In the previous article we briefly talked about breaking games apart, to check how every component works. In this article, I’d like to go a bit deeper into this topic.
Why should you analyze games? There are plenty of reasons:
– Inspiration for your own game.
– Figure out how something was implemented and polished.
– Compare similar competitor games for pros/cons to consider for your own game.
– Follow market trends and genre standards.
What things should you check on a game? In short, pretty much everything. Let’s go over it.
Are they 3D or 2D? What’s the Art Style (realistic, toon, pixelated, anime, black and white, etc.)? Are they using any post processing effects (blur, bloom, chromatic aberration, anti-aliasing, etc.)? Pay attention to the main character if any, and how it animates; but also pay attention to the backgrounds and all interactive and non-interactive objects and entities. Which of them are animated and which static? Do you notice themes or styles through group of levels (think of Super Mario Bros 3 worlds, for example)? How are the menus and HUDs? Do they match the tone with the game itself?
When you’re outlining your idea for your game, having lots of references is very helpful for the artists or programmers to visualize what you have in mind (either the overall art direction, or specific objects or entities).
If there’s a tutorial, pay attention to how game explains its mechanics to you. Did you understand everything right away? If you didn’t, why not? What caused the confusion or delay? Was there anything not explained at all that was necessary? Did the game explain it later on? Tutorials are extremely important. And unless you can skip it, the tutorial is the first experience people will have of your game. If it’s frustrating or boring or confusing, many will quit the game before actually playing the first level. The more different tutorials you play, the more you can learn about how to make them. Take notes on the things you like and dislike about all tutorials you play. So when you’re ready to develop your own tutorial, you have this valuable information on best practices.
What is the core gameplay loop of the game? In case you’re not sure what this means, check this great article that not only explains what it is, but also helps you understand how important it is to get it right from the get go. This is what players will be doing the most, so this is where we should focus most efforts in making it fun. However, you should not forget about the secondary or tertiary gameplay loops: think of them as hierarchy levels, where you use the previous hierarchy (starting from the core gameplay loop) to fulfill the goals of the next one.
For example, in Gravitators the core gameplay loop could be defined by:
– Flying the ship (with or without gravity).
– Using Weapons.
– Carry Items or Cargo.
However, players are doing these actions for a reason. They want to complete the mission’s objectives, to progress in the game. That’s the secondary gameplay loop. And to achieve that goal, they use the core gameplay loop. The secondary gameplay loop (the mission objectives) could be:
– Destroy all enemies.
– Rescue Civilians.
– Escort Nuclear Devices to position.
– Go to a certain location.
– Carry an object to a certain location.
From there, we go to the tertiary gameplay loop. These are usually achieved by the player doing the secondary gameplay loop. In Gravitators, the tertiary gameplay loop would be:
– Achieving Mission Awards.
– Unlocking Power Ups and Perks.
– Moving the Story forward.
It’s important you identify these things in the games you play. And even more important for you to have them very clear (even written down) in the game you want to develop. The more layers of gameplay loops you have, the more depth your players will feel. With Gravitators, I had a rather clear idea of the core gameplay loop since day 1. However, the secondary and tertiary gameplay loops completely changed throughout development (due to different reasons). Now they are very different vs originally planned, for the better. But time was lost in the process.
I wanted to create a separate section about “the games inside the game”. And I mean the ones that are completely different than what you’d normally consider the genre’s gameplay. They could be things like:
– Inventory Management. Think of games like Skyrim, where you need to manage the items you wear or use or sell. You can’t just carry everything, there’s a weight limit. So when going through dungeons, sometimes you’ll need to choose what to take and what to leave. Another type of inventory management was Resident Evil’s, where the restriction was by object size. Games like Baldur’s Gate had a bit of both: you had a weight limit and also a limited amount of slots (with items always occupying 1 slot).
– Computer interaction. Games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution with the Hacking mini game. Or Alien Swarm’s Tech Guy panel/terminal unlocks.
– Acquiring Resources. Like Mass Effect’s Planet Exploration or Planet Scans.
– Lockpicking. Not the automatic ones (that occur with just a click), but the ones that require the player’s skills. The Elder Scroll games had different manual lockpickings throughout the series. Kingdom Come: Deliverance too. As well as many others.
– Base Management. Like in the XCOM games. The core gameplay loop is moving a squad by turns in a grid-based level, but Base Management part of the game was huge (in both impact and time consumption).
– Skill Tree. This is used by many many games, and it can be considered a little game in itself. You accumulate some sort of points or currency and you spend it on improving your game’s character / weapon / vehicle. Decisions here will determine stats, powers or skills that will certainly impact your gameplay experience.
