and works are copyrighted to the following corporations:
Tennis for Two—This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States Federal Government under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.
Space Invaders © 1978 Taito Corporation
Galaxian © 1979 Namco
Star Wars Arcade © 1983 Atari Inc.
PAC-MANTM & © 1980 NAMCO BANDAI Games Inc.
Space Panic © 1980 Universal
Popeye Arcade © 1982 Nintendo
Pitfall! and Pitfall Harry © 1982 Activision
Dark Castle © 1986 Silicon Beach Software
Donkey Kong and associated characters © 1981 Nintendo
Mario Bros. © 1983 Nintendo
Super Mario Bros., Mario, World 1-1, Super Mario Bros. Theme © 1985 Nintendo
Ghost n’ Goblins © 1985 Capcom
Mega Man © 1987 Capcom
Mario 64 © 1996 Nintendo
Crash Bandicoot © 1996 Sony Computer Entertainment
Wizard of Oz and associated characters © 1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer
Monty Python and the Holy Grail and associated characters © 1975
Star Wars and associated characters © 1977 Lucasfilm Ltd
Robocop © 1987–1998 Orion (MGM) Pictures
Maximo vs Army of Zin © 2004 Capcom
Maximo: Ghost to Glory © 2002 Capcom
Team Fortress 2 and associated characters © 2007 Valve Corporation
Laura Croft © 1996 Eidos Interactive
Tomb Raider © 2013 Square Enix
Batman © 2014 DC comics
Resident Evil 2 and associated characters © 1998 Capcom
Army of Two © 2008 Electronic Arts
Ico © 2001 Sony Computer Entertainment
Doom © 1993 id software
Darksiders © 2010 THQ
Syndicate © 1993 Electronic Arts
Supreme Commander © 2007 THQ
Warriors © 1979 Vectorbeam
Berzerk© 1980 Stern Electronics
GoldenEye 007 © 1997 Nintendo
LittleBigPlanet © 2008 Sony Computer Entertainment Europe
Playstation Dual Shock controller © 1998 Sony Computer Entertainment
XBOX 360 controller © 2005 Microsoft
World of Warcraft © 2004 Blizzard Entertainment
Dragon’s Lair © 1983 Cinematronics
Bad Dudes vs Dragon Ninja © 1988 Data East
Mortal Kombat © 2009 Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment
Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, Peter Pan’s Flight and associated characters, Pirate’s Lair © 2010 Walt Disney Company
Prince of Persia © 2010 Ubisoft
Kratos © 2010 Sony Computer Entertainment of America
Solid Snake © 1987 Konami
Marcus Fenix © 2006 Epic Games
Gauntlet © 1985 Atari Games
Spider-Man, Rhino © 2010 Marvel Entertainment/Walt Disney Company
Bioshock and associated characters © 2007 2K Games 2007
Demolition Man and associated characters © 1993 Warner Brothers
Earthworm Jim © 1994 Virgin Interactive
Master Chief © 2001 Microsoft Game Studios
Holst, the Planets—Mars Bringer of War, copyright unknown
All other characters displayed within this book are created by Scott Rogers and cannot be reproduced without his permission. © 2014 Scott Rogers
Dude with Sword, Dude with Sword 832, Relic Raider, Farm Wars © 2010 Scott Rog-ers
The Mighty Bedbug, Grave Robber © 2005 Scott Rogers
Dude with Sword © 2010 Scott Rogers
Dude with Sword 2 © 2010 Scott Rogers
Relic Raider © 2010 Scott Rogers
Die Zombie Die © 2010 Scott Rogers
Farm Wars © 2010 Scott Rogers
Bedbug © 2005 Scott Rogers
Grave Robber © 2005 Scott Rogers
Some of the people who helped bring this book to market include the following:
Editorial and Production
VP Consumer and Technology Publishing Di-rector: Michelle Leete
Associate Director–Book Content Management: Martin Tribe
Associate Publisher: Chris Webb
Associate Commissioning Editor: Ellie Scott
Senior Project Editor: Sara Shlaer
Copy Editor: Chuck Hutchinson
Technical Editor: Noah Stein
Editorial Managers: Jodi Jensen, Rev Mengle
Editorial Assistant: Annie Sullivan
Marketing Manager: Lorna Mein
Marketing Executive: Polly Thomas
Table of Contents
Introduction: Press Start!
If You Are Anything Like Me . . .
No, You Can’t Have My Job
Who Is This Book For?
Why a Second Edition?
Level 1: Welcome, N00bs!
A Brief History of Video Games
The Brave New World of Gaming: Mobiles, Online Distribution, and Touchscreens
Who Makes This Stuff?
Have You Thought about Publishing?
And the Rest . . .
Level 2: Ideas
Ideas: Where to Get Them and Where to Stick Them
Getting Ahead of the Game
What Do Gamers Want?
Breaking Writer’s Block
Why I Hate “Fun”
Level 3: Writing the Story
Once Upon a Time . . .
The Triangle of Weirdness
A Likely Story
Time to Wrap It Up
A Game by Any Other Name
Creating Characters Your Players Care About
A Few Pointers on Writing for Kids of All Ages
Writing for Licenses
Level 4: You Can Design a Game, but Can You Do the Paperwork?
