When most people think of game design, they think of the big picture. Game designers come up with the overall concept for a game – the characters, storyline, and mechanics.
What many fail to realize is that game design is in the details. After the overall concept is nailed down and a prototype has been hammered out, the game designer spends countless hours fine tuning a game, making sure that every action, level, and challenge feels good and increases the amount of fun in the game.
When the topic of gameplay tuning comes up, many people say that it comes down to a feeling you get when you play the game. When the feeling is right, the game is well balanced. And I agree, to a certain degree. While a big part of tuning is intangible and abstract, there are definite advantages in tying those abstractions to concrete measures. Here’s how.
Set Specific Goals
The most important part of tuning is to create a goal. Often, you can change a game so drastically through tuning that it can cater to completely different audiences. Thus, you must first decide on your target market and target experience. Is this a hardcore shooter for 20-year-old guys? A mind-bending puzzle game for tween girls? A social game for middle-aged folks?
Setting a specific goal will help guide your tuning. As you tune, put yourself in the shoes of your target audience and see if the game has the targeted effect on you. Should the game put you on the edge of your seat? Allow you to play mindlessly? Continue over multiple days? By figuring out the intended effect of your game on the player, you’ll have a better idea of when the game has been balanced to create those effects.
Measure Your Goals
After setting specific goals, figure out ways to measure those goals concretely through tuning. If the game is intended to be played in spurts by a casual market, time each play-through. How many games could you play during your bus ride home?
Create spreadsheets to track your numbers, notes, and observations. As much as possible, think like your target player. What type of experience would they want? Where would they play your game? How would they play? The answers to these questions should guide your tuning.
Once you think the game is fairly well balanced, have people within your target market play the game. Watch them play, and use the same measures you used when tuning to gauge whether the game is having the intended effect on them.