The Secrets of Action Game Design
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The Secrets of Action Game Design
15 August, 2016

Benson Russell, who worked on a bunch of famous games, including the upcoming shooter Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare from Infinity Ward, talked about the tasks of game designer. In this interview,  he gives some tips on how to make your game fun.

January 29th, 2011 @ 19:11:28


I’m primarily a game designer / scripter, focusing on gameplay and systems.  My very first job was working at the call center in Illinois for NECs TurboGrafx 16 system (this was well before the internet).  Basically a hot-line for people to call in and get cheat codes and help, but we also did some Q/A testing for upcoming games.  My first job as a developer was in helping found the company 2015.  The biggest title we created was Medal of Honor: Allied Assault for the PC, with the Omaha Beach D-Day invasion being one the levels I created.  From there I went to work at Ritual Entertainment, where we shipped Star Trek Elite Force 2 for the PC.  From there I went to EA Los Angeles to work on several Medal of Honor titles (Pacific Assault, European Assault, and Airborne), and also where I started to develop on consoles for the first time.  Then I went to Naughty Dog for my longest stretch, working on all of the Uncharted games (except the PSP version), as well as The Last Of Us and Left Behind.  Now I’m at Infinity Ward working on Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare due out this November.

Game Designer’s Tasks

It can mean different things at different companies, and the roles are trending to becoming more specialized as well these days.  In a general sense, a designer has to make the fun happen.  Designers usually are the ones that implement gameplay, create the mechanics and systems, and tweak / tune everything to make it play right.  The trends I’ve been seeing in terms of actual duties are usually split between layout designers (their focus is more on the spatial elements and how they relate to the gameplay), and scripters (their focus is implementing the logic and higher-level code for the gameplay).  At some studios these can be different people, at other studios it can be the same person, or even a hybrid of the two.  Also, depending on the games needs and style, there could be even further specialization (i.e. combat designer, melee designer, puzzle designer, etc…).  But regardless of the game being made, the designers are usually the glue that take everything and put it together.  It’s also the designers job to gather feedback, watch focus tests, and iterate over the design to make it the best it can be.  Hence you need to have a thick skin as you’ll be bearing the brunt of both the positive and negative experiences people are having while playing the game.

Building Unique Gameplay

Inspiration can come from anywhere to create new gameplay ideas.  You could watch a scene in a movie for example, and think of a way to create a new mechanic out of it.  But for me I find that many times being able to analyze and iterate quickly can yield the best results. 


One of the things that makes a designer good is their ability to analyze and critique what they’re playing.  It can really involve a lot of digging into understanding what you’re feeling at the time, and then trying to dissect those feelings to get to the root cause.  Usually it’s pretty easy to tell when you have something fun, but to take it further, that’s when you want to learn to dig deeper.  It’s very easy to say “yeah that’s good” and move on, but you need to analyze what you’re feeling to see if there’s even the slightest hint of dislike happening.  Usually by following those feelings and analyzing the why, it can lead you to solutions for making things better and improving upon them.


Quick iteration and trying different ideas as time allows is the other way to find the golden nuggets of gameplay awesomesauce.  It’s easy to fall into the trap of analyzing and arguing about something “on paper” or “in theory”, but if it’s easy to test in game and there’s time in the schedule, put it in and give it a try!  The only way you’re going to know if something works, or is an improvement is to try it.  Also this will usually lead to other ideas, which can lead to creating new mechanics, or evolving existing ones.


Mechanics Test

Lots of iteration and analysis and focus testing!  You keep honing in on the good parts and what’s working, and you make those as good as they can be given the time you have.  Meaning keep honing in on the fun, but not at the expense of the rest of the project.

In terms of combat, what are the most important things to keep in mind while you are developing an action game?

