Sacred Realms Podcast: Phantom Hourglass

Sacred Realms is a Zelda retrospective podcast, where hosts Matthew and Lyndon Willoughby discuss the Zelda series as they replay all the games. I’m a frequent guest on the podcast, offering my perspective as both a game designer and a Zelda fan.

Despite not being a game I hold in high esteem – or perhaps because of it – Phantom Hourglass was a fascinating game to analyze and discuss. Over the course of this season of the podcast I discussed my thoughts on what they were trying to achieve, the historical context of 2007, the sea changes happening to the Zelda team, my thoughts on the touch control system, and a lot more.

I also led a bonus episode where I took the group through a mock game design/brainstorming exercise, in the style of ones I have done on the job.

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What is “World Design”?

I’m teaching a college course, “Advanced Seminar in Game Design: World Design” for Champlain College’s 2021 Fall semester. It’s a class for seniors to propose and execute on a single solo project for their portfolio, loosely based on the course theme. This document was my definition of “World Design”, with many examples.

Overview

The theme of this class is “World Design”, a subset of Game Design. The goal of this document is to explain what that means!

“World Design” is nebulously defined. Some companies have “World Designer” as a job title, but they don’t necessarily describe the same job. I’ve seen it used to describe traditional mission or level design work, designing vast non-linear spaces in open world games, and even the design of systems or UI related to the game world. So we will use a very broad definition in this class.

If Game Design is…

… The act of making choices about how players perceive or interact with a game, with the goal of creating a specific experience for the player(s).

Then World Design is…

…The act of making choices about how players will perceive, interact with, or experience the world of a game, with a particular focus on navigation, traversal, pacing, and narrative.

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Design Docs: IC Character Case Studies

I recently posted a challenge to game designers to share more of their documentation, so academia had more examples to learn from. And then I posted an Outline of Game Documentation, with some high level descriptions of different types of game design documents. Time for me to share some!

Previously I shared a bunch of character specs from Infinite Crisis. These were finalized spec documents, representing the end point of a long iterative design process before production on the character began in earnest. This time let’s look at some of the documents that I wrote as part of that design process.

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Design Docs: IC Tooltips

I recently posted a challenge to game designers to share more of their documentation, so academia had more examples to learn from. And then I posted an Outline of Game Documentation, with some high level descriptions of different types of game design documents. Time for me to share some!

From 2012-2014 I worked on a DC Comics MOBA called Infinite Crisis. I was one of the Champion Designers: our team was responsible for designing the character abilities and overall balance. I ended up as the tooltip guru: I cared a lot about their conventions and the way we used language and keywords. I have a small collection of documents related to this work!

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Design Docs: IC Character Specs

I recently posted a challenge to game designers to share more of their documentation, so academia had more examples to learn from. And then I posted an Outline of Game Documentation, with some high level descriptions of different types of game design documents. Time for me to share some!

From 2012-2014 I worked on a DC Comics MOBA called Infinite Crisis. I was one of the Champion Designers: our team was responsible for designing the character abilities and overall balance. Generally, a given character would be owned by a single designer from start to finish, and over months of design iteration (which I’ll cover in another post), we’d eventually reach a state where we were confident in the design we were going to make. At that point the designer would write their first draft of the complete “Character Spec” document.

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Common Game Design Documents

In a recent twitter thread, I posted a general challenge to professional game designers to share more of their game design documentation. The goal: give academia more examples to learn from. I’d better put my money where my mouth is!

But first, I wanted to share some general thoughts about project documentation, and examples of common documentation archetypes.

The Monolithic Game Design Document (GDD)

When I was in school my professors spent a lot of time teaching how to write formal game design documents (GDDs), stressing their importance. These were single monolithic documents that supposedly captured every detail of a game’s design. In theory the entire team would read the GDD, refer to it often, and trust it to have any answer they might need. They would set and communicate both creative and art direction!

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Tyson’s Law

Tyson Green is an experienced designer at Bungie. I rarely work with him myself, but other designers who have will often quote this rule of his: Always solve two problems with every design. Implied here is the idea that most designs can solve multiple problems, and by following this rule design elements Read more…

High Granularity Vs Low Granularity Space

Preface (3/23/2015): I originally wrote this article three years ago, when I was just beginning my design career. It was half proposal, half exploration of design concept. I’ve cut a few parts out that aren’t really relevant to my readers; if it seems to start and end abruptly, that’s why. I had not yet worked on a MOBA, where I learned quite a bit about tanking in PVP, and I overlooked many examples of high-granularity 3D games that had readable positional and facing gameplay. Nevertheless, I think the basic gist of this article is still quite accurate: there is an inverse relationship between spatial granularity and tactical readability.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the game industry’s embrace of fully 3D spaces, huge numbers of possible viewing angles, and the incredible amount of fine granularity introduced when you can move or look anywhere. I’ve come to some interesting conclusions about the effect this all has on gameplay. I want to throw a wrench in the tanking paradigm; bring a focus onto positioning, level design, and the environment; and improve the tactical readability of combat. (more…)

Achievement Design Guidelines

Preface (3/24/2015): In 2011 I was tasked with designing an achievement system for one of the games I was working on. That system never saw the light of day, but I did write some guidelines on achievement design, intended to help future designers that might work on the system. This is an excerpt from those guidelines. Many of these were derived from reading achievement guides written by other designers – but because I never expected to publish this, I didn’t do a good job of saving links to those guides. If you have written similar guides on your own blog, please link to them in the comments here!

While researching achievement systems, I came up with a number of guidelines we should attempt to follow while designing achievements. An important thing to understand is that achievement systems can be used to incentivize a very wide variety of player behaviors, to the point that players will do things they do not enjoy just to earn an achievement.

Push players towards enjoyment

If there is a type of play-style or mechanic that players enjoy already, it’s a good candidate for achievements. Think carefully before incentivizing something they do NOT enjoy.

Evaluate an achievement by the most efficient method it could be earned

Ask yourself: if I was a dedicated player out to earn this achievement as fast as possible, how would I do it? Make sure the answer is something we’re willing to live with. (more…)

Controlling a MOBA on a console controller

Preface (3/24/2015): I wrote this four years ago, when I was still working in QA. I had never worked on a MOBA , or played one on a console. Or done any sort of in-depth dive into polishing a control scheme, for that matter. But I was real proud of this write-up at the time!

This is a concept document examining the design challenges of creating League of Legends or a clone of League of Legends on a console.

Control Scheme Goals:

Speed

Players must be able to execute actions quickly. They must not feel delayed by menus, slow targeting methods, or any other aspect of the interface.

Precision

Players must be able to execute actions with precision. If it involves aiming, the control scheme should allow players to aim at exactly the point they want to aim at. There should never be any ambiguity, and, if the player misses or otherwise fails to perform the action, it should be because of player error, not a failure of interface or controls. (more…)