Game Design: A Maturing Discipline
January 5th, 2016

0. Preface

I wrote this dissertation in January 2014, and it’s thanks to the research I did for it that I’ve been working in the video game industry for almost 2 years now. Although I may not entirely agree with some points made any longer, I still believe the message that it’s trying to communicate. I’ve put my dissertation on here so that perhaps other students can have a gander in future, and also to laugh at myself. Why’d you leave it until the last minute you silly student? Eh? The deadline’s in like 5 hours. Chop chop.

1. Introduction

In the past decade the games industry has seen some significant changes outside of the spotlight. While the face of the industry continues to release the next instalments of the same tired franchises, individuals and independent design studios have been a breath of fresh air for more dedicated gamers.

Independent game designers are creating games which do not rely on the most sophisticated technology; many of them are games which could have existed in the earliest days of game design. With the technology developing so fast, the discipline has gotten ahead of itself – it hasn’t fully explored what it was capable of forty years ago, and barely gets a chance to get comfortable before the next generation of technology is released.

This paper takes a look at the criticism surrounding game design as a medium, it explains some concepts unique to game design in detail and analyses two games currently under development by two of London’s independent developers. The aim of this paper is to understand more fully where the strengths of video games lie, and how it needs to develop.

2. The Current Climate of Game Design as a Discipline

While video game design as a discipline is increasingly becoming more accepted as a sophisticated field of study, it is still argued that video games will never be more than a vulgar, lesser form of entertainment or even a form of art. A generation of theorists, philosophers, designers and professionals from numerous other fields of study who have grown up playing video games feel that games can be much more (TEDxTalks, 2009), realising that games need to rely less on what the next technological advancement will allow and focus more on what they are capable of right now, and have been capable of since Pong’s (Atari Inc., 1972) inception into the entertainment industry over forty years ago. As Eric Zimmerman said, video games are currently suffering from a serious case of ‘cinema envy’ (Zimmerman, 2004), and I feel that YouTube’s John Bain (better known by his online alias Total Biscuit) put it best:

The games industry is still growing up. We’re going through this awkward teenage phase now where we’re working out what we want to do with the rest of our lives, and there are a bunch of guidence counselors that are directing us in various ways; the influence of our parents – that being television, books, movies – are all trying to pull us in a particular direction, trying to assert their dominance and saying, “this is the way that it should be.”

(TotalBiscuit The Cynical Brit, 2013)

The late Roger Ebert argued against games as an artform, stating that they will only ever be a representation of other artforms (Ebert, 2010), considering the majority of games being released today, he’s certainly not far from the truth. However, designers are beginning to realise that they shouldn’t be designing games with the goal of becoming an interactive representation of other more popular mediums and activities. Game designers should not be trying to build the game industry upon the shoulders of their well-established ‘parents’ – video games need to prove that they can stand firmly on their own two feet; video games need to establish themselves as their own medium. To break them down to their basic description, they can be, should be and in some cases have proven to be well-designed pieces of audio-visual interactive art. In order to understand the way that we study and play games, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman are encouraging that the video games industry seeks to develop a critical discourse for the discipline of game design:

Compare game design to other forms of design, such as architecture or graphic design. Because of its status as an emerging discipline, game design hasn’t yet crystallized as a field of inquiry … The culture at large does not yet see games as a noble, or even particularly useful, endeavor. Games are one of the most ancient forms of designed human interactivity, yet from a design perspective, we still don’t really know what games are.

(Salen and Zimmerman, 2003, cited by Salen and Zimmerman, 2004, p.XV)

Although a lot has changed since Salen and Zimmerman wrote this over ten years ago, the battle is still being fought to make video games a respected discipline. As well as the late Roger Ebert, the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones also argues against games as a sophisticated discipline, recently writing an article questioning why so many people want games to be considered an artform,

Can video games be art? And the answer is still No, or at least, Not Likely. It seems a bizarre and irrelevant question to ask. Like, if I was reading Jane Austen and you said, “But is it sport?” No, it’s not sport, it’s a novel. Why would it need to be anything else? Electronic games offer a rich and spectacular entertainment, but why do they need to be anything more than fun? Why does everything have to be art?

(The Guardian, 2014)

This was immediately met with a response the following day by another writer for the Guardian, Keith Stuart:

So here’s another question: why do films need to be more than just fun? Why does art? … Why can’t games just be fun? Because intelligent, thoughtful designers such as Navid Khonsari want to make games about serious issues like the 1979 Iranian revolution. Why can’t games just be fun? Because Ryan Green is making That Dragon, Cancer (Green, not yet released), a game about how he and his wife are coping with the terminal illness of their youngest son. Green has chosen games as his medium of expression, his way of coping, because he is a game designer – it is how he thinks, and partly how he processes the world and what is happening to his family.

(The Guardian, 2014, my italics)

It is clear that there are still conflicting opinions on the matter, and there likely always will be. It is necessary to research and understand what the game design discipline has in common with other more established disciplines, and to discern what is exclusive to the game design discipline. Only through seeking to understand this still-emerging medium can we use its unique strengths to their full potential – to create meaningful games which one day could be held in high regard as powerful and influencial works of art.

