On a recent gamedev podcast, we focused on the topic of analyzing game design and it made me think about the process and despite how far the game industry has come, examining game design still feels underrated. For today’s piece, we’re going to peer behind the curtain and talk about how to analyze gameplay and the lessons you can learn from a game this way.
Before we begin this breakdown, it’s important to point out that we are not talking about storytelling in this post. Writing, character design, and narrative; while these are essential elements when it comes to games, they are not the focus here. It’s easy for people to focus on the story of a game when talking about quality, as those are the elements that resonate the most. Unfortunately, that does not help when it comes to understanding gameplay and building a title.
For my process with any game, I have three areas that I focus on when playing a game for the first time.
The first and most important aspect to me is how playable the game is. Playability focuses on the UI, GUI, and overall approachability of a title. The reason why this is the first element is that anything that annoys me minutes into a game is not going to go away.
I don’t like the excuse that you’ll eventually learn to deal with it, as I have too many games to examine to wait for that time. As we’ve talked about in previous posts, the presentation and playability of a title matters to consumers and shows a level of quality and skill from the developer.
I have stopped playing games within five minutes if the UI was not well designed or give me the ability to rebind keys. There is no excuse in today’s market to purposely leave in playability issues in your game.
To do this on your own, think about the UI: does it feel comfortable to play the game, are you hitting buttons by accident, does this seem like a game you could play for hours on end? And then move on to the GUI: are you able to understand what’s happening on screen, are there any confusing elements to the game?
The Core Gameplay Loop
Next, I examine the core gameplay loop, AKA the main gameplay system of a title. At this point I ask myself: what am I doing in this game and am I enjoying this? I have played games that work from a playability standpoint, but the CGL lacks in some way. Maybe the system is imbalanced, or it’s too simple to hold my attention.
Sometimes we have cases where there is a great CGL, but the onboarding and playability elements prevent me from fully enjoying it — such as with 4X and Grand Strategy games.
For games built on roguelike or replayable elements, I take special care to notice how the persistence systems are working in the game: is this a game I can beat once I’ve learned it, or will have to make use of it to have any chance?
The final point is the one that I don’t feel gets enough credence from developers, reviewers, or consumers.
The Long Run
Let’s say we have an amazing CGL, great playability, but then the question turns to: How does this all play out?
For my final point when examining games, I tend to forecast just what is this game going to look like in hours of play? While that may sound like I’m just theory-crafting, there is some method to my madness. By understanding the CGL and the general flow of the game, it becomes easy to see where things are going to go from a gameplay point of view. By understanding the playability of a title, I can further determine if there’s enough good of the design to outweigh any issues.
If the game is RPG in nature, I can assume that stats and power will continue to scale up. If the game is action or platforming base, there will be extended challenges of what I’ve already seen. It is considered poor design to have your CGL change dramatically after hours of play, and we often see this as rough patches in otherwise good games.
For the titles that I have to cover for Game-Wisdom, this may be the point where I stop playing or reviewing a game, as there is not going to be anything new for me to see and I have other games to play.
It’s important to note that this category does not have anything to do with the value or quality of the game. Sometimes, I play lesser quality titles longer than the ones I like just to see if things improve or come around. This is also why I tend to not play a lot of RPGs, as the CGL becomes solidified early on, and then the game just repeats it for dozens of hours with a greater focus on storytelling.
What This all Means
You are probably wondering about the usefulness of understanding these three areas. Being able to train yourself to look at games this way will help you be both a better consumer and designer. Spotting playability elements give you a free analysis of your own design: allowing you to avoid mistakes and focus on the quality of life improvements.
The core gameplay loop gives you information regarding the audience for the genre and design and what elements are required. The CGL also impacts the general pacing and length of a title as well: if a CGL starts to get repetitive, then that game was too long for that specific loop. It’s always better to have a shorter more refined game vs. a longer one with padding issues.
And putting it all together allows you to see how a game grows over the long run. For myself, I have gotten good at being able to spot flaws and broken elements in games — making game-breaking builds or spotting areas where the design falls apart. This is also important when it comes to rogue-like elements in games and whether or not the game can provide enough variance for repeated runs.
The Critical Eye
When it comes to analyzing game design at this level, there aren’t enough people out there able to talk at this detail.
We are officially into a new decade and I hope that by the end of it people will come to understand and appreciate the importance of analyzing game design. The days where you can ignore design philosophy and methodology and make profit are gone. The game industry is not the wild west anymore, and people expect a quality product whether your game is free or $60.
Be sure to check out the Game-Wisdom Discord if you like to talk about game design topics and the industry