All Hail The No Twinkie Database

Bad design? No twinkie for you.
Bad design choice? No twinkie for you.

As the one of you who reads this has probably noticed by now, I have not really posted much new content recently. This is mostly due to the astronomical amount of coursework and applications I am currently going through.

There is, however, something I found through gamasutra. Something I really, really loved reading, which I will probably print and pin on a wall.

This is the No Twinkie Database. Ernest W. Adams, a game design lecturer at GDC (and founder of the International Game Developers Association) compiled through his years what he found to be game design faults into a simple, easy to browse list. It is both extremely instructive and entertaining to read. If you are into game design, you should definitely read it, then frame it or something.

Lumines: Electronic Symphony has a silly little mechanic

Before an angry mob storms my house armed with torches, rakes and stakes, I would like to make something clear. I adore Electronic Symphony. It is the game I played the most on my Vita, and rarely has a game given me such a blissful feel of sensory overload. Now that this is out of the way…

lumines

In Lumines : ES, your “avatar” (the character dancing at the bottom left of the screen) has a purpose. Activate it, and it uses its special power, which will benefit the player by adding some random blocks, shuffling the board or other effects. After use, this power needs to be recharged to 100% through the player’s combo bonuses. It is a lengthy process, as one combo adds 1% to the gage. This amounts to approximately 1% every five/ten seconds for a player with average skills.

However, the player can simply tap the back touchscreen to add the very same percentage to the gage. The tap is not limited in time. In other words, there is no latency or time to wait before tapping the touchpad again. Therefore, an average player could fill the entire power gage in less than thirty seconds.

Lumines: ES is a high-score based game. I personally play it to relax, but one could expect that high scores (and the way they are integrated with PSN friends) are what keeps some players coming back, to beat their friends’ high scores and reach the top of the leaderboard. This friend leaderboard is displayed on the main menu, from the moment you start the game.

What ties the flaws together is the simple fact that avatar power influences your score. It can get the player out of a lot of tricky situations, or multiply his/her combo, leading to an increased score. The fact that tapping is a very effective method of regenerating the power turns it from simple tool to necessity. Players aiming to reach world leaderboards, or just to impress their friends, will most certainly need to tap the back of the console maniacally to refill the power gage as fast as possible.

The ergonomy is worth mentioning. Curving your fingers around the system for repeated taps will loosen your grip and make the system’s face buttons much harder to reach. The best answer to this, I suppose, is having a friend sit next to you to take care of the relentless tapping.

Summing things up… The mechanic is physically inconvenient and can be subverted. It is imbalanced. It has a great influence on the final score, forcing the subversion on all players who would desire to climb up leaderboards.

One could guess that this feature was shoehorned into the game at the very last minute, following Sony’s request to make the most out of the Vita’s capabilities.

However, it may not be such a problem for hardcore Lumines veterans who grew on all the game’s iterations without the need for powers (only introduced in ES). Touching the avatar is a very short process, but that can cost some precious hundredths of second to very quick fingers at the fastest game speeds. This is why the most advanced players might ignore the tapping altogether, as it may prove detrimental to their style of play.

Three Thing Game: Ticks & Trips

Another wall of text!

Who does not enjoy winning things? I cannot say I was not satisfied when our team won the last Three Thing Game. But winning a competition which only spans on the duration of student life does leave a bitter taste in the mouth. Since this is the last year for us MEng students, it will also mark their last year taking part in the Three Thing Game. Some other teams who have been taking part since their foundation year were quite unhappy about us winning three times in a row, which is easy to understand.

Here are a few tips from what I gathered throughout the competitions that I hope will prove helpful. Make sure you also check Rob Miles’ blog, for other useful infos. I know he wrote a post with tips and tricks, but I just cannot find it… If anyone finds it, please give the link in the comments, and I will update this section. Speaking of comments, feel free to disagree, this is purely advice, and I’d gladly stand corrected.

Yes, indeed.
“Thou shalt not make a platformer.”

Take time to think.

I often see teams coming up with a concept in less than a day. This is mind-boggling, as everything a team will subsequently do revolves around that core concept. Getting the concept right should be something you spend time on. With a good concept, you will also thouroughly enjoy the competition! Taking time to think goes hand in hand with the next point:

Be evil with your ideas.

Be awful with them, as if you were a member of an elitict jury just waiting to tear them apart, like the Dragons on the BBC. When something comes as ‘The Best Idea Ever’, it might be a good idea to twist it, twirl it, and examine it first. Be a perfectionist. If something does not smell right (and there are many reasons for something not to smell right, as there are many more constraints in the TTG – see below) either drop it, or alter it in a way that remains meaningful to what the game is set to achieve. If you have an idea of a game that works and fits fine on very first hour, you are either a genius, or the idea will need refining. You’d be surprised how different (and potentially better) a game comes out when you had time to think hard. This difference needs to pop out at the design phase, and not at the implementation. The truth is, when you are starting to program, you must feel confident and have a clear picture of the game in your mind.

