Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Yoshi has a Hammer: Exploring Style through Super Smash Bros.

Death and Rebirth

I was among some of the first consumers in North America to obtain a [store-bought] copy of Super Smash Bros. Brawl.  It was a cold Montreal January night, and the manager at the store outside which we were waiting decided to let us in a couple of hours early, so I and my roommates found ourselves playing the newest version of Super Smash Bros. well before its official midnight release.  Little did I know it, but following that moment, I wouldn’t play Super Smash Bros. Melee for over five years.
Just recently, upon finally deciding to stop letting it sit on my shelf, I dove back into my copy of Melee for the sake of doing something different.  I figured I’d get in a couple of AI matches (since I have no friends), and then I’d be bored with it and let it go for a while.  But by curious happenstance, it turned out that the save file for my old game had somehow vanished.  Everything I’d unlocked…all the records I’d set…they were all gone.  So what’s a completionist to do?  I sat down and started earning back everything I’d lost.
This experience wasn’t nearly as tedious as I’d imagined it might be.  For the past few years, I’ve been finding it harder and harder to think of games as just “games”.  Ever since I started putting in serious time towards becoming a professional designer, gaming has been more of a responsibility than a hobby.  Every now and then, though, something happens that reminds me of the good ol’ days before I knew anything about game design…before I knew game design was even a field I could potentially pursue.  That’s what happened as I rediscovered Melee.  I’ve been reminded of the idea of gaming for the sake of gaming.
Now, I’m not trying to say that Super Smash Bros. Melee is the be-all and end-all of all video games.  Simply put, it’s a damn fun experience.  During all my time playing Brawl, I had completely forgotten this.  And it’s not about the nostalgia.  There’s some of it in there, sure, but that’s not why I’ve found Melee to be so much more fun than its successor.  I wouldn’t even say it’s mostly a matter of design.  It’s mostly a matter of style.
Identifying Style
What do I mean when I talk about style?  Well, I could reference you to a blog post I made a long time ago called “Gestalt Game Design”, but I’ll just cover it here to spare you from too much of my pretentiousness.  I’m talking about the mood that underlies the entire structure of the game – its “feel”.  The style or feel is an element that all other elements of the game work to encapsulate.  The aspects of timing and structure derived from design blend with things like the color palette, animation styles, music, and the world’s scale to tell the player what a game is and what it’s about.  Testing refines all of these aspects, and programming ties them all together.
This is what comes to mind when I think of what makes Super Smash Bros. the beloved series that it is.  It’s one of the most inherently public-competition-friendly series ever made simply due to its style.  It’s also one of the few games that’s not just fun to play, but also genuinely fun to watch.  Sure, you can get an audience around to watch people frag each other in an FPS, but there’s something more visceral about seeing characters completely unrealistically fly away.  There’s also a certain excitement to be derived from seeing all of the action at once – seeing Dr. Mario returning to the stage after nearly flying off the screen, easily dodging a missile from Samus, only to be hit by the fully-charged beam blast following directly behind.  Smash Bros. is more direct, more brutal, and more visual than a lot of other tournament games.  It’s the American football to Halo’s baseball.
And more to the point than all of that, it’s ridiculous.
The feel of Smash Bros. is something that has been laid out right from the beginning.  In my rediscovery of Melee, I find myself reminded of the first commercial I saw for the original Super Smash Bros.  People wearing costumes of Nintendo characters, skipping through a meadow together, arm in arm.  And then the beatdown begins.  And Yoshi swings a giant hammer into the camera.  I don’t remember much since I haven’t watched that commercial since it was actually on the air, but those images have stuck with me.  They’re images of something ridiculous.  There are numerous presentations that could have been used for that ad, but the one that was chosen was the image of real, human adults dressed up as Nintendo characters.  The way I see it, that’s the truest possible representation of how Super Smash Bros. should feel when you play it.
That’s exactly where the questions of style begin to profoundly split between Super Smash Bros. Melee and Brawl.  Melee is built around that idea of something that’s just so ridiculous…so freakin’ crazy.  It promotes that idea through the way it looks, the way it sounds, and the way it plays.  Despite its sizable development team, it gives off a humble, “Yeah, whatever,” sort of vibe.  The music is arranged by only a few composers, the colors are vibrant, and the narration is a prime testament against the respect the game industry has sought to obtain for all these years.  It’s just weird.