Writing the GDD, Step 1: The One-Sheet
Unique Selling Points
Writing the GDD, Step 2: The Ten-Pager
The Rule of Threes
The Ten-Pager Outline
Writing the GDD, Step 3: Gameplay Progression
Writing the GDD, Step 4: The Beat Chart
Writing the GDD, Step 5: The Game Design Document (and the Awful Truth about Writing It)
Writing the GDD, Step 6: Above All, Don’t Be a Jerk
Level 5: The Three Cs, Part 1: Character
Who Do You Want To Be Today?
Personality: Do We Really Need Another Kratos?
Let’s Get Personal
Using All the Parts
Games Without Characters
We Are Not Alone
When More Is More
Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?
Finally, We Talk About Gameplay
Metrics for Non-Characters
Be Kind to Our Four-Legged Friends
Why Walk When You Can Run?
The Art of Doing Nothing
Might as Well Jump
Hoists and Teeters
What Goes Up Must Fall Down
Me and My Shadow
The Water’s Fine . . . or Is It?
Level 6: The Three Cs, Part 2: Camera
Get It Right: Camera Views
First Person Camera
Third Person Camera
Giving Up Control
So You’ve Decided to Let the Player Control the Camera
So You’ve Decided Not to Let the Player Have Control over the Camera
So You’ve Decided to Let Players Sometimes Have Control over the Camera
Two and a Half D
Special Case Cameras
Camera Shot Guide
Camera Angle Guide
Camera Movement Guide
Other Camera Notes
Always Point the Camera to the Objective
Never Let the Character Get out of the Camera’s Sight
Level 7: The Three Cs, Part 3: Controls
Control Is in Your Hand
You’ve Got the Touch
Dance, Monkey, Dance
Character or Camera Relative?
Shake, Rattle, and Roll
Level 8: Sign Language: HUD and Icon Design
The Clean Screen
Icon Has Cheezburger?
Creating Icons for Mobile Games
Don’t Get QTE
HUDs and Where to Stick ‘Em
There Are Other Screens Than the HUD
A Final Word on Fonts
Level 9: Everything I Learned About Level Design, I Learned from Level 9
The Top 10 Cliché Video Game Themes
The Name Game
Everything I Learned About Level Design, I Learned from Disneyland
Mapping the World
You’ve Got the Beat
The Gary Gygax Memorial Mapping Section
The Dave Arneson Memorial Mapping Section
Wrapping Up Mapping
Leave the Training Level for Last
Levels without Characters
Level 10: The Elements of Combat
400 Quatloos on the Newcomer!
Put ‘Em Up!
And a One and a Two . . .
The Big Finish
Live by the Sword . . .
Now You Have to Kiss Me
Let’s Get Defensive
Dodging the Bullet
State of the Art Bang Bang
The Best Gun for You
Run and Gun
Not Just Shooting
Dang it, Jones! Where
Death: What Is It Good For?
Conflict Without Combat
Level 11: They All Want You Dead
Sizing Up the Enemy
How Rapid is Rapid?
Bring on the Bad Guys
I Love Designing Enemies
The Alphabetical Bestiary of Choices
I Hate You to Pieces
How to Create the World’s Greatest Boss Battle
Who’s the Boss?
Location, Location, Location
Why Not to Create the World’s Greatest Boss Battle
Level 12: The Nuts and Bolts of Mechanics
The Mechanics of Mechanics
Holy Death Trap!
What I Learned from Making Kids Cry
Time to Die
The Music of Mechanics
Chip Off the Old Block
A Nice Little Calm Spot
Riddle Me This
Puzzle Me That
Minigames and Microgames
Level 13: Now You’re Playing with Power
“Love Thy Player”
Seriously. “Love Thy Player.”
More Wealth Than You Can Imagine!
Money! Money! Money!
Bonus Section about Bonus Features
How to Win at Losing
Level 14: Multiplayer—The More the Merrier
How Many Is the Right Number?
MMORPGS, or Hell Is Other People
Designing Multiplayer Levels
Planning Your Level
Mapping Your Level
Building Your Level
The Dirty Half Dozen
Level 15: Everybody Wins: Monetization
Money Is the Root of Something Something
Level 16: Some Notes on Music
I Know It When I Hear It
Music with Style
And the Beat Goes On. . .
Sounds Like a Game to Me
Level 17: Cutscenes, or No One’s Gonna Watch ‘Em Anyway
A Cut Above
How to Write a Screenplay in Eight Easy Steps
Finding Your Voice
Level 18: And Now the Hard Part
No One Cares About Your Stupid Little World
Video Games Is a Haaaard Business
When Reality Gets in the Way
Emergent, Vertical, or Horizontal?
What to Do for an Encore?
Time to Level Up!
BONUS LEVEL 1: The One-Sheet Sample
BONUS LEVEL 2: The Ten-Page Design Document.Sample
BONUS LEVEL 3: Game Design Document Template
BONUS LEVEL 4: The Medium-Sized List of.Story.Genres
BONUS LEVEL 5: Game Genres
BONUS LEVEL 6: The Big List of Environments
BONUS LEVEL 7: Mechanics and Hazards
BONUS LEVEL 8: Enemy Design Template
BONUS LEVEL 9: Boss Design Template
BONUS LEVEL 10: High-Concept Pitch Presentation
BONUS LEVEL 11: Achievement Unlocked: Exactly Like Making Chili
About the Author
Table of Contents
LIKE A MAGICIAN laying bare the means with which he amazes his audience, Scott Rogers in this, the second edition of Level Up! reveals the tricks of the trade for creating compelling video games.