3. Two Important Ways In Which Video Games Are Unique

3-1. The Game-Story

Many designers and players feel that the epitome of narrative in a game is essentially an interactive film, but it’s becoming clear that games have their own more subtle, concise ways of communicating a story demonstrated by games such as Half Life 2 (Valve Corporation, 2004), Portal (Valve Corporation, 2007) and Thomas Was Alone (Mike Bithel, 2012). These three examples allow the player to discover the story through exploration of the environment, and through experiencing change in real-time inside of the game-world. Although there is a clear narrative being layed out before them in these examples (characters guiding the protagonist Gordon Freeman in Half-Life 2; GLaDOS, the antagonist in Portal teasing Chell the protagonist, and Danny Wallace’s narration in Thomas Was Alone), in order to fully understand the true narrative that is taking place the player has to explore and pay attention to what they as the protagonist are doing, and how they are affecting the game-world. These three games also demonstrate a linear, predetermined narrative, but other games have proven that each playthrough of the same game can communicate an entirely different story. What I have described is essentially what Eric Zimmerman refers to as the ‘game-story’ (Zimmerman, 2004), which is a very important quality that games hold unique to themselves. Zimmerman uses the modest example of Ms. Pac-Man (Midway Manufacturing, 1982) to get his point across:

There are many story elements to Ms. Pac-Man which are not directly related to the gameplay. For instance, the large-scale characters on the physical arcade game cabinet establish a graphical story about the chase between Ms. Pac-Man and the ghosts. There are also brief non-interactive animations inside the game, which appear between every few levels. These simple cartoons chronicle events in the life of Ms. Pac-Man: meeting her beau Pac-Man, outwitting the ever-pursuing ghosts, etc.But while these story-components are important parts of the larger Ms. Pac-Man experience, they are not at the heart of what distinguishes Ms. Pac-Man as a game-story. The arcade cabinet graphics and linear cartoon animations sit adjacent to the actual gameplay itself, where a different kind of narrative awaits. As the player participates with the system, playing the game, exploring its rule-structures, finding the patterns of free play which will let the game continue, a narrative unfolds in real time.

What kind of story is it? It’s a narrative about life and death, about consumption and power. It’s a narrative about strategic pursuit through a constrained space, about dramatic reversals of fortune where the hunter becomes the hunted. It’s a narrative about relationships, in which every character on the screen, every munchable dot and empty corridor, are meaningful parts of a larger system. It’s a narrative that always has the same elements, yet unfolds differently each time it is experienced. And it’s also a kind of journey, where the player and protagonist are mapped onto each other in complicated and subtle ways. This is a narrative in which procedures, relationships, and complex systems dynamically signify. It is the kind of narrative which only a game could tell.

(Zimmerman, 2004)

Steven Poole suggests that ‘videogames need to play on their strengths’ (Poole, 2000, p.218), and backs it up with a quote by legendary game designer Shigeru Miyamoto,

‘The beauty of interactive media is it is different from other types of media, so we need to concentrate on those differences.’

(Miyamoto, 1999, cited in Poole, 2000, p.218)

Many video games still don’t take advantage of this trait unique to their medium, and that’s fine – there are other areas in which the discipline requires attention before it can develop.

3-2. The Role of the Player

The critically acclaimed YouTube channel Extra Credits regularly publishes episodes about game design as a discipline to encourage debate amongst the online community (and invites other disciplines to lend their expertise too), in one episode they speak about another way in which video games may be unique:

Our medium is unique. It is an inherently interactive medium – a medium where the audience isn’t merely audient, but particapatory. This does something peculiar to our medium. It means that we as developers ship products that are – by necessity – incomplete. A painting on a wall is a finished work; a movie on a roll is whole and complete; a novel on a shelf is what it will always be. But a game without a player is nothing.

(Extra Credits, 2012)

This is what James Portnow and the team behind Extra Credits believe, and it certainly has some merit. I would argue that it has to be more specific than this however. While it’s absolutely true that no game is complete without its players, the same is true for many other mediums – at least to some extent. Before I explain my disagreement I must first describe the concept of ‘play’.

Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman (Salen and Zimmerman, 2004, p.102) write that the practise of game design can be broken down into three primary schemas: Rules, Play and Culture. These three core concepts lay the foundation for any game design writing, and are as follows:

RULES are the formal part of games, and focus on the intrinsic mathematical structures of games.

PLAY is the experiential part of games, and emphasizes the player’s interaction with the game and other players.

CULTURE highlights the cultural contexts into which any game is embedded.

In the following passage from one of Frank Lantz and Eric Zimmerman’s essays, they describe the process of introducing play to a game:

A game is a system of rules. But once the rules are activated, once humans enter the system, play begins – and play is something all together different from rules.
Play is the experience of a rule-system set into motion by the players’ choices and actions. Within the strictly demarcated confines of the rules, play emerges and ripples outwards, bubbling up through the fixed and rigid rule-structure in unexpected patterns.

