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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

A Bit About Game Design

Before you can begin the fun/tedious/interminable process of actually typing Java code, compiling it, testing it, debugging it, and so on, you'll actually need to design the game you're interested in.

If you already have a game design written, or are working based on somebody else's game design, you can skip this section.

But if you're interested in a brief discussion of how the heck people think up new types of games, you've come to the right place.

Game design is always hard. Designing for a medium as new as mobile phones is even harder. But it is the best of worlds, as well as the worst of worlds. Although the devices you'll be designing for are limited compared to game consoles or PCs, they are also an entirely new phenomenon being used in entirely new ways.

If you can understand the way mobile phone users really think and act, you might be able to create a type of game that nobody has ever thought of before.

The Game Design Process

Every game designer develops his or her game using a different process. Some people like to jump in and begin coding straight away; others like to create a monolithic 500-page design document outlining every last variable and button.

The type of process you use depends on the size and experience of the development team, as well as your personal philosophy on what makes a good game.

No matter what approach you choose, pretty much every game goes through the four P's:

  1. Preproduction
  2. Prototyping
  3. Programming
  4. Playtesting

Preproduction

Preproduction usually involves generating a whole lot of paperwork.

Different game designers work in different ways. Some are technically minded, and like to jump right into the thick of things and create use-case diagrams, specifications, and so on.

Others are more artistically minded, and enjoy storyboarding the graphics, letting somebody else worry about how to make nitty-gritty interactions happen.

But pretty much everybody, at some point, needs to use regular pen and paper (or Microsoft Word) and just spell out the story of the game—the feel, the depth, the breadth, and the intent.

Taking the time to write clear design documents and storyboards during preproduction will pay off later during development. The more you can describe every bit of art, sound, and interaction, the easier it will be to put all these pieces together during the frantic phase of actual development.

The bigger your design team, the more helpful a solid design document will be in keeping everyone speaking the same language, understanding the same goals, and working on the same product.

Answering Questions

Good design documents usually answer an implicit question. No matter how or when exactly you do it, every game designer will need to and answer the following questions:

  • What is the game's genre?
  • What are the limitations of the game?
  • What is the game's central mission?
  • What are the inputs, and what are the outputs?
  • How will the game play out?

Picking a Game Genre

There are literally millions of games in the world, and tens of thousands of computer games. But all these games can be broken down into genres.

A genre is more than a style of gameplay; it is also a mood. Different genres appeal to wholly different audiences. Clearly, a gory first-person shooter is expected to have a different interface, feel, sound effects, and speed than a long, drawn-out, and detailed military simulation game.

Genre will help define how the game looks, how it feels, how it plays, and who it is targeted to.

This section will briefly cover various genres, helping you to hone in on a gameplay experience.

Copying, Stealing, and Cloning

A sad fact of life is that most games on the market are basically clones of other, more successful games.

When Java applets first came out, most of the games that people created were exact copies of old hits from the Apple II, Atari 2600, or Commodore 64 era. Often, the only thing that a programmer would change would be the name and a few graphics: Pac-Man might become something like Pork Man.

Likewise, it is tempting to take existing games and create Micro Java versions of them. Furthermore, there's nothing wrong with it. After all, classic games have been time-tested and proven to be popular with the masses.

CAUTION

If you are creating games as a hobby, then there's no problem with taking your favorite arcade games and squeezing them into a mobile phone so that you, and others, can enjoy them portably.

However, if you are creating games commercially, not only is copying an existing game illegal, but you'll likely find that there won't be a big market for it. As much as people like to play their standard favorites, the world is thirsting for something new. History has shown us that the company or person that uses Micro Java to design a game genre that nobody has ever seen before will be the one that triumphs in the end.

All that being said, some of the best games ever created borrow familiar elements from one or more forgotten genres and breath new life into them. For example, real-time strategy games—games in which the player controls many discrete units, all at once—have existed for the past few decades. But it took Westwood Studios to create a game in the genre with a strong story, well-balanced play, and distinctive military units. The game was Command and Conquer, and it became an instant hit.