Depending on the game, they could be considered the core gameplay loop or the secondary. The point is that in most cases, players will be doing something completely different than what they normally expect to be doing while playing your game. I’ve probably spent hours upon hours shuffling items around between the inventories of all my characters in Baldur’s Gate. I did not enjoy it, but I had to do it because I didn’t know what items I might need later on. In Baldur’s Gate 2 they somewhat solved this by adding the Bag of holding.
Elder Scrolls games had a similar inventory issue with weight. So if you wanted to take many heavy items to sell at a shop, you had to make several trips back and forth, or take a strength potion, or grab-and-hold the heaviest item and carry it with you (which didn’t count for the weight). Skyrim also somewhat solved this by adding companions to carry your burdens.
Likewise, Mass Effect 1 planet exploration was extremely boring. Total waste of time. Mass Effect 2 improved this significantly by “doing it from orbit”, but after doing the planet scans a few times, it became extremely repetitive and again boring. I would have rather had an “automatic option”, see a quick anim and be done with it. And I’m saying this as a big fan of the series. And while I disliked doing it, I had to (again) because those resources were used for weapons research.
I did enjoy quick mini games like in Deus Ex: Human Revolution or Alien Swarm hackings, as they were very short and provided quick and easy but sufficiently varied gameplay to keep me entertained. But I would totally understand if many players did not like them.
XCOM’s base management is somewhere in between. It look time to investigate and learn about all the possible options at first, but once I knew about this and had a clear view of my goals, the time spent here was rather minimum. And taking a little break from tough missions was a nice change of pace sometimes. But maybe many players didn’t enjoy it.
My suggestion here is: if you either want or need to have these “mini-games”, make sure they are not a source of frustration for the player. Either by making them short, varied and/or really fun. Or by allowing players to skip through the source of the hassle. For example:
– Inventory. Is it important for your game balance to have a restriction on it? Or it’s just to create some sort of realism? Or maybe due to potential performance issues (inventories with thousands of items could slow things down)? As long as it doesn’t affect performance, you could have an option to switch it on/off, so players can decide for themselves. I would certainly turn it off if I was a player. It would save me the time of going back and forth to pick up the items I left behind, so I can focus on the game. Alternatively, some games solve this by having a “chest” of sorts that you can access through certain “safe areas” throughout the game. That’s a good midway solution.
– Lockpicking. If it’s something fun at first and repetitive later (when you’ve mastered the skill), have the option to make it manual or automatic (basically stat vs lockpick difficulty). So players that enjoy it continue doing it manual from start to end, while players that want to focus on the game itself will just finish the task with 1 click. The same applies with resource gathering.
Pay attention how the game evolves. Did it get progressively more difficult from start to finish? If it did, was it at the same rate as your skill improvement, or did you feel some parts of the game were too easy or too hard? Did it bore you at some point, or you couldn’t stop playing until it was over? Why?
Check the following (rather famous) graph:
As the game progresses, players improve their skills at the game and succeed at the challenges given. So the game gives new, harder challenges, and the player needs to continue improving their skills to succeed again. And so on. It’s our job as game developers to give enough challenges to keep the players entertained throughout the game. If the game becomes too easy, they’ll get bored. If suddenly the game is incredibly hard (to the point where players think it’s impossible), the players will get frustrated. In both cases, they will most likely quit your game. There are way too many games out there today, there isn’t enough time to waste time on something you’re not enjoying.
Keeping the players inside this flow is quite a challenge on its own. Not all players have the same skill level or learning curve. Games can adapt though: difficulty settings is the easiest (and probably oldest) method to cover all skill levels. Some games check how the players are doing and with that information adapt during the game without any settings changed by the player. You can adaptively spawn more enemies if players are having an easy time (killing all enemies spending few bullets and receiving no damage). You can give away power ups if players are not able to beat a level after a few attempts, like Super Mario 3D World did with the White Tanooki.
Sometimes it’s not entirely possible to adapt every part of the gameplay to fit all players perfectly, in which case you’ll probably have to choose where to stay. In most cases, it’s probably best to always adjust this to the majority of players, and avoid spikes (suddenly too easy or too hard).
The main reason you should probably play games to completion is to check for this. See how different games attempt to keep the players engaged until the end, and see which ones work best for you as a player and which ones would work best for your game.
It’s better to have a short but very solid experience than to attempt to create a long game only to feel it drags for too long, effectively boring your players.
