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Opinion: Encounter-led Game Development

In this reprinted #altdevblogaday-opinion piece, Relic Entertainment's senior AI programmer Jesse Cluff shares some advice on encounter design, and warns that failing to plan encounters ahead of time can ruin a gam
[In this reprinted #altdevblogaday-opinion piece, Relic Entertainment's senior AI programmer Jesse Cluff shares some advice on encounter design, and warns that failing to plan encounters ahead of time can ruin a game.] So what should drive game development? The story? The art? The setting? The IP? The game mechanics? If you're thinking of agreeing to any of these, you're setting yourself up for failure, or at the very least, mediocrity. I've seen games made many ways. More often than not, I see talented people produce mediocre results. Given that they're talented people, the job they are being set to accomplish must simply be too difficult. Why is the same job more difficult on some titles than others? Sure, sometimes there are problems with efficiency. Poor tools, long iteration times, basically anything that prevents people devoting enough time to the problem at hand. However, this is not usually the issue. Improving the pipelines or adding more people rarely remedies the problem. Often groups will get to a point in development when they realize it's kind of "blah", a churn, or just not memorable. Even worse is that they don't really know why. It's not like they have a plan and they are only 50 percent through it; it's that they see the end of the plan and they don't predict much materially changing. I strongly believe that the problem is that they are trying to create the core experience of their game in places that weren't specifically crafted for that purpose, or that they don't have gameplay building blocks to execute their vision. If you have compelling memorable encounters in an action game, you will have an awesome action game. Period. If you have an encounter design that you can't execute on (because of incompatible level art or insufficient core mechanics) ,then you are in for a world of hurt. What's even more likely is that you don't even have a compelling encounter design because you are trying to create one to fit into a preexisting space with a set of core mechanics that was created without reference to the encounters they would be used in. Now obviously the encounters are built on top of core gameplay mechanics, and they need to be designed and built together. But core gameplay mechanics don't drive encounter design because it's too fine grained and too low level. Once you have the concept for the type of game you are making (say, a modern day first person shooter, or a third person medieval sword swinger), you have enough information to start concepting encounters. These concepts will then drive the fundamental mechanics so that these encounter scripts can be realized. It's very easy to envision what core mechanics are required by an encounter script. It's very hard to generate encounters ideas that show off every aspect of a fully realized set of core mechanics. It's more likely though that the real problem is not core mechanics, but level art. Core mechanics can typically be changed much more easily than level art (except when those core mechanic involve changes to animation). Level design (and by this I mean the level geometry and associated art) is a long pole of development. If you don't tell them exactly what to build they are not going to wait for you, they are just going to start building. If the encounter creators aren't telling them what to build they'll get someone else to tell them or they'll just start building what they think will be needed. Now regardless of what is driving the level design, it will look gorgeous, that is their job. It will stream properly and fit in memory, and it will seamlessly link up between different section of the game, etc. It will also take a lot of work. And once they are finished, the concepts and the greyboxing they will art it up and light it and it will be SET IN FUCKING STONE. You can't change this shit. It costs too much to make. You can't make that corridor a little wider, you can't add another tier on that balcony, you can't push back the far wall of the room or add some extra passages at the sides so you can spawn some extra enemies once they reach the middle of the room. If you didn't provide the concepts for that space and spec it all out and then iterate over that early greybox version so that it matched your encounter storyboard and script, you will be left trying to shoehorn some kind of experience into that existing space and it will almost certainly kinda suck. If you want great encounters, you start with them first. They drive the story, they drive the concept art, the level design, and the core mechanics. They even drive the tools development. Once you have your most complicated encounter storyboards and scripts, you will know what tools are required to make it happen. You will understand your scripting requirements, what level annotation might be required, etc. And how do you know that your encounters will be great? Well, they are the cream of the crop. Maybe you started with a 100 concepts and you picked the best 20. These are your marquee encounters. Once you have your set of major encounters, these can then be passed to the story people so they can be rearranged and linked up and made to fit into some cohesive whole. The main point is that we should be creating an environment for designers to succeed and to shine. We should be asking them to accomplish an achievable goal and the reward will be encounters that are memorable, and if the difficulty is right (fucking hard), these encounters will be why people want to play your game. [This piece was reprinted from #AltDevBlogADay, a shared blog initiative started by @mike_acton devoted to giving game developers of all disciplines a place to motivate each other to write regularly about their personal game development passions.]

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