A number of game designers have attempted this feat in the past, but Scott’s great book provides something rare and important: a breaking down of and then a deep dive into the specific elements that must come together to create engaging interactive entertainment.
The fact that this book does that important work with a breezy, fun writing style and silly cartoons is a testament to Scott’s abilities as a game designer; for the best designers are always aware that no matter how complicated the section of gameplay, the most important rule is to keep things engaging! This book—like Scott’s games—does that in spades!
Readers across the spectrum of experience will find much to love and learn in this fun, giant, and necessary book. Folks new to the medium will be amazed at just how much thought goes into creating ‘fun.’ And experienced game designers who, like myself, have been doing this stuff by gut for dec-ades will be stunned as they discover that there is indeed a method to the madness. Many times reading this book I caught myself thinking, “Oh, THAT’S why that works!”
As you turn the page, know that you are in for a treat! I look forward to playing the games you create after having taken in the great knowledge this book contains!
Best of luck—and enjoy!
David Jaffe, Creative director of the Twisted Metal series and God of War San Diego, CA December 2013
… YOU READ THE first page of a book before you buy it. I find that if I like the first page, I’ll probably like the whole thing. I have noticed that many books have an exciting excerpt on the first page in order to grab the reader’s interest, such as:
The skeleton dragon grabbed the helicopter with bony talons and shook it so hard that Jack’s teeth rattled. Evelyn fought at the controls, attempting any maneuver that would free the copter from beast’s unyielding clutches. “Hang on!” she screamed over the engine’s tortured whine. “We’re going down!” The world whirled around and around as the copter and dragon performed a death waltz. Jack didn’t remember the copter slamming hard into the skyscraper or the crash or the dragon’s bones raining down or being thrown from the wreckage—until Evelyn shook him into consciousness. “Jack! Jack!” she said. “We need to move. Now!” “What’s the hurry, Sis? That dragon’s toast.” Then his eyes finally focused. On the cemetery gate. On the crooked gravestones. On the zombies pulling themselves from the dirt. Jack thought, “Nuts. I should have never opened that book.”
Not that I would ever resort to such cheap tactics in this book. I have also noticed that some books try to gain respectability by publishing a positive quote from an industry professional or famous person on their first page:
I learned more from reading the first page of the second edition of Level Up! The Book of Great Video Game Design than I learned from working for 25 years in the video game industry!
–A very famous game designer1
You obviously don’t need someone else to tell you how to make up your mind. Just by picking up this book, I can tell you are a discriminating reader. I can also tell you are seeking the straight truth on the creation of video games. This book will teach you the who, what, where and, most importantly, how to design video games. If you have an interest in arcade games, boss fights, chili, deadly traps, ergonomics, fun, giant hydras, haunted mansions, islands and alleys, jumps, killer bunnies, leitmotifs, Mexican pizza, non-player characters, one-sheet designs, pitch sessions, quests, robotic chickens, smart bombs, the triangle of weirdness, un-fun, violence, whack-a-mole, XXX, Y-axis and zombies, then this is the book for you.
Before we start, keep in mind that there are many ways to approach game design. All of them are valid, as long as they can communicate the designer’s ideas. The tricks and techniques found in this second edition of Level Up! are MY WAYS of creating game design.
Another quick reminder: when I say “I designed a game,” this is an oversimplification. Video games are created by many, many, many talented people (you’ll be introduced to them shortly) and to give the impression that I did all the work myself is not only incorrect but egotistical.2 There is no “I” in team.3
The majority of the games I’ve helped design were single player action games, so many of the examples found in this edition of Level Up! are skewed towards that perspective. It’s just the way I think. But I have also found that most of the gameplay concepts are transferable to many different genres of games. It won’t be too hard for you to translate my advice to your own game, no matter what the genre.
Another thing before we get started. If you are looking for a single chapter about gameplay, don’t bother. Because EVERY chapter in this book is about gameplay. You should be thinking about gameplay all the time and how things affect the player, even when designing passive elements like cutscenes, monetization models, and pause screens.
Since you have made it this far, I may as well start by actually telling you the bad news first. Making video games is very hard work.4 I have worked in video games for over 20 years and on games that have sold millions of copies.
But in that time, I have learned that making video games is also the best job in the world. It can be thrilling, frustrating, rewarding, nerve-wracking, hectic, boring, vomit-inducing, and just plain fun.
Over the course of my career, I came up with some Clever Ideas and learned some Universal Truths. For your convenience, I have added these at the end of each “level.”
