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More than Design (Part 1: Art)

What should designers know about visual arts as they work to build game experiences? In the first chapter of [what I intend to be] a continuing series, I attempt to investigate this question.

Douglas Lynn, Blogger

June 7, 2011

11 Min Read

Being a game designer, at least a professional game designer, demands knowledge of more than just game design.  This is the truth.  It’s also what I’m about to discuss.

Before you continue, you may choose to ask, “Mr. Lynn…what are your qualifications?  Is there a particular reason I should trust what you have to say about becoming a professional game designer?  After all, the bio for your Gamasutra blog seems to mention that you haven’t actually worked in the game industry.”

Indeed.  You have me there.  The truth is that you should probably take what I say with a grain of salt.  My experience with attempting to enter the industry is one of failure thus far.  What I have to offer is a past of success and failure in designing game experiences.  I’ll be discussing things I’ve learned that have proven useful, as well as things I WISH I’d learned earlier.  What I’m providing in this series is a list of options for your consideration.  It’s your choice to do with those options what you will.

Creating a game that blends together well depends on working well with the rest of your team.  Working well with your team can be greatly aided by understanding a thing or two about the disciplines you’ll be working with.  My first discussion covers the link between game design (and level design) to game art.  What artistic skills and knowledge can help a designer?  The answers range far and wide.

Connecting to the Team

Try as you might, sometimes you simply can’t convey ideas accurately with words alone.  Being able to sketch out ideas graphically can give everyone on the team a much better idea of your vision for the game world.  This doesn’t necessarily mean being good at drawing or fluent in Photoshop (though whatever you know is always helpful).  Simply put, it’s about the ability to provide a visual depiction of what you’re looking for.  It may be as simple as having a knack for discovering the perfect image resources online somewhere.  The designer’s role isn’t to lay out, in detail, how game objects look.  Artists have a job too, and it’s best not to become too overbearing.  However, being able to provide a basic glimpse of the game world you’ve envisioned can provide a valuable context for everyone to work from.

Additionally, a basic understanding of how art programs work is critical in understanding the capabilities and limitations of a game.  In this sense, it becomes more an issue of engineering than of art, so we’ll leave that line of thought for another time.  Just keep in mind that if your design is dependent on something like every surface in the game being able to crumble away and shatter dynamically, that might be a bit tricky to pull off.  If you’re willing to find a way to make it work, more power to you.

But it’s not just about being able to draw or to mock something up in your 3D program of choice.  A knowledge of artistic styles, especially in terms of architecture, can be a great tool in determining game elements, inventory items, and the manner in which the game world connects together.  If you’re trying to properly convey the atmosphere of a game, terms like “gothic”, “psychedelic”, or “industrial” are easy for artists to relate to.  Further terms like “gritty” or “cartoony” provide a mood or feel to add to the world’s style.  A term like “energetic”, while not necessarily artistic, is also useful in describing a graphical style.  “The graphical style is very energetic – anything you see looks like it could either jump out at you or…I don’t know…explode.”

Developing New Ideas

An artistic sense isn’t just useful for conveying ideas to others on the team, but to yourself as well.  Understanding the kind of world you’re working with can spawn new design ideas.  What sort of things might appear in this environment?  How can those things be used to expand on the existing game mechanics?  In a post-apocalyptic world, for instance…oh, excuse me…

(Movie trailer voice)

In a post-apocalyptic world, clean water becomes the key to survival.  But as the world falls into chaos, this precious resource begins to disappear.  Now, a group of survivors will do whatever they can to reach a new home and rebuild society.  They’ll fight their way through a ruined world, battling extremist militias, roving gangs, and powerful mutant beasts.  But their greatest enemies…may be their own bodies.  Disorientation and exhaustion will begin to cripple the bold and brave.  In the face of these overwhelming odds, desperation is all that’s left.  How long can you survive…The Thirst? 

A SyFy Original Movie.

(End movie trailer voice.)

Hooray.  A post-apocalyptic setting.  It’s not exactly original, is it?  However, from that setting, we develop a new mechanic.  As players fight through the world, they search for water.  The longer they go without water, the worse their stats become.  Accuracy, patience, speed, and agility all begin to dwindle.  It may still not be an original design, but it’s a bit more complex that simply running around shooting baddies. 

(Feel free to use that concept if you want, by the way.  I have no intention of doing so.)

Making Aesthetic Sense

As I learned all too well in my senior year of college, artistic sense is vitally important in the field of level design.  You may block out the construction of a level using Lego bricks, sketch out an idea on paper, or maybe be a bit bolder and move directly to a 3D layout.  What it’s easy to forget, however, is that not all level designs make sense aesthetically.  Like so…

Level Designer: So you go up to the roof and need to get across to the next building.  You fire a grappling hook across to a crane stretching over the roof and then go across on the line.

