Ask Questions

Losing the perspective of the player can destroy even the best idea. When this happens you’re more likely to make decisions that have a negative effect on the game as a whole. One method for making sure you are taking the player’s point of view into consideration is to continually ask questions from the user’s perspective. Asking questions can help you nail down why people don’t enjoy your game and can reveal new directions for the game to head in. The list of questions you should ask will change during each stage of development. Regardless of the current stage of development you should always make sure you’re continually reevaluating the game’s concepts based on whether or not they support a good player experience.

More than likely pre-production will contain the most questions or at least some of the biggest ones. Luckily, you don’t necessarily need to have answers for all of them before you start building the game. In fact, your primary focus should be defining just enough of the vision to begin development. Some common questions that should be asked during pre-production are:

  • What should this game be about?
  • Why should someone care to play the game at all?
  • What’s the theme?
  • What are the main mechanics?
  • What is the core game loop?
  • What emotional response do we want this game to evoke?
  • What are the controls?
  • What is the perspective?
  • What does it look like?
  • What platform should it be on?
  • Is there a story? If so what is it and how is it told?

You might not have an immediate answer for anyone of those questions, but you need to start thinking about them and figuring out a way to answer them. I like to build simple non-digital prototypes in order to test mechanics and the core game loop. Building and rebuilding a prototype is a helpful exercise as it allows you to test possible answers to your questions. Prototypes are most useful when you break down a broad question into a specific one. For example, “How do we create exciting combat?” can be reduced to “Is defeating faster enemies more satisfying?”

Iterating with prototypes is a very hands on method of answering questions and can be extremely time consuming. Working with your team to explore ideas is an important addition to this stage. A regular team meeting is a great opportunity for people on the team to bring up additional questions. Make sure you keep the discussion focused on whatever task is currently being solved or you won’t get anywhere. Regular team meetings will produce way more questions and solutions than a few individuals working hard on a prototype. A prototype can serve as a tool to test whether or not a direction is the right one for the project’s vision. Once you’re confident that you have features that support your intended vision it’s time to enter production.

Production can mean a lot of different things, depending on the environment that you’re working in. Whatever your situation is your most important task is making sure the game plays well. Your second most important task is creating final content that contains that great gameplay. Some of the questions you might need to answer during production are:

  • Will the change we’re about to make have a damaging effect on other parts of the game?
  • Are our plans within scope of the team?
  • Are the high level ideas still the right direction to go in?
  • Are we targeting the right platform(s)?
  • What is our business model?

Basically, the two most important questions at this point are “Does this change have a positive impact on the player’s experience?” and “How will this change affect our ability to develop content?” Figuring out if something is good enough to warrant a change is a difficult task. Especially when you have the stress of finalizing the game. It’s far easier to figure out if a change will add a whole lot of work or not. There’s going to be a lot of systems to juggle when you’re considering adding or removing a feature or mechanic. You’ll need to rethink a question in terms of the story, the theme, the platform, the business model, etc. It can be an outrageous amount of parts to compare and contrast. Make sure the team is communicating well and you’ll have an easier time.

When you release your game you’ll be in one of two boats. Either you’ll be completely done and will want to move on to a new project or you’ll be continually updating the game. I would stress that regardless you still need to get an idea of where you went wrong and where you succeeded. You might already have a good idea of what went wrong and why before you even finished the project. However, when you release you’ll have an opportunity to compare your perceived player empathy to how your audience actually reacts. Some general questions you should ask after release are:

  • Does the final version of the game match our intentions during pre-production?
  • What parts of the game do people like?
  • What parts of the game are players skipping?
  • Do all of the game’s elements support one another?
    • Gameplay, story, theme, artistic look, platform, business model, etc
  • Are players missing or misunderstanding certain parts of the game?

These questions are meant to reveal mistakes that you can learn from. If done right you’ll be able to make better educated guesses in future.

If you’re planning on releasing an update you’ll need to think of a lot more questions such as:

  • Are there any technical bugs that should be solved?
  • Are there any game breaking bugs that limit a player’s ability to make progress?
  • Is there a high learning curve?
  • Does the user base want more content or would they prefer more polish on current content?

The answers will help you decide if you’re working on what matters most to your game’s community. Allowing you to prioritize what gets done first.

As you start to gather answers to the post-production questions it’s important that you create tasks. The tasks you come up with serve as a list of prioritized work items that should be completed in order to improve or expand upon the newly released game. A set of guidelines would help to smooth the process of completing these tasks. These guidelines should be a combination of experience you’ve gained working with that team, mistakes you’ve made before, and common questions that come up during the creation of specific content. It might even give you a better idea of what development strategies work best for you and your team.

Game development is a continuous loop of ideas, communication, tests, and revisions. Questions help you continue and narrow the focus of that loop. When the loop stops you end up missing opportunities to improve your game.

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