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Establishing A Beachhead In A Crowded Genre

How do you make a game that will stand out apart from countless other similar titles? Harmonix designer Chris Canfield (Guitar Hero II) thinks he knows, and cites standout examples of game design as Nintendo's Wii Sports and even Harmonix's own franchises, in this vital game design article.

Chris Canfield, Blogger

June 5, 2007

12 Min Read

Your division has just been purchased by a massive French media conglomerate, and you’ve been given the Sisyphean task of creating a game that’s “like X, but better.” If you succeed, your team will get massive bonuses and tendinitis. If you fail, you just get the tendinitis. If you haven’t quit at this point, you’re going to have to accomplish the most difficult task a game developer can: carving out a beachhead in an established genre.

There are many reasons to create a game in an established or even hotly-contested genre. A hot license might have become available. Creating content might seem more appealing than redesigning the wheel. A key figure on the team may have been a longtime Mario addict. A publisher might not sign onto the game until someone can point to an existing one.

Or maybe someone else made the decision that the team is going to “out WarcraftWarcraft. Whatever the case, you have to make that happen on 1/4th their budget and in time for a Christmas release. Failing to meet this challenge can break months of work, as well as your team’s enthusiasm.

Thankfully, we’ve got the missteps of 30 odd generations of games behind us to study. Some of the rules that emerge from these are relevant to all games, not just beachhead games. But we won’t talk about those. Some rules appear to be broken from time to time by a successful game or other. Upon closer inspection, however, the game usually breaks the superficial aspects of the rule while reinforcing the fundamental point.

1. Gut key elements of the design

A favorite professor of mine used to say that if your painting has enchanting eyes but you can’t make anything else in it work… paint out the eyes. That element of the painting is causing a local minima, which is to say that element of the design might be good in and of itself, but it’s keeping the painting from reaching a point where the overall image was great.

Examples of this in your genre might include: sniper rifles in an FPS, powerslides in a racing game, minigames in a Wii title, healing crates, bosses, rocket jumps, or any other big or small element. Of course, the really good features shouldn’t be the only ones on the chopping block. Not only will this free up time in the schedule that would otherwise be occupied by been-done features, but it creates space for genuinely new solutions and makes producers very, very happy.

Removing these old structures changes the player’s experience. Probably the best example of "strip and add" success is Wii Sports. As traditional mainstream tennis games go, Wii sports is poorly lacking. There is no ball selection, no racket selection, no character selection, no arena selection, no stats to power up... not really much but playing tennis. Even player control of the character was removed from the formula. Ultimately this lets the player concentrate exclusively on the unique new aspect of racket control, and allows them to play it in a different context.

Unlike Sega’s Virtua Tennis or Rockstar’s Table Tennis, this makes Wii Tennis great for pick-up games with non-players, as well as giving existing video tennis players something new to enjoy. It also let the developers narrow in on getting the feel of a solid backhand swing just right.

Mortal Kombat could be considered an older example of this, as it was notable for one major thing. No, not blood. It was notable because it was instantly satisfying. Boon, Tobias, and team developed the game to be enjoyable right from the start. At a time when a good Street Fighter player would need to study for weeks to play solidly in an arcade, a Mortal Kombat player could have a blast getting into uppercut fights within a few minutes.

The default attacks were all visceral, brutal, and fun. By stripping out the complexity that was both the strength and the barrier to entry of Street Fighter, they made things far more available to a large number of players.

Similarly, re-solving old design problems in new ways helps foster creativity within a limited framework. Let’s say that using the above example we’ve got a competitive FPS, and we’ve decided to take out health packs. Well, how does the player heal? Let’s say, then, that healing is accomplished by getting close to some sort of centrally-located healing sticks. That sounds like it will draw competitors closer together, doesn’t it?

Now suddenly you’ve got a device that serves an essential game function and raises the intensity of competition. If it has shielding properties, two opposing players may wind up staring at each other from within the healing point in a form of Mexican standoff. If not, it may be a tempting ambush point. From this one change to the basic formula a major gameplay set piece has been introduced.

The best of these changes should affect all player skill levels. If the change is only evident after 10 hours of play, the audience might be lost before they get to the goodness.

Conversely, if the change only simplifies mouse commands for new players, more advanced players on keyboard shortcuts will never notice. When Rise of Nations developer Big Huge games decided to merge a real time strategy formula with a turn-based one, they managed to hit that sweet spot of effecting beginning, intermediate, and advanced play fundamentally. They made one fundamental change that made the game feel fresh to all types of players.

2. Add a signature to the design of your game

Now that your game is solidly on the road of change, how can you get players to remember it? Most developers try to populate their 3D worlds with fluffy normal content that’s regularly broken up by amazing set pieces… high quality assets or events that make everything feel more overwhelming and memorable, even if they don’t come around all that often. But have you thought about what the set piece for the design of the entire game (in your player’s minds) should be?

The equivalent of a set piece for an entire game is a signature element, and more than anything else this establishes your creative beachhead. This is the one memorable, intriguing element that both grips them emotionally and sets you apart from the rest. Think of this as the image for the early Spider Man movies of Spidey up alone on a pole flying the American flag.

This succinctly encompassed the solidarity and morality of the character, and set an indelible stamp in the minds of the viewers. Early on in development, most teams already have one or two ideas about what will grip their players.