I also learned a couple of very important things. You can tell they are very important because they are written in all uppercase letters. The first very important thing I learned was:
I know this, because my first job in the video game industry was as an artist.5 Back in those 16-bit days, video game artists drew images with pixels. There are several great 16-bit artists, like Paul Robertson and the teams that made the Metal Slug and classic Capcom fighting games; but for me, drawing pictures out of pixels is like drawing with bathroom tiles. Here is what a drawing I made out of pixels looks like:
Anyway, as I was “pushing pixels” I heard the sound of raucous laughter coming from the group of cubicles next to mine. I peered over the wall to see a bunch of video game designers yukking it up and have a good ol’ time. For the record, I was not having a good ol’ time pushing pixels. I realized, “Those game designers are having more fun than I am! Making video games should be fun! I want to have fun! I want to become a game designer too!” And so I did. I eventually worked my way up the ladder to become a game designer. After I became a real game designer, I learned the second very important thing:
This is a horrible thing to discover, but it is something every game designer needs to hear. Here I was, a brand new game designer with brand new game designs ready to go, and no one wanted to read any of them! What was I to do? In order to solve this problem and get my colleagues to read my design documents, I started drawing them as cartoons. And guess what? It worked. They conveyed the ideas I wanted to get across to my teammates. And I’ve been designing games this way ever since, many of which have gone on to become top-selling titles. That is why you will find many cartoons, so you will continue reading and understand the ideas presented. If you do, then you can apply them to your own design and become a great designer, too.
Why you, of course. Provided you are one of the following people.
A working video games professional. There are lots of books about video game design, but most of them are full of THEORY, which I have never found very helpful while making a game. Don’t get me wrong, theory is great when you are at a game developers conference or one of those wine and cheese affairs we game designers always find ourselves at. But when I am working on a game, with my sleeves rolled up and blood splattered all over the walls,6 I need practical nuts n’ bolts advice on how to solve any problems I may encounter. I mention this because I assume that some of you reading this second edition of Level Up! will be experienced video game professionals. I hope you find the techniques and tips in this book useful in your day-to-day work. Not that this book doesn’t have uses for beginners.
I’m talking about you, future video game designers. Remember, one page ago when I told you I was a pixel pusher? There was a point to that story, which is I was just like you. Maybe you’re also an artist who is tired of hearing the game designers laughing it up over in the other office. Or a programmer who knows he can design a better enemy encounter than the knucklehead currently doing it on your game. Or maybe you are a tester who wants to move up in the world, but you don’t know how to do it. When I wanted to become a video game designer, there weren’t any books on the subject. We had to learn everything from other game designers. I was lucky to have a mentor and an opportunity to work as a game designer. If you don’t have either of these things, don’t fret. Read this book; I will be your mentor. All you need to do is follow my advice, be prepared, and take advantage of the opportunity when it finally arrives.
This book is also great for students of video game design. Back when I started making games, I didn’t take any classes on video game design—because they didn’t exist! I just made stuff up as I went along! And I made a lot of mistakes. This is why I wrote this book: so you can learn from all my mistakes before they become your mistakes too.
Finally, this book is for anyone who loves video games. I love video games. I love to play them. I love to make them and I love to read about making them. If you want to make video games, then you must love them too. Ironically, I know several people who work in video games that freely admit they do not like to play video games. That does not make any sense to me. Why would you work in video games if you do not love video games? They are fools. They should just step aside and let someone who loves video games make video games. Someone like you.
When I first wrote Level Up! The Guide to Great Level Design back in 2009, the gaming industry was a different place. Consoles were the undisputed kings, motion controls had just hit the scene, social gaming on Facebook was still becoming a thing, and the app store had just launched the year before.
Things move very fast in the gaming industry. No one was anticipating the popularity of mobile gaming, the importance of monetizaton, or the explosion of the indy gaming market. Looking over the first edition, I realized many topics needed to added, content needed to be updated, references modified, concepts re-explored. I hope that you find that this updated edition provides enough new information to warrant a second purchase for returning readers or a first for new ones.
At the very least, make sure to try the new chili recipe.
1 No doubt you are smart enough to have realized that this isn’t a real quote, because there isn’t a very famous game designer. Unless you count Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Mario. Drat! I should have translated the quote into Japanese!
2 It’s a small industry. No one can afford to make enemies! Be a nice, hardworking person and you’ll go far.
3 Ironically, there is a “me.”
4 I once had an employer who would walk the halls of our office muttering how “video games are a haaaard business.” I used to laugh at him back then, but I don’t any more. He was right.
5 Actually we were called “pixel pushers” and “sprite monkeys,” neither of which, despite how cute those terms sound, were ever meant as a compliment.
6 Figurative blood. To my knowledge, no one has died from making a video game.
THIS CHAPTER IS written especially for people who are new to video games and how they are made. I talk about what is a game, who makes them, and what kinds of games there are. It’s pretty basic stuff and if you already know it all and are not a n00b,1 feel free to skip it. However, you are going to be missing out on a lot of great stuff. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Within the academic gaming community, there are many different definitions for what qualifies as a game. Some scholars insist that “a game needs to be a closed formal system that subjectively represents a subset of reality.”2 Others say that games need to have “players in conflict with each other.”3 I think those definitions are trying too hard to sound smart.
Game definitions are often simpler than that. Bernard Suits wrote that “playing a game is a voluntary effort to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”4 This is a pretty amusing definition, but still a bit too scholarly for my taste. Let’s keep things simple. Let’s consider hand ball. You need only one player for hand ball. Where are the other players to be in conflict with? Bouncing a ball against a wall without missing it is hardly a metaphor for reality—unless you lead a very boring life. Let’s face it, sometimes a ball bouncing against a wall is just a ball bouncing against a wall.