Brawl, on the other hand, seems to be built around the idea of an epic coming-together of the great heroes of video game legend.  It has the sense of wanting to ensure that these games are all honored and respected, which is a perfectly nice sentiment.  It is, on some level, what Smash Bros. has come to represent in the video game community, particularly when you look at the desire fans have had to expand the Smash Bros. character roster to include names from outside Nintendo.  Brawl's inclusion of Snake and Sonic was a practical realization of this attitude.
What begins to result from that, however, is a game that loses a little bit of its craziness in the name of respect.  The first two Smash Bros. games also have the "honoring the franchises" element to them, but they go about honoring game franchises in a somewhat different way than BrawlWhere Melee has a spirit of humor about it, Brawl, while it still has a humorous side, feels more like it’s paying tribute.  Brawl is like a reel you show for someone receiving a lifetime achievement award.  Melee is like a celebrity roast. 
Or, for a more elaborate metaphor, there’s this:
Two Skits
Super Smash Bros. Brawl:
[Our generic video game hero awakes in a strange new world.  (S)he looks around, not recalling where this place is or how (s)he got here.  Before him/her, another hero awakens, sits up, and shakes his head to wake up.  Our hero approaches the newcomer.]
Hero: Greetings, fellow traveler.  What brings you…
[Our hero pauses, recognizing the traveler.]
Hero: …My goodness…you’re Mario!
Mario: It’s-a me, Mario!
Hero: Yes, I’d recognize that face anywhere!  You’re the legendary hero of the Mushroom Kingdom!
Mario: Yes, it’s-a me!  Mar…
Hero: Yes, yes.  I see you’ve also found yourself in this strange new realm.
Mario: How I get-a here?
Hero: I’m not sure, but I have the feeling some great trials await us.
Mario: I smell-a trouble coming on!
Hero: Indeed.  I say, a legendary hero like you… 
Mario: Me!  It’s-a me, Ma…
Hero: Quite so, and I believe you would make an excellent sparring partner.  Perhaps we could both learn quite a lot from each other as we're both new to this world.  Together, we can prepare for the trials that await us.
Mario: Wa-hoo!
Hero: Is that a yes?
[The two battle each other.  Cue ‘80s training montage music.]
Hero: Indeed, you are a skilled warrior.  This has been a genuine honor!
Mario: Yahoo!
[The two shake hands.]
Hero: If I may be so bold, I’d wish to say I’ve made a new friend today.
Mario: It’s-a me, Ma…
Hero: Yes, it’s you.
[Our heroes embark on their epic quest.  After about ten seconds, a man emerges from beneath a cardboard box back near the tree line.]
Snake: Kept ya waiting, huh?
Super Smash Bros. Melee:
[Mario stands conversing with Link in a bar.  They’ve both had a few too many.  At another table, Donkey Kong and Yoshi, also quite wasted, have reached the point of having a dance-off.  Several other characters cheer on the dancers.  Mr. Game & Watch and Samus both sit alone at separate ends of the bar, trying to ignore everyone else.  The other fighters populate the rest of the bar, all of them drunk.]
[Mr. Game & Watch rings his bell.  The bartender brings him a pint, setting it down in front of him.  Game & Watch slumps over his drink.]
Bartender: Hey, buddy, you think maybe you better slow down?
[Mr. Game & Watch raises a hand.]
G&W: (Beep)
[If Mr. Game & Watch had fingers, he would be flipping off the bartender.  Since he doesn’t, nothing happens.  The bartender looks offended nonetheless.]
[Mario confronts Link.]
Mario: No, no.  No.  No.  You just…you just-a say that again.  You…you, uh…you make fun of-a the Mushroom Kingdom, and-a we…uh…we…we see…what-a happen.
[Mario throws down his empty mug.  It shatters on the ground.]
Mario: No, I…I tell you what-a happen.  You think-a you so tough and all.  Well let’s…I’m…I’m, uh…I…we have a fight, and then we…we…we have a fight.  And you just bring-a your sword, and…uh…and arrows…and all…uh…uhh…all-a your explodies, and I…you know?  I…[Mario takes on a bare-knuckle boxing stance]…I take-a you on with-a my fists.  I take-a you on.  We see…uh…we see…we see who so tough.