Lead Designer: Well…okay, but…what grappling hook?  We don’t have one in the inventory.

Level Designer: No, no, I know that.  It’s a big grappling hook gun attached to the roof.

Artist: The roof…of a random skyscraper…in the middle of the city…

Level Designer: Yeah.

Artist: And why does this building have a grappling hook on it?

Level Designer: What do you mean?  I just said…it’s so you can get across to the next…

Artist: I know, but why is it there in the first place?  I mean, in this building, who put that grappling hook there?  What would they use it for?

Level Designer: I’m not quite following.

Artist: I’m saying it doesn’t make any sense for there to be a random grappling hook gun sitting on top of a roof.  Can’t you get rid of it?

Level Designer: Well, no, not really.  It’s the key to the whole puzzle.  You’re kind of stuck on this rooftop, and the grappling hook is the only way to get off.

Artist: Right, but I’m just saying that it doesn’t make sense for…

Level Designer: Ooh!  Okay, how about this.  The grappling hook gun isn’t actually there on the roof.  It’s in a room on the top floor.  That way, you can’t actually see it.  You just activate it using a computer terminal or a lever or something.

Artist: Yeah, but then you still have a random computer terminal sitting on the roof.  Plus the grappling hook is still there.  Don’t you think when people go up there and hit the button or whatever, they’re going to wonder “Hey, where did that grappling hook come from?  It looks like it’s coming from that window.  So, what, someone just has a grappling hook gun in their room?  And they activate it from the roof?”  You see what I’m saying?

Lead Artist: We seem to be skipping over the fact that this game doesn’t even take place in the city.  This is supposed to be a space station.

Level Designer: …Well…I was thinking that the city can be part of some kind of holographic simulation or…

Lead Artist: I think you’re going to have to rework this.

The simple fact here is that the creative and energetic level designer has generated a design that hinges on an element that doesn’t match the aesthetics of the rest of the level, or indeed, the rest of the game.  He has a head full of ideas.  These ideas have been floating around for some time, and an opportunity to use them has finally come around.  The idea was conceived as a particular solution to a particular situation in a particular setting, and that setting doesn’t match the look and feel of the game.  His design simply doesn’t fit in.

The way around this problem is fairly simple.  The level designer must strip the scenario down to its most basic elements.  What is the player attempting to do?  Cross from one safe position to another while avoiding a hazard area surrounding both sites.  From here, examine the art environment that has been established.  What can the two safe positions be?  (Two catwalks, perhaps?)  What might the hazard be?  (A chasm leading into a fusion reactor?)  Finally, the important piece: how does the player cross from one point to the next?  What sort of tools might readily be present? (Magnetic boots that allow one to cling to the wall?  Perhaps there can be a way to temporarily disable gravity?  In any case, it should likely be something that would be used in everyday reactor maintenance.)

If the above conversation takes place in the early stages of design, the issues present can quickly be dealt with, making them considerably easier to solve.  Speaking from experience, I can tell you that the further into the production process you move, the more difficult it becomes to address design issues.  In the case of our Senior project in college, this realization didn’t occur until the Alpha stage of the game.  The result was the complete dismantling and remaking of about 80 percent of our game.  Essentially, a Green Light through Beta period that was originally meant to span twelve weeks would now span only three and a half.  Yes, it may have been more rewarding in the end, but it cost us our sanity.

Directing Player Experiences

A knowledge of art can allow designers to use artistic assets to guide players through a game.  Having a clear vision of exactly where an object can be placed to draw the player’s eye, knowing what a particular room is used for, or understanding how a certain type of door should open can not only generate a more believable game world, but also direct the player in such a way as to create the desired impact.  This is a classic design tool.  Falling debris draws the player’s eye upwards.  A blinking light in the distance draws players towards it.  Such mechanisms can help to ensure that a player is in the correct position to actually SEE that dramatic ambush you’ve spent all that time setting up.

When using this approach, however, it’s important to not become over-reliant on the use of art assets to dictate a design.  Phrases like “It will make sense when we get that particle effect in there” or “We can have a diagram that explains how the process works” shouldn’t be heard when you’re explaining your design to someone.  A design should be functional on its own.  Art assets, though useful in tying the game together, shouldn’t be required to make a game playable.  Art serves to supplement the design and aid progress, not to build the design and permit progress.

With that, I’ve come to the end of my discussion (comments excluded, of course).  Hopefully, I’ve provided some groundwork for understanding how a knowledge of art can prove useful as a game or level design takes shape.  As with any element of the development process, the degree to which these tools can be utilized is limited by the type of project and team involved, but in the end, it chiefly falls to the designer to determine just how big of an influence art will have on his or her design.

Next up in the More than Design series, I’ll look to discuss game design’s connection to the field of narrative design.

Thank you.  That is all.

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