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  • David Perry on Game Design: Game Conventions and Clichés

    [02.11.10]
    - David Perry and Rusel DeMaria
  •  [GameCareerGuide is happy to present another excerpt from David Perry on Game Design: A Brainstorming Toolbox. You may also be interested to read our our previous excerpts, on game scenarios and game worlds.]

    In this chapter, going to look at the things we do in various games, but this time with an eye toward the conventions and clichés that games have developed over the years.

    In this chapter we'll look at:

    • Clichés
    • Enemy Clichés
    • Weapons
    • Objects and the Environment
    • NPC Clichés
    • Martial Arts Clichés
    • RPG Clichés
    • FPS Clichés
    • Action Adventure (Platformer) Clichés
    • RTS Clichés
    • Fighting Game Clichés
    • Racing Game Clichés
    • Simulation Game Clichés
    • Puzzle Game Clichés
    • MMO Clichés

    So yes, we do have game clichés. Like all entertainment media, games have developed some clichés -- situations and actions that are recognizable or that lead to predictable results and other predictable stereotypes. Some clichés are borrowed from literature and movies, while others have evolved out of the specific environment of game playing. Although clichés are useful because they allow players to operate within a familiar environment and they allow game designers to assume certain elements of a game and predict some of the responses of the players, they can also be an opportunity to throw some surprises into the mix.

    Remember also that people have often messed with clichés, creating anti-clichés or reverse clichés, and in doing so have often created new clichés. For instance, the cliché of the big powerful enemy has been messed with many times, where it ends up that the ultimate evildoer is some mousy little innocuous-looking guy instead of the obvious bruiser you would normally suspect. But this reverse cliché has been done enough to be a cliché in its own right.

    Of course, new clichés spring up every so often, particularly when a game with some unique or recognizable elements becomes very popular. For instance, in the wake of the popularity of the Dynasty Warriors series from Koei, a lot of games are beginning to feature battles with hordes of mostly weak enemies, each with a health bar floating above him. You mow these enemies down with a mighty sweep of your weapon, occasionally running into various kinds of tougher enemies who provide some amount of challenge. If a game looks too much like Dynasty Warriors (or functions pretty much the same way), it begins to look like a cliché in the making.

    Clichés often develop from the logical needs of a particular kind of game. Structurally, a First-Person Shooter is quite different from a Real-Time Strategy game, and designers use the kinds of game elements that work in those types of games. The hordes of weaker enemies typical of the Dynasty Warriors games represent a design decision that has been echoed in other games. Is it a cliché or a convention? Without those enemies, the games in this style would be something completely different. Because some game structures and decisions are logical or key elements of a particular game style, they get used a lot. In the end, they become clichés precisely because we have grown to expect them, though in some cases you could also call them game conventions.

    I want to note that there is a fine line between a cliché and a convention. Some of the examples I offer in the following sections might be considered conventional approaches to specific in-game situations and structures. As such, you could argue that they are not really clichés. Take it as you like it. I've included them, and I encourage you to decide for yourself whether they are clichés. However, one reason I have for looking at them as clichés instead of conventions is to inspire you to think about them instead of taking them for granted. If they are conventions, I think we are all too likely to accept them as givens within a game we create. If we consider them as clichés, perhaps we will be more likely to explore alternatives and look for novel approaches to the same situations and structures.

    General Clichés

    Some clichés have transcended genres and occur in a wide variety of games. This list is just a taste of what we see all the time in games. Perhaps you take these things for granted. What else do you commonly see in games that has become a cliché?

    • In most games, there are specialized textures used as functional indicators. For instance, certain types of walls are climbable, others are breakable, but the majority are impenetrable. Color is often used, as well, to indicate function or to single out an object or creature for one reason or another. The use of textures to indicate function is common enough to be considered a cliché.
    • Alien spacecraft and other installations generally feature a lot of flashy lights and weird displays that have no obvious function.
    • Equipment and monitors, especially computers found in games, generally display meaningless information and are not interactive, and often the displays have no relevance at all to the game or its fiction. Moreover, you can shoot these faux machines without any result or noticeable effect. If they are functional somewhere, they are also invulnerable.
    • Wounds can be healed by a truly odd assortment of items, such as candy bars, sodas, and mysterious med-paks that can reverse nearly mortal conditions in the blink of an eye.
    • In a lot of online games, colors are used as a guide to the relative danger level of a creature. Although this method of enemy identification originated in the popular MMORPG EverQuest, it is now sufficiently common to be considered a cliché.
    • It's always good to place something explosive near a group of bad guys so you can shoot it and wipe them out en masse.
    • Characters never need to do laundry. Even after slogging through the swamps, crawling through caves, and fighting hordes of enemies, their costumes are in perfect condition and are never soiled or ripped. Moreover, they never need to take a bath or use the toilet (except in The Sims), and they can move immediately from an intense battle to the king's court without anybody turning up their nose or suggesting they use some deodorant or at least some cologne.
    • If there is a "good" monarch or ruler, his advisor or second in command is frequently in league with evil forces and is hatching a plot to take over. Inevitably, you arrive just as the plot is reaching fruition. If a ruler is evil, his second in command is likely even worse.
    • Armor made for female characters always manages to reveal lots of strategically located skin and to accentuate their breasts by being somewhat exaggerated and formfitting.
    • No matter how many wounds characters get, they never end up with any scars as a result. Apparently, in-game healing techniques are far superior to what we currently have in the real world.

