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游戏设计认知:自下而上与自上而下的方法 编辑本段回目录

有一个词可以贯穿游戏设计过程的起点和终点,它是游戏设计的原因和结果,那就是“趣味”。但我们如何才能创造趣味?是什么动力驱使游戏设计师和开发者发挥创造力,定义、规定并最终执行了那些天生令人愉快的理念?

这一过程可以称为游戏设计认知能力,如果我们想推动这个凭空创造了乐趣的行业继续发展,就很有必要了解和提升自己的游戏设计认知能力。但是,今天我们所能看到的游戏设计参考材料却甚少提到运用于游戏的元设计主题。因此,本文将介绍一个游戏设计认知过程的拆分法,促进游戏设计师探讨那些下意识使用但却很少获得了解的不同方法。

现在,我们以经典动作游戏《战神》为例。设计这种游戏的过程,如果依次介绍可能包括,定义其主要理念(史诗、扣人心弦、以一位残暴的反英雄人物有关的第三人称动作游戏),情境和环境(古希腊诸神间的纷争,游戏中的主角也卷入其中),功能和内容(武器、关卡等),机制和动词(神力系统、升级道具、玩家的跳、轻击和重击等动作)。

但是,这些元素整合在一起的过程并不像我们这种快速分析那样顺利。设计一款游戏通常包括以一种更有组织的方式,大量梳理这些层次。因此,本文将研究每个层次及其相互间的关系,为方便理解自上而下和自下而上的游戏设计认知过程,我们将以分层结构进行说明。

游戏设计中的认知

设计一款游戏的认知过程始于一个想法。有时候它是我们想转变成玩法的理念,有时候它是我们想转变成理念的玩法。将这些想法转变成明显材料,使之成为游戏的过程,是由这两个极端这间的数个思考历程和反复说明组成的。

游戏设计的分层视图

检查一个复杂的过程绝非易事,因此,我们有必要将这些复杂性划分为更小的部分以便大家理解。这就是所谓的分析法。分析游戏设计认知过程是深度了解这些过程如何运行的一个关键环节。

因此,我们使用以下的分层视图来拆分游戏设计认知过程,每个层次都会对应下级的一个概括性或抽象层次,以及一个专门化或具体化的上级层次。

Cognition process(from gamasutra)

Cognition process(from gamasutra)

概念层

概念是一个相当广泛的术语,意思是“一个理念的抽象描述”。在游戏中,概念是由一系列描述游戏风格、整体设定,(有时候包括)主要情节动机,以及角色类型和交互的短语组成的。游戏概念通常都很短,但它们却是游戏的终极定义,开发者需要时时铭记在心以确保制作出自己真正想做的游戏。

因此,游戏概念是我们这个分层图的最高级,将其他层次凝聚在一起成为游戏设计。游戏概念的合理定义是确立游戏愿景和重点的关键,它会启发整个设计和开发过程。概念还是自上而下方法的普遍起点,我们稍后将对此进行讨论。

让我们先以暴雪世作《暗黑破坏神》这款具有强大概念的游戏为例。该游戏可以描述为“极侧重砍杀动作、道具收集和地下城探索的奇幻角色扮演游戏”。整个游戏均围绕这一理念构建,例如,其中的道具拥有逐渐增长的能量,允许玩家更深入地探索地下城,杀死更多怪物,获得另一项更强大的道具。

作为我们讨论的起点,概念层代表游戏最抽象的视图。我们将在下个环节介绍其余的逐渐增加间隔尺寸的层次,它们代表说明游戏理念的增量过程,并将其转变为详细的游戏描述。

情境层

如上图结构所示,游戏的情境层包括故事、环境和给予玩家的动机。玩家为何要做自己正在做的事情?他必须从城堡中救出公主或者拯救被外星人攻击的世界吗?情境不一定是受故事驱动的,但它必须能够以更具体的视角定义游戏,以方便玩家理解。

无论何时,玩家为推动游戏进程而必须做出选择时,他都会根据当前的情境来做决定。这些选择可能是在射击战中选择一种武器,在冒险游戏或RPG中的对话选项,甚至是在格斗游戏中选择躲闪还是攻击。玩家在游戏中所做的每一个选择都要有意义,即使只是出于美学目的。

