Chapter 7: Research


As game designers, we first get a great idea, our vision. Then we play a sample game in our head and have a very basic concept of our “fantastic” game.

Now begins the hard part, the reality of “game design.” We need to thoroughly understand the game’s subject matter as though we are professionals at it. This is done in the phase called “research.” This is the first mountain that we must cross. Many “wannabe” game designers start the climb upward and eventually lose interest and quit. To the professional game designer, this is the “fun” phase, where the dream first hits the paper and the vision becomes real.

Over the years I’ve helped many “newbie” game designers iron out their ideas and concepts (Pedersen Principle 9: Share Your Toys!). One of their first concerns is “If I tell you my great game concept, how do I know you won’t steal it?” My answer has always been, “You are the one with a burning desire to create this vision, and I’m not. There’s a lot of hard work ahead, several months of painstaking decision-making work, and you have that determination to make your vision a reality. I have a lot of my own visions that to me are important to design. I don’t have enough time to design my own visions, so why would I want to steal yours?”

Would I rather have the original visionary design the game and get rewarded later financially and credited, or steal the idea and work extremely hard for free? That’s why I enjoy mentoring. Let others do their work and hopefully we’ll all get rewarded at some point.

The best way to protect your game design is to spend $30 or so to register a copyright of your document(s). To copyright a document, you need to get a form from the U.S. Copyright Office in Washington, D.C., fill it out, and mail it along with your document(s) and filing fee. The Library of Congress’ web site ( has information of copyright basics. To copyright a design document or a computer program, you must fill out Form TX, which is available in Adobe Acrobat Reader PDF format (

On all of your documents place the copyright notice on the first page. I like to place this notice on the top of every page, so if copies are made the notice is included. The notice should look something like “© 2002 Roger E. Pedersen” where either the symbol © or the word “Copyright” precedes the copyright year and the copyright’s owner.

The titles of films and books cannot be trademarked, but computer and video game titles can be. If the name of your game is unique and “catchy,” you should spend the couple of hundred dollars and get a lawyer to perform a trademark search and then file a trademark for your game’s name. It will help that your title is trademarked later when talking to publishers. I worked for a game company that had a future game title on their web site for several years, and then another company advertised their game by the same name. We contacted a lawyer and found that the other company had filed that name for a trademark. We decided not to fight the costly and most likely un-winnable fight to challenge the trademark. Therefore, we lost that title.

Remember, ideas are truly a dime a dozen. Concepts are worthless in gaming until the designer commits the idea to paper, a design document. To prove that ideas without supporting documentation is meaningless, look on the companion CD-ROM or in Chapter 6, “Game Ideas,” where hundreds of ideas for free gaming concepts from other mediums such as books, film, and history are listed.

When I begin researching a gaming concept that I’m developing, I make a list of similar and competing games. Then I ask, “What current and past games are close to the game I’m developing?” and “What games in my game’s genre are currently selling?”

Even if you think your game is unique and there’s nothing close to its concept, you’ll need to explain your vision to publishers and convince them that other games like yours have been successful.

One of the first places I look is magazines. I want to see what current products are reviewed in my game’s genre and perhaps competitors to my game. Even more insightful are the advertisements by gaming mail order stores. They list many games under genre headings and their prices. This is useful information you will later need, such as competitive selling titles, their platform (PC, PlayStation, GameCube, or Xbox), and their selling price (retail price).

The next place I look is the magazines’ and gaming web sites’ lists of top games in each genre for the current and previous year. People associate future success with the current winners. You’ll want to associate your game with the top-awarded games in your game’s genre when you’re selling your concept to a publisher.

Then I look at the similar and competing game publishers’ web sites to view how they are marketing their product so I can get an idea how to market my game. Let their highly paid marketing and sales departments benefit you and get ideas to use for free. Read their descriptions and features and copy them down so your game will have the same features and gameplay. Look at any screen shots they display to see what the gamers are familiar with and how your screen should look. Some sites will include favorable reviews of their game, so print them and highlight the reviewers’ comments.

You will also search other sources (magazines and web sites) for reviews of similar and competing games. When I look at a review, I make a list with two columns marked “Good” and “Bad.” Under “Good,” I write down the reviewer’s favorable comments and the standard features that the game must have plus any extras that the designer is being praised for. Under “Bad,” I list the reviewer’s unfavorable comments, like problems with the game or features designed that didn’t work or weren’t as good as they should have been. I pay special attention to graphic and sound issues. Features that were missing or not handled correctly are noted, and later I address these so I don’t fall victim to the same criticism by other reviewers and gamers.

