Elevating Design Beyond Gameplay
How to bring your game to life over and above core mechanics
Foreword by James Burns:
Greetings! I rarely add a foreword for any of our articles, but I felt compelled to add one in this case. If you read Super Jump Magazine regularly, you know that Josh Bycer regularly produces fascinating and insightful pieces on game design. This article is no different. The original title was “The Art of Presenting Gameplay”, which I’ve changed to “Elevating Design Beyond Gameplay”.
I mention this here because a running theme really struck me while editing this piece — the whole need for this conversation has, by definition, only arisen in fairly recent times. During the days of Super Mario Bros., for example, presenting very “raw” gameplay with only the loosest context for what you were actually doing (and why) was more than sufficient. In fact, I’d argue that for its day, Super Mario Bros. went to remarkable lengths to “elevate its design beyond gameplay” by adding small — but meaningful — details that contextualised the action.
Today, video games are a mass-market entertainment medium as well as an art form unto themselves. And although game mechanics — gameplay — is still the fundamental particle that defines all video games, it is increasingly the case that gamers expect some form of contextualisation that brings together game mechanics and game aesthetics (by which I am referring specifically to audiovisual components).
So, I mention this simply as a reflection — not so much on Josh’s individual piece here, but on the broader context in which it exists. That Josh assumes this contextualisation is a requirement of modern games — or at least an increasingly-desirable element — is itself an interesting sign of just how far the medium has come. Anyway, I’ll quit rambling, and let Josh get on with it. Enjoy.
What is presentation?
Let’s start with the fundamentals. When I talk about presenting a game to a player, I would always start by breaking the concept down into two important components: gameplay and aesthetics. Gameplay mechanics and loops are the fundamental elements that ultimately determine how the game experience is going to be judged. Aesthetics (audiovisual design) is still important, though, and it plays a significant role in terms of the overall experience.
It is insufficient, however, to draw a bright line between these two components. Many developers, for example, can understandably focus on gameplay mechanics for a long period of time without considering aesthetics at all — this is especially true during the early prototyping phase of development (which makes sense, given that the bulk of your time early on is likely to be spent ensuring you have a solid gameplay concept before you start adding audiovisual flair).
Remember, though, that you might have refined your gameplay mechanics to a very fine degree and you might be satisfied with this, but it’s important to consider how you’re going to draw players in. It’s very easy to either downplay the importance of aesthetics in the process or (and I’ll get to this in more detail shortly), neglect to appropriately connect gameplay and aesthetic design in meaningful ways.
Building on bones
This is where it really makes sense to start talking about “presentation” more broadly. The presentation of a title goes well beyond solid gameplay mechanics or even incredible visuals. History and context plays a role here; developers have, especially over the last decade, gained access to more powerful game engines and tools at cheaper prices than ever before. Making a game look semi-professional these days is much easier than it used to be.
It’s tempting to think that this is where the conversation on aesthetics and overall presentation ends. But I want to go further. Just because your game possesses solid art direction, amazing audiovisual design, and fantastic gameplay, doesn’t mean you’re remotely done in terms of presentation.
The next step here is to consider the overall journey the player will take through your game, and the ways in which different gameplay experiences connect to each other; not just in a rudimentary way (e.g. like a level select option), but in a meaningfully contextual way. How many games, for example, have you played that consist of a series of totally disconnected challenges? How many of those games did you see through to the end?
I’ve played countless platformers, puzzle, and strategy titles that are simply a series of levels or challenges with nothing more to them. There’s an absence of meaningful or interesting connective tissue between these isolated levels. I’d argue that if there’s absolutely no sense of connection between various game systems, the game tends to feel barebones and sterile to the player: this is true even if your game has a great look and feel in general. When this happens, it can become difficult to care about continuing through the experience — well, unless you’re the most hardened superfan.
Now that I’ve pointed out the problem, I can hear you asking: “how do I improve the presentation of my game?” Let’s explore some possible answers. Everything I’m going to discuss from here on has a single goal: creating the sense for the player that the game is more than just the sum of its parts.
