Game Design: 7 Core Tenets (Presentation)

Presentation is a major part of how we perceive the games that we play, and as a designer it is critical to understand how the game is being presented to the player from a holistic perspective. This article will touch on the basics of presentation from both the tabletop and video game perspectives.

The core element of presentation is how the player will perceive your game. From the cover, to in-page art, or the user interface and rendering pipeline, presentation is important. A cover drawn in a style known to the viewer will give them clues; dark gritty covers with soldiers walking away from a burning city will almost certainly scream “modern military”, and with it the tropes and conventions of the whole genre; if you make a game like this and don’t include any combat or references to war, the player will be disappointed. A comic-book styled cover like Borderlands implies a less serious game, though the cover with a “Psycho” holding fingers to his head like a pistol with a splatter effect on the other side showing post-apocalyptic cartoon combat shows the genre and morbidity of the setting quite well, if rather darkly. Impressions are important, and many games have been instantly hindered by their perceptions. For instance, if I played a JRPG and it didn’t have a title screen on the first play, it would be a surprise, but nothing would be lost, since my only actual option would have been to start a new game anyway. On PC, players would expect to be able to configure their settings for optimal performance or graphics before starting the game, except in the few cases where a game is made so that one-size-fits-all, which is an exception rather than the rule. On a console, however, a player would want a splash screen and title, because they may boot up the console and go to do something else before the game has loaded up, while the appropriate logos play. While starting directly into the game can be very powerful, the title screen is important to allow players to get into the game experience without any potential issues. Modern technology may allow for a more interesting approach to how we play our games, for instance skipping the title screen on the first play if the player is sitting in their seat and holding the controller, but the important part of presentation is making sure that nobody has an outright bad experience, rather than necessarily presenting the best experience for some players at the cost of others missing opening lines, getting killed before they even start to play, or seeing their character just stand there.

Covers are key to presentation. As I mentioned Borderlands, there are also great examples of how cover art can really hype up the contents or do horrible things to the end appeal of the product. A horrible, horrible cover would be like the one from Phalanx. It introduces elements that are nothing like the game (the banjo player on the cover has nothing to do with the game itself), and focuses on them instead of the core focus, which is the spaceship the players will pilot. However, this has some redeeming value; it stands out on the shelf, for sure, and it actually is well done (no blatant Photoshop image outline fringing, color balances correctly, and the like). The other caution for the cover is not to do things that are explicitly bad; the production value of your game will be judged by the production value of its artwork, and while there’s a variety of ways and styles to deal with cover art, the biggest mistake is waiting to do the cover art until the last minute and having to slam together scraps of marketing material that don’t match. Again, this is the number one thing a customer will see before buying your game, and you should consider the message it sends. Your goal should be quality and interest, but foremost quality; an uninteresting but well-made cover at least screams competence, while an interesting but poorly done cover will induce curiosity, but without a preview of your product it’s not going to get them to shell out money to open the shrinkwrap. For tabletop games, this is doubly true; while on one hand you may be able to get someone to open up your book and take a glance at the inside even if the cover’s not great, the cover is still a deciding factor. The digital market has made this somewhat easier for video games; you still need to deal with cover art, but you can make your pitches and show screenshots separately from the back cover. Even once the issue of art is handled, covers need text and additional marketing material. This is where you handle putting on ESRB rating logos, corporate logos, license logos, and the like; be sure you complement your artwork with these, which depends on how flexibly you can place them. Usually, these go on the front cover. Consider what other people have been doing when you design the text for your cover. I’ve seen some really good covers that succeed because they take inspiration-or dare I say rip off?-more high-budget works, which is a little bit on the shady side, but if your product can earn a few more second glances from a customer it’s more likely to be bought. Look at Blood Dawn, over on DriveThruRPG, which is a post-apocalyptic game that ripped off half of Earthdawn‘s name and a good deal of its font work. Still, the cover is very engaging, and manages to convey exactly what’s inside the game, and I was actually pleasantly surprised at the quality of the game, something that only merited looking at because I thought “Oh, look, they’re copying FASA, and I like FASA.”. Do avoid some of the common pitfalls of games, however; a scantily clad lady on the cover may sell your game, but it’s also offensive to most people, so your market is immediately limited; also, remember that the most awesome possible cover may sell more copies of your game, but if it’s not at all related to your game, it’s going to lead to people panning it.