Because Micro Java game designers are stuck writing to such a limited platform, you are forced to think about unique game design itself, and not rely on fancy graphics and sounds to make sales. Some of the best games were black and white, 8-bit, and had less than 64K of memory. Try to analyze those games and understand what made them great. Using classic games for inspiration is not only acceptable, it is essential.

What Types of Games Are Possible?

Ultimately, the most successful games will combine genres in entirely new ways. For example, the Tomb Raider series is so popular because it blends action, adventure, puzzles—and the shapely Lara Croft.

The following list of genres is just a starting point to get you thinking. This list is in no way complete.

  • Action Games—These are games that involve fast reflexes. The graphics are generally as realistic as possible, and the audio is usually rich and loud. The play is usually fast paced, and multiplayer versions are usually very responsive. The audience consists generally of adolescent males.

    Because of the speed, responsiveness, and powerful graphics, action games are probably the hardest genre to implement on mobile phones and other handheld devices. This book will show you how to do it, anyway.

    Examples of such games include first-person shooters such as Quake, space games such as Defender or Missile Command, maze games such as Pac-Man, and paddle games such as Pong.

  • Combat Games—These games usually involve two characters facing off against each other and trying to beat each other up. Often, the characters will have special powers. Winning the game requires that the player have quick reflexes as well as memorize all the possible "moves."

    Examples include Virtua Fighter, Street Fighter, and Mortal Kombat.

  • Adventure Games—These are games that involve a quest of discovery through new worlds. These are usually structured similarly to a good movie or book, with a strong sense of story, character, plot, and locations.

    Originally, these games were wholly text-based, such as Zork; but more modern games such as Monkey's Island and Riven use advanced 3D graphics, strong artificial intelligence, and rich audio to flesh out the game worlds.

  • Puzzle Games—These games require the player to use logic, and often involve the arrangement or matching of symbols. Tetris is the king of all puzzle games.

    The audience for puzzle games is usually made up of intelligent, crafty adults.

  • Strategy Games—These games often involve lots of pieces, lots of possibilities, and rewards for thinking ahead.

    War games such as Panzer General are a popular type of strategy game in which you try to recreate a famous battle and pit various armies against each other. The audience for war games is very enthusiastic, but very small.

    Real-time strategy games such as Command and Conquer and Warcraft are much more popular with the masses. These games often involve more tactics than long-term strategy. Players must manage resources such as electricity and money while assembling specialized armies consisting of many different units. Quick reflexes are as important as long-term planning.

    Finally, classic two-player board games such as chess, Reversi, Connect Four, and checkers are strategy games. The audience for this type of classic turn-based game is truly mass market.

  • Role Playing Games (RPG)—These games generally allow you to fill a role. Your character has certain attributes such as Strength and Wisdom, and these attributes can change over time as your character explores new dungeons and fights new monsters.

    Paper and dice games such as Dungeons and Dragons invented this genre. The typical audience for this type of game is similar to those who read science fiction—usually intelligent, male adolescents.

    With more graphical RPGs such as Diablo III, Everquest, and Ultima Online, the genre has moved online as the basis for a rich, social, active community.

  • Simulation Games—These games allow the player to control a character, a machine, or system. Often, these games rely upon ultra-realistic graphics and control panels.

    The more specialized the simulation, the smaller the audience. A very detailed flight simulator may only appeal to real pilots. Real-life simulation games such as SimCity or The Sims, however, are widely popular with males and females, children and adults.

  • Trivia Games—These games are tests of (often useless) knowledge. Trivia games can be played in a straightforward question-answer format, such as Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? or You Don't Know Jack, or by using a more sophisticated game board, as with Trivial Pursuit.

    Most game shows are based on trivia. The audience for trivia games is the mass market.

  • Word Games—These games involve the creation of words, based on specific rules. The more words the player knows and is able to build, the better the player does. Examples of this genre are word builders such as Scrabble or word searches such as Boggle.

    Word games often appeal to an intelligent, middle-aged female audience.

  • Card Games—Card games usually combine chance with skill. A player is dealt out a hand and must play out the hand, given a set of rules.

    A card game such as poker involves bluffing and betting, appealing to a much more hard-core gaming crowd than social trick games such as Hearts or Spades.

