Books: we publish an excerpt from the book by Slava Gris "Make a video game alone and don't go crazy"

At the end of last year, AST Publishing house published a book by indie developer Slava Gris, “Make a video game alone and Don’t Go Crazy.” We liked the book so much that we decided to write about it, and at the same time share one of its chapters on our pages.

Gris is the author of three chamber projects, each of which he made alone: Fearmonium, Catmaze and Reflection of Mine. Now, in addition to development, he helps third-party indie teams publish their projects on the Nintendo Switch, and also runs a YouTube channel about creating video games.

His book can be titled both as “Psychology for a game developer” and even as “Self-Discipline for a game developer”. In it, he examines the issues of motivation, learning, habit formation, talks about the work of the brain, and also shares his own experience.

Just below we present chapter 18, which is devoted to the basics of video game design. It reveals concepts such as the game cycle and key mechanics, and also talks about the importance of economy in design.

Chapter 18. Basics of Video Game Design

A good way to learn discipline would be… playing video games. We are able to spend dozens of hours playing games! But if games become our job, then we spent these dozens of hours, so, not for idleness, but for self-improvement. Such an understanding will make it much easier to perceive the need to spend the next ten hours watching lessons and training skills, because we will already know how much time we are ready to devote to becoming better.

I can tell an alien for as long as I want about what a cat looks like, but it would be much more effective to just show him this beautiful creature and draw his attention to its distinctive features like soft paws, a touching face and cotton ears. So your best teacher in mastering the art of game design will not be books, videos or mentors, but other people’s games and personal impressions of them.

In your observation lies the key to the successful development of such a really abstract and changeable science as “video game design”.

Developing an independent product, we are in an extremely advantageous position that allows us to ignore “general trends” and formulas for retaining players. Let’s leave it to the AAA studios. Our mission should be to develop a game that we like first of all ourselves. This is our only way. If we do what we do not understand and what we do not know how to enjoy, then the work will not end with success: it will only lead us to a decline in strength and drive us to a dead end.

You will have to say goodbye to the usual process of playing projects of the genre in which you are going to work. You don’t just have to run through the levels and have fun. You need to find out what makes the product you are studying a good or, conversely, a bad representative of the genre. Listen to your own emotions — which moments in this game annoy you, and which, on the contrary, cause delight and why.

Focus on what prompted you to make this or that decision in the game. Why, for example, did you go in “this” direction? Maybe the fact is that the developer has very skillfully placed the light and you have chosen a more illuminated path?

Using the concept of “game cycle” will help you better understand what is happening on the screen. Any video game is actually a repetition of the same actions. For linear platformers, the game cycle, for example, is “go from point A to point B” — and so on as many times as there are levels in the game. In metroidvaniyah , the game cycle is as follows:

– find the boss;
– defeat the boss;
– acquire a new ability;
– discover areas of application of the new ability.

After that, we find the boss again and repeat everything in a circle. The game cycle in bagels boils down to the study of a procedurally generated area in order to find items and abilities that strengthen your character, so that at some point you can kill yourself about the next boss and start all over again.

Of course, I am monstrously exaggerating the definition of a game cycle within various genres, but for educational purposes we must first learn to think in general terms, and then focus on the particulars.

Formulate in a notebook what is the game cycle of games that you like and are familiar with. Just write down the actions that you perform in this game, and indicate the reasons that prompted you to perform them. Write until you determine where the new loop begins in this project.

There is a “key mechanics” hidden inside the cycle, which is overgrown with “additional activities”. The “key mechanics” is something that you can already play and enjoy. Remember my example with Ori and the Blind Forest: even without graphics, effects and additional mechanics, the game is fascinating.

But it should be borne in mind that not all good games will be pleasant to play if all the details are cut off from them. I observe two approaches in the development of video games: the first is to impress the player with the scope, details and investments, closing all the “holes” of your game with money and human resources. A striking example of this approach is the open worlds in modern AAA games, which amaze the imagination of players with a crazy amount of diverse scenery. Creating such a world alone would take a developer a whole decade.

The opposite method is “graceful economy”. In this case, the lack of resources and opportunities is exposed as if the author voluntarily set himself any restrictions, turning them into his style. The most expressive example is the original Silent Hill, which was released on PS1 at the time. The resources of this console were not enough to draw open spaces, so the developers resorted to a clever trick: they paved the streets in Silent Hill with thick fog. As you know, fog later became a distinctive feature of the series.

Almost all the drawings in the visual novel Tiny Bunny are made in black and white palette. Not only does the choice of style distinguish its visual range from other novels and emphasizes the gloominess of the events described in it, but it is also much easier to draw using only grayscale than to make up a complex color scheme.

In Call of Duty: Black Ops — Cold War, many players were impressed by the fact that an NPC could be approached from any side and start a conversation: each NPC had its own animation of turning to the player, and the sitting NPCs that the player approached from behind rose from their seats, turned around and sometimes even grumbled at the player. This is an amazing detail, but creating animations is a very time—consuming process, and it is irrational for a solo developer to spend his resources on implementing such mechanics. But taking away the player’s ability to interact with an NPC just for the reason that the player approached him from behind is also a very clumsy decision.

The methods of getting out of this situation are the method of “elegant economy”. If you put an NPC with his back to the wall, then the player simply will not be able to approach him from behind, which means that there will be no need to finish drawing the reversal animation. The idea of interacting with an NPC through a closed door in Bloodborne is brilliant. The developers did not model the character, did not engage in facial animation, did not face the problem of positioning during interaction, they simply made it so that the NPC did not open the door to his house to us and remained invisible. Elegant economy in the flesh!

