Posted by: Junahu | October 1, 2012

Junahu “teaches” Game Design: #1

//set of articles that I somewhat regret making, but must post anyway

Howdy hoes! And welcome to a new, and most likely short lived, series of articles that serve as little more than an obtuse, unhelpful ego stroke. I’ll be going over everything I know about the woefully under-represented art of Game Design. There’s an awful lot to cover, so let’s just dive right on in.

Screen Real-Estate

Screen Real Estate is a pretty simple thing to understand. It’s the relative value of various areas of the playing screen. It’s about maximising the space on the player’s screen, so that their attention is drawn to the right parts, irrelevent information is cropped, and gameplay is smooth. Closely related to this topic, is HUD design, though we won’t be covering that. For today, we’re covering how games best use the screen when displaying actual gameplay.

Usually, the area of highest screen real estate is the point where the player is moving (or shooting) TO. If the player is not moving, or is moving very little, then the area around the object moving the fastest has the highest screen real estate. Put something important in that area of the screen, and the player will be certain to notice it. In a platformer, if you want the player to notice a pit before they reach it, you can put a flying/moving enemy above it in order to draw the player’s eye (and to play on their object-situation associations; “enemies are bad for you, thus everything around them is a bad situation”).

An unfortunate repercussion of all this, is that the area of highest real estate is not always the area of most interest to the player. You might be chasing one erratically moving enemy, and fail to spot the other, static, enemy you just ran into.

But games can take advantage of this too. By distracting the player, you can stop them from noticing a hidden path or collectable that would otherwise be blatantly obvious, thus making it more rewarding when the player spots it the next time around.

Another basic rule of Screen Real Estate is that big things attract more attention than small things. If a game’s character is half the size of the screen, then it draws far more attention to itself than it probably should. This is fine for most fighting games, since they are inwardly focused games to begin with. Knowing what’s around you is less important than knowing the gritty details of what kind of punch you and the foe are both throwing and how far apart you two are relatively (i.e. how much closer should I be, so that my punch hits, but his punch misses) and for this, large, detailed characters are very suitable.

For other genres, like platformers, having a character take up too much screen space is extremely unsavory. Platformers are about going places, the bigger you are, the slower you appear to move relative to the world around you (i.e. the game feels ‘zoomed in’ and ‘slow’). It also becomes easier for you to be hit, and the player’s ‘field of view’ feels much more claustrophobic with a large character sprite hogging all the room. Worst of all though, having too big a character sprite distracts the player from paying attention to the enviroment he is supposed to be navigating. Basically, the character itself attracts too much of the player’s attention.

Another possible problem regarding Screen Real Estate, is Clutter. Having too many things attracting too much of the player’s attention all at once. Multiple enemies moving in unaligned, unsyncronised ways. A bunch of rotating collectables that are all rotating at different speeds, etc.

For many arcade games, they were limited to single, static screens for their levels. Everything about each stage was shown all at once, so developers had to use many tricks to keep clutter to a minimum. The simplest trick was just that; make the game as simple as possible, and use random or player driven behaviours in order to keep the gameplay fresh and active.

Case #1 Asteroids;

A very basic game; you pilot a triangle, and have to keep it away from blocky circle things. You can shoot the circles with dots in order to break them apart, and to earn points. It’s a navigation puzzle at its heart, you look at how everything is moving around, and constantly have to triangulate where the safe spots will be. When you break an asteroid up into smaller parts, you have to figure out where those parts are going too, making the task gradually more frantic.

The point is, this is a game where the goal is to find empty screen space in order to keep your ship safe. Clutter (i.e. the sequentially more populous asteroids) is used to communicate to the player where they shouldn’t be going. So, yes, in this case, clutter is used to the game’s advantage, generating deliberate chaos that the player tries to avoid.

It’s important to note that, other than a few basic HUD elements (a static score, and a static credit tally) and the miniscule player themselves, the asteroids are the only other thing on the screen. In fact, when UFO’s eventually appear, shooting their own bullets at the player, this is usually the point where you die. The asteroids are constantly drawing your attention, making you move only in short bursts, while the UFOs are gunning you down specifically, requiring you to constantly move without rest.

This is a deliberate case of chaotic misdirection, and its a very important tool used in Arcade games. It doesn’t matter how “good” your game is. What matters is how many coins it can coerce from the player. So making a game that appears fair (but actually isn’t), is more important than making a game that IS fair. Everything was on the screen, the UFO didn’t suddenly turn invisible, the asteroids didn’t suddenly change direction. The information was all there, but the chaotic nature of asteroids is at odds with the reliably dangerous UFO. The game’s structure deliberately takes advantage of human cognitive failure, and the delicious thing about it is that it only happens to the person playing. People watching the game don’t have to track everything specifically, and are in a better position to analyse the behaviour of the game as a whole. This is how you attract more players, by making the game look easier than it really is.

Okay, so arcade games are probably a poor working example of screen real estate, since their aim is to be as unfairly difficult as possible without looking either unfair or difficult. Most of their design goes into chopping the experience into ‘credit bites’, chunks of game that you are expected to get through within one credit. That’s a topic for another day…

Case #2: Super Mario Bros

Enough beating around with arcade games. It’s time to give a specific example of how screen real estate works in a console game.