情境应该将玩家引向这些选择,以同游戏情况相关的事件丰富游戏环境。须知每个非美学性在游戏中都要有明确的目的和结果。如果不是,那就情愿由游戏为玩家做出“选择”,推动游戏进程。例如,在2K Boston/2K Australia的大作《生化奇兵》中,你不可以在特定区域使用武器,所以游戏不会让你“选择”任何武器——这样你就无法使用武器了。

需要注意的是,游戏情境未必要一直同故事情节相关,但情境的一个重要用处就是,通过美学或游戏改变的选择,将玩家同游戏世界绑定在一起。

以Square在Super NES平台上备受赞誉的RPG游戏《Chrono Trigger》为例,该游戏让玩家扮演Chrono,以及他的好友、有趣而冲突不断的Guardia王国的居民等角色。游戏情境由Guardia地区不同年代的旅程组成,其故事本身也充满让玩家通过以往的行动操纵未来的机遇。

让我们再看看《Wii Sports》:游戏中没有引导玩家的故事,但其情境却包含了人人都熟悉的一些活动。

Wii Sports(from gamasutra)

Wii Sports(from gamasutra)

核心层:内容和功能

虽然情境决定了游戏概念更实质性的视野,但它仍然缺乏特定的游戏元素。例如,游戏概念和情境只需要经过微调整,也可以植入电影或书籍中。但我们需要将下一个层次落到实处,才能让游戏相关功能更明确。

游戏内容实际上就是玩家所看到,并几乎都可以在游戏空间中接触到的东西。玩家虚拟角色本身就是一种内容,其他角色、武器、道具、场景物体等允许玩家使用游戏系统与之互动的都属于这一范畴。从玩家角度来看,我们可以将内容视为游戏的具体化象征。

功能,则是游戏玩法的中级描述,通常表现为用例形式(游戏邦注:“群组控制”、“驾驶汽车”等)以及广泛的系统描述(“价格浮动”、“即时物理”),它包含玩家可以触碰游戏或被游戏接触的不同方式。它们还通过玩家在游戏世界中的行动所得到的反馈(“易破坏的环境”、“可信而情绪化的NPC”),定义了玩家交互的本质。

概念和情境是玩家对游戏的第一印象和对游戏的一般理解,内容和功能则是决定他们是否会反复玩游戏的元素。内容和功能是游戏的基本资料。二者一起定义了概念和情增色如何实现交互式体验。功能则是决定构建哪个内容以此实现玩法的蓝图。

因此,内容和功能在玩家游戏体验中扮演着核心角色,所以我们决定在这个分层方法中,将这二者统一归纳到核心层中。

自上而下和自下而上认知过程的最重要获别在于,相较于其他层次,它们同内容和功能之间的联系。如果我们从上到下来研究,就会发现功能是创造理想游戏机制的内容抽象化;而如果我们采用从下到上的方法,就会看到内容是创造理想游戏情境的功能抽象化。因此,我们无法说明这两个层次哪一个更抽象。这正是我们为何将此二者放在同一个结构层次中的原因。

我们还可以通过不同的视角观察功能和内容的关系:“开放式”和“脚本式”玩法间的冲突。诸如《塞尔达》和《侠盗猎车手》等开放式游戏依靠功能来提供理想的玩法体验,其表现形式为对象的突发行为,以及充斥游戏环境的角色。在这种情况下,功能比内容更抽象和基础,因为它是事物的行为,而不是生成让玩家去探索的游戏环境中的颜色和调味剂。

另一方面,《半条命》或《合金装备》等脚本式游戏则依靠内容来保证玩法体验没有偏离游戏设计师的规划。在这种情况下,内容比功能更抽象,因为它是将提供理想体验的事物的实际布局;事物的行为只能因相应的内容而呈现出复杂性。

机制层

游戏机制就是游戏设计的“大脑”。无论玩家何时想执行一项操作,他都必须能够马上在游戏条件的范围内调动可行的动词。之后这一输入就会由一系列规则进行内部处理,并给予一个输出结果(最好是玩家所希望的结果)。游戏机制好比是在引擎盖下面发动的齿轮,玩家所需执行的一切操作就是踩油门,并感觉以汽车在移动。玩家不需要理解引擎的运行原理。

但游戏设计师却必须清楚地了解这些机制的详细定义,以便为其他开发者提供游戏理想输出结果的准确情况。机制层最重要的组件是定义系统操纵哪一个动词的过程,并向玩家和游戏世界提供反馈结果,以便玩家所执行的动作令相应的游戏功能和内容焕发生命力。

