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Computer Game Design


For this section of the course we will be covering some theory on game design and working on a tutorial using the Unity game engine. Unity is a production game engine used to produce a number of games including Tiger Woods PGA Tour Online, Wolfquest and Battlestar Galactica Online. Unity can be downloaded from here and you are free to install it and use it to produce games for PC or Mac. To produce games for PS3 or XBox you need to buy and license the product. The tutorial we will be working on can be downloaded from here but I will provide the files for you to use in class as well. The tutorial instructions can be loaded by clicking here

The Game Engine

The game engine is a computer program that assists the development team to put together a computer game. They fall into the general category of software called ‘middleware’. Broadly speaking middleware is a software application that provides a service to another application. As an example, the render engines we use to render our 3D images can be called middleware. The earliest computer games did not utilize game engines and were simply written as computer programs in BASIC, C+ or some simular computer language. Using a game engine to develop a game offers a number of advantages, however, and for some time now all games have been developed using a game engine.

Game engines use an object oriented approach. In other words objects or assets are manipulated and assembled within the game engine to produce the game.

Game engine

This provides the following advantages:

  • This approach fits well with the team development environment
  • Assets can be developed in different applications specifically designed for the task.
    • E.g. Maya or 3DS Max for the characters, Audacity for the sound, Java for scripting…
  • Assets can be used across a number of games to reduce development time and establish a ‘house style’
  • Games can be exported onto a number of different platforms easily
  • Play can be adjusted and new levels, flash screens and cut scenes can be introduced with a minimum of effort

Many game developers have their own proprietary game engine, but there are general purpose game engines and free ones as well. Most game engines are designed with a particular style of gameplay in mind (for instance 1st person shooter, 2D, 3D platform, etc.). For a relatively comprehensive list of game engines and the games developed from them go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_game_engines

Game design considerations

In developing a good game the designers need to produce a game environment for the gamer to play in. The obvious aspect to this environment is the graphics in the game levels, but the environment is broader than that and includes a range of things which come together to create an imagined environment for the game. The main things contributing to the environment are Game play, back story and look (graphics and sound). The goal is to make the game environment immersive, by which we mean that the gamer becomes involved in the game environment.

The first impression of a game can be dominated by the graphics and sound, so many gamers believe that high quality realistic graphics are the key to a game’s success. Having said that it is worth noting that some of the most successful games of all time have relatively poor graphics, while other games with spectacular, realistic graphics flop because once the initial impact of the graphics has faded, the game is boring to play. The appearance of the game has a big impact in the immersive qualities of the game, which will be discussed below.

The back story of a game is the context in which it is played. The plot behind the game. A strong back story gives the gamer the experience of living out a story and this contributes to make a game interesting to play over an over, as each time the game is played the player is involved in a story which unfolds slightly differently. A lot of very successful games have little or no back story, but the back story becomes more important in role play and action games.

Game play refers to the rules of the game. It also involves considerations of how difficult it is to succeed, and the rate at which that difficulty escalates as the player moves through the levels of the game. It also refers to how complex the game is to play. Well designed game play is the most important element determining the success of a game. To learn more about gameplay read the Autodesk notes.

Immersion refers to how much the gamer is able to involve themselves mentally (and emotionally) in the game. Immersion in the game is a very rewarding experience to a gamer, and immersive games are often the ones that gamers return to and play for long periods of time. new hardware is also contributing to moew effective immersion. Things such as 3D consoles, Xbox Kinect and virtual reality head sets add to the immersive quality of the game experience. To read more about immersion click here.

To complete your studies in this area you should read through the Autodesk notes on game environment, game play and immersion.

Types of computer games

Over the years the thousands of computer games that have been developed have generally fallen into a number of basic genres. Many games fall across several genres, so it is hard to develop a definitive list of games types, but here are a few common ones.

FPS (first person shooter)

In these games the player is placed in a role in a battle game. They see the game through the eyes of the main character in the game as he/she battles against other computer controlled characters called AIs (artificial intelligences). The quality of the AIs in a game is contributing factor in the game play. If the movement of the AIs is predictable the game will become boring, on the other hand if the AIs are too good at the game then the player gets frustrated.

These games have often been controversial because the player is acting out actions of extreme violence through their charcter. As graphics have improved these games have become very realistic and many people believe that children immersed in these games can be desensitized to violence and suffering. These games are very popular and online versions now allow gamers to enter into direct battle with other players. There are countless games in this genre, but among the most popular is the Call of Duty series if games.

Third person

In this type of game the player controls a game character in some sort of competative scenario, but does not see hte game through the eyes of the character. Usually the character is trying to win some sort of fight with another AI character or is in a race with other AI charcters.

RPG (role play game)

In these games the player simply enters into a role in the story of the game. The player adopts a personality as well as skills and abilities, and these evolve as the player interacts with the other characters. These game grew out of the original dungeons and dragons type table games.

MMO (Massively multiuser online)

MMOs are games wich are played by thousands of players at the same time. MMOs most often fall into the RPG category. The game runs on a server and players log into the game to become a character and interact with the other players in their characters. The characters in the game are all controlled by real people and are referd to as ‘avatars’. The players usually enter the same avatar each time they log on, and develop this character over an extended period of time, often developing relationships with other players. Many of these games have been developed for children where the child has a character who can move through the game environment playing little games, collecting objects and establishing a ‘house’ for themselves in the game. Examples are Penguin Cafe and Moshie Monsters. For more adult gamers MMOs are typically refered to as some sort of realm.

Platform games

These games involve involve controlling a character to make it move and jump through obstacles etc.. The early ones were 2D, but generally now the game  environment is 3D. Calssic examples are Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog.


In this sort of game the player typically controls an army engaged in a battle. Winning the battle equates to winning the game. The battle scenario is often played out in some historical context with the history of that period providing the back story.

Simulation games

In these games the player controls some sort of simulation of real life. Flight Simulator is a realistic simulation of flying an aeroplane. SimCity puts the player in the role of planning a city and watching it develop.

Sport based games

These games simulate playing a sport. Generally the player competes against AIs, but there are some versions where players can compete against each other. Good examples of these games are the popular FIFA series of soccer games and the PGA series golf games.

Puzzle games

In these games the player needs to solve a series of puzzles or challenges. There is a range of different types, some better than others. Machinarium and Portal as representatives of this category.

Arcade games

These are games with little of no back story, that rely on dexterity more than anything else. Many games have an arcade aspect to them and classics are space invaders and pacman.

There are more genres and sub-genres, but this basic list gives some perspective on the range of games available.

Game hardware

‘Computer’ games are more often played on specialist consoles such as the Xbox or PS3. There is also a growing range of inout devices specially designed for gaming. Initially the early game consoles developed their own controllers with specialist buttons to control the game. This proved much more successful than using the keys on a keyboard because it simplified the control of the game and the controllers could be ergonomically design for their specific purpose, making them more comfortable and easier to use.

Very soon controllers were designed for specific games. For instance a stearing wheel for controlling driving games.

More recently controllers ahve been developed likethe Wii  and the Kinect, which allow players to control the games with body movement.

The range of devices is now large and constantly changing. The design of these devices is a topic in its own right.


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