Game Design Lessons I Learned From Hockey

I’m not going to lie: I’ve become a bit of a hockey fan since I was first introduced to the sport two years ago. It’s an exciting sport, and I find it to be a lot of fun to watch and follow. Now that I’ve been getting more into it, I’ve come to a realization: hockey and video games have a lot in common. Sure, they’re both forms of entertainment, and yes, there’s a series of NHL video games, but there’s much more to it than that. There are actually elements of game design that can be found behind the scenes in ice hockey, so keep reading to see the similarities I’ve found, and how they can be applied to creating games. 



Rules of the Game

Probably the most obvious similarity is that both hockey and games have rules. Without rules, neither would be able to function, or at least not efficiently. There are a lot of different types of rules, as well. In hockey, there are rules to keep players safe and to make the game fair for both teams, among others. In games, designers create rules to make sure the player gets the most out of the experience, to keep the player from breaking the game, to balance the game, and more. When creating rules for your game, you have to consider what you want and don’t want the player to do. For example, if you don’t want players to seriously injure each other, like in hockey, or kill other players or NPCs in-game, you’re going to need to make a rule that prevents that, or at least provides a large enough punishment to steer players away from that action. If you want players to know a specific rule, then you need to make it clear to them what it is and what the consequences are. If you don’t, they might break that rule, and then get mad for being punished for something they didn’t know they weren’t supposed to do. There are a lot of rules in games, but they’re not always obvious to the player, and they don’t always need to be.  You might have rules in your game that determine how many points certain moves are worth, which is something that most players aren’t going to sit down and figure out unless it’s important to actually know. I played the SSX demo the other day, and although score is an important part of the game, I didn’t need to know the exact algorithm the game uses to determine how many points a stiffy is worth. Of course, hardcore players might do this, which, in turn, might break your game, but you can find ways of keeping them from abusing this knowledge, such as lowering the amount of points if a player duplicates a trick in SSX. Overall, if players don’t need to know, you don’t have to tell them, but if it’s something they do need to know, you have to tell them.

While having rules is obviously helpful, it can irritate some players. If a hockey player hits another player in the head, they’ll most likely receive a penalty and a game misconduct, and possibly even a suspension, depending on the circumstances . The player who made the hit is probably going to be angry at the fact that they’re being punished. In this case, the punishment is necessary, since a hit to the head is very dangerous, but things might be different in your game. If you punish a player for breaking the rules, make sure that the punishment is justifiable. You need to make the punishment equal to the rule the player broke, or else players are going to feel cheated. If a hockey player was suspended for three games for tripping a player, they would find that to be an unfair punishment. On the other hand, if a player seriously injured an opponent, and little to no action was taken, the injured player and their team would find it unfair. In determining the proper level of punishment for breaking rules in your game, you’ll need to utilize play testing and gauge the testers’ reactions. Just remember that nobody likes to be punished and players are going to get angry no matter what, so the best thing you can do is to make sure that the consequences are fair and make sense given the player’s action.

Rules are in place for a reason, but having too many rules can make things feel boring and limited. If there were a bunch of extra rules in hockey that made the game almost impossible to play without breaking a rule, the players likely wouldn’t find it enjoyable anymore. Your game is going to have a lot more rules than hockey does, but if you slap a rule onto every little thing in the game, you’re going to ruin the experience, and probably the fun, for the player. It’s definitely a challenge trying to find the proper number of rules, so use play testing to your advantage to learn more about how players feel about the game’s rules. If your testers are frustrated because they feel like they can’t do anything, then you probably have too many rules limiting how they can play the game, which brings me to my next point…


Player Skills

Just like players in video games, different hockey players have different skills that they bring to the game. No two players are the same, and unfortunately, this isn’t always a good thing. Different play styles means more work for the designer, as you’ll need to predetermine as many different play styles as you can beforehand in order to make your game cater to various types of players. In hockey, players and coaches will try to guess the opposing players’ next moves, so that they can be prepared for anything and have a counter-play ready to go. You as the designer need to do the same thing when creating a game. Pretend your players are against you, and try to think what they would do. By doing this, you can implement different quests, weapons, and routes in your game to allow for multiple play styles.

