Monday, May 14, 2007

Yes, have some.

Today I got an email from a reader and fellow game designer/coder/developer named Jon who works hard over at White Tree Games. He asked me something that I had never actually written down before, so I was pleased to have the chance to do it.

"What are the main criteria behind the design of your games?"

Its one of those questions where you know the answer because its just something that's in your head, and has been so long its just sort of part of you. Like asking somebody "Why is holding the door for a woman polite?" You just know it is, you never thought about why, but given the chance to write it down you have the opportunity to quantify something pretty abstract and then let everybody else see the result. I'm a total essay nerd, I'm just going to come out of the closet right now and admit that I was the only one who liked getting writing assignments in school.

So here I go, trying to answer that question. What is the main criteria behind my games?

I want to keep the primary focus of Skill City on tournaments, which means that games need to be head-to-head directly, or indirectly within the game. Every game thus far has some kind of way that your positive performance will negatively affect your opponent (ie clear 4 rows at once in Quadria and you send rows of gibberish to your opponent).

I was playing with the idea that games could lack the head-to-head element as long as two unrelated games always had exactly the same odds on every level. Then scores could be compared post game in a fair environment to award the winner. This is how our competition works now, and one of the main reasons I started Skill City: I hate having my score anonymously compared to a faceless person and then told I won/lost. It removes all sense of community and competition, and makes the game little more than a slot machine where I get the results via form letter 5 minutes after pulling the handle. That is the opposite of competition, and the anathema of all fun and excitement.

I come up with games quite often in my sketchbook and fall in love with the idea of them, until I come to the big question: How is this going to be head-to-head? If I cant answer it, I gently turn the page and say farewell to that game design. This has happened only once.

Lucky for me most games are easy to tweak so that they have a head-to-head element. Even traditional game mechanics can be upgraded to support this. For example, I thought of about 4 ways to make Minesweeper head to head while I was trapped in the Seattle Airport last weekend for 6 hours. Thank to Starbucks and their sugary baked goods for making that hideously long pre-dawn layover bearable.

That's my primary criteria when I design a game, but there is more.

The secondary goal to achieve in my game design is to make the product fit Skill City. Skill City isn't just the software, its a whole world. When you first login you see a map that shows you the geography of the place these games are played. I have written pages and pages of story that the general public, much to my internal sadness, will never even read. In them I detail who founded Skill City, why they did it, who the characters that make up this place are... I created a world.

Why are you playing this game? What do you get for playing it? Where is the game taking place? Who is in the game?

This series of questions boils down to one thing: Theme.

By way of example take the game called KLAX that was pretty popular a while back, a long while back, like dinosaur times. It was fun, don't take me the wrong way. However I have a hard time with this game because if I was to try and update its mechanic to fit my world, I probably would have no trouble doing so and could even make some great improvements to it. (please disregard the sound of me tooting my own horn)

Anyway I would have a hard time thinking of how this game fits Skill City thematically. Skill City is a very Steam Punk meets Disneyland fantasy sort of place, I don't know how this weird set of 3D blocks tumbling at you can fit.

Then as I write this, I cant help but start to day dream about how it could... Maybe the board moving the pieces toward you is a river instead of a conveyor belt. The pieces are cute little turtles, frogs, and fish, and you stack them up in baskets. I then write a little story about how you are a fisherman and replace the cursor mechanic that was formerly some kind of platform that slid back and forth, with something more suitable. I have no idea what, but already my brain churns with the ideas and possibilities here.

I suddenly want to stop this email and go write a treatment for a KLAX type game.

I also use time as a limiting factor for the games instead of increasing levels. Pieces don't fall faster as you advance in score, the game doesn't get harder the longer you play. You can play at your own pace and just have fun, but to prevent you from just going forever I limit a round to 3 minutes. That also plays in to the head-to-head where two equally skilled players could conceivably play forever. Gotta prevent that.

Those are my two main criteria. Head-to-Head in real time, and theme. Its worth saying that everything else is considered as well, but not with the high priority. What is everything else? Easy to learn intuitive control, fun to play, bright happy graphics, sound effects and music that are acceptable when listened to 80 times in a row and that enhance your visual experience.

That would be a good blog entry for tomorrow. I'll talk about sound and music tomorrow eh?


White Tree Games said...

Hi Nathan,
Thanks for the info and the heads up (and the link), I think it's a very brave thing your doing theming the games within the SkillCity world, but I can see the advantages in providing a high degree of consistency, it's almost as if you could take your own avatar and have them star in the games against the avatar of your opponent (I'm sure you've already thought of that).

Kind of gives the whole environment a feeling of entering a funfair and moving round the different stalls (I'm sure you've already thought of that as well)...

Good luck with the launch, I'll download the client and have a wander round to see if there are any sewer areas that a revised Pipedreams might fit into.. 8-)


The Mayor said...

Actually thats one of the main features of Skill City's avatars, they are always in the game with you. You and your opponents avatar actually beat each other up as you play. lol

Check it out!

susan said...

I am now wanting to see the little river and turtles!