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'The Door Problem' of Game Design 305

Posted by Soulskill
from the making-adoorable-games dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Game design is one of those jobs everybody thinks they can do. After all, they've played a few games, and they know what they liked and disliked, right? How hard could it be? Well, professional game designer Liz England has summed up the difficulty of the job and the breadth of knowledge needed to do it in what she calls 'the door problem.' Quoting: 'Premise: You are making a game. Are there doors in your game? Can the player open them? Can the player open every door in the game? What tells a player a door is locked and will open, as opposed to a door that they will never open? What happens if there are two players? Does it only lock after both players pass through the door? What if the level is REALLY BIG and can't all exist at the same time?' This is just a few of the questions that need answering. She then goes through how other employees in the company respond to the issue, often complicating it. 'Network Programmer: "Do all the players need to see the door open at the same time?" Release Engineer: "You need to get your doors in by 3pm if you want them on the disk." Producer: "Do we need to give everyone those doors or can we save them for a pre-order bonus?"'"
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'The Door Problem' of Game Design

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  • Article is empty (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Noughmad (1044096) <miha.cancula@gmail.com> on Wednesday April 23, 2014 @06:38AM (#46821437) Homepage

    The article doesn't really say anything. For starters, it took me a while to realize she's talking only about computer games, and then even more specifically only about first person adventures / RPGs. From what I understood from the list of problems, I got that you decide on game mechanics and then generally boss people around.

  • um (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Charliemopps (1157495) on Wednesday April 23, 2014 @06:57AM (#46821495)

    Those issues sound like any feature in any other software project I've worked on...

    Are there "Save" buttons in your application?
    Can the user click them?
    Can the user click every button in the application?
    What tells a user a button is click-able?
    What happens if there are two user?
    Does it become read only after both users click it?
    What if the UI is REALLY BIG and controls can't all exist at the same time?'
    'Network Programmer: "Do all the users need to see the record save at the same time?
    Release Engineer: "You need to get your buttons in by 3pm if you want them on the disk.
    Producer: "Do we need to give everyone those buttons or can we save them for phase 2?

  • Easy answers (Score:4, Insightful)

    by DeathToBill (601486) on Wednesday April 23, 2014 @06:57AM (#46821499) Journal

    I'm not convinced by TFS. The answers are, roughly:

    1. 1. Are there doors in your game? Let's say for the moment there are.
    2. 2. Can the player open them? Yes. If you have doors in a 3D game and they don't behave like doors, you have failed.
    3. 3. Can the player open every door in the game? Yes. See point 2.
    4. 4. What tells a player a door is locked and will open, as opposed to a door that they will never open? It's a door. It opens.
    5. 5. What happens if there are two players? Doors behave the same for all players. It's a door. See point 2.
    6. 6. Does it only lock after both players pass through the door? See point 5.
    7. 7. What if the level is REALLY BIG and can't all exist at the same time? Then your technology is not good enough to implement your vision and one or the other needs to change. See point 2.

    Am I the only one who finds arbitrary restrictions in games, either because the technology couldn't cope, or because the game designer knows how you want to play better than you do, or just because, really annoying? If there's a door there, it should open. If it won't open, there shouldn't be a door there. How hard is this? Putting a door there that's never going to open just frustrates the player and destroys the suspension of disbelief. It reminds them that they're not really in this world they can see, they're in some arbitrarily limited construct devised by a "product manager" at some company to try to screw a few bob out of them. Of course there need to be some limits on the world, because the technology isn't infinite; good game design should make those limits look natural so that the player never even notices that the limit is there.

    Tomb Raider games are amazingly annoying - some things you can jump and grab, some things you can't. The only way to tell is to jump and try grabbing it. If it doesn't work, maybe you can't jump and grab that thing, or maybe you just didn't quite get it right. I know, I know, this is not the point of Tomb Raider games, Lara is, but still...

  • Re:Easy answers (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Thruen (753567) on Wednesday April 23, 2014 @08:13AM (#46821855)
    This is a huge problem for me in exactly those types of levels. I do want to open every door, every single one, and I very rarely can. Admittedly, my favorite games are open world games which shouldn't have many areas inaccessible to the player, but I also play shooters and want the same thing. Battlefield 4 is full of elevators that only go from the lobby to the top floor or roof, I want to get out on the 32nd floor and kick the door in to the corner suite and set up my rifle where I won't immediately be spotted, taking that option away never makes sense from an immersion point of view. It only makes sense from a technological point of view. Does it create the possibility that 64 players will be roaming room to room with silencers in a hotel while ignoring the rest of a large map? Yes, and that's perfect. The previous post is entirely correct, while doors are important these questions are easy to answer.

