When we normally talk about aesthetics in videogames, we’re referring to the art and music that helps raise the quality and presentation of the game, but for today I want to talk about something else. As videogames have grown this past decade, I’ve seen a trend from niche genres that developers should be paying attention to with regards to making these games easier to digest.
When we talk about presenting a game to someone, we can break it down into the gameplay and the aesthetics. On gameplay mechanics and loops, these are the elements that people are going to judge your game on. Regarding the aesthetics of a title, they are what draw people to a game in terms of the overall presentation.
However, looking at the past decade there is more to just separating aesthetics and gameplay in that regard. For many developers, they can enjoy their own title and determine if a game has potential without any aesthetics whatsoever. This is often the prototype phase of game development, and is an essential part of the process.
With that said, just because the game may seem great to you doesn’t mean that it’s going to be inviting for players. There’s a habit among smaller developers or those making niche games to leave the mechanics as “raw” as possible in the eyes of the player.
The presentation of a title goes beyond just having solid game mechanics or even amazing visuals. The last decade has led to developers getting access to more powerful game engines at a cheaper price than ever before. It doesn’t take a lot these days to have a game look semi-professional; especially if you use the Unreal engine.
But, as most of you are going to comment, this has led to a variety of “asset flip” titles — games that on first glance look decent, but are akin to the “direct to DVD” movies we saw in the 00’s.
For most people, this is where the conversation on aesthetics and presentation ends, but I want to go further. Just because your game does have solid art direction, amazing aesthetics, and great gameplay, doesn’t mean you’re done from a presentation point of view.
Many developers have struggled with this idea of “presenting the gameplay” to the player. For you reading this right now, how many games have you played that are just a series of challenges with no connection between them, and how many of those titles did you completely beat?
I’ve played many platformers, puzzle, and strategy titles that are just a series of levels or challenges and nothing more to them. Nothing seems to connect from one level or match to the next other than going up in number. If you remember, this was done in the original Super Mario Brothers 1 and 2 — the only sense of progression was whatever world number the player was on.
If there’s no sense of connection between the various game systems, the game tends to feel barebones and sterile to the player; even if your game has a great look and feel to it. When that happens, it becomes hard to care about continuing to play that game unless you are the most harden superfan.
Now, that takes us to the question for today: how do you improve the presentation of your game?
Stories and Systems:
Everything that we’re going to talk about now has one goal — creating the feeling that the game is more than the sum of its parts. Let’s start with the story, as it’s often the easiest to start with, but hardest to nail. For titles that focus on storytelling over gameplay – visual novel, walking sims, etc., the story is front and center the motivation to play. It becomes the connecting thread throughout the entire experience, but that’s the exception for most games.
Many titles use their story as just a simple background to the gameplay and is often forgotten once the game starts getting going. For many action-based titles, you could arguably rearrange every level in the game other than the beginning and ending, and it wouldn’t really matter from a story POV. Think about how many games have padded out a title with levels that have no connection to the story or forcing the player to do some kind of secondary system — such as stealth in an action game.
One of the easiest ways to improve your presentation is to have connections between stages. The oldest example would be having a “world map” that shows the player moving from area to area.
For a special example, we saw this with the Kaizo hack “Grand Poo World 2” — where level endings would connect to the beginning of the next stage, and there was an overall connection in the form of a riddle that could be solved.
Compare the games City of Brass to Hades in terms of presentation. Both are action roguelikes where the player goes from area to area. When I move to a new section in city of Brass, I get just a text screen that says “now entering X.” In Hades, moving from one area shows a map of Hades and gives the player an idea as to what’s next.
With fighting games, one of the major forms of growth this last decade was having more involved story modes — with the standout example being MK 11 and Injustice 2 by NetherRealm Studios. You have a story with full cutscenes and voice acting instead of just still images going from one stage to the next.
Turning to gameplay now, I want to talk about making the player care about playing the game.
Preserving the Play:
I can always tell when I’m playing the first game from someone as there is always very little connection throughout the systems. These games typically start with a static menu that immediately goes into the game. The second the game is over; the player returns to the opening splash screen like nothing happened.
This is a holdover from the days of the arcade and early consoles — that play occurs with a vacuum and is wiped. We can also see this in titles where there is no connection in any way between plays. For today’s market, developers need to understand that giving a sense of weight or connection helps the game feel bigger.
A major shift in presentation from the puzzle genre has been a greater adoption of a story or world around the puzzles. I have played many puzzle games that just exist as dozens or hundreds of unconnected screens. When you look at something like Manifold Garden and The Talos Principle, there is an entire world for the player to explore outside of the puzzles. Even something like Steven’s Sausage Roll had a world or hub in it.
Another aspect is being able to present a sort of structure to playing your game. Many strategy games throw all the factions and choices at the player without giving them any context or understanding about how to begin. There is a big problem if someone has no idea where to start in terms of your title.
Every time someone finishes playing a mission or run through the game, there should be something that keeps track of that progress. This can be as simple as having a world map or a high score list, to having achievement pages or trophy screen designs and more.
Greater Than the Sum:
Everything that we’ve talked about in this piece and the accompanying video serve one purpose — making the game feel greater than the sum of its parts. Today, people are expecting more out of the games they’re playing. What that means for the developer is figuring out how to add value to their game, without ballooning their development time and budget.
Some of the solutions we talked about could get on the expensive side, while others are just about how you frame your content. For you reading this: Can you think of great examples of presenting gameplay, and not so great examples that made you lose interest in the game?
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