Game Design

How Deep Is Your Game Design?

Measuring pole

Jay Barnson posted a link to a video of Chris Hecker’s game rant from GDC. More details from Hecker’s own site at Please Finish Your Game.

The rant is great, so I suggest watching the video and reading Hecker’s article. To summarize, he is concerned that game developers, especially indie developers, are too satisfied with making lots of quirky, simple games, especially within a short period of time. With competitions such as Ludum Dare encouraging developers to create games in a weekend, Hecker agrees that cool mechanics can come out of them, but he wonders if there could be more value in exploring those mechanics as deep as possible.

He gives the example of Jonathan Blow’s Braid. Hecker argues that Braid has more value than hundreds of Indie Game Jam games.

I think Braid has more value because it explores its mechanic to the depth the mechanic deserves. I strongly feel that game mechanics have a kind of natural depth and value, and it is our duty as developers to follow a mechanic to its logical and aesthetic extent.

In a somewhat related article, Alex Weldon of Bene Factum wrote Density, Not Volume last year, and he argues that game designers should create games that focus and serve core mechanics rather than try to pile on as much as possible. Adding to a work doesn’t always make it better. It just makes it more. He gives the example of the original Super Mario Bros.

In these games, the player has a very limited range of powers and the enemies are likewise more like variations on a theme than completely different entities – in Mario, for instance, the Koopa is essentially a Goomba that leaves a shell behind when killed. Buzzy Beetle is a Koopa immune to fireballs. Spiny is a Koopa immune to being jumped on. Terrain and power-ups are similarly limited. The level design is based around the interplay between the player’s finite abilities and this small range of assets and challenges, presented in different combinations. And that’s enough – the original Super Mario Bros. has 32 levels, but manages not to be repetitive, because the designers were forced to be creative with what they were given. The resulting game is simple but dense, in the sense that every ounce of potential has been squeezed out of these simple building blocks.

Hecker argues that game mechanics and dynamics need to be fully explored more often. Shipping shallow games quickly isn’t enough. Weldon argues that designing a game from a bottom-up, mechanics basis is the way to go. In both cases, quality and depth is praised over quantity and volume. Cranking out 20 games a month is impressive, and you can probably discover some cool mechanics in the process. Still, it would be much more valuable to players and the game industry if you went back to some of those quickly conceived games and fully explored what is there. For example, Blow explored time manipulation thoroughly, and he didn’t add unneeded elements, such as 3D graphics for the sake of it. The game had a lot of depth, and it didn’t feel disconnected or filled with useless cruft.

How do you feel about Hecker’s rant? Do you agree that more game developers need to “follow a mechanic to its logical and aesthetic extent”? Are indie games too shallow by and large?

(Photo: Measuring poles | CC BY 2.0)

3 replies on “How Deep Is Your Game Design?”

It’s always questionable to suggest that developers “need” to do something. On an individual level, all that that we need to do is to follow our muse and to make games that we want to make.

On the level of the medium, yes, I think that there’s something to be said for digging deeper. The vast majority of interesting ideas cannot be explored, nor even imagined in a day or a week.

At the LD GDC meetup, I listened to a few of the guys talk about indy making games, and it’s a small sample size, but they found that they can earn just as much money on a game that took two weeks to make as they do on a game that took two months to make. They struggle with the conflict of making a living, and making a more ‘complete’ game, in the sense that it’s used here.

I agree, games that fully explore a small series of simple ideas can be very popular and successful games. I think being easy to learn makes a huge difference with the casual or inexperienced crowd. Once the player masters one concept, the game either slightly changes it or add something to it, and the players have to learn that. The skills they learn are used to defeat the boss. This gives the player many little rewards that build up into a feeling of accomplishment.

“Yea, I can beat these Hammer Bros! What’s this? Boomerang Bros!?”

Unfortunately, small 1-3 man teams of developers probably don’t have the financial backing to fully explore a concept to the proper conclusion, and the bigger companies don’t like to take risks on uncertain concepts. Somewhere in the middle is perhaps a company that can see the potential in something like a LD48 entry, and there are outlets like the PSN, XBL and Steam that can reduce the risk.

I guess part of the argument is whether you define success through sales or through art. If you can make a living with something simple, that may be all you want to do. But if you’re trying to do something great, something that makes an impact on the industry, pushing the game to its logical conclusion makes you and the game stand out a lot more.

Blow spent about $200,000 in the making of Braid, and no, that kind of money isn’t always available to small teams. Still, I think it should be possible for indies to cheaply explore a mechanic more fully. Paper prototypes are one way. And perhaps trading money for time is another way, but that obviously has limitations if you have mouths to feed at home.

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