Game design is an interesting… hmm, what’s the best word here? Discipline? Field? It’s certainly a broad topic. You could talk for days on the subject and take entire college-level courses on exactly how to design games. But nothing quite prepares you for reality, for putting your own ideas to paper and writing the code to manifest them.
It’s not a very discrete discipline either (I’ve settled on discipline). You might imagine that the lessons of one genre won’t translate to another, but that’s simply not true. Game design is, at root, building a system of challenges for the player to voluntarily take on, and then giving players the tools to overcome them. Everything else is essentially window dressing.
Well, not quite, but hopefully you understand what I mean.
In a city-builder, those challenges obviously rise from the emulation of real-world city management. Things like building traffic networks that can handle rush hour with ease and get all the simulated people where they’re headed with minimal friction. Keeping your city happy, healthy, and well-stocked with jobs, homes, and amenities. A limited supply of funds and the natural conflicts that arise between systems along the way are the challenges that you, the player, voluntarily assume when you launch the game. And that’s what makes games so engaging. The process of overcoming. Of growing, learning, and quite frankly winning.
In that context, it’s easy to see that good game design is not bound by genre. Genre simply provides the framework players will use to engage with the game. But even for wildly different games, there are still important lessons to be shared between them.
So let’s take a moment to discuss the critically acclaimed MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV.
MMORPGs have a unique feedback loop that’s been honed over the years to a keen razor’s edge. It’s why World of Warcraft was so successful, and why Final Fantasy XIV is successful in turn, having clearly studied those who came before. At root, you gain experience for your actions in the virtual world, and that experience accumulates until you reach a new level of competence in the skill you’re training. That’s usually accompanied by lots of visual feedback, from floating numbers to glowing bars that fill as you progress, culminating in plenty of colorful flashes and fireworks when you finally level up.
Sophisticated as we may consider ourselves, there are few among us who can resist the allure of filling bars and flashing lights.
A good feedback loop is key to games across genres. Players need to feel like their actions have a tangible impact on the world. And not only that, but players need some clear indication that they’re succeeding within the systems provided. For Final Fantasy XIV, the clear indications are the flashy level up visuals, as well as giant monsters that topple before blades and spells. For NewCity, the feedback loop involves watching your city grow and eliminating the hotspots on negative heatmaps like crime and pollution. But are there ways we could kick our player feedback up a notch? Something for us to think about.
Another thing Final Fantasy XIV gets very, very right is the sense of progression through play. As you level up and complete quests, you get bigger and better equipment for your character, as well as other unique rewards that demonstrate your accomplishments to other players. In turn, you’re able to take on tougher challenges and monsters, until you and your friends are literally slaying the deities of Eorzea. From humble beginnings, indeed.
For city-builders, progression is generally reflected by unlocking bigger and better tools to affect your city as it grows and thrives. Unlocking the University, for instance, allows you to make a dramatic impact on your citizens’ education. But for every new and powerful tool, good game design bundles a few drawbacks with the advantages. Having hundreds of students in one place is bound to negatively impact pollution, traffic, and crime, after all. When it comes to NewCity, how are we presenting the new opportunities afforded to players as they “level up” their city? What could we do to better present the path before players and notify them of all the tools in their toolbelt? There’s lots to consider here.
And this is but the tip of the iceberg. As I expressed earlier, we could continue all day long and for days yet undawned finding parallels and lessons for NewCity, even in an MMORPG. But the point remains: as game designers, we have an obligation to keep our eyes open. To see what works and what doesn’t when it comes to fundamental, elemental game design. And as players too, it’s easy to identify what hooks us and what drives us away from the games we play when we’re not working on our own.
Each game is a bundle of lessons learned. Learning from others helps all of us level up in the craft of making games. And certainly, there are lessons from fantasy for even the most grounded simulation game.
At Lone Pine Games we are always looking for feedback to improve our game! The best way to provide it is through the NewCity Discord.
We are thankful to have such a lively and dedicated group of Mayors participating in discussions regarding new features, city planning strategy, development news, and just about anything else.
Steam Reviews are always appreciated as well!