为说明游戏机制,我们以索尼作品《旺达与巨像》为例。玩家的多数行动集中于屏幕角落上的小环内。这个小环决定了玩家所能够执行的操作,例如以刀剑或弓来袭击巨像。

Shadow of the Colossus(from gamasutra)

Shadow of the Colossus(from gamasutra)

如果玩家执拗于某些事情,或者执行了其他耗体的操作,其最大功力就会被削弱——因此玩家要慢慢消耗体力,连续以弓袭击巨像。摁压一次按钮会开始为小环填补能量,第二次摁压则会在小环中释放与当前能量水平一般强大的攻击。过后玩家就要稍等片刻,以便恢复能量。玩家角色会因为这些极端操作而疲乏,所以他无法一直以最大威力发动攻击,需要稍事休息才能重新开战。

动词层

这个层次包括玩家在游戏中将执行的操作。这些操作意味着玩家的意愿落实到游戏中,它是一种将使用机制层让玩家经历游戏体验的低级微决定。这些动词可以是“射击”、“跳跃”甚至是“更改摄像视角”,“锻造道具”和“移动单位”。

动词与决定哪个动词在某个时候可能被玩家所用的特定游戏条件有关。例如,“在车上”就是《侠盗猎车手》中的一个游戏条件,“加速”和“刹车”可能就是一些可行的游戏动词,而“开枪”和“上膛”则是“抽出武器”这一游戏条件的动词。以下就是《侠盗猎车手》中的游戏条件及对应动词的示例图:

GTA universe(from gamasutra)

GTA universe(from gamasutra)

游戏条件及其对应的动词与一个代表游戏重要层面的认知过程相关:学习。在说明游戏动词时,设计师必须确定它们在整个游戏过程中的用法以及同之后任何游戏条件的关系都要一致。设计师必须认真对待玩家所学到的东西,不要让玩家违反操作。例如,在一个玩家进入车内不允许开枪,但在另一个条件下他却可以掏枪或者必须开枪的游戏条件下,游戏就必须以合理的反馈结果明确这些状态之间的过渡。

GTA(from gamasutra)

GTA(from gamasutra)

从概念到常量到控制:自上而下方法

在确定和解释了我们所提出的分层方法之后,我们就可以开始讨论游戏设计的合理认知过程了,这其中包括在游戏设计过程中的跨越层次的问题。如果我们从一个更抽象的视角切换到更具体的视角(自上而下方法),或者采用相方做法(自下而上),这一过程就会截然不同。研究这些方法是一种很有用的亚设计实践,将有助于我们深入理解各层次间的关系和依赖性。

我们已经以自下而上顺序讨论过层次,现在让我们从一个概念认知过程转向更特殊和具体的视角,即上而下方式来研究这一过程吧。

当我们从上面开始时,游戏设计师通常会先练习自己的分析能力,将广泛的概念分解为更小的代表性部件的能力。例如,当设计师要从游戏概念转向情境层时,他就必须进一步展开概念,回答“游戏在何时何地发生?”以及“哪个角色或实体参与其中,这是在什么情况下?”找到其中最合适的答案远比找到正确答案更棘手。

正如之前所言,概念和情境未必包括交互或娱乐(这是游戏的主要特征)。因此,自上而下方法的一大主要挑战就是这个过程通常要求游戏设计师向那些自身并不有趣的概念层引进趣味元素。例如,起源于一本严肃书籍的游戏概念仍然必须传递有趣的体验。

《生化奇兵》游戏设计师Ken Levine对此理解是:“游戏设计师的工作很古怪。从根本上说,他们有责任确保游戏玩起来很有趣。而身为游戏设计师的问题就在于‘趣味’是一个极为相对的词。”

自上而下游戏设计认知通常运用于根据现成的IP(例如书籍和电影)而制作的游戏。在这种情况下,游戏概念和一般情境已经由源材料所定义,所以游戏设计师必须自上而下却将这些材料转变为真正交互和娱乐性的体验。基于现成的游戏系列所推出的衍生游戏,保留了情境化元素,但更改了玩法,则是自上而下方法的另一种使用情况。

