Integrated Design for Games

Integrated design is all about the metaphor. In a fully integrated game, everything has a reason to be there. The tiny pieces that constitute the game are invisible, we can only see a game that is complete and involving.

What is integrated design?
« Integrated design » is a way to design that puts a special attention to giving meaning, in relation with the game's metaphor, to every parts and objects that constitute the said game.

« To give meaning » to an object is to ensure that it has it's rightful place inside the game's world. Objects are not reduced to walls, platforms, enemies, power-ups and such, but also include menus, tutorials, save screens, etc.. Some objects are harder to integrate than others and some are even almost impossible to or don't benefit from integration. But in most cases they do and the extra effort done to integrate them is really worth it as it can create a richer, more meaningful game.

Let's look at two examples :

Example #1: Halo's tutorial
At the start of the first game of the Halo serie, the player, as Master Chief, is waken up from a cryogenic sleep. A soldier gets him to walk and look around as a test routine. He's taken through all he needs to know to move in the game world but unfortunately the emergency situation prevents them from going through the weapon test routine and so he starts without weapons. The whole tutorial is part of a tight scenario: waking-up, the player learning to control the character and the fact that he starts with no weapons are all careful design decisions that were given reasons to be inside the game's world through the scripted narrative. The entry tutorial is perfectly integrated into the game. This helps the player feels like he is a part of the game's world and contribute to setting the mood of emergency present in the first chapter of the game.

Check the youtube video. The tutorial starts at the 4th minute.

Example #2: Breath of Fire II's saving system

Here's another good example of integration from the good old Breath of Fire II (originally released on the Super Nintendo console in 1993). To save his game, the player has to “tell the story of his journey” to a statue of the Dragon God (technically, he places his character in front of the statue, presses a button and then confirm he wants to save through a “yes \ no” menu). The Dragon God adresses the player with the same dialog box as any other non-player character would, this way avoiding the need for a different interface that would take the player away from the game world. Also, the question is phrased so as to avoid technical terms like “saving” and the system is introduced to the player, by the Dragon God himself, as “praying to the Dragon God”.

The game's story tells the player of a new God trying to gain strenght from the prayers of the world's inhabitant. In opposition, the Dragon God is an old God to which people don't pray to anymore. By making the player pray frequently to the Dragon God in order to save his game, it creates a bonding between the player and the Dragon God, thus forcing him to reject the new, “evil” God. This simple integration of the saving system goes a long way to position the player in the game's story and to confirm what he is fighting against. If the saving system were not integrated (let's say the player would have to save through a menu entry of his character menu), this would not only create an extra screen to take the player away from the game, but it would also deprive the game of a powerful narrative technique.

Why would I want to do an integrated design?
Integrated design is not just about polishing a completed game. It is a design process, a way to look at the game as a whole, that should be used from the start of the project until it's very end. It's a design philosophy. The designer should always be aware of what goes into the game and ask himself “does this piece makes sense in the context of the game? If not, how can I give it it's rightful place, it's meaning?”

A non-integrated game feel like it's broken into many pieces. The player can point at the different parts and say “this is a tutorial, this is a power-up, this gives me points”. Everything starts to feel mechanical. Historically, as the great games got endlessly copied and game genres established themselves as a serie of “features”, the game's vocabulary became a part of the players' culture and they started to see non-integrated games as a “normal”. They KNOW what a tutorial is and often EXPECT one when starting up a new game. With these expectations building up and the financial pressure of ever bigger games, designers are often forced into applying a known genre recipe. Any efforts to integrate the game's pieces are often left behind.

These phenomenons perpetuate an ideology that video games are meant to be mechanical pieces that we overcome with brute force rather than pieces of art we enjoy with feelings. In the end you can still make enjoyable games without using an integrated design. The players will love the game for the challenges, the fun mechanics and maybe even the story, but it will be difficult to see those games as memorable. A fully integrated game will stick out much more in the player's memory because it is unobstrusive, complete and meaningful. It is easier to remember a fully integrated experience because it contains less distractions and much more meaning.

Read more
Integrated Design in Finding my Heart.
An auto-analysis of what I did to give useful informations to the player in my latest game.
Rules of play, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman.
The first chapter about "Meaningful Play" and most of the books for examples and applications of the concept.


RoseDragon said...

Interesting thoughs. I'm thinking the same about this, I prefer to called it a themed game.

I have a bit of problem on making the GUI to be one themed, especially the main screen. An odd phrase might confuse players instead being intuitive. Like changing 'more games' to 'go to other hotel' might prevent players to click the button.

What do you think?

Kevin said...

In most games, the main screen (main menu, splash screen) is not actually "part of the game". It's more like the entrance door that leads to the game. With that in mind, I think it's often better to make a nice shiny door that gives an idea of the theme and keep the options really clear.

Trying to change the "start game", for example, for something more "integrated" might lead to confusion here. Same thing for the "play more games" button. This button actually leads away from the game so it should be clear that it's not a part of it. Trying to integrate it would again bring confusion about the button and it's role in the game.

In these cases, NOT integrating some elements is actually useful to differentiate what is the game and what is not the game.