(Lantz and Zimmerman, 1999)

As Salen and Zimmerman put much more concisely, ‘Play is free movement within a more rigid structure’ (Salen and Zimmerman, 2004, p.304). While it is true that where there are rules there is always the potential for play, ‘play’ can also exist outside of rules as Salen and Zimmerman also acknowledge:

Play is, in fact, what we do with games. We play Chess, we play Baseball, and we play Tekken. Although other things are played as well (the radio, the trumpet, or a role in a theater production), play has a very special relationship to games and game design.

(Salen and Zimmerman, 2004, p.104)

Generally, Salen and Zimmerman’s definitions for these primary schemas are held high in game design, and it is through understanding them that I feel that James Portnow and the team behind Extra Credits’ mention of games being the only designed piece of work to be shipped incomplete isn’t entirely correct.

When a graphic designer designs a poster, they are likely to be aware of where it will be displayed and how it will be distributed; who the audience will be and for how long the poster will be displayed. They will put together a design after considering this information, and eventually ship the design to be printed and distributed, therefore completing the design process. Until the poster has fulfilled its role however, it is just as incomplete as a the ‘incomplete’ game that James Portnow and Extra Credits were quoted on earlier. In this state, it is through transformative play that the graphic designer’s work may continue to develop.

When play occurs, it can overflow and overwhelm the more rigid structure in which it is taking place, generating emergent, unpredictable results. Sometimes, in fact, the force of play is so powerful that it can change the structure itself … We call this important form of play transformative play … A cyberfeminist game patch that creates transsexual versions of Lara Croft is an example of transformative play, as is the use of the Quake game engine as a movie-making tool … once human players come into the equation, transformative play can occur across many levels. A player’s thinking skills might be transformed as a result of playing Chess over a long period of time. Social relationships with other players (or non-players) might undergo a transformation. The play of Chess might even transform the way a player perceives objects in space … Transformative play can occur in all three categories of play.

(Salen and Zimmerman, 2004, p.305)

Salen & Zimmerman (Salen and Zimmerman, 2004, p.304) describe the three categories of play mentioned in the above quote – Game Play (playing within a rule-system), Ludic Activity (bouncing a ball against a wall for example) and Being Playful (being playful while walking down the street for example means playing with the more rigid social, anatomical and urban structures that determine proper walking behaviour).

[fig.1] Nike (2011) I Am The Bullet In The Chamber [Advertisement]

Whilst fulfilling its role of being displayed to its audience, the graphic designer’s poster can be manipulated by the ‘players’ in this context. It may be drawn on – type added or erased, elements edited or removed, parts torn to give the poster new meaning. Over time, the poster may be folded, unfolded and re-folded, eventually creating white creases which divide the page – this will highlight particular elements and could also heavily alter the meaning of the piece. The poster may also develop through other means – the colours could fade over time; if it is outside, it may deterriorate or develop through weathering. The poster could also develop through its cultural context changing – one example is Nike’s web banner / billboard advertisment featuring Oscar Pistorius [fig.1]. The advert was designed and distributed in 2011 and featured the slogan, ‘I AM THE BULLET IN THE CHAMER’. When Oscar Pistorius was charged with the murder of his girlfriend who he shot in 2013, the advert’s cultural context changed greatly and the meaning developed to become much more controversial than the agency ever intended.

It is hard to say that the designer’s conclusion of the design process renders a poster complete when it still has so much potential to develop a new meaning. Tranformative play can modify products from most mediums – I’ll address them in the same order that Extra Credits described them:

[fig.2] Reshetnikov (1950) Paix

‘A painting on a wall is a finished work’ (Extra Credits, 2012) In 1950 Soviet painter Fyodor Pavlovich Reshetnikov finished a painting which he named Paix (Reshetnikov, 1950), meaning Peace in French. The painting [fig.2] depicts a (presumably French) group of young boys painting ‘paix’ onto a wall, two of the children keeping lookout. The city that they are in appears to have been scarred by the war judging by the half-demolished building at the end of the road where a crowd is gathering. Presumably what is happening is that the children are painting their protest onto the walls, a symbol of hope. The crowd appear to be gathering in what I believe is celebration – there are flags being waved, and men stand in a doorway pointing to them in an excited manner.

When Reshetnikov painted Paix in 1950, it is unlikely that he knew that it would become a collaboration 59 years later when it was modified to become a reference to popular game culture. The modified painting, created by an unknown artist is most commonly referred to as Peace, its name losing its French heritage. The new painting [fig.3] is a reference to the extremely popular game Half-Life 2 (Valve Corporation, 2004) and has been modified so that the children are instead painting the Lambda logo onto the same wall – a symbol based on a lowercase version of the 11th letter of the Greek alphabet, ‘Lambda’ (λ), used to signify areas where the player can find health and supplies throughout the Half-Life series. In the background there is a Strider (a large three-legged bio-weapon created by the fictional Combine race in the Half-Life universe) standing guard inside of the skeleton of a building. The meaning has changed to become one of charity and oppression – the children are leaving aid for the player, and the Strider stands guard in an ominous manner intimidating to the crowd. The men in the doorway have been cropped out. It now feels as if the crowd are gathering in protest as the towering Strider ignores them like insects (the Combine’s affect on the Human race in Half-Life is effectively that of extermination, making the metaphor quite appropriate).

