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Why the Small Stuff Matters

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Thursday, Apr 25, 2013
Tiny design choices in all games help build readable, compelling, and realistic worlds and systems. For designers who care, it’s the small stuff that makes all the difference.

When I talk about games, I tend to focus on the big stuff. What are the new enemies like? How awesome are the new weapons? Quite frequently, we speak in broad generalizations. The guns in BioShock Infinite “feel good” or, depending on your opinion, are generally uninteresting. The sound of a single gun firing or the amount of audible scratches in every voxophone rarely receives much attention. These features are minute, infinitesimally small in relation to the rest of the game. But together, all these small things matter. Tiny design choices in all games help build readable, compelling, and realistic worlds and systems. For designers who care, it’s the small stuff that makes all the difference.


When little pieces of a game irk you, it is easy to brush them aside as mere quibbles. No one likes a nitpicker, but sometimes, the small stuff can also be immensely damaging. Take Legendary, the recently released Marvel-themed deck-building game. After writing my piece on Legendary, I strolled around the internet looking for reviews. Among nearly all assessments of the game, while overwhelmingly positive, players of the game criticized the lack of variety of the art on the cards.
  


Legendary Art

Legendary Art


We are talking about a gorgeously drawn collection of cards here and a sizable one at that. Each piece of art in the game was custom drawn by Marvel artists specifically for Legendary. To complain about the lack of even more custom, stunning art can sound childish, but really, after playing the game dozens of times, this little detail is immensely important. Deck-building games are already susceptible to repetition as players fall into patterns and hone in on ideal card combinations. The lack of a more diverse set of character designs exacerbates the sense of tedium amongst players. While they still may enjoy the design of the game itself, a little gripe can become a big problem.


Of course, even minor features can hide incredible depth. The homogeneous character decks in Legendary certainly cut down on art costs, but they also serve to make the cards instantly recognizable to new players. Once you take a look at Rogue, you know the moment she makes an appearance. Likewise, players sitting across a table who may be looking at the draw pile upside down will have a much easier time understanding the game state at a glance without having to lean over and look at each card.


Alright, card legibility might still seem like an unimportant detail, but we can look at the latest Tomb Raider for more examples of exquisite “small stuff.” As I have mentioned before, I am in love with Lara’s scramble maneuver. The dodge maneuver is a huge improvement on the inane full-body roll we see in countless shooters. The way Lara quickly crouches, almost falling to the ground, then braces both hands and almost walks on all fours to outmaneuver opponents is thrilling and desperate. The one fluid movement expresses Lara’s physical stress and impressive gumption. The theme of Lara as a survivor is expressed in the minutiae of a dodge, and within this dodge are all sorts of smaller components, like a fraction of invulnerability, an element that shapes player behavior with a subtle nudge.


Most recently, Klei’s Don’t Starve fills my heart with a joyful appreciation of small stuff. The game is jam packed with, well, things. Some of them may have uses, others may be set dressing, or even placeholders for future mechanics. Torches, for example, naturally light my surroundings in the dark. They also let me burn down forests (something I discovered by accident, much to my excitement). Chop down some toasted trees and charcoal pops out, perfect fuel for my campfire. I still haven’t figured out what to do with “Nightmare Fuel”, but its very existence helps construct a wonderfully interesting and mysterious world.


Naturally, adding more minor components to a world carries certain risks. Some might consider item management in a world filled with goodies (particularly when their use is intentionally obscured) a rather mundane practice. Don’t Starve revels in its hands-free approach to player advancement. There is no tutorial to walk you through the game and no helpful tool-tip pops up over inspected items to break down their many uses. The small stuff in Don’t Starve will only satisfy a certain kind of player.


Screenshot from the Don't Starve Beta

Screenshot from the Don’t Starve Beta


Likewise, designers who haphazardly throw in more for the sake of more may find themselves burdened by a broken or counter-productive system. If you give players the ability to burn stuff, if you’re not careful, they may burn down everything in the game and blame you instead of themselves. Skyrim earned a load of criticism for its exploitable crafting system partially for this reason.


Games about serious issues take a greater risk when adding in little design components or even small aesthetic features, as they can distract or even undermine important themes and lessons. For example, the ability to sell features in EnerCities is neat but may also result in players cleverly demolishing their cities in the last minute to artificially boost their score, undermining the game’s lesson of sustainable development.


I rarely advocate for thoughtless game design. In fact, broadly speaking, haphazard design decisions are one of my biggest complaints and interests. Still, when it comes to the small stuff, sometimes less is not more. With a little preparation, a daring attitude, and a dash of creativity, the small stuff can matter as much as anything else.

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