Game design is tricky in a lot of different ways and can lead to some amazing, unique things. You can read here about how gamers are quite literally helping astronomers discover exoplanets through the game design of EVE Online. However, given the amount of time players spend on games, particularly in the hardcore communities, poor design can often damage or disappoint players, developers, and the game industry as a whole. For years, Youtube channel Extra Credits has discussed the ramifications of game design far more eloquently than I ever could, but there is one design decision that particularly applies to Orbitroids that I would like to discuss today: Should games imitate reality?
Depending on who you ask, you are likely to get a variety of opinionated answers on this subject. Many designers I know would argue that you should diverge from reality at every opportunity where you can facilitate ease of gameplay. After all, no one complains that Mario can jump several times his own height, or that Sonic the Hedgehog is blue. It is easy for players to accept these absurd rules and enjoy them in the context of the game. On the other hand, educators and people who understand the real-life complexities behind a game’s premise are likely to argue the opposite. By simulating reality, you are allowing your players to discover something authentic through the gameplay, and any challenges posed by your game’s realism will likely lead to your player reaching a realistic solution.
When I first started working on Orbitroids, I tended to side with the second category of people. Being an avid player of Kerbal Space Program, I was amazed at how I could actually research space and aviation history in addition to astrophysics and rocket science when coming up with a mission plan in the game. Unsurprisingly, I designed the physics and the planetary systems of Orbitroids similarly to Kerbal Space Program. That is, I kept the physics as realisitic as possible (within 2 dimensions), while creating wildly disproportionate asteroids and planets.
It is particularly important to me that Orbitroids follows the laws of motion outlined by Newton and Kepler. That way, players who understand these principles would be able to use them to their advantage: seeking safe orbits near Lagrange points to avoid collisions, and taking the Coriolis effect into consideration when shooting a target. Players who do not understand these things would have the opportunity to learn about them, either implicitly through gameplay, or explicitly through research. To me, this is a crucial element to make the game interesting.
Implementing Newton and Kepler’s laws of motion comes with some problems however. Maneuvering the space ship in game is not intuitive at first. The original Asteroids game by Atari helps the player out by slowing the ship down over time, and allows them to cross the screen when they fly out of bounds. This in turn, breaks physics. Moreover, these fixes actually work to the player’s disadvantage when they are orbiting a planet. After brainstorming a number of alternative ways to overcome these problems, I realized that the hardships involved were being caused by the ship’s control scheme as well as the physics system. To remedy this, I made the ship controllable by the mouse. That way a player can simply point and click where he or she wants to go, and get there with relative ease – without breaking physics!
How should designers handle the decision to incorporate realism into their game? Obviously, it depends on the type of game, and the target audience. Flight and racing simulators require immensely detailed realism, while most indie titles and Nintendo franchises relish in their divergence from it. Personally, I have found it useful to treat realism as a tool rather than as a default basis. Whenever I ask myself if something should be realistic in my games, I answer it by identifying what it teaches. Is it something that the player will feel accomplished by learning? Or will they simply question why your game’s design couldn’t be more intuitive?