[fig.3] Modified version of Reshetnikov’s Paix, collaborator unknown

Again, this piece of work has developed profound new meaning long after its completion through transformative play.

‘A movie on a roll is whole and complete’ (Extra Credits, 2012) In 1976 Chinese director Jimmy Wang Yu released his film Tiger and Crane Fist (Tiger and Crane Fist, 1976), a kung fu film. In 2002 Kung Pow! Enter the Fist (Kung Pow! Enter the Fist, 2002) was released, a film directed by Steve Oedekerk. Kung Pow! was made almost entirely out of footage from Tiger and Crane Fist, edited through green-screen to include a new protagonist with an entirely re-dubbed audio track, modifying it through transformative play to become a parody of Hong Kong action cinema.

‘A novel on a shelf is what it will always be’ (Extra Credits, 2012) Brian Dettmer is an artist from New York who modifies books and other forms of antiquated media to create sculptures (Brian Dettmer’s Website, 2013). Bridge Complete (Dettmer, 2012) [fig.4] is a copy of a book put together to teach people how to play the card game Bridge. Dettmer has cut selective parts out of the book to reveal different pieces of information on each page – sentences which used to instruct people how to play cards now communicate romanticised broken phrases such as, ‘When, however, you hold a hand’, ‘passed the desirable partner will, of course, carry on’, ‘but he will be possibly a losing Heart’, ‘that he wishes his partner to make a choice.’ As well as the messages, the new form that the book has taken is stunning in its intricacies. The work has certainly developed into something with new, complex meaning following its initial publication and ‘completion’.

If we are to agree with James Portnow and the Extra Credits team that games are never shipped complete (which I certainly do), then we have to assume that all products of design are shipped incomplete as they have not yet fulfilled their role to the user. Now it could be argued that a game does not start without a player manually initiating its start, but this is the same for music and film. It could be argued that a game requires the player’s input to function and is incomplete without them for this reason alone – the game’s content is to never act itself out otherwise. But then, a book without the user will never have a page turned, the words never read and the content will never take place inside of the reader’s thoughts. With this in mind it seems only fair to assume that different mediums apply to this rule depending on how the rule is interpreted, but there is no way to interpret it which leaves video games unique to other mediums in this respect.

[fig.4] Brian Dettmer’s Bridge Complete

With all of this taken into account, it’s difficult to say that a designer can have any real control over their own work – once it is put into the hands of the players, it can transform in any number of unpredictable ways.

As I mentioned earlier, I believe that James Portnow and Extra Credits are only incorrect because they were not specific enough in describing how this trait belongs only to the game design discipline. I would like to propose instead that when designing a video game, it is essential that the designer be aware of the affect of play on their design. In other mediums it isn’t necessary to be concerned about the affect of play, but in game design you create with the intention of having play inhabit your rule-system. Game designers should aim to encourage meaningful play in their games, but if we are to follow Miyamoto’s advice – concentrating on video game’s unique strengths – then game designers should consider how they can guide both ordinary and tranformative play in the direction that is most pleasurable, the way which helps the game to develop after release, and perhaps even encourages unpredictable results.

4. Guiding Play

4-1. Using The Familiar To Introduce The Unfamiliar

In order to guide play, it’s important to understand how a game designer can control the player’s experience. When a designer is trying to introduce a player to a game, they are trying to teach the player how to control an entirely new object inside of an entirely new world, or perhaps trying to introduce something more abstract and unfamiliar.

Generally, the world-building philosophy of videogames is one in which certain aspects of reality can be modeled in a realistic fashion, while others are deliberately skewed, their effects caricatured or dampened according to the game’s requirements.

(Poole, 2000, p.47)

While the designer should introduce the player to unfamiliar things, it’s good to also give the player something that they can understand and hold onto, almost like a ‘reality-anchor’ within the surreal world. With this familiar aspect to the game, the player can comfortably branch out their understanding of the game-world, exploring what it has to offer and discovering the confines of play.

One clear and common way to help familiarise the player with the game-world – to create that ‘reality-anchor’ – is through the use of semantic or symbolic devices. To describe the use of semantic and symbolic devices in games, I’d like to analyse two different games currently in development. I got in contact with Mefuru Studios to get a copy of their prototype Psychadelic Snooker (Mefuru Studios, not yet released), and experienced game-maker John Ribbins who sent me a prototype of his experimental game UltraNeonTactics (Ribbins, not yet released).

I have chosen these two games specifically because while they are incomplete in terms of the design process (and so may predictably possess some flaws), the designers have prioritised introducing semantic and symbolic devices which the player can familiarise themselves with and use to grasp a better understanding of the game-world swiftly.