Contextualising gameplay and aesthetic systems
Let’s start with something fairly obvious: story. In some ways, it’s the easiest thing to start with, but also the toughest to nail. There are, of course, some games that focus on storytelling over gameplay — visual novels and so-called “walking simulators” are to prominent examples where story is the primary motivation to play. In these cases, story becomes the connecting thread that permeates the entire experience from beginning to end. But this is the exception for most games.
Many games leverage their stories to provide a fairly simple background to gameplay. And, in many cases, story is almost entirely forgotten once the game itself gets going (that is, story “bookends” the experience but doesn’t provide a “spine” to underpin the journey at every stage). There are plenty of action-based titles where you could arguably rearrange every level in the game (other than the beginning and ending), and it wouldn’t really matter from a story point of view. Think, for a moment, about how many games have padded out the experience with levels that have no connection to the story, or where random and unrelated secondary elements are forced on the player without reasonable context (e.g. stealth elements in action games).
A fairly simple way to counter this — and to improve your game’s overall presentation — is to build connections between stages. Perhaps the oldest and simplest example of this is to establish a “world map” that actually shows the player moving from area to area. Although this might sound simple, it’s an effective way to add substantial context to the action relatively inexpensively. One simple comparison to illustrate the point here could be made between the games City of Brass and Hades. Both titles are action roguelikes where the player moves from one area to the next. When I move to a new area in City of Brass, I simply see text on the screen that says “Now entering X”. In Hades, however, my movement from one area to the next is actually depicted on a map of Hades. This not only visually conveys a sense of progression, but it displays the broader context of my journey (i.e. where I’ve come from and where I’m going).
This concept has actually found its way into numerous genres, too. Fighting games are a great example of a genre that, despite being so heavily focused on game mechanics, has still found ways to better-contextualise the action through great presentation. The obvious stand-outs here are titles like Mortal Kombat 11 and Injustice 2 by NetherRealm Studios. In both cases, these games feature rich stories with full cutscenes and voice acting, which are also peppered between battles to continually reinforce contextual threads.
There are other ways to think about these contextual threads, too. It’s not just about the threads that hold different levels/isolated chunks of gameplay together. Consider the games that open with a static menu that immediately jumps into the game at the press of a button (without any sense of player onboarding). And what about “game over”, when the player just returns to the opening splash screen like nothing happened? These design patterns are holdovers from the days of arcade and early console games — here, play occurs in a vacuum and is routinely wiped between sessions.
Games can be made to feel bigger, broader, and more expansive when a sense of weight or connection is introduced.
Another major shift in presentation over recent years has occurred in the puzzle genre, where there has been a greater adoption of story or “world” around the puzzles. I’ve played many puzzle games that just exist as dozens or hundreds of unconnected screens. But when you look at recent games like Manifold Garden or The Talos Principle, you’ll see an entire world for the player to explore outside the individual puzzles. These spaces are interesting on their own terms, but if you think about it, they are an even richer and more engaging take on the world map concept — you’re still moving from puzzle to puzzle, but the way the journey is presented (the way gameplay and audiovisual design is thoughtfully connected and contextualised) makes a huge difference.
It’s worth considering, too, that it’s possible to overlay additional frameworks and structures on top of core gameplay systems to further enhance the presentation.
There’s a big onboarding component to this (a topic I wrote about just recently), but there’s also the question of maintaining the player’s context in the experience consistently across multiple play sessions. You could perhaps also think of this as adding a persistence layer to an otherwise nonpersistent experience. This tends to involve tracking progress across sessions — it might be as simple as having a world map, including a high score list, achievement pages, trophies, and more.
Greater than the sum
Everything I’ve discussed here is all about making a game feel greater than the sum of its parts. I believe this is very much in line with the changing — and growing — expectations of players. What this really means for developers is figuring out how to add value to your game in ways that are high-value and low-cost. It’s very easy to see time and budget balloon in an escalating race to add unnecessary scope, after all.
Of course, some of the things I’ve discussed here could definitely become quite expensive, while others are more about how you frame the content you have. Before I wrap up, I want to leave you with a question: can you think of any truly great examples of games that elevated their design beyond gameplay? What about any not-so-great examples that caused you to lose interest in the game?
If you enjoy my work and like talking game design, the Game-Wisdom Discord is open to everyone.