[Link downs the rest of his mug.  He throws it on the ground, where it shatters.  He reaches for his sword, but in his stupor, misses the initial grab.]
[Mario punches Link in the face.  Link pauses, wiping his bleeding nose.  He stares at the blood on his fingers and looks up at Mario.  Suddenly, he draws his sword.  The fight is on.]
[Excited by the prospect of the emerging fight, Donkey Kong stops dancing and rushes over.  It isn’t long before the crowd observing the dance-off joins in.  Annoyed by the noise, Game & Watch leaps into the fighting crowd and hits Donkey Kong with a hammer.  Samus continues trying to ignore the scene, but is quickly motivated to join when hit with one of Link’s stray bombs.  The entire bar erupts in drunken violence and everyone quickly forgets exactly what they’re fighting about.]
[Several minutes later, the fight breaks down into bouts of laughter.  Bloodied and scuffed, people all around the bar sit arm in arm, laughing and reminiscing about past battles.  In the process of treating everyone’s injuries, Dr. Mario has reignited the dance-off with his elaborate “pill-throw mambo”.  Mario and Link sit arm in arm.]
Link: No, no, seriously.  Did you…I mean, you were, like…you were shooting fire from your hands!  I was all like, ‘By the Goddeddesded…Goseddes…God-des-ses…By the Goddesses, this guy’s ridiculous!  I mean, like…fire!  From your hands!
Mario: Did…did-a I ever tell you…[he begins sobbing]…I mean…I just…I just think-a you’re so great!
[The dance-off continues as everyone cheers on.]
This is the sort of attitude that underlies each game.  Both of them pay tribute to a collection of video game greats, but they go about it in different ways.  Brawl, while not a bad game, simply doesn’t have as fun and reckless of an atmosphere surrounding it as does Melee.
Seeing the Intangible
So how are some of the ways in which this style becomes evident?  It’s true that it’s something kind of intangible, but it’s still generated from the game’s more tangible aspects.
To begin with is each game’s respective single-player experience.  Melee is built around three modes: Classic, Adventure, and All-Star, as is Brawl.  Of key difference here is the fact that Brawl’s adventure is built to be a full story, and actually, a separate game with its own title, “The Subspace Emissary”.  This comes complete with a fleshed-out storyline, a fully-realized game world, boss battles, and cinematics that make it look like Super Smash Bros. had a baby with Final Fantasy.  Melee’s Adventure mode, on the other hand, is a collection of short stages, each simply themed after the world of one of the main fighters (some of them simply the same stages used in Multiplayer mode).  
In addition, Melee contains the separate single-player mode of “Event Match”.  This mode is simply a series of challenges which grow progressively more difficult, but each individual event seems to be built almost on a whim.  It’s as if someone said, “Hey, you know what would be a fun scenario to play through?  [These] characters with [this] level of difficulty.  You play as [this] character and you have [these] conditions to work under.”  Then, those scenarios were mocked up, built, and collected into what is almost a series of mini-games.  “Sure, Giant DK and Giant Bowser battling in the middle of the city!  Sure, an endurance match against 128 Marios!  Sure, protect Yoshi’s egg from being broken!  Fine, let’s run with it!”
Another aspect of each game in which “style” becomes evident is in the music.  Melee, as mentioned before, has a short list of composers and a relatively short list of songs.  As a result, its soundtrack is fairly unified and sounds similar from track to track.  Every game’s music is “adjusted” to fit the style of Smash Bros., as if to say, “You’re in our house now.  You’ll play by our rules.”
The soundtrack to Brawl is massive – about 18 hours long.  It brings in composers from all over Nintendo and beyond (like Nobuo Uematsu, who composed the main theme), creating remixes of songs from more games than are even represented within Brawl’s character roster.  In addition, it includes a good number of original game tracks.  With all of the different composers and musical styles involved, the music isn’t reaching towards a single, unified style.  Rather, each game represented gets its own assortment of music that the player can investigate and then choose from; again, feeling like more of a “tribute” than a simple nod.  Each game has its own integrity to be respected.