从动词到变量到想象:自下而上方法

在我们开始讨论自下而上方法之前,让我们先澄清一下,我们的定义与行业专家Ernest Adams所著的The Designer’s Note:The Perils of Bottom-up Game Desgin的一些不同之处。

在Adam的文章中,自下而上的游戏设计是指在与游戏并不相关的现成机制基础上构建游戏。Adams指出,这种方法可能产生过度而不必要的复杂游戏机制。主要的区别就在于,本文讨论的是自下而上的认知过程,而不是游戏设计,我们的机制是由游戏所驱动,因为我们的过程始于动词这一游戏已有的组件。任何非游戏机制都必须经过自上而下认知过程的处理,才能转变为游戏系统。

自下而上游戏设计认知在某种程度上,可以视为找到成功运用特别有趣的玩法动词或机制,以合适的背景、内容和故事进行补充的理由。如果我们看看行为中某些著名游戏开发者的经验,就会发现这一过程的使用更为普遍。

例如,id Software的著名游戏《毁灭战士》和《雷神之锤》。正如David Kushner在“Masters of Doom”中所述,这些游戏的创建仅仅是Carmack和Romero所设计的残忍、夸张射击玩法问世的理由。

假设我们的下一款第一人称射击游戏将出现一种独特的武器,它能够让目标对象分裂成更小更弱的部分,并在之后再次射杀。这会是哪种武器?我们射击的是什么对象(或角色)?它们如何分裂?我们一开始为何要向其开火?回答这类问题就是自下而上认知过程的核心。

设计一款现成游戏的扩展内容是多数自上而下方法所运用的情况。扩展内容通常意味着保留原作的主要玩法元素,如此一来,多数动词、机制甚至是功能层一开始就确定了,设计师就要确定能够与其余元素相吻合的内容和情境,并以大家熟悉的玩法设定为玩家提供新鲜体验。

总结

世上并不存在所谓的游戏设计认知秘方。本文的最终结论就是,实用的游戏设计过程即融合自上而下和自下而上这两种认知过程。

将这些小小的玩法灵感碎片拼成有趣的事件可能是一种极大的挑战,它包含多次自上而下和自下而上的迭代思考。但我们希望通过研究不同的游戏设计层次和它们在这一认知过程中的关系,能够削弱这一挑战的难度,令其更简便易用。

希望本文还能够启发你更深入地思考亚设计概念,因为我们真的认为,对于致力于创造更丰富,更有娱乐性的游戏体验的设计师来说,这一方法极为重要。(本文为游戏邦/gamerboom.com编译,作者:Gilliard Lopes,Rafael Kuhnen)

Game Design Cognition: The Bottom-Up And Top-Down Approaches

By Gilliard Lopes,Rafael Kuhnen

It is often said that there is one single word that ties both ends of the process of designing a game, being its cause and consequence. That word is “fun”. But just how is it possible to create fun? What drives the creative force inside game designers and developers to define, specify and ultimately implement concepts that are entertaining by nature?

Such a process is called Game Design Cognition, and it is absolutely necessary to understand and improve it if we want to evolve as an industry that creates fun out of thin air. However, the subject of meta-design applied to games is barely mentioned in the reference material about game design that we see today. Thus, this article introduces a proposed breakdown of the cognitive process behind game design, enabling the discussion of different methods that are intuitively used, but seldom understood, by game designers.

For example, take the award-winning action game God of War. The process of designing such a game probably involved, in some order, the definition of its main concept (an epic, gripping third-person action game centered on a brutal anti-hero), context and environment (conflict among the gods in ancient Greece, in which the protagonist gets personally involved), features and content (combos, weapons, levels), mechanics and verbs (the divine powers system, the power-ups, the player’s actions such as jump, light attack and heavy attack).

However, the process of putting this whole picture together is never as streamlined as our quick analysis would assume. Rather, designing a game in practice often involves multiple traversals up and down those layers, in a much more organic fashion. Therefore, this article comprises the study of each layer and its relationships with the others, presenting them as a hierarchical structure for an easier understanding of the top-down and bottom-up approaches to game design cognition.

Cognition in Game Design

The cognitive process of designing a game begins with an idea. Sometimes it is a concept that we want to translate into play; sometimes it is gameplay that we want to turn into concept. The process of turning such ideas into palpable material, which then becomes a game, is composed of several journeys of thought and specification back and forth between these two extremes. Filling the space in between with concepts that break down the design of a game into working parts is the core of this article, as seen in the next section.

