Game Design: Secrets of the Sages [2000]

Date: May 2000

Source: Saltzman, Marc. Game Design: Secrets of the Sages (p. 138). 2nd ed. BradyGames.


As lead game designer on Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee and Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus, Paul O’Connor has learned quite a bit about game design (not to mention that he’s been designing games in some form since 1981). O’Connor provides a different take on this chapter, since the first two Abe‘s games are “side-scroller” platform games, in 2D. But do the same principles apply? What are the three most important considerations of a level designer?


O’Connor asks, “Will the player understand the level, puzzle, or situation? Is it clear to the player what he must do to solve the puzzle? Is it fun?”


As Each Oddworld designer works on his own levels, and as the order of those levels sometimes isn’t determined until late in production, how does this particular level fit into the overall game flow in terms of difficulty and what you’re demanding of the player? If this level requires mastery of a specific [mechanism], has that [mechanism] already been introduced earlier in the game? In other words, are the level design and difficulty level appropriate for the anticipated placement in the final game?


Finally, O’Connor says to ask yourself, “How does this level advance the story of the game? What vital information does the player gain by completing this level? How does it connect with the preceding and following levels?”

O’Connor comments on sketching out levels:

I do occasionally [sketch out levels] if the situation is novel. The level editor we used on the two Abe games was flexible enough for use as a composition tool. Usually, I’d just sit down in front of the editor with a rough idea of how many screens the budget would afford for this portion of the game, and a notion about the type of play I wanted to accomplish in this area, and then go from there.

(pp. 182-183)


Software engineer Todd Johnson worked on products including Genesis’ Sylvester n’ Tweety in Cagey Capers, Demolition Man, and Izzy’s Olympic Quest, and PSX’s Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee and Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus. As a programmer, Johnson says, the most important consideration is to recognize the limitation of the target system. He explains:

I come from a console background, where we always struggle with a small amount of RAM. For example, Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus had to constantly swap animations, backgrounds, and even code into and out of RAM. On a PC, though, you might run into performance problems. Either way, some aspect of the target system will affect how the game is put together.

“Second, consider the player,” says Johnson, because “after all, he is the one shelling out cash for the game.”

This generally means not to get too complicated. When we first started working on the emotions of the Mudokons in Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus, they each had their own personality and would react in different ways. From the user’s point of view, though, it seemed entirely random because they all looked the same. We kept the emotions but scrapped the idea of personalities.

And last, “think reusability,” suggests Johnson:

It takes a while to code a design, so if the game is loaded with unique features it won’t get done for years. The other extreme is complete monotony, so the trick is to balance the two. By adding simple parameters such as speed or timing to existing characters and mechanics, you can get a lot of mileage out of them.

What does Johnson see as the biggest obstacle for a programmer when trying to create a game?

The biggest obstacle in game production is the communication gap. You have programmers, artists, and designers on a project, and each group has its own identity and realm of experience. It’s much easier to communicate within the group than outside it, but that’s they key to a successful project. Communication with someone from a wildly different perspective is one of those things that simply isn’t taught in schools. That’s at least part of the reason it’s such a big problemnot only at game companies, but for any business.

(p. 242-243)


Scott Easley is the senior animator for Oddworld Inhabitants, and has been there since its inception as a word-class development studio. Outside of Oddworld Inhabitants, Easley won two Emmys for the animation and also writing of a television commercial in 1994, and he also did the first computer-rendered poster for Marvel Comics in 1995.

Easley believes gameplay takes precedence over everythingincluding animation. He explains:

The game designer should create the best game he can, without the bias of including animation or graphics because it looks cool. It should be the last thing on his mind, as opposed to the engaging gameplay. We make stuff look sexy, but it should be restricted to when useful, not gratuitous. Imagery is all about conveying a clear story, as in movies or commercialsor gameplay, in video games. If I see one more chrome gargoyle on a demo tape, I’m going to throw the TV out the window. Tell me a story with animated blocksand no spinning camera. Conveying the message is premier, and in most cases, people get drunk on the imagery possibilities.