A third element that I just can’t ignore is the narration.  Now, to be fair, as of 2001, Nintendo hadn’t been huge on the process of voice acting, but they and HAL Laboratories were knowledgeable enough that, had they desired, they could have made Melee’s narration sound like it wasn’t being broadcast from the bathroom down the hall.  But they did.  It sounds ridiculous.  I don’t know if the idea was for it to sound like a voice in a large stadium, or if it was just meant to sound “disembodied”, but it’s definitely unusual.  As Brawl was coming out, I was looking forward to the prospect that this narration style would change, and it most certainly did change.  But sometimes, you don’t realize how much you’ll miss something until it’s gone.  It’s still pretty over-the-top and ridiculous, but it doesn’t have that same feel of “Yeah, so, we made this game, and, like…whatever.  Have fun.”  Brawl’s narration is…clean.  Organized.
The Purpose
I could go on about things like color palette, level design, and “Bonuses”.  The bottom line, however, is that Melee and Brawl are designed around two different purposes.  Melee is designed to promote and encourage a social experience; Brawl is designed to support a more extensive solo experience.  Part of this is due to the different capabilities of the Gamecube and the Wii, part of it is due to demographics, and part of it is due to the reputation the Smash Bros. franchise developed over time.
On this latter issue, there’s a clear difference between the design concerns for Melee and the design concerns for Brawl.  Melee was designed to take the experiment that was Super Smash Bros. and expand upon it, emphasizing the aspects that made the original game popular, namely, its energetic promotion of social interaction.  Melee works to explore this aspect of the franchise and demonstrate it as the core reason for buying the game.  Melee succeeded quite thoroughly in this regard, which is exactly, I feel, why Brawl focuses on it much less.  
By the time Brawl was developed, Melee’s reputation for drawing a crowd together was securely established.  There was no real need to delve much deeper into that realm of the gameplay, so Brawl focused more heavily on the elements Melee lacked – a true single-player adventure and online play.  In turn, the structure of the entire game works to promote these elements much more.  In Brawl, for instance, all of the game’s playable characters can be unlocked simply by completing “The Subspace Emissary”.  In Melee, numerous characters and stages can only be unlocked with a particular number of hours or matches played in Versus Mode.
In the end, I suppose this is what you might consider each game’s style to be based from.  Brawl has a “solo player” style; Melee has a “group of friends sitting on the couch” style.
Why am I going on and on about this, though?  Is it just a love letter to Super Smash Bros. Melee (and a sincere apology for letting it sit on the shelf for five years)?  Well, partly, sure…but I’m really delving into this because I believe that a game’s style truly does lie at the heart of everything it is.  If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times.  A game’s style defines how it looks, how it plays, and how it’s all put together.  More than anything else, though, a game’s style defines how the game FEELS to play.  When all is said and done, that’s the part of the game people remember.
And now, I’m remembering how it feels to play Super Smash Bros. Melee.  It feels like someone in a Yoshi costume is hitting me in the face with a hammer.
I mean that in a good way.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Role of Design

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything to this blog.  Needless to say, I’ve been busy, what with the graduate degree and everything.  Oh, and also the mental breakdowns.
In the process of all of this, however, I’ve been finding myself in an uncomfortable position.  Then again, I don’t suppose mental breakdowns would generally feel all that comfortable in the first place.  I suppose you think I’m being facetious about that whole “mental breakdown” thing.  But I digress.
I graduated college with what I felt was a firm understanding of what a game designer is and what role a designer fills on the team.  A competent game design program seeks to teach you those sorts of things.  Having successfully filled the role of “game designer” numerous times over my college career, I came to identify myself as a game designer - exactly which subclass of game designer, I was never sure, but I knew I was a design-minded individual.  I had a role to fill, and I knew how to fill it.
Every development team I’ve been involved with since then has been another story.
Making Design Matter
I find myself nowadays working on projects where being a designer is of no real value.  For the first time, I’m working with real, serious, competent programmers, which in and of itself isn’t a problem.  It’s great, in fact.  The issue is that these competent programmers are people who also happen to be bursting with ideas, know the basics of documentation, and are perfectly capable of designing game mechanics.  You know…professionals.  In the process of all of this, I found myself drifting into obscurity.  What good am I as a designer if my colleagues are collectively going to do most of the design work themselves?  As I worked my way through a few tough months of game development, however, I came to understand the answer to that question.  Some of this may sound ridiculously obvious.  Some of it may sound flat-out stupid.  Nonetheless, it’s something I’d like to attempt to express.