    Additionally, collectible card games such as Pokemon or Magic: The Gathering combine elements of the RPG, allowing players to collect decks of cards, battle the decks against other players, and combine cards to achieve unexpected results. This type of game usually appeals to adolescents or hard-core RPG gamers.

  • Games of Chance—Any game based upon random result. Most casino games are games of chance, with a little skill thrown on top. Roulette, slot machines, or the card game War are the most basic games of chance.

    Games such as Backgammon involve chance, but also require a great amount of strategy.

  • Sports Games—These games allow the player to experience physical sports such as football, basketball, wrestling, or skateboarding. The games usually have excellent graphics and highly realistic physics. These games usually appeal to the same fans that enjoy the sport itself.

    Some sports games are coaching or managing games, and allow the player to take a more strategic, top-down, and sideline approach to team building, player trading, or game-playing.

    A special subset of sports games worth singling out is racing games. These games usually involve very detailed roads and landscapes, very specialized user input, and very responsive physics.

  • Toys—This is the rarest category of games, but also one of the most interesting. These games generally have no winner or loser, but allow the player to build or play with virtual pieces.

    Virtual pets, virtual mousetraps, virtual robots, digital musical instruments, and other educational and kids games often fall into this category.

Know Thy Limits

The most important part of the game design process is to know the limitations of the medium. This book, especially Chapter 2, "The Mobile World," will help you to define exactly what your target platform can achieve.

Designing Within Restrictions

In this book we're focusing on handheld devices such as mobile phones. A mobile phone typically has a tiny black and white screen, tiny bins of memory, ultra-slow screen refresh rates, turtle-like processor speed, and painfully limited sound.

So a game with instant trigger finger reactions, endless 3D dynamically shaded passageways, a massive multiplayer environment, and with a soundtrack by Green Day is not going to be possible on mobile phones. Not today, at least. There will definitely be a day—even relatively in the near future—when chipsets are fast enough and small screens are colorful enough for this to be possible.

In a way, designing a game for a mobile phone is a blast back to the olden days of game design, for platforms such as the Apple II and Commodore 64. You're now back in a world where every bit counts, only worse: You now have to fit it all on a postage-stamp size screen.

There is another drastic difference: One thing most J2ME-equipped mobile phones enable is easy interactivity with other mobile phones. For the first time, communication might become more important than gameplay.

Designing Around Restrictions

It is useful to remember here that no matter how good a game's graphics are, the real action always occurs inside the player's head.

A game's graphics and other elements are only useful if they transport a player to a different mindset, and allow the player to experience a believable fantasy.

Your challenge, then, is to transport the player to a rich, believable, exciting, and emotional fantasy world while using minimal graphics and audio. Sound hard? Not really. Novelists and storytellers have been doing just that for centuries, using no graphics at all.

That is the first clue: Good writing in Micro Java games becomes more essential than ever.

A good Micro Java game designer is also about turning lemons into lemonade. Good designers can actually take new devices such as mobile phones and use them in ways that nobody has ever imagined or expected, but that are wholly intuitive and logical.

For instance, one of the most ingenious mobile phone games out there is a Japanese game called Turibaka Kibun (which means Crazy for Fishing), created by Dwango. To go fishing, you pick your bait, choose a fishing hole, and then literally extend the antenna of your phone and hold it out. Eventually your phone will vibrate, which means you have a fish on the line. If you get lucky, you'll be able to reel in a nice trout or bass.

While the game, shown in Figure 1.3, might sound a little strange to Western audiences, it is wildly popular in Japan. In fact, DoCoMo had to limit the number of fish one could catch each day because consumers were spending too much time and money with the game.

Figure 1.3Figure 1.3 Turibaka Kibun: A game that would only be possible on a mobile phone.

More information about this and other games can be found in Chapter 3, "Big Games, Small Screens."

Another example of a game-like event that could only happen in today's mobile phone era is a performance called Dialtones. This is a symphony concert performed entirely though the ringing of the audience's mobile phones! Visit http://www.flong.com/telesymphony/ for more information and sample songs.

The Game's Mission

After you've decided what the genre will be, one of the first tasks of the game designer is to define the game's mission.