    Don't get me wrong, I believe game design to be rather difficult, but this is a poor attempt at explaining why. "The Door Problem" is not nearly as difficult as budget problems, working within technological limitations, or keeping a coherent storyline while letting the player make meaningful decisions. I speak from years of experience, in unrelated fields but experience none the less!
  • Re:Answers: (Score:3, Insightful)

    by 91degrees (207121) on Wednesday April 23, 2014 @08:15AM (#46821877) Journal

    > Are there doors in your game?

    Probably.

    Not the case for every game ever. Maybe not even a majority

    > Can the player open them?

    Some way or another, yes.

    Do we even want access to every single room? We may want to illustrate that we're in a corridor. It would make no sense to be able to open all the doors and it would requitre a lot of level design time and memory space to have something on the other side of each door.

    > Can the player open every door in the game?

    Unlikely. Some doors will be locked, if only to remove the expectation that doors are no obstacle.

    If no doors are locked then why do we need to remove this this expectation?

    > What tells a player a door is locked and will open, as opposed to a door that they will never open?

    A locked door conventionally makes a distinctive thud sound when the player tries to open it. If there needs to be an indication that the door will never open, those doors don't make a sound (and typically have artwork indicating that they're not really usable doors.) There may be visual indications of a lock status (keypad, etc, with display, red=locked, green=unlocked) nearby.

    This is one solution. Should we have a message saying the door is locked? If so, what message? Should all doors make the same thud? Does that make sense for a metal door? If we go for different thuds, is the inconsistency too jarring? How much space do the thus assets take up? Is a keypad the correct design given the setting of the current level?

    > What happens if there are two players? Does it only lock after both players pass through the door?

    Depends on the kind of event that you want the player to believe is the cause of the locking.

    So which events will cause the door to unlock or lock for both players and which will cause the door to lock or unlock for only one?

    > What if the level is REALLY BIG and can't all exist at the same time?

    Does a tree make a sound if there is nobody near to hear it?

    Yes. Now, how do you propose we deal with the memory issue created here?

    > Do all the players need to see the door open at the same time?

    Yes, if they can see it and the status of the door is relevant to the game mechanics.

    What if the door is only usable by players with a certain key or character type?

    > You need to get your doors in by 3pm if you want them on the disk.

    What's the question?

    It's not a question.

    > Do we need to give everyone those doors or can we save them for a pre-order bonus?

    Yes.

    Sucks for those who didn't pre-order. We're now the subject of an internet hate capaign because our game is broken. Or, we don't get as many pre-orders as we otherwise would have.

    Every one of these questions is a decision that has to be made. The decision depends on the type of game, the resoucrces avalable (both in terms of hardware and developers), and all the decisions you'e made already.

    And the point is, this is just doors. You have a similar lot of questions for any other item in your game.

  • by O('_')O_Bush (1162487) on Wednesday April 23, 2014 @08:30AM (#46821991)
    I couldn't distinguish her "doors problem" from any other mundane problem in a complex system that some of us deal with every day.
  • by tepples (727027) <[moc.liamg] [ta] [selppet]> on Wednesday April 23, 2014 @09:13AM (#46822305) Homepage Journal
    Perhaps the door analogy is her way of expressing what it's like to have a "mundane problem in a complex system" to someone who has never faced a system as complex as a video game.
  • by ildon (413912) on Wednesday April 23, 2014 @09:32AM (#46822461)

    Doors infrequently have windows in video games because they are used to block visual information from the renderer and gameplay information from the player. But doors with windows do exist. Even Half-Life 1 had some.

  • Re:Easy answers (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 23, 2014 @09:40AM (#46822519)

    Sorry, DeathToBill, but you failed her test.You're making the classic wannabe game designer mistake of putting technical issues and your interpretation of realism above all else, because you don't like "arbitrary restrictions." So, so many games have failed because of designers who thought that way.

    What you're saying is that you can't build a game with doors unless they're all openable and there's actual stuff behind them. For starters, that just blew your level design budget by 2x, so you need to trim somewhere else to make that back. Second, you don't want players getting bored walking into all these useless areas that you added just so there wouldn't be unopenable doors, and now you need to work that area into the game design itself. Your scripting budget has just gone up substantially.

    While one person has a hang-up about doors, other people will be obsessed with arms clipping door frames (requiring some kind of IK solution), that you're putting things into a backpack that wouldn't fit in real life, and others will hate the fact that cars have infinite petrol. The end result is you make an unfun mess that a couple of purists praise as "realistic."