I’d like to raise an important point first.  I can sometimes come across as having a problem with programmers.  This is absolutely not the case.  I have immense respect and fascination for game programmers.  They are truly amazing people, and I am clearly not one of them.  No, I don’t have an issue with programmers, but I acknowledge that there is a clear difference between thinking like a game designer and thinking like a game programmer.  That’s what I’m here to talk about today.
If there’s one thing the past few months have taught me, it’s the importance of a dedicated design role in modern video game production.
It’s absolutely true that without the core technology, a game can never get off the ground.  In finally having been involved with the process of what it’s like to build a game engine from scratch, I have a new appreciation for exactly why it takes so long to make a game that’s intricate, polished, and truly entertaining, even when it’s built from an existing toolset.  Furthermore, how we’re able to make games truly stand out from one another is remarkable considering the amount of work it takes to simply make a character reliably move along the ground without hovering over it or falling through it.
But even when you consider all of the elements required to make game mechanics work, it’s sad to see those mechanics all go out the window for the sake of time or simplicity.  In extreme cases, the cutback can be so severe that practically none of the original game mechanics are retained in the final product.  Eventually, what you’re left with isn’t a game.  It has no hook, no…panache.  It may have some mechanics, at least, in the most technical sense of the word, but it’s not the kind of thing that demonstrates entertainment.  As a game is being developed, I don’t think the player’s reaction should be, “I can see you’re well on your way to getting this engine ready for a game.  All the basic elements are coming together.”  At the very least, the player’s reaction to an embryonic game should be, “Oh, I get it.  This could potentially be really cool to play.  I’d be interested in seeing this once the bugs have been ironed out.”
Or maybe that’s the indie in me still showing through.
Contradictory Thinking
I’ve observed that if you’re building a game, it should be able to exist as a game, on some level, even before the technology being used to run it is fully functional.  It’s odd to think about, and from a development standpoint, it’s a bit scary.  After all, how can you successfully test platforming mechanics if you can’t reliably jump?  How can you successfully test a shooter when you can run and shoot through walls?
These are the sorts of questions we were asking ourselves as we built a game in the spring quarter.  We can’t incorporate player damage correctly until we get collisions working.  Why add in the combat system when we can’t correctly register damage?  The structure of the world doesn’t really matter since we don’t have a combat system.  For that matter, there’s no point in building a final environment until we can actually walk on our terrain correctly.  And actually, since we can’t reliably walk on the terrain, what use is it to develop the mechanics right now?  (To be fair, it was a graphics programming course, so it was easy to place emphasis on programming graphics.)
While these are all valid concerns, particularly in a 10-week schedule, the fact remains that at the end of the process, we failed to create a game.  We had a nice enough world with some impressive underlying technology, but any mechanics we had set out to build had been utterly gutted.  Part of that comes down to the nature of the game we were trying to create, but another part comes down to a lack of design-centric thinking.
The importance of the design role can be a bit confusing at times, but that’s partly because the game designer must fulfill two contradictory roles simultaneously:
1. The designer works to promote an environment of sanity.
2. The designer works to promote an environment of insanity.
Perhaps these should be listed in the opposite order for chronological clarity.  More correctly:
1. The designer works to promote an environment of insanity.
2. Then, over time, the designer works with that insanity and uses it to increasingly promote an environment of sanity.
Yes, gather ‘round everyone.  Mental Breakdown Man is going to tell us stories about insanity.
Promoting Insanity
In the conceptual stage, it’s the designer’s job to be insane.  Just a little bit, if there is such a thing.
DESIGNER: This is what I think we should do.  <Insert clever mechanics>
DEV TEAM: We won’t have the resources to do something like that.  Are you crazy?
(The designer tears up.)
DESIGNER: That may be the nicest thing anyone’s ever said!
(The designer begins batting at the invisible monkeys flying overhead.)
DESIGNER: How many times have I told you people to keep the windows closed?  These things are going to keep getting in.