A Layered View of a Game’s Design

Examining complex processes is never an easy task; thus, approaches that try to divide such complexity into smaller parts that can be more easily understood are necessary. This is called analysis.

Analyzing the game design cognition process is a critical part of developing a deeper understanding about how such process works.

Therefore, we propose the following layered view as a breakdown of the game design cognitive process, where each layer corresponds to a generalization or abstraction of the layers below it, and a specialization or concretization of the layers above it.

Each layer is described in detail in the following sections.

The Concept Layer

Concept is a pretty broad term meaning “the abstract description of an idea”. In games, the concept is composed of a couple of phrases that describe the game’s style, general setting, and sometimes the main plot motivation, as well as the types of characters and interactions involved. Game concepts are generally short, but they serve as the ultimate definition of the game, something that the developers should keep in mind at all times to make sure that they are really making the game they were supposed to.

Therefore, the game concept is the topmost layer of our proposed architecture, tying all the other layers together into cohesive game design. A proper definition of the game’s concept is crucial for establishing the game’s vision and focus, inspiring the whole design and development processes. The concept is also the general starting point of the top-down approach, as discussed later in this article.

As an example of a game with a strong concept behind it, let’s take a look at Blizzard’s blockbuster Diablo. The game could be described as “a fantasy role-playing game with a strong focus on hack-and-slash action, item collection and dungeon exploration”. The whole game has been constructed around this concept, such that items with increasing power both allow and drive the player to explore the dungeon deeper and deeper, killing more and more monsters to get another, even more powerful item, and so on.

As the starting point of our discussion, the concept layer represents the most abstract view of the game. The next sections describe the remaining layers with increasing granularity, representing an incremental process of specification of the game idea, turning it into the detailed description of the game

The Context Layer

The context of a game, as far as the proposed architecture is concerned, comprises the story, circumstances and motivation presented to the player. Why must the player do what he is doing? Does he have to save the princess from the castle or must he save the world from an alien invasion? The context does not have to be story-driven, but it must define a more concrete view of the game that the players can easily refer to.

Whenever a player has to make a choice in order to progress further in the game, his options are based on, and related to, the concept at hand. Such decisions could be choosing between types of weapons in a shooter, dialogue options in an adventure game or RPG, or even whether he will dodge or strike in a fighting game. It is expected that every choice the player makes in a game is a meaningful one, even if its purpose is merely aesthetic (say, to answer a question made by a character that has no other purpose besides telling you how mean he is).

The context should be the guide to these choices, enriching the game environment with events related to the situation proposed by the game. It is important that every non-aesthetic choice has a clear purpose and outcome in the game; if not, the game should rather “choose” for the player, and keep the things going. For example, in 2K Boston/2K Australia’s masterpiece BioShock, you are not supposed to use your weapons in certain areas, so the game “chooses” no weapons for you, instead of letting you choose any weapon — that you will not be able to use anyway.

It is important to note that it is not always necessary for the context to be related to the storyline, but one important purpose of context, being it through aesthetic or game-changing choices, is to bind the player to the game universe.

Take for example Square’s highly-praised RPG Chrono Trigger for the Super NES. This game puts the player in the role of Chrono and his friends, inhabitants of the interesting and conflicting kingdom of Guardia. The game’s context comprises the journey among the Guardia region in different eras in time, and the story itself is full of opportunities for the manipulation of future events through actions taken in the past.

On the other hand, let’s look at Wii Sports; there is no story there to guide the player through, but the game’s context comprises several activities that everyone is familiar with.

The Core Layer: Content and Features

Although the context defines a more material view of the game’s concept, it still lacks any game-specific components. For example, the concept and context of a game could also be implemented as a movie or a book, with only minor adjustments. It is in the next layer down the line that such game-related functionality becomes clear.

Contents of a game are basically what players see and most often can touch inside the game space. The player’s avatar itself is game content, together with any other characters, weapons, items, scenario objects, etc., that are there for the player to interact with, using the game system. We can think of content as the concretization of the game from the perspective of the player.

Features, on the other hand, are the mid-level description of gameplay, often represented as use cases (“squad control”, ”vehicle riding”) and broad system descriptions (“price fluctuation”, “real-time cloth physics”), which comprise the different ways in which the player can touch the game or be touched by it. They also define the nature of the player’s interaction, in terms of the feedback perceived by the player from his actions in the game world (“destructible environments”, “believable emotional NPCs”).