    Enemy Clichés

    Most games are full of enemies of one kind or another (see Chapter 14, "Enemies"), and we've grown used to how we encounter them. Here are a few of the clichés related to enemies. Where did they come from? What other enemy-related clichés do you notice in the games you play? Are there ways to shake things up, to avoid the clichés and come up with original treatments?

    • Villains are obvious: Most games depict the enemy as being obviously bad. If the villains are human, then they are generally dark, shifty-eyed, and unpleasant-looking. Or they are big, nasty brutes who look like they chew glass instead of gum. If the enemies are alien, they generally look gross, reptilian, like giant insects, or just nasty, like the human villains. If the enemies are animals, then they generally look fierce and feral, rarely cuddly or docile. Even enemy robots tend to look cold, menacing, and heartless, whereas friendly robots tend to look cute, harmless, or may even closely resemble innocuous humans.
    • Ordinary enemies are weak and easy to kill.
    • Ordinary enemies have a very limited repertoire of attacks -- generally one type of attack per minion.
    • Magic casters, healer types, and archers are almost always weak to direct physical attacks.
    • Boss enemies are very strong, can attack in a variety of unique ways, and are very hard to kill. Boss enemies are found specifically at milestone points, such as the ends of missions, ends of quests, at story/plot points, and at the end of the game. They don't just appear randomly in a game.
    • Whenever a monster is big enough and powerful enough to level a city by itself, it is also stupid, brutal, violent, and bestial. It is invulnerable to weapons until a) an accumulation of attacks wears it down, b) just the "right" weapon is discovered, c) it can be lured into some deathtrap, d) it can be driven back where it came from, or e) it falls in love with a human woman, which is its downfall.
    • Bigger enemies are stronger.
    • Enemies at higher levels have more hit points, drop better items and more gold, give more experience points (if applicable), and have higher offense and defense. (Makes sense, of course.)
    • Enemies don't learn or adapt. They perform the same tactics and actions over and over again, regardless of the fact that you continually beat them with the same attacks or strategies. (Although this is a common cliché, some games are creating more adaptive enemies.)
    • If a character was really good and somehow falls under the influence of some evil power, he will always return to "good" status eventually, once the evil effect has worn off or the hero has done something to snap him out of it.
    • On the other hand, if a "good" character is somehow converted to the evil side, he suddenly increases in power and deadliness a hundredfold.
    • Enemies don't seem to react when one of their group is dropped by a high-powered sniper shot. They just stand around as if nothing happened.
    • Enemy bosses always like to stop to explain the brilliance of their plans and the hopelessness of the player's cause. This is pretty much true in almost every fictional genre, not just in games. This also, inevitably, allows the hero of the story to defeat them, because if the boss were smart and simply plugged the hero when he had him helpless, the story would be over and the boss would win. But what fun would that be?
    • Enemies always have only one weapon but a seemingly unending supply of ammo, whereas in many games you get multiple weapons but (except for your generic weapon) limited ammo.
    • If an enemy catches sight of you or you trigger an alarm, he will forget about you if you can stay hidden long enough. Then he'll go about his normal business as if he never saw you or heard an alarm.
    • Unless you are in some stealth mode, any enemy that sees you instantly recognizes you as an intruder, no matter how you are dressed or how many minions are around. In most cases enemies will start shooting without any warning or attempt to ascertain whether you are in fact an enemy or just a pizza delivery boy. (In rare exceptions, you can wear a very specific disguise and fool at least the underlings, though not necessarily the higher-ups.)
    • Every enemy you manage to kill with a particular type of attack dies exactly the same way as all the others.
    • Most criminal or enemy organizations are building a secret weapon of immense power.

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