Do not be over-ambitious.

There is only a week. Think in terms of time, and how long making the game would take. Make sure programming the basics of the gameplay won’t take all of your time. This will give you some breathing space, and you will be glad to have some breathing time, which you can use in polishing the game.

Keep the art simple but coherent!

The game does not have to be pretty. It can, but it does not require very detailed/well drawn graphics to please the eye. However, what can make a game visually irritating is the inconsistency of its graphics. Like having an ugly texture in a very pretty game for instance, or using different graphical styles which don’t fit together. This usually happens when more than one person is working with the graphics, or when temporary art is left in because ‘it doesn’t look that bad’.

Mind the polish (I heard they are dangerous people).

Joke aside, and although it may seem like an afterthought, polish is extremely important. When speaking about the topic of polish, the phrase “You cannot polish a turd!” usually ends up being mentioned. While I agree with the principle, its opposite is, to me slightly different. A game with brilliant mechanics can be considerably less fun when it is rough around the edges. Take some time during development to refine the points that stick out, or the interactions the player execute the most. The key is to find which parts of your game are relevant to polish, and which ones would just be a waste of precious time. 

(Brace yourselves, here’s a pompous bit):

One key aspect of polish is feedback to the player. Feedback, in a way, is the way of the game to tell the player that his/her actions have a meaning. Lack of feedback is often the biggest lack of polish. As Ralph Koster puts it in his Theory of Fun, what makes a game fun is the assimilation of the patterns of its mechanics. It is learning. A very predictable pattern which is easily learned makes for a boring game, while a complex pattern leads to a challenging game. But challenging can still be boring right? The question is how? A hard game becomes boring when it stops giving cues for improvement, or when you just don’t get them. It is when you just cannot be asked to identify its patterns. By adding effects, such as simple particles when an enemy dies instead of just making it dissapear, you will show the player the result of his/her actions, and encouraging the learning of the pattern. Feedback directs the learning process.

Make a small, but complete package.

As Rob Miles quite often points out, a game needs a starting point and an ending point. It does not necessarily mean “A main menu with several options and an ending to the story”. What it does mean however is: “When I stop playing, I must feel that I accomplished something”. In other words, I should not feel like I am stagnating. When player control is removed (death, win), things like a win sound or message, or even a change in the character’s behaviour (in Pocket Starlight, when the boy got too close to the darkness, he would start falling down as a game over sign) can express progression feedback and help the game feel more complete. The easiest way to make a game feel complete is to introduce a simple, straightforward goal (which self-provides the progression feedback to the player).

You do not need multiple levels to make a point.

Another important point is that the game should not necessarily have multiple levels. Multiple levels will likely require a level editor, and the time spent building it could very well be spend on making other things. The word game stands for something that can be played and enjoyed, but it does not necessarily require a full suite of levels. If it is immediately shippable and sellable, good for you, but if you can get the point of the game across in one, well realised level, it would be well enough. Even better, find a design that does not necessarily require levels (multiplayer? survival?…).

Integrate the words.

You WILL get silly words. Everyone does. Everyone. The key in getting a game that fits with the theme is… well… to have the theme fit. Many people (including my team) have a more or less precise idea of what game they’d like to make. And when the words are attributed, this idea needs to change. Tacking on the words is not the solution. They must fit not only with the graphics, but with the context and the gameplay. Keeping the same game concept will only get you as far as a game with three things taped on it. Which is why you will absolutely need to go creative with the words. Being litteral isn’t always the best solution. (And I’ve heard that Nicholas Cage will be in the next word selection. Hope no one’s gonna be litteral with that one.)

Sometimes tacking on the words gives a wacky, zany result… And most of the time, to the point of mental indigestion. The game can be crazy or weird, but it still needs to make sense, to have a common ground on which the zaniness can stand on.

To conclude. DO. NOT. MAKE A PLATFORMER.

Choosing to make a platformer summarises most of the issues covered up there. They are harder to make than they look, they feel unoriginal in terms of the words (and making an original platformer gameplay would be even more time consuming), they often require levels, polishing them is a lot harder.

Only try going for a platformer if you are ABSOLUTELY SURE of what you are doing and how much time it will take to build.

And most of all, have fun, eat pizza, and wear a silly hat!

Because pizza comes best with silly hats.