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  • Writer's pictureMike

MA Game Design: Paper Prototyping & Ludology


Hey, its me, the guy who finished his degree 🥳 and is now starting another one 😨 I'm in so much student debt.

Anyway, after taking a break from creating games over the summer and experiencing how competetive the job market is for the gaming sector, I've decided to go ahead and continue on at Kingston to do a Masters course in game design! So, what's happened so far?

Paper Prototyping

Our first class focused on what it actually means to be a game designer, why people play games, what makes a game fun, and so on. Just some basics to get everyone thinking like a designer. We discussed these topics and talked about a game which we found to be particularly enjoyable. Since I had started and almost 100% completed the game Horizon Zero Dawn, I talked about what I liked about it; the combat, story, and world-building. I haven't tried many games which focused on a post-post-apocalyptic world (so not the immediate events after an apocalypse, like in The Last of Us) which felt very fresh and interesting. Everyone had a different game in mind, with different reasons for why they liked it, which led into us trying out the Bartle Test of Gamer Psychology.

In short, there are 4 categories which most gamers would fall into: explorers, killers, achievers, and socialisers. The test is nothing definitive, but it is meant to give some insight into what you enjoy doing in video games. So for me, I am primarily an explorer. This is something important to consider; all gamers play games for different reasons. Its very unlikely that the first iteration of a game idea will be the correct one, so its important to get feedback and playtest during development to see what works and what needs improvements.

To put this to the test, we split into small groups to play a basic board game where each group had one unique set of rules applied to them. This is paper prototyping, something I remember doing on a summer games design course at LCC because if you could design a good board game, you could design a good video game. The board game was a basic variation of a zombie-survival shooter. The player could either move one space or shoot once on their turn to kill a zombie, then all zombies were allowed to move one space. Anytime a zombie died, 2 new ones were placed anywhere around the edge of the board. The player always killed a zombie if they chose to shoot, and if a zombie gets into the same space as the player, they die. We kept scores by counting how many zombies had been killed before the player died.

Paper prototyping: zombie-survival shooter

In the above image, cubes are zombies, the green man is the player, and the hexagons represent a space on the map. At first, the game is quite slow and there isn't much for the player or the zombie controller to do, however things build up quickly once more zombies are killed. Eventually, the player is overwhelmed and dies. What was discovered was that the best strategy for the player was to never move, it was far more effective to stay in the centre of the board and kill zombies from there. There also isn't much incentive or reason for the player to move around.

So, to try to make the game more engaging, zombies can only move half a space per turn (i.e., they move onto the edge of a hexagon). Afterwards, they must move into the next hexagon. This time, instead of starting with 1 zombie, we start with 8 zombies on the board.

Paper prototyping: new zombie rules

Now, we have introduced meaningful choices to the player! There's more incentive to try to move now, so the game is already a bit more interesting, but it becomes very easy to get overwhelmed by the zombies. Finally, we added one unique new rule to each group to see how that impacts gameplay. For us, we had a limit of 10 bullets at the start of the game with ammo packs randomly positioned on the board. Moving onto these gives the player 10 extra bullets to use.

Paper prototyping - new player rules

This time, there's even more meaningful choices for the player since they cannot shoot infinitely. At this point, things are much more enjoyable and engaging for everyone and we can see the basis for a game developing here. A few things could still be adjusted to improve the gameplay, for example, there could be buildings and the player could be given a grappling hook which can be used to climb buildings from several units away. This can make the fleeing aspect more enjoyable instead of moving one space per turn. New guns could be introduced with varying effects, health can be added to all units, and so on. This iterative design process is the foundation for many succesful games, be it video games or board games. This also can convey ideas much easier to teammates or colleagues so that people can see how the game functions and, more importantly, whether or not it is fun!

Ludology, Game Structure & Analysis

In our second class, we discussed the subject of ludology - the academic study of games. Continuing the theme of trying to determine what makes video games fun, we experimented by playing a few different games from across the ages. The very first game, Spacewar (1961), is a space-fighter game that was very popular among physicists, but not the general public. After playing the game (which you can do here), pretty much everyone agreed it wasn't a particularly great game. The controls were too awkward and the learning curve to understand how to best control your spaceship was too steep, which made it not very fun. The developers of this game thought it was brilliant, but as mentioned, it flopped when it went out to the public. This was probably because of the aforementioned reasons, as well as the fact that space-related things were not a relatable experience. By contrast, Pong (1972) was a massive success because it was a simple, relatable game which people could understand very quickly, even though the developers did not think the game was that great. This feeling of relating to something is called the mere-exposure effect, a psychological phenomenon where people tend to prefer things which they can relate to, and it is something that can determine how well a game does when being released to the public.

The second game we played was Space Invaders. For this, the aim was to see if we could figure out what the main goals of the game are and whether or not we had meaningful choices during play. Anyone who has played this game knows that the main goal is to get the highest score possible by destroying all the aliens before they reach the bottom of the screen. To that end, the player can move and shoot once until their bullet hits something, then they can fire again. The premise is very simple, so pretty much everyone can understand how to play the game, with the challenge building up gradually with each new wave of enemies. Eventually, the aliens become too fast and reach the bottom of the screen or are firing too many bullets for the player to dodge. The social aspect of comparing scores triggers a sense of competition and that extra bit more fun.

Finally, we examined Portal to see how this game guides the player to the main goal in the game. We spent some time analysing the game individually, taking notes as we progressed through the first 8 test chambers, before discussing it as a class. We noted that everything is designed with a purpose in mind, from the colour scheme and the opening scene introducing the player to the concept of what a portal is to the confined and linear spaces presented for the player to progress through in each location. Even the offices obscured by frosted glass serve not only a narrative purpose in making the player feel they are always under observation, but they serve a technical purpose in being realistic light sources to help illuminate the various rooms. Thanks to the in-game documentaries, we can also learn about their design and testing processes for the various levels. For example, these rooms were much more clustered with various objects that ended up distracting the player and made the overall area too 'noisy', making it difficult for playtesters to know where they should be looking for solutions to the puzzles in the game. Removing these extras helped focus players towards their objective and they were able to solve puzzles and progress much faster.

Again, we see that playtesting reveals things that developers and designers may not have considered. Designers and developers know in their heads how to progress through their levels but someone experiencing the game for the first time does not, so ideas may not be conveyed clearly to players in the early stages.

Closing Thoughts

I would say I have learned some new things, but I would also say that some of these lessons are things which I was already aware of but had not thought about seriously. Aspects like making sure the player is guided appropriately seem obvious, but might be accidentally forgotten about whenever I design and develop a new game idea. I will say that this stuff is all super interesting, so I'm loving this masters class already!

I've also taken a look at the assignment, which in essence is to make a game that fits the theme "Apart and Together". So its very much like a game jam, just a long one! I have several ideas in mind which I have been noting down, I'll continue to refine them until they feel ready to write up in a Word doc to get feedback on.

I also realise I wrote a semi-essay in this post, so uhh, if you managed to read through my ramblings - thanks for hearing me out! Until next time, catch ya later alligators.

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