game design

My New Job in the Gaming Business

While Parker is wasting away his time I entered the workforce. Last month I started a job at a recently-founded game design studio in Berlin. Currently, my main job is writing the design document. A design document is basically communicating the overall vision of a game to each and every team member. It's goal is to describe the overall concept of the game, target audience, gameplay, interfaces, controls, characters, levels, media assets, etc. In short, everything the team needs to know about the design of the game.

It gives programmers an idea of what modules are going to be used, artists know how interfaces will look like and so on. Basically, as Tracy Fullerton puts it in "Game Design Workshop", a "good design document is like sound blueprints for a building. Everyone on the team can refer to and add comments while they do their separate tasks and understand how their work fits into the game as a whole."

The documents ensures that everyone is directing their efforts towards a common goal and not interpreting what they know about the tittle in their own unique ways.

Accordingly, I have to communicate with the whole team. As we're still preparing the prototype, I mainly talk to the main game designer (my boss and the founder of the studio), the artist responsible for the characters and visual design of the game world and the author of the game's story. This is to agree on the fundamentals of the title.

At the same time, this document will also be the basis of a pitch to the owner of the platform we are planing to release the game on and publishers. As such it also needs to be concise and very visual, containing concept art, flowcharts etc.

The document will end up having between 50 - 100 pages, and it may also include subsections or sub-documents on certain aspects of the game which need a more detailed explanation. There's still a way to go but the job is actually quite fun.

One of the reasons this is so fun because although this document is traditionally written by the main game designer,  this work was delegated to me. This means that I also have some input in regard to the game's design. Yesterday, for example, I spent most of my day trying to think of possible achievements and how they would influence the game play. I loved it.

Of course I'm quite curious  to see how the final product will develop. I can't wait to play the prototype!


Emotional Fallout

One of the games that I've been playing obsessively lately is Fallout 3. Despite me having spent more than 60 hours in its post apocalyptic wasteland, I'm yet to get tired of the title's incredible narrative architecture. As Clive Thompson points out on Wired:

It's an incredibly bleak game. Critics have lauded it for its complex-but-intuitive gameplay, its intriguing story and a go-anywhere world that outdoes even the sprawling burbia of Grand Theft Auto IV. But for my money, Fallout 3's accomplishment is more subtle:

It's depressing.

Fallout 3 indeed excels in creating an environment that is filled with stories of despair, struggle, violence, crushed dreams and hopes. Exploring the environment reveals countless little stories about life in the wasteland and life how it used to be.

Two skeletons lie next two each other on a bed in a destroyed wooden house, at the end the burned leftovers of their child.

An example Thompson gives:

There's a little girl who was found under a bed, and who's now living with a guy who rescued her, trying to avoid the pedophiles in her safe zone. And there's the mission where I was rescuing children from slavers, and tried to persuade a little girl to leave her friend behind -- telling her that "friends sometimes leave you."

"Ghoulified" characters reminiscent of their former beauty or social position, now they're just social outcasts. Every time I play, I come across something that impressively demonstrates the chilling horrors of nuclear warfare. This effect is likely to be bigger if one is actually familiar with the real Washington D.C. (the last time I went was in 1995 so many of the games locales don't have a huge impact on me).

If one digs deep enough one is even able to find documents of the tensions that lead to the attacks. Computers hold records about negotiations and safety measures. Still: The final strike must have been sudden, people even felt comfortable enough to go camping (judging by the burned out trailer I found).

One of the main differences to another masterpiece of narrative architecture – Bioshock – is that the people you encounter are not to blame for the situation they're confronted with. The erection of the Rapture and its social system was a conscious decision, a deliberate turning away from the rest of the world to create a place with its own ethics. It is consequently harder to feel empathy with any of enemies one encounters, their condition is merely the last consequence of their philosophy.

In Fallout 3 a whole world is suddenly confronted with the aftermath of the apocalypse. Now everyone has to cope with radiation, dirty water, anarchy and slavery; everyone is a victim of circumstances beyond their control which certainly adds to the emotional undertone of the game.

As Thompson points out:

Fallout 3 hammers this home early, because you actually begin the game as a preverbal toddler, waddling around a gray nuclear bunker that your father -- who appears to love you quite deeply -- has tried, and failed, to make into a happy nursery. A few little red rockets hang in a mobile over your industrial steel crib, and that's it.

Fallout 3 is an incredible achievement. If one takes the time to explore the vast, bleak world of the game – and not just pursues the action-orientated main quests – it is a very rewarding game which, as Thompson puts it, triggers reflection through pain. It is violent yet inspires more empathy than any other title I played before.