Pack-ins are something that used to be very popular, but are now less common outside of “Collectors Editions” or the like. There’s a lot of challenge in making these effective for the modern day, with digital distribution and such cutting into the appeal of some of these products. As a general rule, a good place to look for inspiration would be Neverwinter Nights, which included a couple manuals (one to learn how to play, one with more in-depth information for people who really wanted to delve in), a cloth map, and the game itself (and maybe more, I got my box second-hand years after release). As a general rule, anyone will be happy to see a pack-in, but make sure they don’t feel cheap. Paper and cloth products are best, cheap plastic is bad. Avoid controversy. Don’t have a mutilated female torso in your box, like Dead Island: Riptide. If it weren’t bad enough that your first game barely warranted a sequel, you don’t want to tick off the internet. Remember that Duke Nukem: Forever didn’t fail just because of its gameplay, but also because we’ve come into an age where it’s not possible to sell on puerility and sex appeal alone.

Likewise, tutorials and examples are important parts of presentation, both in video games and tabletop games. How would one feel when the game pops up the dodge control every time the game wanted them to dodge to avoid taking damage? It would be one thing if the game alerted the player to an incoming attack, say, by flashing a red outline around their character, but if every incoming attack led to an icon popping up on the screen, the player would feel patronized very quickly. When designing a game, however, it’s important that people know how to play. Unless it’s a question of letting players opt out of a tutorial section, it should always be assumed that an incoming player is a novice to the genre, so it’s not sufficient to just say “This game has the same controls as Call of Duty“, even if there weren’t copyright issues associated with that. In video games, the most popular way to do this is a rolling tutorial with in-setting associations; military shooters often do this using a boot camp that players go through, but this can be done in less overt ways. Dark Souls has a simple tutorial that gives the player an example of the setting while showing them the controls they’ll need to succeed in the game, and walking them through the game’s core elements of collecting gear, fighting bad guys, and beating large bosses, with an additional element of introducing the player to their role in the universe as the Chosen Undead. This shows the player all their controls and some of the basic concepts of gameplay, while letting them move freely through the Undead Asylum at their own pace; experienced players don’t have to stop for the signs that explain the controls, and inexperienced players can read everything. Similarly, in the tabletop sphere, examples are important to give players an example of the rules in work; saying that a character with a +4 sword will hit on a roll equal to his opponent’s AC minus his BAB and plus 4 for his weapon modifier means a lot less than:

Jim’s character, Schaldar the Red, is an impressive fighter, with a BAB of 5 and +4 from his sword. The goblin’s AC is 15, so Schaldar will hit on a roll of 6 or higher on his Attack Die.

As you can see, this example functions a lot better, providing examples of what the player is looking for on his character as well as an example of the math (15-5=10, 10-4=6). rather than just stating the parts that they use and hoping that the player associates their values with the ones they need to use. Now, this is perhaps a more simple mechanic than what you need to provide an example for, but as a designer it’s important to remember that the player doesn’t think the same way that you will, and something that appears intuitive and simple will not necessarily be that way to everyone (think of it like math, science, and literature; all can be mastered by those with the time and willingness, but not all are the same difficulty to different people).

For video games, it’s important to consider the user interface; your goal when designing a user interface should be to give players the information that they need without cluttering up the gameplay. In addition, user interface elements can be themed to fit into the setting or conventions of the game you are making, which is a tool for engaging players more thoroughly in the game. As a general rule, we’ve seen a trend toward minimalist HUD’s in recent years, with a minimap/radar and a health bar, ammo meter, or an experience gauge being popular, especially when, as in the case of Just Cause 2, it is possible to combine multiple elements into a single area of screen real estate. Every pixel taken by the user interface is one that cannot be giving gorgeous views or one that blocks important parts of the game world. It’s popular to fade out the UI, but when doing this care must be taken that information is always available to the player when they need it. Classic games, such as Doom or the Genesis Shadowrun tended to have side-bars for their information displays, which is a good starting point, though modern technology means more resolution so that text is more easily displayed on a large screen. Aim for legibility; when in doubt, use large fonts for numbers, and clearly distinguish bars with colors that stand out from each other. Be sure that menus are concise and include what the player is looking for; search functions are not necessarily out of place in a game that allows players to carry thousands of items, I’ve seen a lot of fantasy RPG’s that have user interfaces that show twenty items and characters that hold two hundred, and while sometimes the UI is constrained by input and user interface, players should still be able to sort easily through any menu to find what they’re looking for (whether in character advancement, inventories, mission screens, or option menus). For tabletop games, the closest analogue to this comes in the form of tables and character sheets. Savage Worlds does this well, in part due to its system, both by providing an index of tables at the end of its core rulebook and by keeping its character sheet to a single page (front only) in length. Be sure to use different-sized fonts to highlight sections and important elements, while using small but legible fonts to allow the dense storage of information; include as much information in tables in as small a space as possible. Shadowrun‘s Third Edition and Fourth Edition content is a great example of this; Arsenal, in particular, for Third Edition, neatly includes tables of stats at the bottom of pages of description so that it’s possible to index the information about gear and its fluff on the same page, without making it hard to read through as moving the information into separate stat-blocks for each piece of gear would have been. Again, it’s important to allot the necessary amount of space; if you track fifteen thousand things that the player has to know, both video game HUD’s and user interfaces and tabletop game character sheets and indexes become massive, but it’s also important to try to limit the impact of such things on the user interface as much as possible. Dark Souls has a very good user interface when it comes to investigating equipment, though its console origins make navigating menus somewhat difficult even on PC with a mouse and keyboard, it shows a variety of statistics clearly and separately in tables for each possible piece of equipment in the game, allowing users to make informed decisions and get the information they are looking for quickly. Print media must flow correctly; if printing 8.5″ by 11″ hardcovers, you’ll have to use columns to keep the lines of text from flowing too long, and headers, footers, and page numbers must all be considered in the context of the page; most roleplaying games with a high production value will have boxes for additional information inserted into the flow of text, which must be clearly delineated to ensure that the reader knows their role. Eclipse Phase by Posthuman Studios has the best example of typesetting I’ve seen in a tabletop game, because they manage to make everything flow so well on the page that it’s immediately clear what each sidebar means and the art flows into the text nicely without disadvantaging the reader, and is legible enough to be read on an e-reader at a much smaller scale than the printed page would be.

