Design Musings – On Game Structure

This is an issue that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about of late.  A large percentage of games, both independent and mainstream, follow only a few basic game structures.  There’s the linear “do A, do B, do C” structure, and the mission based variation on that, were you can do side-quests to improve your stats and make the primary path easier.

What I feel is missing are games where the overall structure itself is fundamentally game-like.  What I mean is a game where you can describe the overall structure as a series of rules, potential actions and responses.  Examples of this would be games like X-COM and the Total War series, where the mission structure is not linear or branching, but determined by a over-game which itself is strategic.

An overall game-like structure can go beyond strategy games where it’s most common.  Take the original Legend of Zelda.  There are multiple layers of game rules determining the structure of the game.  At the top level, you have the overall objective of you have to explore the world to find the 8 Triforce pieces so you can go to the final dungeon and face Gannon.  It’s the sort of structure that one could easily see in a board game (get X things to get to the final area).

Underneath that, you’ve got the level of having obstacles spread through the world that need special items to get past.  The game isn’t made completely linear by this, but you’ve got an extra level of having to obey a set of rules in order to navigate the world.

On the level below this, you’ve got the navigation through the individual dungeons to find the Triforce pieces and items.  This, again, is based on a set of rules which you have to interact with.  Locked doors require a key to open.  You can use a bomb to make a path between two adjacent rooms.  Rater than set a linear path through the dungeon, it gives you a set of rules which you can use to progress in ways that aren’t necessarily the intended path.  There’s also a resource management aspect where have do decide if the shortcut you are making is worth the expenditure of one of your bombs.

Note that this already paints a picture of a fundamentally game-like experience without even taking into account the sword-fighting or  mechanic.  Obviously the moment-to-moment gameplay effects the overall game-structure, and vice-versa, but it’s a game from top to bottom.

Another example would be Sid Meyer’s Pirates!  At the basic level, the game is an RPG/trading sim with basic real time combat mechanics.  But while you move around with your ship or small fleet, the world is running what is essentially essentially a 4x strategy game with all AI players.  Everything from the prices of goods to the nations controlling the ports and the ships at sail and part of an overall game that the computer is playing with itself.  And, again, your moment-to-moment player interactions can effect the overall game structure, and vice-versa.  You can incite war by intercepting diplomatic vessels, and the value of the commodities in your hold are affected by the condition of the port you’re planning on selling to.

And now, of course, to tie it into what I’m doing.  I recently made a game called Ninja the Explorer.  The moment to moment gameplay was fairly similar to Legend of Zelda:  you can move in all directions and attack with your sword.  You also have a charge attack you can use for extra bursts of speed, or to attack at quickly at medium distances.

However, what I feel makes the game fairly unique is the structure. As you probably have realized, I like exploration in games, so I wanted to make a structure built around the idea of exploration.  With that, you had to be able to choose your path through a world, and discover new areas.

What I eventually came up with was a set of rules:  1. You must get from one corner to the opposite corner of a square grid of rooms 2.  From each room (excluding rooms on the edges)  you can exit by either the north or west, but not the south or east. 3.  Some rooms contain huts which act as a bit of a wild-card, and can either give you advice and deposit you back in the same room, or transport you some distant spot on the map 4. Some paths are blocked by doors which can be only be opened by collecting a certain amount of coins (there is one coin in  each room (except for the outer space levels).

What you end up with is a game where, in a standard game, you travel through a total of 12 rooms (which more or less follow an increasing difficulty curve) before getting to the boss (the only thing that can change this are the hut shortcuts), but which of of the 49 make up the 12 you’ll see depends on your choices of going north or going west.

Well, that’s it for now.  I plan to do another one of these soon where I talk about what I feel can be done with well-made game structures.  For now, back to making my linear level-based run ‘n’ gun.

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