While concept and context are the layers responsible for the player’s first impression and general understanding of the game, it is the content and features that will make him want to play more and more. Content and features are the bread and butter of a game. Together, they define how the concept and context are realised as an interactive experience. Features are the blueprint onto which content is constructed, thus instantiating gameplay.

Content and features, therefore, play a major, central role in the player’s experience with the game, and so we decided, for our layered approach, to bind these two components in a single layer called Core.

The most important distinction between the top-down and bottom-up cognition processes, as discussed later in this article, is exemplified in the relation between content and features with regard to the other layers. If we work down from the top, we can see features as an abstraction of content in order to create the desired game mechanics; on the other hand, if we go up from the bottom, we can see content as an abstraction of features to create the desired game context. Therefore, it is impossible to tell which of these two layers is more abstract than the other. That is the main reason why we choose to consider these two layers as an unified component of the architecture.

The relation between features and content can also be observed through a different perspective: the conflict between “open-ended” and “scripted” gameplay. Open-ended games such as Zelda or GTA rely on features to provide the desired gameplay experience, in the form of emergent behavior of the objects and characters that populate the game environment. In this case, features are more abstract and fundamental than content, because it is the behavior of things, rather than their actual colors and flavors, that generate a living game environment for the players to explore.

On the other hand, scripted games such as Half-Life or Metal Gear Solid rely on content to guarantee that the gameplay experience is exactly what the game designers have planned. In this case, content is more abstract than features, because it is the actual layout of things that will provide the desired experience; the behavior of things has to be only as complex as needed by the desired content.

The Mechanics Layer

The mechanics of a game are the “brain” of a game’s design. Whenever the player wishes to perform an action, he must invoke one of the available verbs in the given game state (more on this in the next section). Then his input is processed internally by a set or rules and an output is given (hopefully being what the player had intended to do). Game mechanics must be designed to be the gears that spin under the hood; all the player must do is step on the gas and feel the car moving. He does not need to understand how the engine works to be able to drive.

The game designer, however, must have a clear and detailed definition of such mechanics, in order to provide the other developers with an accurate picture of the desired outcome in the game. The most important component of the mechanics layer is the definition of the process in which verbs (the layer downwards) are manipulated by the system and provide feedback, both to the player and to the game world, of the actions performed, thus bringing the desired game features and content (the layer upwards) to life.

To illustrate game mechanics, let’s take a quick look at Sony’s masterpiece, Shadow of the Colossus. Most of the player’s actions are focused in the small circle on the corner of the screen. That circle measures the power that the player has available to execute actions such as strike a colossus with the sword or the bow.

The maximum power available can be reduced if the player keeps hanging on things or executing other tiring actions — thus, consuming power slowly — and with every consecutive blow struck upon the giant. Pressing the button once willl start filling up the circle with power; pressing it a second time will unleash a blow as powerful as the current power level in the circle. The player then has to wait a short while in order to recover this power. As the player sees it, the character just gets tired of those extreme actions; he cannot use his full power to strike all the time, and needs to stop to rest for a little bit.

The Verbs Layer

This layer consists of the actions that will be performed by the player during the game. These actions mean the desire of the player being enforced upon the game as low-level micro-decisions that will use the mechanics layer to run the player through his game experience. Some of these verbs might be “shoot”, “jump”, “brake”, or even “change camera perspective”, “craft an item” and “move units”.

Verbs are related to specific game states, that define which verbs are available to the player at any given moment. For example, if “in car” is a game state for Grand Theft Auto, “accelerate” and “brake” might be some of the available game verbs, as “shoot” and “reload” would be verbs for the “weapon drawn” game state. A picture showing a simple example of game states and their corresponding verbs in the Grand Theft Auto universe is provided below:

Game states and their respective verbs are related to a cognitive process representing an important aspect of games: learning. While specifying game verbs, the designer has to make sure that their use and relations with any game state thereafter is coherent throughout the entire game. Designers must take what the players learn very seriously and must not expect them to act against it. For example, if in a given game state the player is not allowed to shoot while inside a car, and suddenly, in another state, he is allowed to do that (or worse, he is required to do so to get through a given obstacle), the transition between such states must be made clear through the appropriate feedback.

