Design toolbox

References for everyone…!

As a designer, you will reference games. A lot. And sincerely, even if there is a really neat mechanic in one of your favorite game being a ’95 SNES japanese-only game, it’s completely useless to cite an obscure game. When brainstorming with designers or others team members, you must think of popular games with stuff into them that are worth mentioning. So, here is my list of designer must-play games! Keep in mind that obviously, your own list should depend on the genre/scope/platform of your project ( study your concurrence! ) and the average age of who you will work with…! Do not cite pre-NES games to kiddos like me… and I won’t refer to you my strange emulated japanese games! 😉

  •  The Basis: Super Mario World
    • This is the starting block. Lucky for me, it has been my first game ever. But if you really want to get a good grip on all those essential mechanics, like probably a large number of your partners did before, play through Super Mario All-Stars (which is a compilation of all the NES Super Mario Bros.) You can’t go more classy than this: 2D platformer system, collectible/life system, worlds/levels/checkpoints system, snappy controls, warp zones, world map, powerups, secrets, solid level design (which is always perfectly displaying a particular gameplay ingredient), awesome art direction guided by gameplay, etc. We are all starting off on the same foot now.
  • Systems: Diablo 2
    • There are more complex, recent and better crafted RPG systems out there. But there are almost none that have been more played that those of Diablo 2 (and his younger brother Diablo 3, of course.) Here we have: loot system, shop system, character builds, skill trees, synergies, runewords/items system, procedural level design, waypoints, sidequests, etc.
  • Attack references: Final Fantasy 7
    • Come on, FF7 is a great game but frankly, it is nothing against his older brother Final Fantasy 6, which is one of my favorite game of all time. But since we are now in the 21st century, if you are making a game involving combat, chance are high that your game is in 3D. To add more, FF7 has one of the most crazy fanbase out there, so that’s 2 points in his favor. In fact, any JRPGs from the PS1 era could have been here : there is a simplicity in those assets (VFX/animations) which really are admirable and quickly referable. You have to develop and pitch an attack based on the *fill the blank* element to your team? Youtube some PS1 “Final Parasite – Xeno Cross”, you will find inspiration and references to link around.
  • Mini-games: Mario Party
    • An immense bank of mini-games for you to choose and clone/start off new stuff. Mechanics are tights and the learning curve is very low in them. Play the most games in the Party series that you can; it surprising how they reinvent their lineup each time. Runner-ups for this category: the Warioware series and Flash very simple games on the net (Newgrounds, Kongregate, etc.)
  • Simulation/customization/AI: The Sims
    • Massively popular in the beginning of the century, chance are that if you have a girl in his 20 in your team, she played The Sims at one moment… and probably intensively. There are a lot of interesting things to pinpoint again in this one: the customization system (for building and for characters), managing your needs, progressing in your career, having several players/gameplay and considering them (the “completionist”, the architect who cheats to obtain infinite money, the anarchist who burns his Sims.) Btw, in order to be a “completionist” in this game,  you have to be one heck of a control freak and to understand very well all mechanics…!
  • Social interactions: World of Warcraft
    • This is where I lack some interests in gaming, as a gamer. I do not play online for social interactions, it’s not in my solo/party gaming habits. But it’s even more important to be curious about what you do not play usually. So I mostly know what is going on World of Warcraft, what is good and makes it popular, but I didn’t experiment for myself. It’s clearly the best pick in this category, being the almighty MMO experience of all time, but one really strong candidate in here should be League of Legends, which I played. Recurrent topics in here : metagaming, roleplaying, fantasy universe, joining/participating in a guild, gauging your teammates skills vs. your enemies skills, colossal fanbase over the internet, etc.
  • Tutorial/Narrative: Portal
    • I shed a tear when I saw this article about Steam purchase habits and I discovered that over 2 millions estimated players have Portal in his Steam library and did not play it already. In my opinion, Portal IS the absolute reference for teaching your gameplay mechanics to your player: it’s so subtle, so much integrated inside the level design, so cleverly uncluttered. And for the scenario, it is awesome how the game tells you some very important information that push the narrative forward, but almost without any help of texts, dialogues or voice-overs. So let’s rejoice a bit on the bright side: there is en estimated 5 millions people who played it at least once, on Steam only…! 😉
  • Designing dungeon: Legend of Zelda : Ocarina of Time
    • Another great game (and series, to be honest) when it comes time to teach mechanics is The Legend of Zelda : Ocarina of Time. The first rule of every dungeon’s layout is to celebrate and glorify the new item that you will obtain. Enemies, gameplay ingredients, the boss battle : they are all a ramp up to your item mastering. Also, the pace is almost mathematically set to prevent repetition. Battles and puzzles don’t feel the same, rooms neither. Ingeniously, they mix up previous acquired items and Link’s base abilities in ways that are always surprising and fun.
  • Asymmetric gameplay: Starcraft
    • Any fighting games are worth studying in this category (or even any Blizzard games, truly), but Starcraft is one of the first who did it so right. The balance between the Terran, Zerg and Protoss races are really much nailed. Different styles of gameplay are given, thanks to the diversity of the units/buildings/techs, and they all have their advantages/disadvantages. Extra tip: if you really want to go hardcore with your comprehension of asymmetric gameplay balancing, go in here and try to analyse the history of Starcraft’s patches and the reason why these changes have been made.
  • Rewards: Super Smash Bros Melee
    • One thing about me: I am not a “completionist” gamer… when it’s not extraordinary rewarding. And Super Smash Bros Melee wins the palm for me in here. There are tons of thing to unlock, complete, achieve. There are tons of ways of succeeding. How they highlight your achievement adds to the satisfaction. And they know it works perfectly well : they pursue to build on those features in following installment of the series. Pokemon merits a honorable mention too: leveling in this game and catching new Pokemon are so entertaining and rewarding!

10 games… almost 100 millions copies sold of them : maybe if you are lucky enough, you will find someone on your team that will know what you are talking about… 😉

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