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As game designers we often find ourselves having to make complex decisions quickly. Are all the mechanics and features really necessary? What needs to be developed first? Do all these interesting-sounding ideas actually fit together? When we get to a fork in the road and both options sound good, how do we choose one over the other? Overall, what’s our design method?

Having to face these situations often, not being able to provide a concise and clever solution can (and usually does) lead to two types of consequences:

  • Poor design: making design decisions with no solid foundation or clear criteria, guided only by instinct or contextless taste. This usually leads to a design that’s limp, with games that end up suffering from “feature creep” (a heap of features, stacked on top of one another).
  • Suffering team: a good portion of the teamwork stands on the decisions made by the creative team. If you can’t explain those decisions through clear and logical reason the entire crew will feel as if their work is headed towards random whims and/or chance.

I came upon a methodology—I call it “Core, Focus, and Power”—which can be applied to almost any development while delivering the expected results (solid experiences and enjoyable development).

The design method in a nutshell

That’s what I call this methodology, which is simple:

  • First you define the Core.
    • Core is the objective, the intent behind the design; it’s the “North” that we’ll continue to look to throughout the design.
    • This is defined only once, preferably before you even begin making a prototype.
  • You then Focus on that Core.
    • Focus means that EVERYTHING in our game should be pointing toward the Core, focusing on it. When things don’t, then they have to have a really good reason. It can’t be an accident or oversight.
    • This step is taken every time a new feature is brought forward, and every time a design decision needs to be made.
  • You take every Focused feature and you seek to give it Power.
    • Power means that at least one of the game’s features should go the extra mile, take the product out of the comfort zone, with a fresh and bold outlook.
    • You take this step after having designed a feature or an element that focuses on the Core. You can approach this step by asking: how can I take this further, or even to the extreme?

Core

The Core is the central piece in our game. It’s what we want to deliver. It’s the message. The Core could be a word, a feeling, an emotion, a mechanic, a character.
It could also be a business objective, a platform (for example, making use of Switch’s capabilities). I like to sum this up by saying that the Core is “the design’s intent.” Examples of Core in existing games can be:

    • Fez: perspective
    • Ico: the relationship between two characters

The Core will be the cornerstone around which we’ll be designing the whole experience. It’ll become the objective, and thus the “North.”

How new is this “Core” concept?

Other people use the concept of “design pillars.” Some companies such as Ubisoft or EA work with a similar concept, and they call it “fantasy.” It draws on the expectation the user starts forming the moment they first come into contact with the product, whether a logo or a launch trailer. And the game must make that experience come to life, fulfilling those expectations. In order to do that, all the design and development has this “fantasy” as its center. It becomes the pivot. An example of “Fantasy” could very well be Dragon Age Inquisition: “Become the Inquisitor.” With that simple premise, the user understands what their role will be, what setting to expect, etc. This not only works as a marketing tagline, but also it has to be the “North,” and a guideline for the development itself.

Focus

Focusing is an exercise and a mindset, filtering out elements that are not aligned with our Core. It’s asking ourselves, again and again, whenever something is about to be implemented: does this feature point towards the Core of our game?

Even if most of this seems obvious, what’s not is that the whole package of features and elements must have a clear intent that’s aimed towards the Core. I named it Focus precisely because it involves placing the Core in the center of the scene. Everything in our game should highlight the Core, front and center. Achieving that is Focusing.

What can point towards the Core? Anything. Any and every tiny piece of a game is a chance for communication. Here’s a list of a few elements that can achieve Focus, so you get the idea of the range this covers:

  • Mechanics
  • Scenarios
  • Level design
  • HUD
  • VFX
  • Dialogues
  • Artstyle
  • Logos
  • Game name
  • Menus
  • Sounds
  • Music
  • Communication pieces
  • Concept Art

Mise en Scène

During some research, I found that the world of film already holds a similar concept they call “Mise en scène.”

This concept claims that the way you communicate in film isn’t just through the script or the performances, but anything that forms part of a scene will have an effect on what’s being told. Elements such as lighting, framing, the surrounding, the colors, the costumes, etc. They’re all working together towards conveying something in particular.

We should be able to pause a movie during any frame and appreciate this concept in action. 

For example, in this frame from American Beauty, which tries to place Kevin Spacey in a position of vulnerability, we can observe:

  • Composition: he’s placed below the medium line, making him look small.
  • Costume: his clothes are loose-fitting, which doesn’t make him look confident.
  • Lighting: softly lit, and even though the actor gets hit a bit by the light, it’s still soft and from the side. There’s nothing, not even the light, that’ll listen to what he yearns.
  • Acting: not an authoritarian pose.
  • Decor: the room has few elements, which are scattered and placed with no clear intention. They work as a reflection of the state the character is in.

The central idea of this game design method is to set a “North” in the design, a common goal within the team, and a strong product. In my next post—part 2—I’ll zero in on how the Power element completes this approach. Stay tuned.

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