Art assets are a core part of your game’s presentation, whether it’s the digital landscapes of a video game or the art snippets interspersed through a tabletop game, you need to create a style and quality that people will be able to enjoy. Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines did an awesome job of this in the video game side of things; though today it looks a little dated it’s still capable of creating a scene that is filled with horror and intrigue. The haunted hotel level, in particular, does a good job at being a haunted hotel. Mind you, Bloodlines is too dark and grim for most players, and I didn’t even finish it because it just got to be too much, but games like Fallout create a holistic feel through the elements they use; in the original game the user interface and game world flow together to create a coherent post-apocalyptic universe, and teh later games carry on this trend.

When working with art, it’s not just a question of quality, but also style. Modern Call of Duty games may spend millions of dollars on art and graphical rendering techniques, and the upcoming Battlefield game can send skyscrapers crashing down believably, but they also achieve their graphical splendor by sticking to a style. It’s not sufficient to go on a model site and get pre-rigged high-poly models if they’re eclectic and don’t make sense in the same context. Team Fortress 2 is a rim-shaded game, as is Torchlight 2, but the reason why they’re capable of delivering the same visual appeal as games with much larger budgets is that their style works. Similarly, when working with the print media of a tabletop game it’s important to consider the art used in creating the game; one of the legitimate complaints about BattleTech: A Time of War is that it uses photographs of miniatures at some parts of the book just like it uses standard black and white and color art. This was intended to pay homage to earlier products in the same universe, but it’s important to make sure that that elements that make their way into the final product feel like the designer originally meant them to.

Likewise, art that is meshed together poorly will cause the perceived quality to suffer. If audio cuts in and out, 2d elements don’t have the correct transparency mapping, 3d objects have vertex distortion or a poor poly-count, and the game’s rendering pipeline leads to everything being forced into 8-bit outputs, the end result will be very jarring. A lot of this comes from “programmer art”, where a studio or independent developer can’t or doesn’t hire a professional artist to create the elements they need, and forces people who don’t know what they’re doing to try to put something together. This isn’t common with triple-A projects, but it’s the reason why Dwarf Fortress renders out to ASCII-rather than try to force their game into a visual framework they couldn’t create, Bay 12 Games decided to make it run in an environment where visual representation is abstract, and while this is inaccessible (much as the entirety of the game is), it works much better than a game where every last object must be procedurally generated or modeled by hand. Being realistic is better than being ambitious in these cases, and a developer who knows the limits of their team and the technology available to them is better able to develop a top-quality product without delays or missing features.

One final thing to note about presentation is stability; the amount of glitches, typos, or incorrect references in your game all determine how people will remember it. Most Troika games are genuinely good of their own right, but they’re notorious for creating buggy games, and most of their games indeed wind up getting fan support because the rest of their presentation is pretty good, it’s just the execution that failed. Ambition is good for a game designer; pushing the envelope shows that you are capable and want to take the medium in a new direction, but you need to be sure to leave budget or time to give needed polish and support.

Presentation is something to be considered from the very conceptualization of a game; if a game is developed without any concern for presentation, it can wind up looking like an unfinished prototype despite solid core content, while it is possible to create an even more engaging and interesting experience when care is given to how a game is presented.

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