The designer’s task then comes down to defending and maintaining as much of that idea as possible for as long as possible.  This isn’t for the sake of being revolutionary or being the boss of everyone.  That insane idea is exactly how it sounds – crazy, impractical, and a drain on resources.  It will never work in the real world.  No, the real purpose of preserving that insanity is to prevent devolution into the next forgettable multiplayer-based sci-fi FPS, the next forgettable fantasy-themed free-to-play MMORPG, or the next forgettable…well, any tower defense game, really.
Without that spark of insanity flickering away in the heart of the project, it’s extremely easy for a game to be cut down to the point where it no longer exists.  An elaborate first-person action-adventure featuring attacks that are based on altering the laws of physics becomes a world with some things in it that you can shoot at.  It’s simpler, more manageable, and less time-consuming, but far more forgettable.  Keeping the insanity alive won’t typically maintain the original vision, but it might at least let you include one or two physics-bending weapons in the arsenal.  If nothing else, you can market your game as the one with the Friction Gun, which nullifies the frictional coefficient of any targets it hits, causing them to lose all control for five seconds.  For better or worse, you’re now known as “That Game with the Friction Gun”.
Note: Should you use a Friction Gun in your game, I expect to be appropriately compensated.
…Okay, fine, as long as I get a credit somewhere.
…Okay, fine, forget I ever asked.
Promoting Sanity
Somewhere along this road is where the designer’s role shifts from promoting insanity to promoting sanity.  In preserving the spirit of a game’s design, a designer must determine exactly where that “spirit” comes from.  What makes this game more than just a world with some things in it that you can shoot at?  What makes it something you could convince someone to play for more than 30 seconds?
The designer bears the important responsibility of determining two things:
1. Most fundamentally, what makes our game a game?
2. More to the point, and perhaps more importantly, what makes our game OUR GAME?
From here, it all comes down to determining the absolute minimum requirements for each and seeing that those requirements are worked towards right from the start.  Sometimes, this may mean that you start developing combat mechanics while your characters are still jumping off of the world into the void that lies beyond your skybox.  That’s okay.  We’re working on it.  At least you can get a sense of how the game mechanics work.  Well, okay…how they WILL work.  But you can at least see the game.  Well, okay, this isn’t “the game”…I mean, we’re not publishing this version, but…you know, you get where we’re going with it.  Right?
Keeping that design mentality alive is important for ensuring that the game isn’t lost for the sake of function.  A single bug can break the experience of the entire game – that’s why we perform extensive bug tests, after all – but in focusing entirely on creating a functional engine, there’s no experience to break.  Generally speaking, a toy car that has a wobbly wheel is more fun to play with than a slab of metal with four fully-functioning wheels on it.  The car has a clear purpose and a clear sort of play to be derived from it.  The chassis is just a tool.
That’s where maintaining sanity comes into play.  As is well known, no code is completely bug-free.  Hunting for bugs solves some problems, but can create others, and the overall process goes on and on, practically without end.  Thinking in terms of design enables the development of a clearer hierarchy of priorities, allowing development to be focused where it’s the most important for the game.  Developing the gameplay early allows the team to see exactly what problems need to be solved in order to make the game functional for its own purposes.  What is it, exactly, that breaks the experience?  What element of the gameplay does this bug affect?  If this problem isn’t fixed, will the player still understand the game?  If it is, will it improve the player’s understanding further?
A Hastily-Conceived Classification System 
Thinking in design terms, at least to me, means prioritizing the game’s development in terms of different “tiers” of a player’s experience.  Each tier represents a different degree of depth to which the player is invested in the game.
Tier 1: Understanding
The “Understanding” phase is the most basic piece of a player’s experience, and it’s the first that should be focused on during development.  During Understanding, the game should demonstrate its purpose to the player.  This is the “kind of game” we’re dealing with.  The player gets to sample the game experience and determine if it’s the kind of thing they’d like to play.  “This is how the game works, this is what you’re trying to do, this is what’s entertaining about it, this is the kind of experience you should take away, and generally, this is why you should play it.  If this doesn’t suit you, you’re clearly just not the game’s target audience.”
Now, obviously, there are some things you need to do on the technical side before anything else, like being able to render graphics and interact with them on some level.  This tier, however, is the first piece of a game’s development that enables people to see your game for what it is – an entertainment experience – and not just a tech demo.  There are things to do.  Some of them may not do what you expect at this stage in development, but they’re there.
