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Sid Meier’s SimGolf is Game Design 101

by Eric Frederiksen | September 8, 2013September 8, 2013 6:00 am PDT

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When people think of losing entire days to Sid Meier games, they usually think of the many iterations of Civilization. For me, though, the purest form of drug to bear the legendary designer’s name was Sid Meier’s SimGolf. More than once I saw a sun set and rise again with SimGolf.

I’ve been thinking about what it was about SimGolf that put its hooks so far under my skin.

Golf is boring.

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It’s not baseball, but it’s pretty close.

SimGolf works because it’s not about golf so much as it’s about exploring how games work. Golf is just a metaphor to facilitate that exploration.

The goal of SimGolf is to make the ultimate golf course. As a golf course designer, you’re given enough space to create one, maybe two holes to play through at the start. To expand, you have to create a course that does the following:

  1. Makes the golfer feel challenged without, ideally, frustrating them. At the very least it shouldn’t frustrate them for so long that they never make it to the next goal which is to…
  2. Give the golfer a rewarding feeling when they complete a section of your course. They should feel like the time they spent was worth it.
  3. Let the golfer create their own story—they saw an alligator and a pelican on the course, how crazy is that?
  4. Offer a memorable and novel experience by giving the golfer interesting landmarks to look at and discuss with other golfers.

If you accomplish these things, you’ll bring repeat business in and make enough money to expand your course and improve the amenities available to your golfers. As the designer of the course, you also need to test your product and make sure it’s playable and entertaining.

Perfect Translation

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Nearly everything about SimGolf could be dropped into a lecture on game creation and design and work without much modification.

When making a game, the goals are almost identical. It’s tough to rank them, but they all play a role.

Regardless of the mechanic your game is built upon, the game should make the player feel challenged without frustrating them. This doesn’t work exactly the same for everyone, but it has to work in some way. Tuning difficulty is incredibly important in making a game. If a player goes in expecting a certain level of challenge and has no way to make their expectations meet with the creation, they’ll get frustrated and lose interest.

Valve’s games, especially Portal and Half-Life are built with this in mind. At any given moment, the player should feel like they know what to do and how to do it. That doesn’t mean the player can’t be perplexed for a while, but they should know what they’re capable of and what the game expects so that they can figure out the answer to the question in front of them.

Similarly, platform games like Spelunky and Mario depend on finely-tuned mechanics to ensure that if the player dies, it doesn’t feel like it’s the game’s fault. You can’t overcome the game’s problems, but you can keep trying and improve to get past your own.

Rewarding the player is important. Dark Souls is lauded for its challenge-and-reward structure. It’s a difficult game, but fans of the game describe the feeling of accomplishment as being better than anything out there.

A part of golf, fishing, anything like that, is the stories you tell your friends afterward. The same goes for games like Sid Meier’s own Civilization and any other game that offers freedom of play rather than pulling the player through a narrative. Not every game needs to take the player step by step through a narrative and not every game needs to have a system in place that lets the player come up with their own stories, but Sid Meier’s games especially have always been about that freedom.

Finally, unless the first few requirements are really stacked high, the game needs some novelty to it, usually in the form of graphics, animation, and music. Aesthetic elements help give the player context for actions and helps to place them in the narrative they’re joining or creating. They can even help the player dismiss a game’s other shortcomings. Games like Papers, Please and Hotline Miami use these elements to place the game in a certain time period to achieve the intended effect.

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Since the game’s release over a decade ago, it’s definitely shaped how I think about games and how I look at concepts like game difficulty.Sadly, SimGolf is still lost to the ravages of time. The game as it currently stands doesn’t install well on modern PCs. EA and Good Old Games have some work to do to keep this lesson in design available to gamers. The game itself is still fun and has aged well, but someone needs to make it possible to run on current systems. And hey, this could work on tablets, while we’re at it. Get to work, guys.


Eric Frederiksen

Eric Frederiksen has been a gamer since someone made the mistake of letting him play their Nintendo many years ago, pushing him to beg for his own,...

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