Playing hand ball may therefore seem like a time-waster, but a time-waster becomes a game when you add rules and an objective. A rule may be to throw the ball with your right hand and catch it with your left, or to not drop the ball. A victory condition could be that you have to catch the ball ten times in a row. A failure state would be if you violated any of the rules or victory conditions. When those criteria have been met, you have created a game. Ironically, while simple, hand ball was enough of a game to inspire the creators of one of the earliest video games: Tennis for Two.
So, let’s ask this basic question:Q: What is a game?A: A game is an activity that Requires at least one playerHas rulesHas a win and/or lose condition
That’s pretty much it.5
Now that you know what a game is, let’s ask:Q: What is a video game?A: A video game is a game that is played on a video screen.
Sure, you can start complicating the definition and add requirements about devices, peripherals, control schemes, player metrics, boss fights, and zombies (and don’t worry; we’ll tackle these things soon enough). But by my reckoning, that is pretty much as simple as it gets.
Oh, there’s one other thing to consider at this early stage. A game needs a clear objective so the player knows what the goal is. You should be able to sum up a game’s objectives quickly and clearly. If you can’t, you’ve got a problem.
Danny Bilson, THQ’s former EVP of Core Games, has a great rule of thumb about a game’s objective. He says that you should be able to sum up the game’s objectives as easily as those old Milton Bradley board games did on the front of their box. Check out these examples taken from real game boxes:Battleship: Sink all of your opponent’s ships.Operation: Successful operations earn “Money.” Failures set off alarms.Mouse Trap: Player turns the crank, which rotates gears, causing lever to move and push the stop sign against shoe. Shoe tips bucket holding metal ball. Ball rolls down rickety stairs and into rain pipe, which leads it to hit helping hand rod. This causes bowling ball to fall from top of helping hand rod through thing-a-ma-jig and bathtub to land on diving board. Weight of bowling ball catapults diver through the air and right into wash tub, causing cage to fall from top of post and trap unsuspecting mouse.
Okay, let’s just ignore that last one. The lesson is, you need to keep your game objectives simple. Speaking of simple games, let’s take a moment to travel back to the dawn of video games. They had to start somewhere, right?
The 1950s. The dawn of television, 3-D movies, and rock ‘n’ roll. Video games were invented in the 1950s too, only they were played by very few people, on very large computers. The first video game programmers were students in the computer labs of large universities like MIT and employees of military facilities at Brookhaven National Laboratories. Early games like OXO (1952), Spacewar! (1962), and Colossal Cave (1976) had very simple or even no graphics at all. They were displayed on very small black-and-white oscilloscope screens.
After playing Spacewar! at the University of Utah’s computer lab, future Atari founders Ted Dabney and Nolan Bushnell were inspired to create Computer Space, the first arcade video game, in 1971. While (despite the name) the first arcade games could be found in bars, arcades dedicated to video games began appearing by the late 1970s.
Early arcade games were rendered using either vector graphics (images constructed from lines) or raster graphics (images constructed from a grid of dots called pixels). Vector graphics allowed for bright, striking images like those seen in Battlezone (Atari, 1980), Tempest (Atari, 1981) and Star Wars (Atari, 1983) while raster graphics spawned cartoon-inspired characters like Pac-Man (Namco, 1980) and Donkey Kong (Nintendo, 1982). These early characters became pop culture icons overnight; appearing in everything from cartoons and t-shirts to pop-music and breakfast cereals.
During the early 1980s, three styles of game machines dominated arcades: uprights (cabinets which the player stood in front of while playing), cocktail tables (arcade games set into the top of a small table, allowing the player to sit down while playing), and cockpits (elaborate game cabinets that allowed the player to lean or sit down to further enhance the gaming experience).
In the mid-1980s, arcades began springing up everywhere, and video games took the world by storm. Game genres and themes became more varied, while gaming controls and cabinets became more elaborate with realistic controllers and beautiful graphics decorating uniquely designed cabinets. You could sit back to back in a two-player spaceship cockpit while playing Tail Gunner (Vectorbeam, 1979), battle Klingons from a replica of Captain Kirk’s command chair in Star Trek (Sega, 1982), or “drive” in a miniature Ferrari Testarossa that moved and shook in Out Run (Sega, 1986). By the late 1990s, many arcade games started to resemble single-rider theme-park rides complete with rideable race horses, gyroscopically moving virtual simulators, and fighting booths that allowed players to battle virtual foes using actual punches and kicks. The most elaborate of these arcades was Virtual World’s BattleTech Centers—steampunk-themed arcades with linked “battle pods”6 that allowed eight players to fight each other while stomping around in giant virtual “mechs.” But these elaborate arcade games required lots of floor space and were very expensive to maintain. In the late 1990s, home systems began to rival and eventually surpassed the graphics seen in most arcade games. Arcades went out of business by the dozens. The video games were replaced with more lucrative redemption machines7 and games of skill like skeeball, whack-a-mole, and basketball hoops. The golden age of video game arcades was over.