Most good games can be summed up using a simple sentence. The sentence should evoke an entire mood, and explain the central challenge of your game from the player's perspective.

For example, Tomb Raider can be summed up like this: You are a hot, sexy adventurer who must explore secret passageways within ancient tombs, collecting treasures while fighting off deadly creatures.

Tetris could be summed up this way: Different-shaped puzzle pieces are falling down a chute; you must rotate and arrange the shapes so that they land at the bottom forming complete rows.

Every design, artwork, and programming decision must then stem from this mission statement.

Inputs and Outputs

A game, at its core, consists of user input, followed by some sort of output. You should try to list every type of input, and what the effect will be.

Some input occurs because the player does something. Other types of input occur just because the game state has reached a specific point.

Typical input and other events to keep track of and define include the following:

  • The keyboard: Which keys on the handset will be used, when, and for what?

  • The mouse or joystick: Most handheld devices do not have a mouse, but some do have a touch screen or stylus. How will this affect the input?

  • Menus: What main and top menus will there be in your game?

  • Buttons: What buttons will there be?

  • Form widgets: How will elements such as pull-down menus, radio buttons, checkboxes, and text fields work together?

  • Time: Will there be any countdown timers? How does time play a role in the game?

  • Collisions: What happens when graphical elements collide?

Next, you should try to create a list of every element that will actually be in the game. These elements vary widely. Some will be visible on screen, and some will be hidden game state variables that your program will need to juggle:

  • Graphical elements: What will the user see? These are usually 3D models or sprites.

  • Sound effects: What audio effects should play, and when?

  • Background music: What music will be playing?

  • Background art: What will the environment look like, and how should it be rendered?

  • Levels: Will the game have multiple levels? If so, what will differentiate them?

  • Interface: In order for input to happen, there will need to be an interface. How will this interface look, roughly speaking? The interface also usually includes a readout of variables such as score, number of lives remaining, amount of ammunition, and so on. What information needs to be here?

  • Artificial intelligence: Will there be any computer players? What will they look like?

  • Global variables: Try to create a list of global variables that will change as the game is played. This includes the score, the round number, and so on.

Often, a design document will list each input and output element in a table and explain how different elements interact with each other. You should also try to explain the different classes and subclasses of elements, and how they all relate.

This document can often be used to define exactly how the program should be structured in an object-oriented manner. This will help the object-oriented Java programmer design the actual software. For example, a typical unit in your game may be a DeathMosquito. This DeathMosquito may be part of the FlyingUnit class, which may descend from the WarriorUnit class, which will be derived from the generic Unit class, which in turn may be a child of the Sprite class.

Gameplay

The next step is to actually define the rules of the game. This is where you can begin to determine all the variables, graphical elements, and other gameplay elements.

Ultimately, you should be able to create a game state—a list of variables, or perhaps just an array of bytes, that defines the exact state of the game. Strip away the fancy graphics, graceful animations, streaming TCP/IP sockets, and eardrum-beating sound effects, and you'll notice that games—no matter their genre or complexity—amount to nothing more than a pile of bytes. Every player's move and every artificial intelligence decision eventually expresses itself as a change to this core game state data.

You should be able to stop the game at any time, restart it, plug in the game state, and be at the exact same place you left off.

Java makes it quite easy to keep an abstract notion of game state. Just create a class with all the data structures you need, tap in methods to access or change that data, and you're off and running. By designing state as an object, various parts of the state can quickly be accessed and altered.

Multiplayer games often keep the main copy of the state on the server side, with additional copies in each client. This permits the server to be the final judge of what the "game" actually is. The client, meanwhile, can contain just enough information to be responsive. In other words, the client should be able to tell whether a player's move is legal or illegal, but the server will actually register the move and make changes to the game state accordingly.

The other important piece of this picture is how the game is won, and exactly how to determine winners and losers. You should be able to analyze the game state variables and determine whether the game has reached the winning condition.

For multiplayer games, it is usually useful to draw a client-server diagram and show which messages will need to be sent over the network. This can help you create use-case scenarios to take care of any eventuality.

Other Resources

There are many books, magazines, and Web sites that discuss game design. Some of the best resources can be found online:

Prototyping

The more original your game idea, the more important it is to prototype it. Until you and some friends are actually playing the game, you will never have any idea how successful your genius idea really is.