  • Re:Easy answers (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ildon (413912) on Wednesday April 23, 2014 @10:08AM (#46822869)

    In real life, there are plenty of doors for which you will never find the key lying around. More importantly there, are millions (billions?) of doors that are of no interest to you, ever. In a video game, it would be very difficult to set up a series of long term societal detriments for going around trying to open every door, or to easily express to the player why the character they're playing has no interest in one door vs. another, or why what's behind most doors is not of interest to the gameplay or the plot of the game. But it'd also be extremely strange to walk down a city street environment and have there be no doors into any of the surrounding buildings. So we put up false doors as window dressing so the environment looks familiar, but then we build a visual metaphor that lets players see at a glance which doors are unimportant so they don't bother to try them. This can be by leaving them as a flat texture instead of modeled, making openable doors a different color or have specific lighting or highlights, making openable doors have handles and unopenable ones not have handles, or as the article suggests, putting rubble or something (depending on the context of the game) in front of unopenable doors. You can even make unopenable doors make a specific sound effect when approached, such as the sound of a handle jiggling on a locked door, or the sound of the character specifically saying "It won't open," etc. (although only communicating it once the door is approached can be tedious for the player).

  • by joshuao3 (776721) on Wednesday April 23, 2014 @10:32AM (#46823137) Homepage
    Which is the authors point. A programmer, not just a person who programs, has a special way of looking at the world and its systems. The conversation she's having with people is designed to separate those two kinds of people. Systems are generally more complex than they appear on first glance--and a real programmer is very able to visualize, define, and describe the system to whatever level of complexity is required. That being said, a GOOD programmer (and his manager) is able to keep feature creep in check by not getting distracted by out-of-spec parameters.
  • by BasilBrush (643681) on Wednesday April 23, 2014 @10:36AM (#46823175)

    I don't think so. What makes a good simulation of real life doesn't tend to make for a good game. Real life is mostly boring, which is why people turn to games in the first place.

    There are categories where maximum reality is desirable, but they tend to have "simulator" in the name. Flight Sim, Formula One Sim, Train Sim, Theme Park Sim.

    But what people usually want in games is problems to solve, and/or skills to develop, to make progress, all at a level that tests their ability at nearly all times, but doesn't overcome them. And trying to be more realistic only limits the amount to which you can do these things.

    Take the article's example of a door, and the question of how you can tell if it's a locked door or not. In reality, you can't tell whether a door is locked without trying to turn the handle and push it. But in games it's usually better if you can tell by looking whether a door is unlocked and openable. There are plenty of games that go for the reality route, and you have to try to open all the doors to find the openable ones. And it's a tedious task that rarely adds anything to the gameplay.

    Another example is the concept of health levels, multiple lives, and re-spawning. Remember the US army created a game of their own called "America's Army". It was as realistic as the could make it, including the fact that you get shot once, and you are dead, and you couldn't rejoin the multi-player game until it was over. And that made it a dull game, as you typically spent half the time waiting rather than playing.

    As you say, you like Metroid (I guess Metroid Prime?) which was far from realistic. But yes, a great game.

  • by BasilBrush (643681) on Wednesday April 23, 2014 @10:53AM (#46823415)

    It's funny. In he intervening years, text adventure authoring has come a long way. It's now possible to create games in a near English functional programming language.
    http://inform7.com/ [inform7.com]

    BUT the games compile down to the age old Infocom game file format, and so are limited to the ancient concepts of wandering between rooms and manipulating objects. And whilst the range of user input that can be understood has expanded, it's still just combinations of "verbing" and "object" or moving by compass directions.

    Still, some authors have managed to be creative even within this limited game engine, and create games that don't APPEAR to be simple rooms and objects games.

    I wonder, would a truly unlimited interactive novel be fun to play? It could be tested out by a kind of Turing test scenario. Have a player play such a game, and have a real novelist provide the "game" text. Of course such a thing would entail the player waiting a considerable time between "moves". But it would mean that their input would be boundless, they could do anything in the "game".

    Considering how hard it is for most authors to get things published and make a living whilst they are writing, this might even be a feasible real way of gaming, allowing authors to make a small income whilst doing their chosen activity. Though it would need to be a pay-per-move system.

  • by nine-times (778537) <nine.times@gmail.com> on Wednesday April 23, 2014 @11:19AM (#46823739) Homepage

    I wonder, would a truly unlimited interactive novel be fun to play? It could be tested out by a kind of Turing test scenario. Have a player play such a game, and have a real novelist provide the "game" text. Of course such a thing would entail the player waiting a considerable time between "moves". But it would mean that their input would be boundless, they could do anything in the "game".

    Well when I've thought about it in the past, I imagined it a bit like having an old-school D&D game with a dungeon master. Of course, that'd be a hard thing to do.

    I always loved the old text adventures, but it's annoying that they were restricted to canned responses. You might come up with a great solution to a problem, but if it wasn't what the programmer had anticipated, you'll get get a message saying something like, "I'm sorry, but you can't do that." I would think coming up with something that allowed you more freedom would be an interesting problem to tackle and a good challenge for an AI researcher.

Today's scientific question is: What in the world is electricity? And where does it go after it leaves the toaster? -- Dave Barry, "What is Electricity?"

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