But you can’t keep a good idea down. Since the late 90s arcades have become social and virtual experiences. LAN gaming centers combine retail and social space to allow players to play computer and console games on a per-hour basis. Many have upgraded to feature large-scale gaming experiences held in movie theater-sized venues. Internet cafes are similar to LAN centers but with an emphasis on cultivating a café-style environment. Meanwhile, the few arcade game manufacturers left are creating even more epic experiences—Namco’s Deadstorm Pirates (2009) and Dark Escape 4D (2013) are more like theme-park dark rides8 than arcade games.
If arcades are becoming more like theme-park rides, theme parks are becoming arcades. Theme park creators are gamifying their attractions, turning dark rides into full sensory arcade games. Theme parks around the world such as Futuroscope and Warner Brother’s Movie World offer several virtual games and interactive dark rides. For example, Toy Story Midway Mania! at Disney’s California Adventure (2008) whisks a four-player cart past a succession of giant video screens where players compete in a variety of carnival-style shooting games. Players use cart-mounted pop-guns to shoot virtual projectiles at on-screen targets. When some targets are hit, players are sprayed with air or water mist effects, creating an immersive “four-D” effect. The cycle of modern arcade gaming and home gaming has come full circle with the release of a Wii version of the Toy Story Midway Mania! attraction for home use (minus the air and water effects).
Happily, historians and academics have realized the impact and importance of video gaming. Museums have sprung up around the world, such as the Computerspielemuseum Berlin and New York’s Museum of the Moving Image. Retro 80s arcades are making a comeback, complete with glo-in-the-dark carpet and tokens, offering players another chance to play their favorite vintage arcade games and revisit their old-school home system favorites.
A console is a gaming platform that can be used in the home. A microprocessor runs the electronic device, which sends a video display signal to the user’s TV set or monitor.9 Unlike the dedicated controllers of an arcade machine, a home console controller has enough buttons, triggers, and analog controls to allow for a variety of games to be played. And unlike the dedicated motherboards in early arcade games, which could hold only one game, console games use cartridge, CD, and DVD media to allow players to quickly change games. The first commercial home console was the Magnavox Odyssey (1972) created by gaming pioneer Ralph Baer. Technologically, the Odyssey was pretty far ahead of its time. It featured an analog controller, games on removable ROM cartridges, and a light gun—the first gaming peripheral. From the late 1970s onwards, there have been many home consoles. Some of the more popular and/or well-known previous generation ones include the Atari 2600 and Jaguar, the Mattel Intellivision, the ColecoVision, the Nintendo Entertainment System and Super Nintendo, the Sega Genesis and Dreamcast, the 3DO interactive player, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and the Nintendo Wii. Current consoles such as the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Wii U, and the Ouya continue to bring gaming into the homes of millions of gamers worldwide.
Like arcade games, handheld games have a visual display, a processor, and a controller, but are small enough to fit in the hands of the player. The first handheld titles were dedicated to only one game per unit. Auto Race (Mattel Electronics, 1976) used a digital display while the Game & Watch series (Nintendo, 1980) featured a more appealing liquid crystal display. Microvision (Milton Bradley, 1979) was one of the earliest handheld systems to have switchable cartridges. Handheld gaming took off when Tetris became a phenomenon on the Game Boy (Nintendo, 1989), the forerunner of the Nintendo DS.10 Recent handheld systems have become quite powerful. The processor on the Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP) can run the equivalent of a PlayStation 1 game. That’s quite a jump since the digital blips of Mattel Football! Recent systems like the Sony Vita and Nintendo 2DS and 3DS offer a wide variety of games and control schemes, combining more traditional controls and games with second screens, touch controls, and digital content.
Handheld gaming, particularly on mobile devices, is the main way people play games today. With the advent of digital-only content, you can carry an entire gaming library around in your pocket on a smartphone or tablet. Gaming, which used to require a monitor, a computer, and a controller, can now be played anywhere and at any time. Touchscreens have enabled the creation of new control systems and genres of games.
Mobile gaming has changed not only the way we play games but also the way they are made. Games that used to require large teams and large budgets to create are now being made by small teams and even individuals. The games can be created quicker and for less money than their console and computer counterparts. Gameplay is built around short play sessions and repeated play. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Mobile game production resembles the early days of game development, when games where the product of small teams or even one person. And even the way a game can earn money has changed. Monetized game design has changed the way revenue can be generated, giving the developer and publisher more opportunities to earn money. It is fair to say that mobile gaming has changed the way we game forever.
Another impact to gaming is the advent of digital distribution. Games can be purchased and downloaded at any time through the Internet. Digital gaming platforms such as Steam, Ouya, XBLA, the PlayStation Store, the Nintendo Store, GameStop App (formerly Stardock), and Origin’s Client have enhanced or even replaced the need for a console. iTunes and the Android store allow gamers to download games for mobile and tablet devices. Physical storage space is no longer an issue because gamers can have as many games as their hard drives can hold. Of course, digital distribution has caused retailers to react with incentives for gamers who want to buy games the traditional way—sweetening the offer with season passes of exclusive content and collectable merchandise.
