Class Prompt: Enforcing Content Conventions

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In spring 2020 I taught a Technical Game Design class in Champlain College’s game design program. As part of my work I wrote discussion prompts. I’m expanding some of those prompts into blog posts, like the one below. The full set can be found here. Because they were meant as prompts for students to discuss, they do not necessarily provide strong conclusions or answer the questions that they pose.

As game designers, you’re used to thinking about games as systems of rules. You may know rules as things that are enforced by game systems via constraints and affordances: a game is hard-coded to allow this action, but not that action. Voilà, a possibility space is defined!

But many rules are NOT enforced by code or systems, and are instead conventions, patterns, or best practices that the developers stick to when building content. Let’s look at some examples.

Examples:

  • In Zelda: Breath of the Wild, an orange glow means that there is a something to do or discover.
  • In Destiny, if you see your enemies’ anchors (heavies) fall back, you can assume that if you follow them new combatants will not spawn behind you without warning.
  • In a platformer where the player can jump Y distance, they may decide that all gaps must be either <Y wide, or >Y*1.3, so it’s always clear if a gap can be jumped.
  • In Star Wars: Fallen Order, horizontal lines indicate walls you can wall-run on.

When applied consistently, players can incorporate these conventions as rules in their mental model of how the game works.

Violating conventions is a serious problem. Conventions’ power comes from consistency: players know that if they see X, it means Y. This consistency is a kind of language that players learn to read. Every time a convention is skipped, or violated, accidentally or otherwise, it undermines that language and reduces clarity.

Maintaining conventions is a challenge in large teams, especially over time. Everyone on the team needs to know, understand, and remember all the conventions, so that they stick to them when needed, and avoid accidentally using them where they shouldn’t. It’s also hard to avoid accidentally having patterns over time in your content that players will perceive as a real part of the language.

This is one of the areas where a technical designer can contribute immensely to their project. Normally conventions are maintained through discipline, testing, and good documentation. But you can also tackle them from the tools or automation side: good prefabs, automated testing, tools that scrape game content for easy review, and warnings/errors in debug versions of the game can all help enforce conventions or catch violations after the fact. And tech designers are often the people who have both visibility into the work and the technical perspective to spot these chances.

Discussion Prompts:

Think of the examples of conventions I gave above, if that helps think through these questions.

  • How might you use technical solutions to help designers avoid violating conventions when they build content?
  • How might you use tech or automation to catch violations of convention after the fact, or help QA catch it?
  • What happens to the player experience when conventions are inconsistently applied?
  • How do you handle players’ bringing over conventions from other games and assuming they apply to yours?