Part 6 of 10: Invisible Features [previous parts]
When game features cannot work together, they often begin to work against each other.
One example is weapon balancing in pretty much every game that puts two or more weapons at player’s disposal. One of the most common reasons why we balance weapons at all is that player can only use one weapon at a time in most cases.
The more inventory items there are, the more they compete for attention, and if one dominates over others for any reason, it dooms them to a sort of extinction from player’s mind. The game becomes potentially less engaging in the process, as it boils down to using the same tool over and over again.
Some developers decide to make their inventory or player actions more or less redundant, for instance in order to allow players to express themselves through choice. But in order for the choice to create an added value, it needs to be compelling on some level. Maybe it’s interesting to players, which means it cannot be trivial.
Maybe one of the options is “right” and finding it is part of the challenge. Or maybe it’s a fantasy role-playing game – but if the only difference between a “wizard” and a “rogue” is the colour of their arrows, then what kind of choice is that? It doesn’t affect gameplay or story at all. Don’t take me wrong, there are many players who don’t seem to mind, but there are potential benefits lost, such as replayability.
Player choice, as well as the quality that encourages the player to give all features equal time, are both examples of Invisible Features that exist without existing. They’re not game mechanisms themselves, they are how game mechanisms influence each other. They are the way in which things are arranged and change over time. They are the game’s dynamics, and they are essential.
There are more projects I’ve worked on than game dynamics prototypes I’ve seen. I’ve worked on five different First Person Shooters, but only one of those had a prototype for another “Invisible Feature”, the so-called Core Combat Loop.
One project, whose developers neglected its gameplay flow, had to be reiterated twice before it started making any sense. I estimate it cost us hundreds of thousands USD – just because we didn’t pay attention to “the invisible”.
Another game deteriorated over time, and no one seemed to understand why. After a year, there were more assets, more levels, and more features available, but everybody felt the gameplay was lost along the way. Eventually, the project was cancelled.
Last but not least, while I’ve met a few people with the fabled “vision”, I have never seen a "vision" translate into game design efficiently. Designers and managers tend to rely on fast talk full of buzzwords in order to get their point across, and they usually fail. Everyone talks about the importance of "vision", and then hardly anyone pays attention to it.
We put so much emphasis on how our games look and sound, but we fail to concern ourselves with how they make us feel.
Lesson Learned: Grow a third eye – the one for seeing the imaginary. The most important features of your game are largely intangible.