As you can see, this is Super Mario Bros, world 1-1. It’s the first thing you see in the game (really, even the Title screen takes place on this screen). The grey dotted outline shows what can be seen on the screen, and the light grey outline is the point where objects tangibly exist in the game (everything outside of the outline does not exist to the game)

Right away you should spot something odd; there’s nothing of interest on the initial screen. There’s Mario on the left, some shrubs on the right, and a happy little cloud in that huge, unpopulated sky. To understand why this is a big deal, try to understand this from the viewpoint of someone who has never seen the game before; There is no visible GOAL here, nothing you have to DO that is immediately noticeable. Back when scrolling screens were not expected, this is attention grabbing. It gives the player the illusion of freedom, the freedom to choose for themselves what they want to do in this game. The tall, blank sky is paramount in communicating this to the player. It’s big, inviting, and dotted with non-trivial yet incidental detail. It also tells the player that they can jump, or at least implies that they can.

The player’s offcenter positioning draws the player to the right. Not just making them move that way, but actually focusing their attention to what is over there. As the player moves, the screen begins to move, and the screen real estate changes. When making progress through the level, the screen scrolls, but the player remains in the center of the screen. When retreating the other way, the screen does not move, and only Mario moves. This communicates a very simple, constant rule; go right in order to win, go left and you’ve made a mistake.

Something you might not notice, is that it’s actually easier to guage how fast Mario is moving, when the screen is scrolling and Mario is static (as opposed to the other way around). Humans are much more capable of tracking a large moving object (i.e. the level scrolling) than they are of spotting a tiny one moving at the same speed (i.e. Mario).

You’ll notice, as you begin running, that the very first thing that scrolls onto the screen is a ? block. As it scrolls into view and its flashing flashiness draws your eye, your mind analyses it, determines how fast it scrolls across the screen and what you should do with it. Common game tropes associate flashing with collectables, so the player attempts to jump into it, likely from below, as it will have reached Mario by the time the player decides to collect it.

And this simple act, the first meaningful one in the game, communicates all kinds of things; you can jump while moving, ? blocks release stuff when you hit them from below, blocks are solid features that impede your movement, coins are collected and add points to your score. And because the block scrolled onto the screen through the player’s actions (rather than being onscreen from the start), the player feels like it was their choice to hit it. It’s the illusion of freedom in its most distilled form, because everyone hits that block, in every Mario game, and it never contains anything other than one measely coin.

The other, major element in this starting area, is the Goomba. Remember when I said objects outside the light grey box don’t exist? That’s relevent, it’s responsible for making sure enemies appear when the player gets close enough to them. Because of this, levels can be designed assuming enemies will always be in the right place at the right time. The Goomba is set to appear around about the moment Mario hits that first block. He’s likely to have come to a standstill, so the only moving object now, is the Goomba. This is very purposely set up in order to show the player how fast Goombas move. Had he appeared while Mario was running, it would be difficult to notice the Goomba was moving at all (which would lead to miscalculated jumps and early deaths).

From this point on, a number of different scenarios can play out. The player could run away from the Goomba to get more space, running straight into the ‘no scrolling left’ rule. The player could stand still, and time a jump when the Goomba is close enough. If the player hasn’t moved from before hitting that ? block, it’ll still be there, and it’ll impede his jump, forcing him back down and making Mario land right on the Goomba’s head. The player could try to run and jump over the Goomba, which would either land Mario on top of the row of blocks Goomba starts under, or result in Mario hitting his head on the ? block that contains a Mushroom.

But I digress, as that’s unrelated to screen real estate. That’s the murky, incongruous bowels of level design.

Case #X Super Smash Bros

Applying all that we’ve learned (we have learned something… right?), it’s fairly easy to notice that Screen Real Estate is a genuine problem Smash Bros has to tackle. Between expansive stages that morph and flip, randomly spawning items that are almost like characters unto themselves, and the possibility of 4 symultaneous players, the game is constantly trying to draw your attention away from the relatively tiny avatars you control. More direct examples of this are the Smoke Ball item, and the Nintendog/Devil/Resetti Assist Trophies.

Smash Bros doesn’t so much as deal with clutter, as it embraces clutter. Unlike many fighting games, the camera is relatively dynamic, zooming and panning to frame the action the players need to see. There is also a running consistancy between certain common types of object (fire, explosions, electricity) and their looks, sounds and effects on a player, which helps catagorise the clutter. Individual mistakes through distraction rarely result in an outright KO on the inattentive player. Etc, etc.

What this means is that Smash Bros ends up being an outwardly focused fighting game, where the depth isn’t in the characters themselves, which you can barely even see in some cases, but rather with the stages they inhabit and the items/foes they interact with. There is constant chaos, and that’s what makes the game uniquely entertaining.



  1. Foes are not something to be herded around in movesets, but players have bare minimum intelligence/attention span and must be guided and baited about with constant carrots in front of their noses.


  2. Article doesn’t mention carrots. You’re just hungry.


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