Once our proposed layered architecture is defined and explained, we can start talking about the proper process of game design cognition, which involves traversing the layers as the game’s design is constructed. Such process has distinct approaches if we are moving from a more abstract view to a more concrete one (in top-down fashion) or the other way around (from the bottom up). Studying these approaches is a useful meta-design exercise that will allows us to understand deeply how the layers relate to and depend on each other.

Since we have already discussed the layers in the top-down order, let’s start by studying the process in which the game design process is driven from a conceptual perception of the game towards more specific and concrete views: the top-down approach.

When working down from the top, the game designer usually exercises his analytical skills, i.e. his capacity of breaking a broader concept into smaller parts that are representative of the whole.

For example, when trying to transform a game concept into its context, a designer must further unfold the concept to answer questions like “where and when does the game take place?” and “which characters or entities are involved, and in which circumstances?”. Finding out which are the right questions is often trickier than finding the right answers to them.

As said before, concept and context do not necessarily involve interaction or entertainment, which are major features of any game. Thus, one of the main challenges of the top-down approach is that this process often requires that the game designer introduces fun elements into concepts that are not necessarily entertaining by themselves, or at least not as much as a game should be. For example, a game concept derived from a very serious book must still turn out to be a fun experience.

Famous game designer and BioShock mastermind Ken Levine has something to say about fun: “Game designers have a weird job. At root, it is their responsibility to ensure that a game is fun to play.

The problem with being a game designer is ‘fun’ is an extremely relative term.”

Typical situations in which top-down game design cognition is applied are games based on existing IPs from other media, such as books and movies. In these cases, it is common that the game’s concept and general context have already been defined by the source material, and so the game designer must work downwards in order to turn such material into a truly interactive and entertaining experience. A spin-off of an existing game series, where the contextual elements are maintained but the gameplay is changed, is another example of a situation where a mostly top-down approach is used.

From Verbs to Variables to Vision: The Bottom-Up Approach

Before we start talking about the bottom-up approach, let us clarify some differences between our definition and the one presented in the excellent article “The Designer’s Notebook: The Perils of Bottom-up Game Design” by industry expert Ernest Adams.

In Adams’ view, bottom-up game design occurs when an existing mechanism, not related to gaming at all, is used as the baseline for the construction of a game. Adams points out that such an approach can lead to overly and unnecessarily complex game mechanics. The whole difference is that, in our case, we are talking about bottom-up cognition, rather than bottom-up design; our mechanisms are always game-driven by nature, since our process starts with verbs, which are already components of a game. Any non-game mechanics must be processed and turned into a game system through the top-down cognition process.

Bottom-up game design cognition can be seen, in some sense, as the process of finding excuses to successfully apply a particularly fun gameplay verb or mechanic, complementing it with the appropriate setting, content and story. And if we look at some of the most well-known game developers in the industry, we will find out that such process is used more often than not. Take, for instance, id Software’s highly-praised series Doom and Quake. As David Kushner’s excellent testimony in “Masters of Doom” tells us, these games were built barely as excuses for the brutal, over-the-top shooting gameplay that Carmack and Romero had devised.

Let us say, for example, that our next first-person shooter will feature a unique weapon that can split a target into smaller and weaker parts that can then be shot upon again. What kind of weapon is that? What objects (or characters) are we shooting at, and how do they split? Why are we shooting them, in the first place? Answering questions such as these is the core of the bottom-up cognitive process.

Designing an expansion of an established game is a typical situation in which mostly the bottom-up approach is applied. Expansions generally imply that the major gameplay elements from the original game are maintained; this way, most of the verbs, mechanics and even features layers are already defined from the start, and the designer has to define content and context that fit well with the rest, still providing the player with a fresh experience in a familiar gameplay setting.

Conclusion

There is no such thing as a recipe for game design cognition (or any cognitive process for that matter). In the end, the main outcome of this article is that the practical game design process involves a mixed approach between top-down and bottom-up cognition.

Bringing together those little pieces of gameplay inspiration into something fun can be quite a challenge that involves several iterations of top-down and bottom-up thinking. But it is a challenge that we hope to have made easier and more approachable by studying the different layers of game design and their relationships during the cognitive process.

We also hope to have inspired you to think of meta-design more frequently and profoundly, as we truly believe it is a very important path for us, as designers, to evolve in our craft towards even richer and more entertaining games. (source:gamasutra

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