The important issues are the game’s interface (what does the gamer view and how does the gamer interact with the game?), the POV of the game (first or third person), the game’s options, the computer requirements (RAM, hard disk minimum space required, Windows version needed, CD speed required), and special devices required (driving wheel, force-feedback joystick or mouse, 3D accelerator card).

As a designer, I also value buying the top-selling games’ hint books or strategy guides. These books discuss the games’ basic strategy and the game’s design in depth. Hint books reveal each side’s or character’s strengths and weaknesses. Many times gamers favor one side or character above the others without fully understanding or realizing the strengths and weaknesses they are dealt. Likewise, many gamers don’t understand or realize the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents in the game. Hint books and strategy guides discuss these issues in detail. Many gamers and designers don’t have the time it would take to play all variations and situations for one side or one character, let alone all sides and all characters. This problem of not understanding the strengths and weaknesses of their characters and sides becomes more of an issue in online (web-based) games where the gamer’s time and money (cost of playing, connection costs, and so on) are needed to play.

As designers, we need to understand the top successful games’ intricate design details and balanced play as references to follow. Playing games is a great start to understanding the gamer’s POV, but we, as designers, need to understand the game designer’s POV. This viewpoint requires us to research and study these games as well as play them.

Hint books and strategy guides may also tell us the “why” behind the decisions that were made. Internet games may suffer from latency (a slow down) when the server(s) get(s) too populated. To solve this technical dilemma, the game must move players from the current server to another less-populated server. To the gamer, they might experience a magical cloud that overshadows the terrain and teleports all of the players currently in that area into another area (one controlled by a less-populated server). The key is to make the gamers unaware of the “why” and still have a fun and meaningful experience.

Another interesting area is the designer’s notes written on many sites (see Appendix A) where the development team, after the product has shipped, tells about the project, especially where things went wrong or what they would do differently.

If our desire is to become a game designer, we must master our trade by first learning from other masters as their apprentice (study existing games, research our game’s subject matter, and play games from the best to the near best) and then become masters ourselves by designing our vision through research, documentation, and play testing.

An important concept in both researching and documenting your game is to assume that the player and audience know nothing about the subject matter and gameplay issues. Document your concept and research findings as though the player and audience are not technical and totally new to the game concepts and ideas. Think of explaining these issues to a willing-to-learn and eager-to-be-taught child-like audience.

Let’s examine how to document a simple game I call Two Heads. The player flips a coin twice. If both tosses result in “heads,” the player wins.

This simple game should be more accurately described with more details that explain the concepts and issues in greater detail:

The player freely tosses a coin so that it randomly spins in the air (also called a “toss”). The coin is a metal, two-sided, flat circle in which one side is called “heads” and the opposite side is called “tails.” Commonly, a coin has a person’s head on one side (the head of a president or monarch), which is known as the “head’s side.” The opposite side of the coin often has a bird, such as an eagle, on it so it is often known as the “tail’s side.” If the first toss results in the “head’s side” appearing on top, the player continues. If the “tail’s side” appears on top, the player loses. If play continues (the first toss resulted in “heads”), the player tosses the coin for a second time. If the result is another “head’s side” on top, the player wins. Otherwise, the player loses.

This description clearly expresses the game’s rules in simple, understandable terms. The game’s object (the coin) is described with its identifying features. The game’s process is described in detail with the common lingo explained for future references. The winning and losing conditions are identified so the player(s) can easily understand the goals.

At this point, we understand the market and have an idea of what our competitors have done and what our customers expect from our game. Now we need to fully understand our game’s subject matter. We need to find free, unlimited information that can help us.

Let’s think…

Libraries have books, magazines, and encyclopedias for us to use and take notes from. Also, the Internet will supply information that we can use. The Internet’s information may be more recent than books, and there are pictures and sounds that we can access and save for samples of what our game may need. Many of the libraries I have visited have computers available with word processing capabilities and Internet access.