4-2. Case Study: Psychadelic Snooker

[fig.5] Psychadelic Snooker

Psychadelic Snooker [fig.5] is a single player game designed as a prototype to test whether or not it would induce play successfully. Upon loading up the game, the game-world contains two concentric rings. A small circular keyline containing a white triangle (representing the white ball in a game of snooker) immediately begins to trace the inner circle; gradually orbiting the center of the ‘playing-field’ in a clockwise direction. Meanwhile, in the center of the ‘playing-field’ there is a plethora of similar circular keylines which begin to make their way outwards from the center in all directions. These circular keylines contain different coloured pentagons – fifteen red (representing the red balls in a game of snooker) and one each of the ‘coloured’ balls used in snooker (yellow, green, brown, blue, pink and black. The term ‘coloured’ balls will from now on exclude red balls, following snooker’s terminology). If the player is familiar with snooker they will likely see the similarities to snooker quite quickly.

When a red or ‘coloured’ ball reaches the outer ring, it reflects off of it and makes its way back towards the center again. When a red ball makes contact with the white ball, it disappears and the player’s score is affected. When a ‘coloured’ ball comes into contact with the white ball, it dissapears and immediately reappears in the center, again effecting the player’s score.

When testing the controls (the up and down arrow keys), the player begins to control the white ball’s orbit – changing it’s direction of travel around the inner ring depending on the key pressed.

The objective of the game is to hit the red balls and coloured balls (making them disappear) in the same order that you must pot balls in snooker – alternating between red balls and ‘coloured’ balls until only the ‘coloured’ balls remain. Once only the coloured balls are left, the player must eliminate them in the same order that you have to in snooker (yellow, green, brown, blue, pink, black). Which will conclude the game.

The balls are worth the following points: red, 1; yellow, 2; green, 3; brown, 4; blue, 5; pink, 6; black, 7. If a ball is hit when the player should not have hit it, the ball’s point-value is deducted from the player’s score. If they hit it at the correct time, points are added.

I had a variety of players test the game, asking how familiar they were with the rules of snooker only after they had completed the game. Most players who were familiar with snooker quite quickly learned how the game worked, whereas players who didn’t understand the rules struggled much more, despite some of them recognising the relation to snooker.

In its current state there are ways that its semantics can be communicated more effectively. The different balls could be completely filled with their respective colour rather than the current style of triangular and pentagonal fills within a circular keyline. The current aesthetic was likely a decision made to reduce production time for the prototype – filling the circles would have taken more time coding, and the developer probably intends on filling them should he continue to develop the project. To make the transition from the familiar aspects (everything snooker-related) to the unfamiliar (everything else) more natural for the player, he could use sound to better communicate how he is affecting the game. For example, the positive and negative effects on scores could have been signified through a high ‘blip’ sound (positive points) and a low ‘blip’ sound (negative points). The point additions and subtractions could have also been signified by the number (i.e. +5pt / -5pt) appearing when a ball is eliminated too. These changes would have likely allowed more players to pick up and understand the game more quickly – most other improvements would be purely aesthetic, which while important for a polished product, isn’t necessary in a prototype to understand how well the game will function.

Psychadelic Snooker relies almost entirely on semantics – the player has to have a decent understanding of the rules of the sport snooker, and so the game targets a niche group of players. Of course, it could also be developed into a tool for teaching a player about the scoring system in snooker.

4-3. Case Study: UltraNeonTactics

[fig.6] UltraNeonTactics, initial game setup

UltraNeonTactics (UNT) is a multiplayer game. When a two-player game is initiated, the game-world is presented as a large square cyan keyline (the ‘playing-field’) in the center of a black screen. The players are divided into two teams – green and magenta. Each team is represented by a small keylined square of their respective team colour. [fig.6]

Outside of the cyan square ‘playing-field’ each square player has four small markers (one on each side of the cyan square), each their team’s colour. This is to help keep track of their x and y coordinates – it is necessary because when a player goes off of one side of the ‘playing field’, they appear on the other side – the markers help the player to understand where they will appear.

The movement keys vary for each player, but both players controls their own movement on the x and y axis – left, right, up and down. When a player moves their geometric character, it leaves a small trail of static behind them in their own colour which deteriorates after a second or two. This helps the player to keep track of their own character as the ‘playing-field’ becomes more crowded and chaotic – rather than having to find a small geometric shape, they can find their trail for reference and trace it back to the character. [fig.7]

Almost immediately small cyan objects begin to appear, rotating and making their way across the field slowly. The natural thing for a player to do would be to either move their character into the cyan object, or to avoid it entirely. When a player makes contact with one of the cyan objects it changes to their team’s colour, and a laser (also their team’s colour) is drawn from one side of the playing-field to the other, intersecting with the activated object and slowly rotating. The (originally) cyan object is designed in a way that signifies what angle the laser will be drawn at so that players can avoid its line of sight before it is activated. [fig.8]

When a player of the opposite colour makes the mistake of colliding with the laser, they are immediately eliminated. It quickly becomes apparent that the laser is dangerous. When a player collides with a laser of their own colour it has no effect on them. The object and its laser dissapears after a short amount of time, and more cyan objects (soon to be lasers) begin to spawn – it’s now a race for the players to activate as many of these lasers as they can without colliding with the opposing team’s lasers. As the game goes on, the ‘playing-field’ becomes more chaotic and crowded until one of the teams slips up, falling victim to the opposition’s collected arsenal.