As personal computers (or PCs) became popular in the late 1970s, both video game programming and video game playing became more common. An entire generation of game developers started off in their bedrooms, programming games on their PCs. These early games were stored on cassette tapes that would be placed in tape drives or later on floppy disks that were placed in floppy drives. While early video game consoles attempted to emulate games found in arcades, early computers like the Apple II took advantage of the keyboard. The keyboard allowed greater user input and created unique genres including the text adventure game, like 1976’s Colossal Cave Adventure. Since computer players could spend more time gaming (and would be more comfortable sitting down!) computer games necessitated a different gaming experience. Story-based adventure games, construction and management games and strategy games provided longer play experiences than their arcade counterparts and gave the consumer more perceived value for their money. I distinctly remember determining how much play time I was getting for my money: let’s see, an average arcade game costs a quarter and Temple of Apshai cost $30, so I should be able to play it for how long … ?
As the computer hardware, memory, and storage evolved to CD and DVD media, computer games became more detailed, more involved, and more complex. The rise of the first person shooter (or FPS) can be attributed to the popularity of the mouse controller. By the mid-1990s, the computer was the ultimate gaming platform. Several gaming genres, particularly strategy, FPSs, and massively multiplayer online games (or MMOs) remain very strong on the computer platform. Touchscreen games, which were found only on handheld devices, are even more popular now that touchscreens are becoming the standard on desktop and laptop computers.
The term genre is used to describe a category of something—often the categories used to describe books, movies or music. Music can be rock and roll, gospel, or country. Movies can be action, romance, or comedies. Books can be dramas, biographies, or horror; you get the idea.
Video games can be classified into genres too, but here’s where it gets a little tricky. Games have two types of genres: story genre and game genre. Just like the preceding examples, story genre describes the type of story-fantasy, historical, sports, and so on. Game genre describes the type of gameplay—much in the way that a movie can be a documentary or an art film. The difference is in the game’s format and the player’s interaction. The game genre describes the play, not the art or story. Simple enough, right? While I talk about story genre later, let’s look now at the different kinds of game genres:Action—Action games rely on eye/hand coordination and skill to play. There are lots of stylistic variations available, making it one of the most diverse genres. Many of the earliest arcade games were action games.Adventure—Adventure games focus on characters (like in a role playing game), inventory management, story, and sometimes puzzle solving.Augmented Reality—Augmented Reality (or AR games) incorporate peripheral devices like cameras and global positioning (GPS) into gameplay.Educational—An educational game’s primary intention is to educate while entertaining. These games are often aimed at a younger audience.Party—A party game is specifically designed for several players to compete in a variety of different styles of gameplay from quizzes to games of skill.Puzzle—Puzzle games are based on logic, observation, and pattern completion. Sometimes they are slow and methodical. Other times they require quick eye/hand coordination like an action game.Rhythm—In a rhythm game, a player tries to match a rhythm or beat to score points.Serious—At first glance, serious games seem similar to educational games but with a focus on social issues. But the genre is more diverse than that. Serious games are used to provide training, for advertising, or just exist as art!Shooter—Shooters primarily focus on players firing projectiles at each other. It’s one of the most popular genres (at least here in the West) and there are many variations.Simulation—Simulations focus on creating and managing a world. Or a theme park. Or a farm. Or the life of an adorable monster. Many simulations cross over into the realm of “toy games”—games that provide tools for creativity but have no win or lose conditions.Sports—These games are based on athletic competitions from traditional sports to extreme ones. Like action games, there are many stylistic forms with this genre ranging from realistic simulations to fantasy variants.Strategy—Thinking and planning are the hallmarks of strategy games. This is one of the oldest genres of games; strategy games’ roots are in ancient games like Senet, Chess, Go, and Mancala games.Traditional—Speaking of board games, traditional games are usually (but not always) based on games that existed in other, often physical, formats. Card games, board games, and casino games fall into this genre.Vehicle simulation—Players simulate piloting or driving a vehicle, from a race car to a star fighter. There are a variety of stylistic and control options for the player making the experience arcade-like or like a realistic simulation.
This list is just the tip of the iceberg! In addition to the genres in this list, you’ll find a big list in Bonus Level 5 describing all sorts of sub-genres and hybrids genres with lots of examples.
As games combine several genres and subgenres, new ones are constantly being created. For example, the Grand Theft Auto series combines action-adventure, third person shooter, driving, life simulation, and action-arcade genres into one game! Tuper Tario Tros.11 seamlessly combines Super Mario Bros. and Tetris! What’s next? What will be the most popular game genre in the future? Who knows? Perhaps you will create it!
Just as there are many genres of games, there are many types of people who make them. Video game teams that create games are known as developers or development teams. They are similar to a production team that makes a movie or TV show—several creative people all working together to create entertainment.
In the early days of video game development, games were created by individuals; one example is the original Prince of Persia, created by one person12 who programmed, designed, and animated the entire game. He even composed the game’s music!
Game creation eventually evolved into teams as commercial video game development became more technologically complex, and games that originally required two or three programmers to make now needed people with a wider range of skills. As graphics capabilities improved, many game creators lacked the artistic skills to fully utilize the new computing power. Since audiences demand better-looking games, teams added art specialists.
Games were initially designed by whichever team member had the best idea for a game. When game content became too involved to design by the programmers and artists, a dedicated design position was created. Both Mario creator Shiguru Miyamoto and I started as artists who moved into the area of game design. Although team members can still wear many hats, specialization is common place on larger production teams.
