March 8, 2009

White Space in Game Design

[Halfway through writing this post, I realized I had seen the idea of nongoals in design documents somewhere before. Thanks Joel.]

Less is more

Everyone who's ever taken a graphic design course, designed a webpage, or even spent much time reading understands the importance of white space on some level, even if only subconsciously.

In graphic design, the use of space without text allows what text there is to achieve a higher importance and draw the focus of the reader. It's also much less fatiguing to read text that's broken up in interesting ways, compared to giant paragraphs. It's the reason this blog is centered in the middle of the screen and uses small paragraphs, instead of spanning the whole screen and using large paragraphs with no space between them.

Using white space takes self-restraint, though. Think about your resume, for example. It's so tempting to convey the maximum possible amount of information, but doing so just makes it confusing and unreadable. Compared to my grad school resume, my current resume is much easier to read, but it's still probably too dense even after all that trimming.

Know what game you're not making

In game design, there's a very similar temptation to pack ten thousand features into every game. You want to keep players with every possible playstyle happy, sell your game to every imaginable demographic, and include ideas from every member of your team.

Sadly, though, it's not possible to do everything all the time. Even if by some miracle of scheduling and funding you do manage to include every feature every possible player could possibly want, you'll end up with a game that has no focus. And even though each player will have every feature they wanted, they'll also probably have a lot of features they didn't want, which might serve to drive them away anyway.

It's incredibly important to know who your audience is, what types of fun your game is focused on, what features are the most important to get done by launch. However, it's equally important to know which players you aren't shooting for, which kinds of fun belong in another game, and which features would be nice but just serve to water down your game. Likewise, it's important to define nongoals for individual features or fixes.

Teams that don't keep these nongoals in sight end up shipping the videogame equivalent of a huge wall of text. There may be some really interesting stuff in there, but just trying to take it all in and parse it is overwhelming:

If you can't easily describe your game to someone in a few seconds, or if different members of your team give vastly different descriptions of what your game is or isn't meant to do, chances are you've got a white space problem.

Define both goals and nongoals

It's important that each member of your team is easily able to find out what goals are and aren't important for your game. Features will often worm their way into your game because a prominent game has it, one team member really loves that idea, or over time people simply forgot what the team's goals were.

Here are some ideal times to state goals and nongoals for the game or a feature:
It also couldn't hurt to have a very prominent list of goals and nongoals on your internal webpage or pinned up in the conference room.

Save rejected ideas

Just because a certain idea isn't right for the particular game or feature you're currently working on doesn't mean you should toss it out entirely. Keep a section on your wiki, or in your bug database that lists all the things you've decided not to do and why.

Tracking all these nongoals and nonfeatures will allow you to go back later on and mine ideas for a new game, a subsequent expansion, etc. When I used to work on The Sims, we had a section at the bottom of our design documents called "Considered but Rejected," which is where we'd put all of the suggestions that were too low priority or against the goals of the feature, and why.

Leaving these items in the docs helped us avoid rehashing the same arguments over and over again when too much time had passed or a new person was assigned to work on that feature. By spending less time debating which features should or shouldn't be in your game, you'll be able to spend more time on making those features you do include much better.


Tesh said...

Great article, Mike.

One tangential thought: gamers need "white space" in games, too. Just like the eye needs time to relax and decide what actually is important, gamers need time and quiet in their games to give greater focus to what is important.

It's an old art principle, really; don't bombard people with visual elements. Give them ways to explore your content and spaces to rest in, and they can appreciate what you've done better.

Mike Darga said...

Great point. Downtime isn't necessarily the dirty word everybody makes it out to be. I was thinking about that too recently, especially after reading Raph's recent post on designing social spaces.

simmons said...

I completely agree, and feel that this also applies to many fields (vg's and film for instance)
As far as a focus (or identity as I like to call it) Some games and films these days seems to be grabbing too much at what was successful for someone else, not what works for what they want to be successful in their game.

Take the new "Robin Hood" movie that's releasing soon. It's really gladiator with a bow. Personally, when I think of Robin hood it's not Maximus Aurelius. But it worked then, so let's try it here. right? Well maybe it'll make an interesting movie to watch, and will have great fight scenes, but ultimately what is it? robin hood? or a second gladiator?

Also, recently, Splinter Cell seemed to stray from it's identity. I really like the sneaking part of this games series, but that's pretty much gone, and has started to inherit elements from games like assasins creed, and even gears of war...

Now, this doesn't mean people can't change their game as time evolves, but I think that there must be a story related moment that allows the player to understand that it might be the same name, but this is different type of game (as far as mechanics experience is concerned)

[this is also not meant to speak negatively toward robin hood or splinter cell, they were merely used as examples]

Also, as far as white space in games and film, I totally agree. So many times people are worried about the audience or player getting bored. They solution, is usually to keep the pacing up til you get to the next big moment. I think this is like throwing out the nails in your tool belt, now all you have is the hammer! you need both! it Definitely provides emphasis AND a bit of a palette cleanse. I think more importantly getting a little more general, is to take it from white space, to, contrast. And use it as your tool to give the user the experience you need them to have, in all elements!

great post!

Mike Darga said...

I think that Splinter Cell problem is particularly difficult, and comes up every time someone is trying to make a sequel to a successful game, or a game based on a successful non-game IP.

How much do you keep of what players love? How much do you let the game team change things because they're tired of making the same stuff? How do you convey the core of the IP without just turning it into another generic movie licensed game?

Unfortunately I don't think anyone's really solved this well. Bioshock Infinite seems to be the game to watch when it comes to innovation but also keeping to a core that players have loved. I think it really comes down to a clear definition and understanding of what makes the IP the IP.