The video game industry has changed dramatically over the last 20 years. Right from the beginning, it became a big aspect of the entertainment industry, with arcade machine games in every park, and console evenings bringing friends together.
By the large public, however, more detailed and “complicated” games like Zelda and Silent Hill were perceived as a “nerdy hobby”. So was Cybersport. It was hard to imagine that Quake tournaments in dusty internet clubs would one day result in a possibility of video games being included in the Olympics.
Now, gaming is a huge industry, earning even more revenue than the Film Industry. With the rise of the budget, rises the competitiveness and possibilities for Game Developers.
The inexorable advance both technologically and creatively will continue. With this in mind, it might seem hard to keep up and continue delivering top-notch content, even for those with years of experience.
Still, there is a fundamental concept, way overlooked in modern game development companies, proficiency with which will always keep you in trend.
What is Game Design?
Game design is the conceptual aspect of game development, undoubtedly the most important one. It decides the main mechanics and the goal of the game, the player’s experience. A successful design requires a clear big picture vision. What audience does the game target, how do you want players to feel, what genre or a combination of genres would serve this vision the best?
Rocket League, PUBG, Among Us, those games became heavily popular in a very short time. Even the best competitors, with advanced physics, next-gen graphics, and other technological advantages, failed to outrun their popularity. Sure, all those practical aspects help to raise the overall quality, but without a well thought key concept, all of these fall apart. Why did Cyberpunk, with its huge and truly smart marketing campaign and a fan base developed over several years, barely keep up with a game that simply offers a perfectly designed virtual space for playing mafia?
We’ll explore this concept with an example, something perfectly demonstrating all the above-mentioned.
Gothic (video game)
Gothic is an RPG game developed by German Piranha Bytes and released in 2001. Gothic is the same to the Game Industry, as Mozart and Beethoven are to the Music Industry. It is a classic, that can’t be overdone, but should be taken as an example of purity in Game and Level Design. With clumsy animations, questionable combat mechanics, and horribly bad controls, Gothic still managed to penetrate the hearts and minds of even the most demanding gamers and critics.
The player is introduced to a very rough world, where criminals (a lot of the time wrongly accused) are forced to work in mines, providing The King with magic ore, used to craft weapons in aid of war against a huge army of orcs. To prevent any attempts of escape, mages decided to cover the mines with a magic barrier, that anyone can go in through, but getting out of it would result in instant death. Wrongly calculating their combined power, mages made the barrier way too big and themselves got stuck inside.
Some criminals rebelled, as a result of which three opposing camps were formed inside The Colony: Old Camp, where most of the convicts and king’s subjects live. New Camp, a group of mercenaries in an alliance with Water Mages, trying to find a way to explode the barrier. And the Swamp Camp, a spiritual place, where monk-like fanatics produce and sell weed, along with praying to a mysterious creature, that according to prophecy will help them escape The Barrier.
As one of the Google search results states, Gothic is the worst good game ever developed. Other results raise questions: “Why is the Gothic series so good?”, “Why is Gothic more believable than modern RPGs?”. Those are not just nicely put titles, but rather genuine questions. With horrible execution and technical aspects, it is still considered as “Daddy” of classical RPGs. How come?
Technically, Gothic is one of the most annoying games I came across. Controls are the furthest thing from intuitive. To simply replace something or navigate in your inventory, you had to press a combination of keys.
Trading with NPCs was a nightmare. The main currency in the game is magical ore. If you have enough of it, you can buy almost anything. However, this resource is very scarce in the game. That’s where the barter system comes in. Every object has a certain universal value, and players can exchange objects equal in value. For example, you could exchange 10 vases for a sword.
The player’s items’ value had to be equal to or bigger than those of the NPCs, in order for the exchange to happen, but equality was not always achievable. If the value of the player’s items exceeds the NPCs, the difference is lost, just gone.
This, combined with horrifying controls and inventory navigation, made in-game trading a whole art.
Players were creatively free to find loopholes in the system. You could buy resources from a blacksmith, make a sword using his own tools, and sell the ready product to him for a very expensive price.
Freedom was given to players in the story too. The smallest quests had many ways to complete, and each of the ways lead to a non-linear plot progression. Those choices felt extremely real by a witty, complicated charisma of all the NPCs and a dystopian setting of the world. The game starts with the main character being tossed into the water inside a magic barrier, then getting punched in the face and welcomed by one of the brutal leaders of the colony.
In every corner there were dangers, none of the NPCs could be trusted. If someone offers you help in this game, you should keep your sword sharpened and ready.
All the monsters were manually placed in the world in a way that felt very authentic. Discovering a chest with a rusty sword somewhere under the water was very common, yet each time still brought extreme excitement.
I will not get in-depth about the combat system, as it will be painful to even write about it. Instead, let’s sum up and give an answer to the eternal question. Why was this terrifyingly bad game so good?
The initial concept of the game, the vision, was well-thought-out. Due to this, Gothic sucked you in from the first seconds. All of those technical difficulties, this uncomfortable itching on your keyboard, were aching to be conquered, to be understood and adapted. The freedom players found in literally every aspect of the game gave a sense of unimaginable depths that are yet to be discovered. Years after Gothic was released, people were still finding hidden items, discussing meanings of a dialogue with a random NPC.
All of this was possible because of a talented game design, that made the badly executed technical parts natural, and after some exploring, enjoyable aspects of the game.
The game industry is suffering more than ever. Only the big companies have the budget and means to develop an AAA game, able to compete with industry giants and succeed financially. Indie game developers and small companies are forced to survive by creating simple games with good monetization (milking) systems. This results in a spike in Hyper casual and IO games, as the financial aspect of them is very attractive.
The important thing to realize is that this spike is very temporary, and gamers are aching for well-designed mechanics, levels, and overall a game worth spending evenings and weekends exploring. Focusing too much on the technical aspects of the game (graphics, animations, models), is something only big-budget companies can afford. But a good Game Design can be thought of sitting in front of an old computer, alone, with no budget, and with enough motivation, it can be actualized.
The moral of the story, while making everything perfect in the game certainly helps, a good game design can cover for everything else, but never the opposite.
About the author
Davit Beybutyan – Game developer specializing on game and level design
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