[fig.7] UltraNeonTactics, player movement

The game uses sounds to signify the activation of a laser and the elimination of a player, allowing players to have a good idea of what’s occuring on the playing field without being distracted from their laser-dodging responsibilities. When new players first hear a laser activate, the sound also acts as a warning – another feature which helps the player to learn and draw assumptions about the game-world faster.

When a team has been eliminated, the surviving team gains a point. The first team to gain ten points will win the game.

When designing UNT, ‘the objective was to create something that people could rapidly become quite good at. There’s no way to master the game, but you can develop effective strategies.’ (Ribbins, 2014) UNT relies on designed abstract symbols to signify what different objects within the game-world do, and what affect the players are having on the game-world. Because the game relies on signifiers, it requires no background knowledge to understand it quickly – it is through this that the game is extremely successful and can appeal to a lot of players. When observing new players attempting to play UNT for the first time, they always picked it up quickly no matter how familiar they were with games at all.

4-4. Consistency Within The Rule-System

To seductively guide play, the designer should avoid breaking the illusion created by the rule-system.

Crucially, it is lack of coherence rather than unrealism that ruins a gameplaying experience. This is largely but not exclusively a phenomenon of more modern videogames, whose increasing complexity in terms of space, action and tasks clearly places a greater strain on the designer’s duty to create a rock-solid underlying structure.

(Poole, 2000, pp.50-51)

Steven Poole describes three types of video game incoherence:

[fig.8] UltraNeonTactics, laser activated
Incoherence of causality can be seen in the driving game V-Rally (Eden Studios, 1997) – where driving at full speed into another car causes you to slow down slightly, while hitting a boulder will send you flying into a somersault. Another example is Tomb Raider III (Eidos Interactive, 1998), where a rocket-launcher blows up one’s enemies in pleasing glory, but does no damage to a wooden door, for which one simply has to find a rusty old key.Incoherence of function is where one encounters ‘single-use’ objects, such as a magic book that only works in a particular location or a cigarette lighter that can only be used to illuminate a certain room. If a game designer chooses to give the player a special object or weapon, it ought to work consistently and reliably through all appropriate circumstances in the game.

The third type of incoherence is that of spatial management. Tomb Raider III adds to its heroine’s series of possible moves (which already include implausibly high jumps and rolls) the new addition is a crawl, so that the player can move around in low passageways. But at a certain stage in the game Lara (the protagonist) finds herself at the end of a low tunnel, giving out onto a corridor. Try as the player might, it is impossible to get Lara out into that corridor, owing to the game’s basic construction around a series of uniformly sized blocks. If the tunnel entrance were a full block above the corridor floor, Lara could get out. But the getting-out-of-the-tunnel animation requires her to lower herself fully down the side of the block while hanging from her hands, and the tunnel exit does not achieve the required altitude. So the move becomes impossible.

(Poole, 2000, pp.51-53, paraphrased)

These relate very strongly to what I wrote about using the familiar to introduce the unfamiliar – unintentional unfamiliarity should be avoided. All unfamiliarity should be thoughtfully designed in a way that it can be understood.

When the game designer successfully designs a game so that it accommodates the illusion of immersion, whilst subtley guiding them and introducing them to the rigid rule-structure in a way that is not intrusive, nor frustrating or overwhelming, meaningful play can be produced. Through allowing the rule-system to be more open the designer can encourage more transformative and unpredictable play to occur, but it is imperrative that they do not shatter the illusion in doing so.

5. Conclusion

As an emerging discipline, game design still needs to go through a lot of self-evaluation. Currently we’re seeing a massive influx of skilled theorists, designers, philosophers, and many other professionals who are realising that the game design discipline can benefit from their skills.

It is only through the collaborative effort of those determined to prove that games can be more than interactive representations of other mediums and activities that it can become a reality. As Frank Lantz says,

If enough people believe that games are meant to be mindless fun, then this is what they will become. If enough people believe that games are capable of greater things, then they will inevitably evolve and advance.

(Salen and Zimmerman, 2004, p.xi)

This, essentially, is the reason that it is crucial that games be recognised as an artform. If the practitioners within the discipline are unable to prove the medium’s potential, then perhaps it will never truly emerge and will continue to be an interactive growth on the back of film, only dreaming that it will one day immitate the world that we’re already fortunate enough to posses a reality within.

This development will only come once we accurately pin-point exactly what it is that makes video games unique.

‘Clarity in form cannot be acheived until there is first clarity in the designer’s mind and actions.’

(Salen and Zimmerman, 2004, p.4, paraphrasing Christopher Alexander)

In this paper I have made an attempt to describe more thoroughly one of the ways that I believe that the video game discipline is unique, and propose that the theories belonging to game design can perhaps assist other mediums too – play is certainly not unique to games, and may hold the key to more well thought-out, creative and unpredictable collaboration between mediums. As an established discipline, game design could help other mediums develop too.