Is it the image of a female empowered Indiana jones? A swashbuckling character that can run on walls? Or a gun that allows you to pick up anything in the game and launch it at anything else? What about a racing game where the whole point is to crash your car as spectacularly as possible? The signature doesn’t even need to be gameplay related. Halo would have played the same if set in a traditional spherical planet, but it would be hard to get as excited about it.

And when it comes to a signature, Midway couldn't have asked for a more timely one than the Low-budget hong kong martial arts film look combined with ridiculous fatalities. Mortal Kombat featured an aesthetic combination that players had strong cultural associations with, was largely underused to this point, and really gave players something to talk about. It was a perfect signature.

It's important to remember that many other games have failed in their attempt to follow nearly identical steps, such as the largely forgotten Way of the Warrior, leading one to believe that an important part of the formula is explicitly not following someone else's formula. It’s not effective as your signature if it’s following someone else’s. In the words of Titan Quest developer Ben Schneider “Don’t copy superficials! Instead, reverse engineer!”

A signature also helps guide your team along their unique path. In this way, the signature is basically the incarnation of the overarching design goal of the game. Everything that will need to flow forth to support that signature will be in support of the overall target as well. Normally this direction can be managed without a specifically designated signature, but in an established genre, it’s essential.

When Shiny decided to make a 3D shooter, they decided to eschew the “bigger guns, bigger explosions” mantra that had driven most titles since Doom. Instead, they decided to focus on making the most elegant weapon possible: the first sniper rifle. This gave the player the ability to zoom across a mile or more of simulated terrain and place a bullet firmly wherever the player wanted.

Every aspect of the game development, from world creation to weapons powerups to technological performance, was directed by this signature change. Not only was this gameplay device so memorable as to drive sales, it has become a staple of all FPS games since. The possibilities of this weapon were a gold mine waiting to be discovered and explored.

3. Leverage players’ expectations of rules to create unique interactions

Generally, games must be constructed in such a way that the players rules and goals are clear and instantly recognizable, but the interaction of those rules are unique. When creating in an established genre, this allows you to rely upon the stereotypes created for that genre. There is an interesting contradiction here. God of War seems instantly familiar to anyone who has played Devil May Cry, Onimusha, or any number of other 3d action adventure titles.

But this 2005 smash combined just about the right level of the traditional and the fantastically original. When dropped into an ancient 3rd person world with some god stomping your hometown and an insane character holding insane swords of doom, the player immediately know what they're supposed to do. But then they added an intense focus on animation via real-time events.

This gave a working framework for the player / character to do any fantastic thing the artists dreamed up. So while they player knew what they could do (basic rules) and what they had to do (basic goal), they never knew quite what was going to happen (interaction between rules). Unique gameplay happens in the space of getting a sense for how rules uniquely interact.

When working at Harmonix on Eyetoy: Antigrav, a camera-driven boarding game, the team was intensely worried about overloading the player with too much stuff to learn. As such, one of the overarching goals was to leverage established response patterns as much as possible. If you see a ring, your immediate response is to go through it. If you see a target of any kind, you try to hit it. Trying to explain a camera-driven gestural recognition game was going to be confusing enough to the great majority of players: trying to teach them all new iconography would have been way beyond scope.

Similarly, only embellish upon players’ expectations of rules, but never break them. Remember, your game is trying to establish itself on someone else’s shores. If you violate the basic rules that have been burned into the player’s minds, they won’t know which shore to show up to.

An established rule in your genre might be: Guns on the floor can be picked up and used. Red crosses refill your health. Watch symbols give you more time. If you suddenly make a watch icon that transforms the player into an elf, you’re going to get some very confused and upset players. You’re violating a rule in their minds. To them, you’re cheating.

While the game might need to avoid breaking well established rules, that doesn’t mean they can’t be extended. As a very basic example, let’s say health packs are too plentiful for a reason outside of your hands. It wouldn’t be a violation of established rules to make the player find a limited-use needle before they can use a health pack. Or make progressive healing items be less effective.

Both of these would be additions on top of what the player has been trained to believe, as opposed to violations of it. One could also technically meet the design goal by making health packs randomly explode. However, any developer brave or foolish enough to violate the ingrained rules of health packs that deeply does so at their own peril.

On Guitar Hero, we created a hammer-on and pull-off mechanic unique to our game. To avoid alienating existing rhythm music gamers, more traditional players could still play as they knew how. However, any that wanted to look deeper could take advantage of this new system. When we decided to update the hammer-on / pull-off system for Guitar Hero 2, we took great pains to make sure that any movement which would have been successful in the first game would still work in the updated one.

Fresh players could learn new and easier ways of succeeding, but existing players weren’t fighting against their training. In short, we were trying to teach players a better way of doing something they already had experience with. If forum chatter is any indication, we’ve more or less succeeded.

4. Leave an impression

And really, that’s the point of all of this. To establish your creative beachhead in the players’ minds, you need to use their experiences to your advantage. Play off their expectations while giving them unique interactions. In the hands of a skilled development team, the liability of an established genre can become an opening for success.

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About the Author(s)

Chris Canfield


Chris Canfield is a designer at Harmonix Music Systems, and has worked on such titles as Eyetoy: Antigrav and Guitar Hero 2. He has spoken about game development at Worcester Polytechnic, Becker College, and MIT.

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