Developing Thoughts 7

Another of my columns…

Going with the flow

Ensuring that a game works as a whole is very important to the satisfaction the player will feel as they complete it. As with story and research, the flow of a game can make or break the experience.

I’m not, of course, talking about the story flow – though in some games this may well be tied very closely to what I’m covering here. What I mean is the logic flow of the game. Are there any dead ends, which cause the player to restore an earlier save game in order to progress? Do the conversations with these two separate characters still make sense if they are triggered in a different order?

Some games have a simple logic flow, which link sections of the game in a way that relies on finishing one section before completing another. There’s no going back and no complex sets of variables that have to be taken into account, other than those connected with the player character’s health, weapons or abilities. On the whole, these games are relatively straightforward when it comes to both designing the logic flow and testing its soundness.

Games that rely on the player visiting each section a number of times have the greatest chance for the logic flow to go wrong. Performing tasks or actions in one section that has an effect in another will always be at the whim of a complex set of variables that must be carried throughout the game. Development of the logic flow can be both time-consuming and potentially expensive, if it isn’t done right. The less rigorously it’s planned out, the more chance there is that the testing and fixing period will highlight serious problems that will lead to the game being delivered late.

Flow charts and diagrams are an important part of the development of the main gameplay and logic threads, along with detailed documentation at every level. Probably more important, however, is the ability to hold the image of the logic flow in your head and think it through on an almost daily basis, checking and re-checking that it is completely sound. In order to develop the logic flow successfully, the designer (lead designer, director, whatever) should live with this structure as though it’s a second circulatory system flowing through his/her very being.

The downside to this is that you tend to wake in the middle of the night with concerns about how you’re going to get the hero from the mountain village to the heart of New York without it feeling too contrived. And when you drift away from the conversation – eyes glazing over – in the middle of a dinner with friends, you’d better hope that they’re incredibly good friends. Not everyone will understand the way that the design of a game takes over your life.

Sometimes, even with the best planning in the world and thorough testing, logic bugs can slip through. You’ve played it through time and time again yourself. So have the rest of the team and the publisher’s test department. Yet, the first person who buys the game on release will happen to find the one logic bug that everyone missed.

And that’s when, as you berate yourself for missing the problem, you really get the sleepless nights…

© Steve Ince, 2004