A few weeks ago I was invited as Game Design mentor at Game Jam+. It was a fun event that lasts 48 hours and that had a scientific theme, about water conservation and the impact of humans in the marine ecosystem, an important topic in a country with 4300 km of coast and only 180 km of average width! Also recently, I was invited as a mentor at the Women Game Jam – Chile. I want to share with you some insights that I share with the jammers on those two days, that hopefully could be useful not only for game jams, but also for future games and early concepts. I will be comparing each of the main points with Downwell, a game created by Ojiro Fumoto, because it’s a game that maximize all aspects that represents.
First of all, I want to start with a suggestion, that I could only analyze on hindsight. Learn to code. Just the basics will do for a game jam context. It could help you to test early ideas using rough shapes and code, what ultimately will help to create a better a game and speed up development (remember that almost all game jams last about 48 hours!). There are some alternatives though. Game engines like Construct doesn’t need programming, and Unity or Unreal offers “visual coding” alternatives. But if you don’t know the basics algorithms or “words” that you need to search in the context of visual coding, it will be a very difficult task. I add this suggestion because on that particular game jam, the lack of programmers result in many games with major bugs or games that could not be developed at all! That was sad, because many good ideas, design and art was forgotten in a sea of unusable or inexistent code.
GAME DESIGN TIPS
Now, on advices about the Design of the game. A game jam is an opportunity to share, give, and receive. This apply to the first stage of the development, the idea. Don’t judge ideas too much, this is a moment to create new things and test concepts that normally you wouldn’t test or that you don’t even imagine! Keep in mind though, the Design of the game. The first concept to have in mind are Interactive Loops. These are effectively the time and cognitive load on the player’s mind while taking decisions, and how the game responds to that choice.
It must be said that shorter loops take less cognitive resources, focusing more on physical skill and reaction while longer loops favours a thoughtful and slower-paced game style, taking more cognitive resources and therefore more time.
Action/Feedback: The player is mainly reacting to your game. It does not take a massive amount of cognitive space rather a fast-paced reaction gameplay, more focused on action. In Downwell, while the player is killing enemies is interacting with this loop, is just reaction to threat.
Short-term: Also called tactics. The player is mainly interacting making decisions to solve problems in the short-term. For example, the player can try to make a combo while killing enemies, trying to concatenate attacks without touching the ground.
Long-term: Also called strategies. The player is thinking mostly on a long term, interacting with a series of short-term decisions. The fact that the player can choose at the start of the game a different mode is a long-term decision. When the player completes a level she will have to select a buff. This decision is mostly taken thinking about the long-term.
Between short and long-term loop live what are called interesting decisions:
Risk-reward: The player has to decide between short-term decisions with a certain outcome or long-term decisions with a greater benefice but less certainty about the outcome. Concatenating kills is more difficult than play trying to touch the ground on a recurrent basis, but it could generate more gains.
Outcome Weight: The player weigh the relative outcome of many decisions, based on some arbitrarily decided heuristic. When selecting a buff, the player assign a value to each buff depending on many factors, like the current state, the player’s own style of play, the selected mode at the start of the game, etc.
Tradeoffs: The player is placed in the position of decide to gain a benefice, at the cost of losing some resources. The player must choose what cost-benefice is more convenient at the time of the decision. The game mode at the start of the game entices players to make decisions based on tradeoffs, for example have more maximum life but decreases upgrades options.
Now we go to the longer types of loops. In these, the player have to consider factors outside the game, so the decision time and cognitive weight increases drastically. The player must consider how the decisions makes him/her feel about beliefs, the effect on society and the cultural repercusion that the decisions could have.
Emotional: The player have to contrast the decision against their beliefs and moral compass.
Social: The player considers the impact of the decisions in the society depicted in the game or in the society that he/she is immersed or interacts with other humans players with a great amount of depth.
Cultural: The player analyzes the game as a cultural tool, measuring and living the impact of the game as and influenced and influencer on the society.
These longer loops are more difficult to achieve, because they require a longer thought process by the designers and the player. They also can potentially derivate on “propaganda” or dark humour games, and player tends to avoid and be very harsh with this types of games, creating a “love it or hate it” situation. If you want and you can, try to implement these loops on your game! We need more profound and thought provoking games, made with a more conscious process and intentional outcomes.