With the rise of mobile and independent gaming, the production cycle has swung away from the larger development teams. More and more games are being created by small teams and even individuals. Minecraft, Spelunky, and Tiny Wings were each created by one person! Now that creative teams are no longer reliant on huge budgets and publishers, the power is back in the hands of the developers! So who has this power? Here’s a rundown of the different members of a development team.
Using programming languages such as C++ and Unity, a programmer writes the code that draws the game’s graphics and on-screen text, develops the control systems that allow players to interact with the game, creates the camera system that allows the players to view the game world, programs the physics system that affects the players and game world, writes the artificial intelligence (AI) system that controls enemies and object scripting … you get the idea.
One programmer may work exclusively on tools to help team members build the game more efficiently. Another programmer may write code to simulate real-world physics making water look realistic or develop inverse kinematics for characters. A programmer may even work solely on sound tools to play music and effects.
Like many of the jobs in the game industry, programming jobs are becoming more specialized. Regardless of the position, a programmer needs to have an excellent understanding of mathematics, 2-D and 3-D graphics, physics, particle systems, user interface, artificial intelligence, input devices, and computer networking. These skills are always in high demand, and some programmers make a good living as contractors, moving from project to project as “hired guns,” writing code and providing temporary solutions to beleaguered teams.
In the early days of video games, programmers created all of a game’s art. Because that early art was so blocky and crude, we now call placeholder game art “programmer art.”13 Thank goodness real artists came along. One of the first artists working in video games was Shigeru Miyamoto, who created Mario and Donkey Kong. He was able to create memorable cartoon characters with an 8-bit CPU using only 2-bit pixels—that means background elements have four colors and sprites only have three. That’s a lot of personality per pixel! There were a few exceptions in the early days, such as Dragon’s Lair (Cinematronics, 1983) and Space Ace (Cinematronics, 1984), beautifully animated games created by ex-Disney animators like Don Bluth, but those games were rare exceptions because they employed laser discs to play the video footage. Eventually, new, better hardware with more memory, color depth, and the ability to display larger graphics meant artists could create more detailed images, backgrounds, and characters like those seen in beautifully hand-drawn and animated games such as Darkstalkers (Capcom, 1994) and Metal Slug (SNK, 1996).
As high-end computer software became more affordable to developers, 3-D graphics, which had been limited to movies like Tron (Disney, 1982) and Pixar’s animated shorts like Luxo Jr. (1986), began appearing in games. True 3-D graphics had been in arcade games as early as Battlezone (Atari, 1980), but the move to bring 3-D into homes started on the 3DO with Crash and Burn and Total Eclipse (both by Crystal Dynamics, 1993). The popularity of real-time 3-D games like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom (both by id software, 1993) and the use of pre-rendered 3-D graphics Myst (Broderbund, 1993) and Donkey Kong Country (Nintendo, 1994) made sure that 3-D was here to stay.
Just as with programming, video game art has become a specialized job. A concept artist uses both traditional medium and computers to draw what game characters, worlds, and enemies will look like in the game. Concept art is never used in the final game, only as reference for other artists. Storyboard artists illustrate the game’s cinematics and sometimes elements of gameplay design to be passed along to other artists and animators. 3-D Modelers and environmental artists build characters and environments using programs such as Maya and 3D Studio Max. Texture artists literally paint surfaces onto 3-D models and locations. Visual effects artists create spectacular visual effects using a combination of 2-D and 3-D art. A user interface (UI) artist designs icons and elements that are used in the game’s interface and heads-up display (HUD). Animators animate the player character and create cutscenes exactly as they do in big-budget animated movies. Technical artists help every artist on the team by doing a variety of tasks, including rigging models to allow animators to move them and teaching fellow artists the latest tools and technology. The art director supervises the work of all the artists while maintaining the artistic vision for the entire project. Regardless of what kind of art position you are interested in, make sure you study the basics and keep drawing!
Director, planner, lead designer, or senior game designer—no matter what the job title is, the designer’s role is the same: create the ideas and rules that comprise a game. A game designer needs to possess many, many skills,14 and must love to play games. As a game designer, you should be able to tell the difference between a good and bad game and, more importantly, communicate why. Remember, “because it sucks” is never an acceptable answer.
Just as with programmers and artists, design is becoming a specialized profession. Level designers create paper maps, build “gray box”15 worlds using 3-D programs, and populate the levels with everything from enemies to treasure. System designers develop how the game elements relate to one another, whether it is the game’s economy or technology tree. Scripters use tools to write code that allow things to happen within the game, from springing a trap to choreographing a camera movement. Combat designers specialize in the player’s combat experience, whether against an AI or human opponent, and “balancing” the player’s experience. The creative director maintains the vision of the game while supervising the other designers, often offering suggestions for improving their work.
There is one other task that a designer is responsible for: ensuring that the game is “fun.” However, I will leave this can of worms unopened until later in the book. I hope you can stand the suspense.
Overseeing the entire game development team is a producer. Originally, producers were members of the development team who also managed the work of their team members and had the authority to make all decisions, including creative ones. A producer’s role has expanded dramatically over the years in some cases requiring several producer roles on one game including executive producers who oversee all the other producers!
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