When asked what makes the animation in Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee and Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus look so good, and whether he can share any tricks or techniques, Easley replies:

There’s no secret pill or “Do It” button. It’s simply studying motion as best you can with the same basics afforded the Disney folk or Max Fleischer. Look at the Eadweard Muybridge photographs and copy them, verbatim, into a skeleton you’ve made to have the same proportions in your software. Make the skin of your character out of boxes. Stay away from anything other than a boring block model so you can concentrate on motion alone. Study it from every angle, make it work from every angle. If you haven’t spent an exhausting week on a 12-frame walk, you don’t care as much as the guy who will get hired. Period. Study motion, as we all do, every day. Look at the silent body-language conversation between two people whom you see across the street or through a window. Are they in love, in hate, indifferent? Do extremes at firstthe grasp of subtlety will come with time.

What are the tools Easley uses to create breathtaking animation? Is there any motion-capture in the Abe‘s games?

I can’t stress enough that while motion-capture has its place for football or sports games, I believe it atrophies the natural abilities of the animator. It’s a quick way to impress friends and family, but you really didn’t animate ityou maybe modified existing data.

(p. 286-287)


As composer/sound designer at Oddworld Inhabitants, Ellen Meijers-Gabriel has written music and designed sound effects for both of the development studios’ products: Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee and Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus. Meijers-Gabriel says there are a number of important rules to keep in mind for game musicians:

First is to have a solid setup and to know how to use your equipment when starting out. Know your tools and the limits of the platforms you’re dealing with, so you don’t have to make major changes to your setup during projects. It’s also good to be organized and to archive your work. Try to get as much information as possible about the game that you’re about to work on. If you’re working on the music while the game is being developed, you can start with storyboard images and watch videos of the game as it comes along. Eventually, when the game is close to finishing, you’ll be able to play the game yourself, but by that time your work should be close to finishing as well. If you start writing the music after the game has been finished, you’ll have the advantage of being able to see the complete product that you’re writing the music for, but in this case it’s likely that you’ll have less time to work with. One of the advantages of working simultaneously with the development of the game is that you’ll get the chance to try things out and sometimes even to change the outcome of the game.

In writing the music, try to be inventive, break boundaries. Instead of thinking about the individual pieces, I like to think of the game as an interactive piece of music rather than just a series of linear songs. The type of music you write for a game depends on the people behind the creation of the game, and on the game itself. After having spoken to the people who created the game, you should have a good idea of the style of music they’re interested in for that specific game. After that, you’ll write something in that style while trying to match the action in the game as much as possible. When the music you’ve created represents the feeling of each level and character in the game, and it enhances the experience of playing the game, you know you’ve done a good job.

(p. 346)


We heard from this veteran game and level designer in Chapter 6, but he offers a few words here on breaking into the business:

My answer is to seek a well-rounded education. For every game you play, read three books. Take writing courses in college.

Develop an ability to critically analyze all forms of entertainmentlearn to break things down and determine what makes them tick. Game design is a collaborative art, so if you can’t get along with others, seek other work.

This task involves meetings and continual compromise. If you want to work alone in a garret, you’re better off writing novels. As far as breaking in is concerned, most game designers seem to start as testersit’s a low-wage job with impossible hours, but it’s your best opportunity to impress a company with your grasp of games and move up into a design position.

(p. 412)


As composer/sound designer at Oddworld Inhabitants, Ellen Meijers-Gabriel has written music and designed sound effects for both of the development studios’ products, Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee and Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus.

Her first interaction with music was when she was about six years old and living in Holland. She studied piano for about 12 years before/until she developed a problem with her shoulders that prevented continuing her normal practice routine. This inability to practice meant that she could no longer pursue her goal to become a pianist and was now faced with what to do with her life. Wanting to stay in music, she chose to pursue other less physically-intense aspects of music. As soon as she accepted this decision, she enrolled in a masters program in musicology. Even before finishing the program, she was drawn to the technical side of music, so she concurrently started a music technology program at a different school. She enjoyed the technical side so much that she then began a master of arts program in interactive multimedia at The Royal College of Art in England. Immediately after graduating, Meijers-Gabriel was offered the opportunity to start working on games for a company in America.

Future aspirations include doing sound design and music for feature films; she would also like to further explore morphing techniques and synthesizing sounds from scratch, as opposed to changing existing sounds. To do this, she hopes to use tools like Kyma, Software DSP languages like MSP, and physical modeling synthesis, among others.



As lead game designer at the Oddworld Inhabitants development studio, Paul O’Connor headed up Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee and Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus for the Sony PlayStation and PC. He has been a game designer in either a freelance or staff capacity more or less continuously since 1981, designing computer games, video games, board games, and role-playing games. He has also worked as a freelance writer, primarily writing comic books for Malibu and Marvel Comics.