Here’s an example: Let’s say you’re building a game like Skyrim. Obviously, in Skyrim, there is a lot that players can do, which leaves plenty of room for players to do what they want. But what if the designers never put in any of the weapon combat, and you had to use magic to fight?  That’s like telling a hockey player they can’t hit the puck with the stick; it totally changes the game. Removing the ability to hit enemies with a sword takes a huge chunk out of the game, but also reduces the number of play styles. What would all those players do that normally play as fighters? Without that option, those players would have to play differently, and because they would have to play a way they don’t normally, they’re more likely to get frustrated.

Of course, you aren’t always going to be able to allow for every single play style in your game. Even if you don’t offer different roles or classes in your game, you can still have quests that allow players to experience the game a little bit different than normally. Defensive players can also play on the offense and score goals, and you can do something similar, such as including a few stealth missions in your first person shooter.

Additionally, figuring out what your players are going to do before releasing the game will allow you to prevent certain play styles, if desired. If you’re making a game like Assassin’s Creed, for instance, you’re going to want to take measures that prevent players from just running up and killing a target in the middle of a city, such as guards. You can take similar approaches in your own game if you want players to play a certain way, but just be careful on limiting the play styles too much, or you might make things too constricting.

Aside from different play styles, it’s also important to realize that your players will have a wide array of skill levels. One player may be a veteran, while another might be fairly new to the game, so keeping this mind will allow you to make designs that appeal to both ends of the spectrum. Coaches aren’t going to keep a veteran player off the ice just because they’ve played the game before, and they aren’t going to leave fresh players out just because they’re new. You never want to isolate players for not being of a certain skill level, so you’ll have to do some work to ensure that a variety of players can enjoy the game, no matter their skill level.


Balancing Teams

Balance is an important part of games, although it can be difficult to do at times. Designers need to find the perfect balance between teams and players that offer both advantages and disadvantages, without putting one team or player at a higher advantage (or disadvantage) than the others. For each team, you need to create roles for attackers, defenders, and supporters, and each role needs to be balanced so no single role has a glaring advantage over the rest. Hockey teams look to do the same sort of balancing act with their players: each team needs both offensive and defensive players, as well as, of course, a goalie. If a team has a lot of defense but little to no offense, that team is going to have a difficult time scoring goals. If they can’t score any goals, they aren’t going to win very often, which is going to anger the players, the coaches, and the fans. For games, it’s the same thing: you need to find the right balance for, not just your teams, but for everything in the game. Even if the teams and roles are balanced, you could run into problems elsewhere that give one team or player an unfair advantage. When balancing your game, break things down in sections. Let’s take a look at the multiplayer for Gears of War 3. Multiplayer games require a lot of balancing to prevent one team from gaining an advantage, so in Gears 3, the designers had to consider player-based elements, such as movement speed, total health, and starting weapons, as well as level-based elements, like spawn points, weapon locations, health and resource locations, amount of cover, and choke points. You’ll need to take the same approach to your own game, as well as individual levels.

Maintaining a good balance doesn’t necessarily mean that everything has to be exactly the same for each team or every level. In fact, you want to mix things up a bit in order to make the game play more interesting. If two competing hockey teams were exactly the same in every single way, it wouldn’t make for a very interesting game. Sometimes, a player might be really good at one particular skill, but not very good at another. For example, one team may be better at power plays than another, but they’re probably lacking somewhere else. A similar occurrence can be seen in League of Legends, where one champion might be better with attack speed, but not have a lot of defense. You can use similar practices with your own teams and even levels to make the game feel more involved. 


Fun Over Competition

Sometimes in games, players can get too competitive and lose sight of the all too important element of fun. Winning is always a good thing, but there should also be aspects of the game that give players a break from all the competition and simply allow them to relax and enjoy the game. For every season in the NHL, there is something called the All Star Game, where the best players from around the league are gathered and face off. But the All Star Game isn’t really about winning; it’s a time for players to put their skills to the test and have some fun. It takes place about midway through the regular season, so it’s the perfect opportunity to give players a break from the competition. You can do this in your own games and levels, whether it’s by including fun little mini-games, side quests, or alternate game types. A good example of this can be seen in the Galaga games: after every few levels, there is a challenge stage. During the challenge stage, enemies simply fly by without firing, and the player tries to shoot down as many as possible. This allows the player to relax more than usual, and is an easy way for them to rack up bonus points. If you’re making a linear game, then you can stick fun levels like this in every so often. If your game isn’t linear, then you can have optional levels, side quests, or events that accomplish the same thing, and the player can visit them whenever they like. No matter what kind of game you’re creating, it’s important to give the player breaks every now and then to keep them from losing sight of the fun factor. 

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