Systems and Emergence
Systems are engines that manage how resources are created, converted, traded, used and destroyed (to put it in the more resumed and easier way). You can apply system thinking to any resource in your game, not only the “physical” ones like wood, stone or bullets, but also more abstract ones like strategic advantage. Seeing your game through systems will help you to entice and create emergent gameplay. Emergent gameplay is created when a series of interconnected systems interact between them and with each other, giving the opportunity to the player to interact in a more meaningful and personalized way. Downwell achieves emergent gameplay by using procedurally generated dungeons, so the players can interact in different ways anytime they play. Also, the player is constantly managing resources, taking risks to increase the gem amount and therefore make more damage on enemies.
When you can, analyze the “Feel of the Game”. This considers the process from the input to the output. Make your characters or overall interactions feels right takes a lot of testing and previous knowledge, so defining the game feel early in the game jam will help to implement it much better! For the input, try to minimize it as much as possible, but maximizing the output. This is effectively make that one button make many things, in a consistent and predictive way. To maximise the output consider not only the output actions, but other factors like sound and visual effects, that could play a major role changing the feel that you deliver to the player. Many games focused on action/feedback interactions depend a lot of the game feel. Game like Downwell or Super Meat Boy would not be the same if the player character was not easy and precise to control.
5 FINAL TIPS
As a series of final tips, consider the following when creating your game jam game.
- Create consistent rules and behaviors, to give the opportunity to the player to plan ahead and understand your game. All enemies of the same type share the same behavior.
2. Give your player micro-motives, so they can engage in macro-behaviors. The player is constantly engaged in one or more interactive loops, so she can plan ahead while making decisions.
3. Use simple mechanics (low-level) that interact with each other, creating high-level mechanics. Downwell excels at this. The player can make just to things, move and shoot. Move is useful to take enemies down, but also to avoid enemies and land on the ground or on the enemies, effectively recharging the gun. Shoot is a multiple action mechanic. This button serve as the starting jump when the player is on the land, and also to shoot. Shooting allows players to stay longer on the air and kill enemies give the player gems, increasing damage. A player that can create an effective mental model of the game and how these two mechanics interacts is more likely to enjoy the game and to engage constantly on it.
4. Use procedural generation if you can, this will maximize the time of gameplay and replayability. As a roguelike game, Downwell depends on procedural generated levels, so each time the player play, it will encounter a new world but with the same known rules.
5. Be sure to analyze how the resources in the game are created, used and destroyed. How the player gain gems on Downwell? By killing monsters. How the gems are expended? The player can purchase upgrades on random placed stores in some levels. Other games like Soul Knight use this same economic interaction but add a new layer. You gain coins inside the dungeon, that you can expend to buy upgrades or don’t use the coins, that are converted to gems when the player lose. The player constantly assess the tradeoffs of her decisions, weighing the short and long-term probable outcomes.
RESOURCES TO EXPLORE
Bookworm as I am, I will recommend you some books and videos that inspire me and that I find useful to start my journey on Game Design but also to keep exploring new possibilities. I hope that it could proven useful to you too!
- Designing Games – Tynan Sylvester: A nice book for starters but also for more experienced designers.
- Why Does Celeste Feel so Good to Play? – Game Maker’s Toolkit: Focused on how this amazing games works and what are the metrics that make it feels good to control, contrasting it with other games.
- Game Mechanics: Advanced Game Design – Joris Dormans, Ernest W. Adams: If you want to know how to create resources’ engines, this is your book. It’s also an introduction to the Machinations framework, a framework based on system loops that could be very useful to test games early.
- Advanced Game Design: A Systems Approach – Michael Sellers: A thought provoking book and a new approach to Game Design. Systems thinking on Game Design isn’t a new thing, but I think this is the first book solely focused on this topic.
- Rules of Play – Katie Salen, Eric Zimmerman: If you want to really dig deep into your design, this is your book. It’s academic and fun, and the more important takeaway from this book is to learn to view and analyze your design from different perspectives.
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