Tier 2: Commitment
In the “Commitment” phase, the player has grasped the concept of what the game is and decided to move forward.  Understanding the base concept, the player now needs to see if what seemed like an enjoyable concept begins to pay off.  Does the game live up to the potential the player has envisioned in the “Understanding” phase?  If it does, can it maintain that level of enjoyment for more than a few minutes?  The real test of a successful player commitment is the completion of a standard play session and a subsequent return to continue the game.  This is where the overall execution of the base game engine becomes vitally important.
Does the game run smoothly?  Do the mechanics work together effectively?  Does it feel like a prototype, or does it feel like a fully-realized game world?
By now, the development team should be pushing the game beyond the point of basic errors in physics and rendering processes, as well as ensuring that player actions in the game generate the appropriate feedback, both functionally and aesthetically.  There aren’t just things to do, but reasons to do them.  You might say the Alpha stage represents the end of this aspect of development (or even still a pre-Alpha).
These first two tiers are the only ones truly required for what might be considered a technically “complete” game, but to take it farther, two more levels provide a game with a deeper player connection and keep things more interesting.
Tier 3: Exploration
A player enters the “Exploration” phase at about the time he or she begins a second play session.  By now, the player accepts the base concept and accepts the execution of that concept within a game world.  Now, the player begins to dive into the world itself and expand upon that initial review.
What sorts of elements are present in this world beyond the mechanic I’ve come to enjoy?  What sort of impacts do I have on the world around me?  Are there some other things for me to do that are also enjoyable?  How does this all tie in with the main mechanic?
This is where game mechanics start to reassert their importance in the development process, but it’s also the point at which to further consider general functionality and efficiency.  This is where the player’s impact on the world becomes increasingly important, so the game world needs to be able to respond to changing conditions and maybe even surprise the player here and there.  With many of the short-term gameplay concerns coming under control, attention now turns to the larger scope of the game and how everything ties together.  This isn’t just a demonstration – this is a fully realized game experience.  It’s time to show that the game has more depth than simply repeating the base mechanic over and over.  At the same time, it’s an opportunity to show the player that the same mechanic can be used in new ways.
Tier 4: Immersion
The word “Immersion” gets thrown around here and there all the time.  In this case, I’m using it to represent the deepest level of player involvement and the lowest-priority stage in the development process.  At this stage, the player is intimately familiar with the mechanics and has fully committed to being a part of the game world.  The player is delving deeper and deeper into the experience and moves from the posture of looking for enjoyment to expecting enjoyment.  At this point, it’s less about finding things right with the world than it is about finding things wrong with it.  Keeping the player immersed means ensuring that nothing happens to disrupt the existing experience.
Naturally, since the player is so deeply involved with the game at this point, smaller mistakes become more and more noticeable.  This is the point at which thorough bug cleanup can mean the difference between a good time and an unforgettable experience.  It’s also the point at which smaller details can be used to further enhance the game world and generate a more believable space.  In terms of mechanics, thorough refinements of pacing and difficulty can help the game move at a rate that feels natural and satisfying, but every player is a little different, so this process can only go so far.  Essentially, this is the stage of detail and polish.  It’s much less about adding new things and much more about removing any problems.
What I’m On About
This all makes it sound like the designer is taking over the role of a project manager, but that’s not the issue here at all.  The issue is with ensuring that game design sensibilities are injected into the software development process – ensuring that the software is being developed into a game, not just into a framework for a game.  Thinking in terms of design helps to establish clearer development priorities, shining a light on where the real issues lie and helping to identify the specific tasks that make up the components of each milestone.
That little spark of insanity provides a goal to strive towards.  The quest to keep that spark alive helps to identify where priorities lie, providing an additional blueprint for the development process and reinforcing a sense of order.  Thus, that spark of insanity works to promote sanity.
As always, how you choose to develop games is your own business (literally, if you have your own development company).  These words of advice come from someone who’s most likely far less experienced than you are, in which case, you have little reason to listen.  That hasn’t stopped me before, though, and it sure as hell isn’t going to stop me now.
And if you think I’m crazy, I thank you deeply, and I’ll ask you to close that window.
Thank you.  That is all.