I have analysed two games which succeed in showing evidence of guiding play. I chose to analyse promising prototypes by independent, emerging designers because I would like to give them my support. I believe that the change needed in the industry will not come from the biggest, most established game design studios, but from independent, passionatte hobbyists and designers who are brave enough to make every new game another experiment in an attempt to discover what games are capable of. The most promoted, advertised and well-known games have become stale and repetitive, and unfortunately the face of game design. It is a discipline which is at a crucial stage in it’s development, and needs to focus in the right areas in order to succeed.

Most importantly, we need to discuss this. I encourage that my writing be challenged, because as Salen and Zimmerman feel,

‘Our hope for game design is that it becomes a field as rich as any other, filled with vibrant discussion and dialogue as well as virulent debate and disagreement.’

(Salen and Zimmerman, 2004, p.3)

It is through debate that we become more disciplined.


Atari Inc. (1972) Pong, Arcade Game; Console Game; Computer Game: PC

Brian Dettmer’s Website (2013)
Available at: (Accessed: 20 December 2013)

Ebert (2013) ‘Video Games can never be Art’, Roger Ebert’s Journal, 16 April 2010. Available at: (Accessed: 18 November 2013)

Eden Studios (1997) V-Rally, Console Game: Playstation

Eidos Interactive (1998) Tomb Raider III, Console Game: Playstation

Extra Credits (2012) Extra Credits: The Role of the Player.
Available at: (Accessed 20 October 2013)

Green (not yet released) That Dragon, Cancer, Computer Game

The Guardian (2014) Santa bought me a Playstation. But it’s still not art.
Available at: (Accessed: 9 January 2014)

The Guardian (2014) Video games and art: why does the media get it so wrong?
Available at: (Accessed: 9 January 2014)

Kung Pow! Enter The Fist (2002) Directed by Steve Oedekerk [Film]
United States: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Lantz and Zimmerman (1999) Rules, Play and Culture: Towards an Aesthetic of Games. Available at:
(Accessed: 23 Sept 2013)

Mefuru Studios (not yet released) Psychadelic Snooker, Computer Game: PC

Midway Manufacturing (1982) Ms. Pac-Man, Arcade Game

Mike Bithel (2012) Thomas Was Alone, Computer Game: PC

Poole (2000) Trigger Happy: Videogames and the Entertainment Revolution.
New York: Arcade Publishing, Inc.

Reshetnikov (1950) Paix

Ribbins (2014) Email to Jake Hollands, 10 January 2014

Ribbins (not yet released) UltraNeonTactics, Computer Game: PC

Salen and Zimmerman (2004) Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals.
United States of America: MIT Press.

TEDxTalks (2009) TEDxUSC – Kellee Santiago 3/23/09. Available at: (Accessed: 18 September 2013)

Tiger and Crane Fist (1976) Directed by Jimmy Wang Yu [Film] Hong Kong: First Films

TotalBiscuit, The Cynical Brit (2013) What’s in a game?: A discussion of gameplay and narrative. Available at:
(Accessed: 15 October 2013)

Valve Corporation (2004) Half Life 2, Computer Game: PC

Valve Corporation (2007) Portal, Computer Game: PC

Zimmerman (2004) Narrative, Interactivity, Play, and Games: Four naughty concepts in need of discipline. Available at: (Accessed: 23 September 2013)

Learning to use Blender
November 23rd, 2014


Using C4D with Unity was a nightmare on my final university project – I came across a lot of bugs and different issues cropped up all over. I’ve heard that Blender is pretty good for game development, plus it’s free. I spent the morning getting to grips with it and quite like it!

Working on ‘Not a Hero’
March 28th, 2014

For the past month I’ve been working as the artist on Roll7‘s Not A Hero with creative director John Ribbins.
The game has just been announced and will be released this summer, published by Devolver Digital.

Design Process: ‘Moments’ EP Cover
February 16th, 2014

In August of last year I started work with Ohio-based musician Logan Gabriel, creating a logo and artwork for his first EP. Although the EP was only released recently, the project was concluded in October last year – this blog post will take a look at the process involved.

You can listen to and download ‘moments’ EP for free here, it’s pretty solid – get on it.

Logan wanted the cover to capture a moment, specifically he wanted it to be an abstract representation of an epiphany – that colourful click in your head that comes with the birth of a fresh idea. We spoke about Henri Cartier Bresson’s ‘Decisive Moment’, and after looking at and experimenting with a variety of ideas I came across this TED talk and showed it to Logan – we both agreed that it was the perfect direction to take things.

I started by doing a test shoot, confirming that I had the technical know-how to capture such high-speed photography. My housemate helped me make some little dough-balls in place of coloured sand, I poured them over my speaker and blasted out some extremely loud bassey tunes.

It wasn’t looking too fantastic, but at least they were frozen in time. It was intentionally shot at a very open aperture of f/2.8 to give it some real depth. I grabbed some salt to test some much more fine particles.

Now this was beginning to look much more exciting. I ordered some coloured sand – blue, purple and teal was a colour scheme which Logan seemed to be into – and I sent some initial mock-ups over (the first one features the logo, made prior to the album cover).

Whilst waiting for the sand to arrive, Logan and I agreed that it would be pretty cool if we launched the sand using some of Logan’s tunes, so I had him produce a short piece for me to use – it consisted of both trebley bits, bassey bits and some bassey AND trebley bits, which allowed the shoot to have a lot of variety in the pictures produced.