Either the game will have no story, will have one that is more of “companion” of the game’s goals or it will be story driven. In computer games though, gameplay is king in almost all situations. If you have a great story but a very boring game, most people won’t enjoy it. It might not belong to the medium, in which case it’d be better to write a book or a script.
Many games suffer from having rather cheesy stories, or one dimensional characters. Depending on the game, this can be irrelevant to your enjoyment (I know people that pretty much skip through all cutscenes and cinematics) or it can basically ruin your experience.
Visual Novels are focused on story, but the real key that makes them fun is the decision making within an engaging story. Without a good story, they won’t be good. But without decision making, they would just be a novel. RPGs also tend to have a deep complex story where decisions matter, but at the same time they do have polished combat, and a large amount of items, weapons or spells that make the game fun.
If the story is not central for the game, perhaps it’s better to keep a bit of mystery around it (and avoid extending it too much or do cringe-worthy exposition), or keep it optional (like finding about the world lore by talking to NPCs or reading in-game books).
In games, stories generally need to serve the gameplay and not the other way around. If you try to fit the gameplay into the story, and because of that the game ends up worse than it was, it’s most likely the wrong direction to go. I think fun factor comes first, story second. I’d rather always mold the story to fit the gameplay, even if it doesn’t end up exactly like I originally wanted.
Sound Effects and Music
Did you notice them while playing? Did they bother you or they were the perfect companion for the game? Was the music still playing in your head during your session breaks? Audio is sometimes underestimated, but it can certainly enhance or ruin the experience. It’s never to be taken lightly.
We should pay attention to both sounds effects and music, and see how they blend with the game at different moments (tutorial, quiet moment, tension and build up, boss). Depending on the game you’re developing, some music types can fit perfect or directly bother players.
Something I always like to check in games is how easy is to access everything. A few examples:
– How many clicks do I need to access gameplay? Nothing bothers more than having to click 5-6 times to start playing (sometimes even with more than 1 loading screen in between). Let me play!
– Do all the game’s required actions have easy way to trigger them? Some keys are much easier to access than others. Keys that are used very often should be easy to press. If I’m in the middle of a fast paced combat and I need to press F2 to change the weapon I might as well keep going with what I have.
– Do players need to backtrack a lot to do things? Is this essential to the gameplay, or you could provide them with a shortcut? Metroidvanias are known for their backtracking, but recent entries have added hubs or shortcuts to avoid having players lose time.
– Does the game autosave progress, or players need to do that manually?
– Do you have any way to prevent a mistake on a quick save? Many games store up to 3 quick saves nowadays, which is great.
– How quickly can players access the In Game Menu (usually pressing ESC)? Super cool animations that actually take seconds to display the In Game Menu are usually not well received. They get boring and annoying really fast.
– How hard is to edit the Controls? Sometimes you need to click many times to reach it, other times they are a submenu inside a not-so-obvious location.
– Something silly, but credits used to always be right in the main menu (usually above exit/quit). Now many devs seem to almost hide them (I saw games with the credits inside the options). Maybe it’s a trend, after all most people aren’t interested in who’s worked on the game. Maybe I’m too old school, but I like the credits being right there. If you don’t have room, your main menu is probably too cluttered already.
Menus & Options
This is probably not done very often (unless needed) but I’d still recommend it when checking games. Go through all the menus and options, and see what can be edited or changed by players. What are the video/audio/controls options? Does it support 4K? Can you lower the music, sound effects and voices separately? Does it support controllers as well (assuming you’re on a PC game)? Can you change the language of the audio or subtitles (if available)? Does it support any non-standard options (dual monitors, colorblind options, hearing impaired options, AZERTY support for French keyboards, etc.)?
Going through menus doesn’t seem like an important part of the game, but I find it useful to see what some people might expect to change in your game’s configuration. Some might be more difficult to implement than others, and of course you don’t have to do them all, but if a specific option appears on a game, most likely somebody is using it. So it’s worth considering it.
We have quite a few components to analyze on a game: Graphics, Tutorials, Gameplay Loops (+ mini games), Game Progression, Story, Sound Effects and Music, Accessibility and Menus & Options.
By breaking the games apart and analyzing each component separately, you can notice the small details that otherwise get lost when you’re just playing the game. They are particularly useful if you’re looking for references, or to create a list of to-do and not-to-do. And this doesn’t work only for other games: you should try to do it on your own game as well, once it’s advanced enough. You could spot a few things that you might have missed due to your proximity with the game.
I strongly suggest you keep notes of all your games analysis, especially if you’ll need to access that information later on.
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