Gameplay design: how it works in ‘big’ games, and how to replicate it

Due to my nature and temperament, when playing games, I always ask myself questions:

  • Why am I interested?
  • How did the authors achieve this effect?
  • Why does this gimmick work in this game, but seem superfluous in that one over there?
  • Why did the game generate such discussions (bad/good)?
  • What did people like (not) so much?
  • Etc.

Answering such questions led me to realize the ‘behind-the-scenes’ methods and techniques of game creation. Here I mean the mechanisms hidden behind the facade of the game that control what happens on the screen. They make the game holistic, harmonious, deep and, therefore, interesting. That’s what I’m going to try to talk about now.

Structure, atmosphere, narrative

Atmosphere is closely related to the story of a game, so now we will talk a lot about the structure of a game in terms of its story. First of all, let’s draw a ‘scheme’ or ‘map’—whatever you like—on which the main components of the game will be depicted, and on which I can show how they are formed, their ‘behind-the-scenes’ interaction, and their role in the finished product.

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Diagram

Briefly by elements:

  • Idea – defines the meaning of everything. it’s not just a gameplay idea. It’s what we want to convey to the player. game design, art design, and story are just the means of delivering that idea.
  • World – Independent of game-design, art-design and story, but is the arena for the presentation of the idea(1). Accordingly, is entirely subordinate to it.
  • Global story – part of the overall story, not explicitly and directly appearing at the beginning, but manifested in some specific moments of local stories (4-6).
  • Local stories that lead the player to the main thing – the global story – and reveal it from different sides. 
  • Characters live and exist in the world, and become unwilling participants. we know their history, character and habits before the narrative begins, between the local stories, in areas invisible to the player. the dotted lines on the player’s area mark the moments of first appearance on the screen.

Characters and stories

There are two approaches to story narration:

  • Serving Characters. In this approach, the characters, no matter how charismatic and interesting they may be, serve the story being told. Here the story, its prologue, climax, denouement, and epilogue are invented, and characters are introduced as necessary elements for its flow.
  • Guided story. Here everything is the opposite: the characters are created from the beginning. They are self-sufficient and live in a prepared world, according to its rules and laws. As established individuals, they have ambitions, desires, goals. And they follow them, intersecting with each other, competing, entering into conflicts and confrontations. The story here is born out of their actions, and serves only as a supplement, a background.

Of course, both approaches overlap in one way or another, and it is dangerous to fanatically follow one of them. One should find a comfortable balance between the two, and stick to it.

I am of the opinion that it is convenient to shift this balance towards the second approach: it is easier to design the structure of the game, because the concept itself implies the subordination of some elements to the rules set by other elements. There’s less opportunity to get it wrong.

World and idea

  • The world can be thought of as a character. He lives and exists according to certain laws imposed on him by the idea of the project. It reacts in the same way to the events that take place in it. The influence of some of them is small and does not bring a noticeable effect (of course, it makes no sense to work out such events in this context), but others can have a very significant influence on the world, and it must react to them (here we remember about ‘honesty’ before the given rules and laws). The world can be seen as a character whose ‘story’ is the idea of the game. From this point of view, it will be easier to describe the world’s honest reaction to the events taking place.
  • The idea. It is never explicitly stated, but it is often easy to ‘read between the lines’. The idea is conveniently divided into two components: plot and gameplay. Predominantly they exist separately from each other, but there is a dependence. For example, it is difficult to tell a sharp story with turn-based strategy.

The concept of balancing the supporting characters and the driven story applies here as well. It’s more convenient to shift the balance towards the supporting characters: it’s easier to formulate an idea in this case.

Examples

Fallout 4

F4 is a gorgeous sandbox where, as it became fashionable to say, you can and should entertain yourself. the authors created a really impressive set of tools, but what happened to the atmosphere?

On the one hand, they spent a lot of time=force+money on drawing the world. It’s really detailed like no other game on this planet. Visually there are no complaints. But what’s going on in other areas?

Fallout has always shown a lifeless desert with rare and deadly enemies. Now, enemies are everywhere: you can’t take two steps to avoid running into some orcs, who have been turned into useless meat: they don’t differ from humans in any way (neither strength nor stupidity). mystical organisations, which were hard to get into, and once you got into them it was hard to achieve something, have disappeared. the brotherhood of steel now lets all the bums they meet into the captain’s bridge of their flagship airship. To summarise: enemies, friends… all have lost relevance and meaning: now they are just meat on the map.

They say: ‘build your dwelling, build defences and defend it from attacks’. well, I built it, put guns to make the annoying ‘!’ disappear from the screen, and what do I see? for 80 hours of gameplay 2-3 times I saw a couple of unfortunate people attack the settlement. once I couldn’t stand waiting for ‘ours’ to shoot ‘theirs’, got a gun and solved the issue in 5 seconds. Besides, settlements quickly became so numerous that it became unclear who and how to defend them: they lost their value and meaning. And you couldn’t force them to gather in a pile. But to make new ones was always welcome, as if there weren’t already too many of them. ‘A harsh wasteland with ruthless orcs? No, we’re farming together.’ Walking around the locations, you’re more happy to find a screwdriver than ammo, of which you have hundreds in your pockets, etc., I could go on.

Metal Gear Solid 5

Everyone has seen, and those who have not – heard about the ‘Fulton’ system that appeared in MGS. This is when people and even tanks fly away in a balloon to the player’s base. Ridiculous, isn’t it? But this absurdity was not told in the welcome UI window. There was a whole series of steps to introduce the system into the game: the main character was told about it in a staged video not by anyone. and one of the key characters.

We’ve seen the reaction of two well-developed characters we know and trust to this system. We see how the enemies react to it: they scream, don’t understand what the hell it is and raise the alarm – a believable and natural reaction. We see how the world reacts to this system: over time, the enemies realize what it is. They not only start talking about it among themselves, but also react appropriately to it by shooting the ball and saving their colleagues. There’s a lot of jokes about it on the internet, but does it ruin the game? As I see it, it’s more like positive PR.

Conclusion

Understanding the intricate design and mechanisms behind successful games can significantly enhance the development process for both large-scale and indie game developers. By analyzing what makes gameplay engaging, developers can replicate these techniques to create immersive and enjoyable experiences.

The key elements of game design—structure, atmosphere, narrative, and character development—play critical roles in the success of a game. Whether using characters to drive the story or creating a world that reacts authentically to player actions, balancing these elements is crucial. Games like Fallout 4 and Metal Gear Solid 5 illustrate different approaches to integrating these components effectively.

For indie developers, the challenge is to adapt these big-game techniques within the constraints of smaller budgets and teams. Focusing on core gameplay ideas, creating rich worlds, and ensuring that characters and stories are compelling can help achieve this. By maintaining a balance between narrative and gameplay, indie games can offer experiences that rival those of larger productions.

Ultimately, the goal is to create games that resonate with players, offering both depth and engagement. As technology continues to evolve, staying informed about successful game design strategies will enable developers to innovate and excel, regardless of the scale of their projects.

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