Visualizing and Developing System Design
System design is the creation of a set of behaviors and conditional rules that define the functionality of a gameplay mechanic and its effects on other gameplay mechanics. A gameplay mechanic is something that the game does to the player or the player does to the game (also known as a “player mechanic”). Gameplay mechanics have behaviors, which are all the different ways that a single gameplay mechanic can act.
For example, when a designer sits down with an engineer to create enemies for a game, the designer will make a list of all the different behaviors the enemy will have such as patroling, attacking, and its idle position. Their behaviors may also be how they interact with the environment. Do they say,” What was that noise?” when the player is close by. Questions like Where are they from? How did they grow up? What are they going to be doing? are important when developing behaviors.
The best way to think about systems in video games is to think about the systems we’re surrounded by in real life, how we interact with them, and how they interact with each other.
In Metal Gear Solid (1998), if the player left footprints on the snow, the enemies patroling the area would take notice, and begin searching. The player could also tap on walls to call enemies attention.
As a system, time is integrated into many aspects of our lives, whether it’s celebrating our birthdays, figuring out how much time is left in class, or planning the dates for a vacation. Time is like the main loop in our existence. Let’s think of time as a point in space that’s always moving forward in a linear direction. The motion of time is based on speed, and we interpret that speed through systematic events in the world like the daily rising and setting of the sun or seasonal temperature changes.
By recording and analyzing the behaviors associated with these events, we could create calendars based on lunar or solar events. These calendars assign terms to different units of time: seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years. Time as a system can easily be added on to by adding and subtracting from existing units of time to create other units like decades, centuries, eons, and nanoseconds.
The Mayan Calendar is an example of ancient civilizations trying to understand the concept of time. Unlike solar-based calendars, such as the Gregorian, it counts days as opposed to the length of a solar year. Learn more fascinating facts about the Mayan civilization by watching the Nat Geo documentary.
Whereas time moves forward at a constant speed, we have other major systems that are more under our control. For example, if time is a system to measure existence, systems of physical measurement are used to define space. There are two competing systems of measurement in the world. The older version that the United States uses is called “U.S. customary units.“
U.S. customary units consist of inches, feet, yards, and miles. Traditionally, systems like this are based on parts of the human body (the most readily available measurement tool) so the number of feet in a yard is determined by the actual size of the measurer’s foot. Translating between different units requires multiple calculations because unit equivalences are not consistent. America is one of the last countries to use this system.
The other major system of measurement used by the rest of the world is called the “metric system.” The metric system was first defined in France in 1795. It’s a “Base 10” system, which means that each digit added to a number multiplies that number by 10. To translate between different units like millimeters, centimeters, meters, and kilometers, you only have to multiply or divide by 10. This results in fewer calculations, which greatly improves overall performance.
There’s a cool educational game that allows people to learn about space called Scale of the Universe.
Open & Closed Systems
Time and space are intrinsically linked. If we change one, it changes the other. They are both referred to as “open systems” which is why they interact with each other and exchange information. In video game development, all gameplay systems are open systems because they logically interact with each other through the engine. There are also examples of “closed systems” in real life where there is no exchange of matter with any other system. For example, a soda can contains carbon dioxide dissolved into flavored water. It’s contained until you open it. That form of containment is a closed system because there is no transference of liquid, carbonation, or flavor until you open the can.
In terms of time and space, the dependencies between the two are best explained through concepts like “miles per hour” and the “speed of light.” Miles per hour is a human construct. It determines how fast we travel in space over a set amount of time. In this example, time is a constant value, but we can change the definition of space. The speed of light is how fast light travels in a vacuum, which is about 300,000,000 meters per second. Again, time is the constant, but the definition of space could be adjusted to make it either faster or slower.
Many systems design contain constants (set units of measurement) that are used to calculate results based on other values that can be tuned (changed by the user to refine the result).
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