The style of game is the first thing I’d think about, and then make the shooting mechanics match up with that style as best I can (and of course, they have to be fun and engaging above all else).  There’s a difference between a fast twitch reflex shooter like Doom, and a slower and methodical game like Metal Gear Solid for example.  Also what’s the story context of the game?  Something like Overwatch can get away with crazy and over-the-top weapon designs that defy logic as compared to something more grounded like The Last Of Us.  And the tone of the game plays an important role in the feel and vibe you want them to communicate.  In The Last Of Us we wanted the weapons to feel super impactful, punchy, and give a sense of how much they hurt and do damage to things.  This was to help reinforce the brutality and harshness of the world, as well as make every shot have value as ammunition was scarce.
Also it’s important to note that when you’re thinking about shooting mechanics, it’s not just about the weapons / equipment usage, but also all of the systems those weapons will have to interact with.  You can’t just have fantastic and responsive controls yet have really bad audio, impact VFX, and reaction animations and expect it to feel good.  The satisfaction comes from the whole package;  controller responsiveness, weapon VFX and sound, weapon animation and viewkick, tracers, impact VFX, environmental impact, and hit reactions and deaths. 


For combat encounter design, there’s a really great philosophy that Bruce Straley used when we were working on encounters together at Naughty Dog.  What’s the spikey ball that chases the player around?  We found that the most engaging and fun combat encounters would encourage the player to have to think about the play space and move around.  Hence what was the spikey ball that made the player move?  It could be something simple like a grenade to flush them out of cover, or enemies flanking from a different direction, or a specific enemy type like a slow moving tank, or an environmental hazard like an exploding barrel, or a full scripted sequence like a structure collapsing.  The goal being to get the player to have to engage their brain and treat the combat encounter a bit like a puzzle. 


Another important element is ideally you want the combat encounters to support the overarching story beats as this will help to make them more emotionally engaging.  For example, if the overarching story beat is that the hero is at their lowest point, then you’d want to design a combat encounter that makes the player feel like they are at their lowest point.  Desperation, feeling overwhelmed, forced to retreat and run, maybe even hindered in some way, all are themes to explore at a moment like this.  Also couple this with the setting, like fighting in the rain, or in the dark to really give the sense of something ominous or oppressing.  Bring the environment and art into the equation, even playing with hazards that can affect the combat can create a lot of immersion.


Lastly I’d say that variety and pacing are very important to keeping the player engaged and having fun.  No matter how much fun a type of combat encounter can be, if the player is constantly doing that same type of encounter over and over and over, it will become stale and boring and un-engaging.  Hence find ways to add variety and pacing through the combat encounters.  Some great ways to create that variety;  focusing on a particular enemy type (like snipers), a unique environment that can offer a different type of challenge (close quarters, wide open, dark and foggy with limited vision, hazards that must be avoided, a really exotic and unique setting visually, etc…), unique set piece combats (on a moving train, or through a moving convoy, but be careful as these can be really costly to develop), a particular weapon that the player has (like a sniper fight, or having to use a rocket launcher at moving targets). 


Incentives and Punishments

I like to start out by evaluating (or thinking of) a mechanic.  Then I like to explore it in terms of what can be added to, or taken away from it to make it different?  What can be added to it to make it more challenging?  What are ways to enhance it, or hinder it?  What could it lead to that would be even more fun to do?  How to balance it based on what else we’re trying to do with the game?  How can it interact with the other systems and mechanics?  How to take these ideas and turn them into a progression for the player?
By exploring these questions, we’ll come up with prototypes, and then hone in on the incentives / punishments to create a gameplay loop.  If the loop is strong enough, it should incentivize the player to want to go further with it, and it’ll incentivize us to create more challenging uses of it.  That comes through lots of iteration and focus testing to find the fun.
Arcade style elements with achievements and challenges and such all fall under this same exploration to make them the most fun they can be.  But for me the tone and style of the game will dictate how you can (or if you can) use these kinds of elements.  If you wanted to put these kinds of elements into something like The Last Of Us, you want them to blend into the world to keep the player immersed in the experience.  Whereas a more tounge-in-cheek, fast paced, arcade style shooter can have straight up gameplay challenges like “kill X enemies with Y weapon” and they’ll fit right in and work really well!



Lots of iteration and focus testing.  Get others to play and watch what they do (without saying anything or helping).  Also you have to do your best to realize that you have the curse of knowledge, and try to play through your sequences thinking like a fresh player would.  I can’t tell you how many times what I thought would be super obvious or simple completely baffled a focus tester!

Benson RussellSenior Game Designer at Infinity Ward

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev.

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Thanks for the great interview Kirill! And thanks to Benson for the great words of advice! 🙂