To prototype a game, one can commonly use a notepad, a few index cards, and some pencils. Each index card can be a game output element. You can position these relative to each other, or move them around accordingly.

Get a few friends together, explain the rules of the games, and "play it." You can act as the computer and game master, keeping track of the score and making sure everybody is playing correctly.

After a few minutes of play, it will become remarkably evident what the weaknesses and strengths of your game design are. Continue redesigning the game and retesting it, until your friends get sick of it or until you're happy with the results.

Additionally, you can easily prototype most games using Java Standard Edition (J2SE). This is another joy of Java—it is extremely easy to create a simple application that takes in command line input, processes some simple rules, and then spits out an output.

For example, if you are creating a new type of card game, you can have your Java prototype shuffle the cards, deal them out, accept valid moves, and keep track of who has what.

Eventually, if you only use text for input and output, it will be easy to transport the prototype in the Java 2 Micro Edition environment. The prototype can become the actual rules engine for your final game.

Programming

This part of game development is similar to developing any other application. You've got a specification and you've got to carry it out, on time and on budget.

You've got to create your Java classes, possibly create a server, create any artwork or audio assets, and fold it all together.

Most games are basically an endless loop. Speaking in the most general terms, the loop works as follows:

  1. Paint the screen.
  2. Get any user input.
  3. Make any game state changes.
  4. Redraw the graphics or sounds accordingly.

Most games also have engines for each major multimedia aspect. The advantage of having a generalized engine is that it can be reused for future game products. Typical engines include some of the following:

  • Graphics engines are a quick way of drawing the graphics. 3D games will have a special graphics 3D engine that knows how to take three-dimensional X, Y, and Z coordinates and transform them onto a flat screen. Other games will have sprite engines that enable you to take many graphical components and animate them and move them around the screen relative to each other. Still other games will have isometric engines that draw 3D-looking graphics from a set perspective, actually using a series of two-dimensional overlays.

  • Audio engines will play the soundtrack or other audio effects. Often, the engine will mix together different effects and be smart about fading music in or out depending on what is currently happening in the game.

  • Artificial intelligence (AI) engines act as a separate player in the game. The AI player is able to compete in the game, often head-to-head against human players.

  • Physics engines simulate real movement. Making a ball fall and then bounce appropriately takes a very complicated series of equations. A physics engine can provide this.

    Multiplayer engines will communicate with the network, often through a central server, and enable game sessions to speak with each other.

Playtesting

After the entire game has been coded, debugged, and released, the development has just begun.

Because a game is not a cut-and-dry business application, there is usually no right or wrong. There is only fun and not fun. You may think your game is highly entertaining, but you're biased—you've been working on the sucker for the past few months. You also may not be representative of the market you're trying to appeal to.

Big game companies often hire focus groups to playtest their game. They also might release the game to a small group of beta testers. They'll try to get as much feedback as possible.

Many of the most popular games became huge successes because beta testers loved the game so much they worked hard trying to communicate small requests that would make the game even better. When the game company fulfilled these requests, beta testers felt a sense of ownership. They told all their friends to buy the game, and the news spread like wildfire.

The first playtester should be you. Be honest with yourself. What improvements can be made? What strategies are too hard, and why is it so easy to gain points if you know a certain trick?

Continue to tweak the game until you're absolutely certain there's nothing wrong with it. You should then have some friends of yours play your game. This will be more useful if your friends are avid gamers, and if they are game designers themselves. Watch them closely while they play, and ask them many open-ended questions about their experience. Notice when they get frustrated or bored. Notice when they get angry, or when they laugh.

In nearly every case, you will need to go back to redesign and reprogram your game. This might be as simple as changing a few values, adding a few power-ups, or removing a few restrictions. Or you might need to totally redo your graphics engine to make it animate more smoothly.

Often times, you'll need to drastically change your game design. And you will need to go through the entire prototyping and programming process again before you can be absolutely sure your new design idea works. Fun, huh?

As a rule of thumb, professional game companies often spend as much as a third of the game development cycle on playtesting and redesign.

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