You can also observe various ways of saving money in the cinema. We can see particularly notable examples in almost any film where there is a scene of a person’s transformation into some terrible creature like a werewolf. These scenes are very expensive to produce, that’s why the directors have already come up with everything so as not to disappoint the viewer and save resources. Often, the reincarnation scene is interrupted by shots with astonished faces of witnesses of this action; sometimes everything unfolds behind the main character’s back, and the monster is “out of focus”, which makes the animation less detailed; and the way to show only the shadow of a person turning into a werewolf is absolutely magnificent — the animator in this case works only with contours, and the sound effects and the viewer’s imagination will already finish everything else, preserving the desired frightening effect.

Peek at how the developers save the games you play and the movies you watch. Without careful analysis, most decisions will go unnoticed, because that’s how it should be — the player should not know that you decided to darken the screen on a dramatic scene just so as not to draw “one-time” animations.

Any expensive element in production can be used several times. Roguelike games are a living example of how many different game situations can be created with the same game elements, but at the same time, some projects like Devil May Cry 4 may disappoint the player by the fact that the developer forces him to run through the already completed levels again without fail.

It is necessary to take into account the limited resources at the stage of writing the plot. It is not necessary to invent scenes for which the scenery will be used once. There is no point in showing some boss sitting in his chambers, and then sending him to a meeting with a player in a special arena. Build the plot so as to use as few locations as possible and explain why the boss was either already in the arena at the time of our arrival or why we got into his chambers and decided to fight there.

We cannot afford such a waste as the developers of Anthem, where detailed jungle with mountains, waterfalls and dozens of types of trees are needed only to flash under the player’s feet while he is flying on a jetpack. If you add an object or location to the game, it should have some meaning other than “impress the player with detail”.

Most novice developers stumble over the ambitiousness of their projects. Of course, you can do anything alone — it’s always a matter of time, first of all. It may take you more years to create a JRPG in the open world than you are allotted in this world, and it is simply irrational to take up such a game.

The quality of the games you produce will depend not so much on the amount of time, money and effort spent on them, but how much on the experience used in them. The sooner you bring the game to release, the more experience you will be able to invest in the next project. Seizing on the development of a game of crazy proportions, you risk trampling on the spot, losing several years of life and burning out. The game, of course, will never be released.

Always decide on the key mechanics around which your game is built, and first of all implement those things without which your idea cannot exist in principle. I noticed that when my colleagues or I talk about a new, barely started project, we are always asked the question: will there be “Easter eggs” in the game? “Easter eggs”, or “Easter eggs”, are humorous references and references to other projects. In this ridiculous question, I am most tormented by the thought, why the hell should I think about such little things at the very beginning of development? I haven’t fully polished the key mechanics yet, I’ll think about “Easter eggs” in a year.

One of the main criteria of key mechanics is its “comprehensibility”. If you go to Steam, find a game there that you love and know well, and start reading negative reviews, you will find a couple of reviews that are written as if about another game. The authors of these reviews simply did not understand how to play this project, and were dissatisfied with it. This is an absolutely normal situation, because games are run by people with completely different gaming experiences. If you are making a strategy, then be prepared for the appearance of players who have never played strategy in their lives and have no idea what a “unit” is. Your task is to make the game understandable for people with any gaming experience.

Before you build up on the “key mechanics” of the rest of the game, you should make sure that this mechanics is clear to the players. The only sure way of such verification will be showcases: show your game to other players at developer gatherings, festivals, just call friends to your home and carefully watch how people play what you have done. The showcase is an opportunity to give anyone a chance to play your project while you yourself are standing next to and communicating with the player directly. In any case, do not comment and do not suggest anything to the players. Just remember in which places the players did not understand what they had to do, and in which places it was very difficult for them.

Real criticism is not laudatory reviews or witty remarks. The real criticism is the actions of your players. If a player says that the game is great, but gives it a minute of time, he is lying. If a player scolds your project, but cannot tear himself away from the controller for several hours, he is lying. Watch your players’ actions, not their language.

When the “key mechanics” are ready, it’s time to start implementing “additional activities”. By them, I mean everything without which the game may be worse, but it can still exist and it can still be played. Most often, this is a quantitative indicator: the size of the levels, the number of bosses, the presence of localization in different languages, some effects, mini-games and complex interface elements. This procedure will help you save a lot of time, because, believe me, one alteration always brings with it a lot of other alterations.

One day, a player suggested that I make a “minor” change to Fearmonium that would allow the main character to attack on the move, as it was implemented in Catmaze. I followed the path of the Castlevania series of games, and the attack chained the character to the spot, making the fights more tactful and forcing the player to approach the attack wisely, and not just bang on the strike button without stopping. If I made such a change, then I would have to adjust the balance, moving towards “complication”, because battles with enemies would become ten times easier and the player could kill everyone just by moving back and forth and waving the hammer without stopping. I rarely used any guided projectiles, and the whole defense was always based on moving. The player became vulnerable only when he stood still. And he had to stand still in order to attack.

To correct the balance, I would have to revise the behavior of 60 monsters and 14 bosses. Honestly, it’s easier for me to make a new game than to redo one of the key mechanics, because over the years of development, an incredible number of “side elements” have been built around this mechanic. When the house is built, it’s too late to redo the foundation. And if the foundation is poorly built, then the house will soon fall apart, regardless of how beautifully you have lined the walls.

Feel free to demonstrate the raw builds of your game. The sooner you notice your mistakes while observing the players, the less work you will have to do to correct them.

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