Once the sand hand arrived, I got my bedroom set-up going again and prepared to blast sand all over the place.

Unfortunately I never got a picture of the initial set-up, but here’s the aftermath. This is probably a good time to describe the setup and the technical details. The camera was just off to the left of this image on a tripod. I was shooting with a Nikon D5100 with a 50mm prime f/1.4 lens. The coiled wire is connecting the camera to my flash on a tiny tripod just out of frame to the right. The speaker is that lovely thing in the middle with a bin bag taped over it. To help direct the light, the flash had a bridge of black card connecting it to the speaker (not pictured). It was sort of a box-tunnel, so that the light wouldn’t splash out all over the room – we needed everything but the sand to be black. The lights were turned off, and the laptop’s brightness taken right down. This is how you capture such fast shots – pitch-black room, fire the flash. You don’t need complex, expensive or advanced equipment to get some beautiful shots. You do need to piss your neighbours off with a couple hours of extremely loud bassey tunes at night time though.

In the final shoot, I actually shot at f/10 rather than f/2.8 which is the lens’ sweet spot. f/10 was used because the images were much more stunning when all of the sand was sharp in the frame.  To give it that sense of depth, I directed the flash towards the front half of the sand-‘splosions, so that further sand was darker. Here are some selected shots out of the 900 photos produced:

Satisfied with the shoot, I produced some mock-ups, shown below.


And check out these close-ups, they’re pretty sweet.

Logan wasn’t too keen on the mirrored sand formations that you can see in some of the shots – the very artificial feel it gave went against what his music represents, which I feel is a very valid and honest criticism. Although visually I felt they were the best approach, we agreed that to stay true to the music it should be avoided. After some more development, we came to the album covers below.

We went with the lower-case, modest but elegant choice of type using Neutraface, a lovely typeface by House Industries. Again, this was to reflect Logan’s music. The final cover was chosen, and the project was concluded.

It was great working with Logan – he’s a very honest and passionate artist, and I really respect the care that he puts into his work and likes to see in other’s work. It’s always nice to work with a client who wants things done right.

With that said, I’ll put an end to this post and leave you with a couple detail-shots of the cover. Also again, if you haven’t already, give the ‘moments’ EP a listen here, where you can download it for free too.

Thanks for reading.

Hero Time: February Update
February 9th, 2014

It’s been a while since I said anything about this one.

Hero Time is an Android/iOS/Windows-Phone game, and an attempt to prove to myself that I’m capable of creating and selling a game by myself. I started learning to code games in July last year and decided that this would be my first ‘real’ game in September. It went through some pretty swift and thorough development through until the end of October, when university started to take priority again. During the Christmas holidays a lot of progress was made, but it went stagnant in January as I got used to being in uni again, and some other more important and exciting projects took priority. I decided to get back to it yesterday!

I’m at a very odd point in development – through researching and writing my dissertation on game design as a sophisticated discipline my views on games have changed quite a lot, and Hero Time goes against a lot of the principles which I’d like to stay true to with my future personal games. For this reason it’s very tempting to drop the project and start on a greater idea, but when I started this game I had one goal in mind: to finish it. For this reason I’ll be seeing it through to the end, hopefully sometime around the Easter Holidays. I still enjoying working on it however, and learn so much with every hour spent on it.

There have been a lot of changes and new things added – I won’t go through features and all of the coding that I’ve been working on, but aesthetically most of the sprites have been completed, re-made, then re-coloured (and still need some more polish/tweaking). The entire game went though a slight colour change which I think feels much more bold – the old colours feel weak in comparison (image above – left: October, right: February). I’m still trying to come to a decision on quite an important part seen in that image – the character was created as a flat vector image, and the objects were rendered from 3D models – I think that the variation in lighting/shading is really clashing and intend on doing something about it. The entire game scene will actually be much more exciting soon hopefully – currently I’m just trying to figure out the level design, so only collidable instances are present in screenshots.

This is an example of where 3D comes in pretty nicely – as the player kicks out the vents to get into the next room, the vent covers bounce at a bit of an angle which you wouldn’t get out of 2D. I’m still trying to work out how to utilise it a bit better – it’s looking slightly crude here (first attempt at it), but I think that it has a lot to offer.

I’m quite satisfied with the UI design so far, although I’m sure that there will be some tweaks to the way that it’s animated, and I’m yet to begin working on the HUD. I think that the loud start menu is quite successful so far though – when I’ve been chatting to other developers and game designers, I’ll ask them to check out my game and hand my phone over to them. Their face always lights up when they see the menu and a couple have said “I love it already”. Hopefully I can get everything following the menu to keep their interest – so far I’ve only had a short tutorial to show.

I think that’s all that I have to show right now. Today I started looking at making the jump from GameMaker to Unity so that I can have more freedom in my games and interactive work. I’ve started on the early tutorials and although C# is pretty intimidating, I’m feeling pretty good about it – it’s not too much of a complex step up from coding in GML. I expect I’ll be producing my final major project in Unity with some Arduino as input too. Wish me luck, eh?