A wannabe game designer wanted my mentoring. He had three game design concepts that he thought would earn him millions and have the major publishers begging to sell his games. His background was working as an international contract lawyer, and he had a graduate degree in international business law and an undergraduate degree in paleontology (dinosaur scientist). He’d played a lot of recent games, especially sims, RPGs, and FPS. He played on his PC alone as well as multiplayer versions on the Internet. He had never designed a game, let alone worked on a game in any capacity.

Let’s look at and critique his three concepts.

Intergalactic Council is a space diplomacy, strategy simulation game where up to ten players are members of the council. Each of the ten players are diplomats representing their galaxy. Each diplomat presents the council treaties, trade agreements, and his galaxy’s requests (bills). If negotiations fail, the diplomats can declare war or boycott the council meetings. Each galaxy has its own inhabited planets, a galactic space armada (ships), and tradeable resources. The laws and treaties follow the international laws established for venues outside the Earth as far as format and regulations. The goal of the game is for each diplomat to successfully create and get his bills, treaties, and trade agreements passed or, by intergalactic warfare, force the acts to be accepted by the council.

How does this concept sound to you? Would it make for an interesting game? What issues need to be researched in order to get a better understanding of the rules and gamer’s play options?

I thought the concept sounded interesting but wanted to see more of it developed through research. The designer’s education and work gave him the expertise to design such a game. My concern was simpler: “Is this a game that a newbie game designer should start with?” My thoughts were that even to a seasoned game designer with some international business law background, this design was a Herculean task. I suspected that trying to research and properly design this concept would take six to twelve months to complete, and the new designer would most likely quit in the research phase.

I advised him to put this design on hold and start his design career off with an easier, less complex concept. After having a few titles finished (not necessarily published), he’d feel more confident in tackling a major research and design project, and a publisher might be willing to be financially involved. It is equally important that the team (in this case, the designer) doing the project have credentials (proof that they can finish a started task).

The second concept was The Lost Kingdoms.

The Lost Kingdoms is a fantasy simulation where the player(s) represent the kingdoms of humans, elves, dwarves, centaurs, trolls, orcs, or giants. The kingdoms have co-existed in peace for hundreds of years where the human, elf, and dwarf kingdoms were allies, the centaurs were neutral, and the troll, orc, and giant kingdoms were evil. As the game begins, the evil kingdoms of trolls, orcs, and giants are expanding, looking for more land and food (they eat humans, elves, dwarves, and centaurs). The kingdoms must sign peaceful treaties or go to war.”

How does this concept sound to you? Would it make for an interesting game? What issues need to be researched in order to get a better understanding of the rules and gamer’s play options?

At first I felt that The Lost Kingdoms was somewhat similar to the Intergalactic Council game. Just like the first concept, this one is an enormous undertaking for a first game design. The concept is good and similar to the popular Lord of the Rings books. The races in this game are familiar to RPG and fantasy RPG players. Research is critical to show good judgment and an educated concern for the fans who know and understand these races.

While researching each race, you must be able to answer the following questions and do so through the eyes of an avid fan. (Substitute the specific race involved where elves appear.)

What do elves look like (male and female)?
What do elves wear (daily dress and war clothing)?
How do elves talk (common elf phrases)?
What weapons and fighting styles do elves favor?
What do elves do each day?
What do elves cherish and care about?
What do elves believe in (family, gold, customs, and ideology)?

These are just a few starting issues to research in this game. Your job is to understand like the avid fan does the characteristics and thoughts (social, political, and economical) of your game’s kingdoms and individual heroes.

Again, as in Intergalactic Council I thought The Lost Kingdoms was another good concept that would take at least six months to document and not an ideal first game to design.

The third concept was The Survival of the Fittest.

The Survival of the Fittest is a prehistoric simulation where mankind must survive from the Neanderthal man era to the Cro-Magnon man era. In solo and multiplayer versions, each player controls the destiny and daily activities of a clan. Hunting, fishing, and making clothes and shelter are necessities for survival. The goal is to survive through several generations and keep mankind from becoming extinct.

This third design is the most feasible and within the realm of a first-time game designer, especially one who has a degree in paleontology. The Survival of the Fittest is a nice twist from all those hunting FPS games that flooded the stores after Deer Hunter.

Let’s do some research for our game, The Survival of the Fittest.

Game Design Foundations
Game Design Foundations (Wordware Game and Graphics Library)
ISBN: 1556229739
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2003
Pages: 179

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