DW Lesson 4: Play and Push
Thursday, October 23, 2008 at 10:47PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Bangai-O Spirits, Game Development

To preface this lesson in the Designer's Workshop, I invite you to listen to a talk Jonathan Blow gave at the Nordic Game Jam in Copenhagen. Jonathan Blow is one of the main driving forces behind Braid, an exceptional puzzle game.

Blow's concept of push applies to those who are designing video games. That means us. While continuing to work with Bangai-O Spirits, in today's lesson we're going to cover how to come up with strong game ideas and how to push those ideas so that they can develop into top quality levels.

As I've said before, ideas for gameplay comes from life itself. Consider the following. The heart of the video game medium is interactivity, which is essentially action and reactions. Our day to day lives are jam packed with action and reactions. For the most part, we don't pay much attention to most of our actions having learned to get by largely on "auto pilot." Still, for those willing to look deeply and closely enough there are all kinds of interesting actions and reactions to pay attention to even in a very mundane life. Bringing out the poignant beauty in the simple, common, and overlooked is what makes great poets great. It's the simple things we all experience that can have the biggest impact on us through art.

Let's go through the steps.

1) Range of Mechanics

I covered a large part of the core design on Bangai-O Spirits in detail in my review. Keep in mind, there are many other specific interactions in the game. It's good to be familiar with these, but it would be unnecessary to write them out at this time. The best way to become familiar with a game's mechanics is to play through the game as thoroughly as possible with your critical-eye active.

2) Editor Limitations:

To sum up, anything we create using Bangai-O Spirits stage editor will ultimately play like Bangai-O (ie. the core mechanics that were outlined in step 1). Even if we limit and influence the gameplay, it'll always be Bangai-O at the core. If we try and change the game beyond these limitations, we'll inevitably remove the play out of the experience. For now, that's something we will avoid at all costs.

3) Influence and Play

Identifying the range of mechanics helps us think along the lines of the core actions. Listing the limitations of the editor sets the scope for any idea we might come up with curbing our ideas so we don't attempt to make anything beyond what's possible. After steps 1 and 2, we must begin thinking small. Just like we did with Brawl in the lesson on influence, we start small by working with the bare essentials. In Brawl's case, the players only needed a surface to stand on.

For Bangai-O Spirits, since players are free to fly around in all directions, the bare essentials consist of some space to move and a target to destroy. From this base, walls, enemies, health boxes, and other game elements are added to influence how the player flies and destroys.

 Why Play is Brainstorming

Instead of trying to start with the game idea and then convert, translate, and shift that idea into the gameplay, it's much easier and much more effective to do it the other way around (at least until you gain more experience with creating your own levels with a particular game). The best place and way to play is with a friend and in the stage editor. Halo3, LittleBigPlanet, and Guitar Hero: World Tour are of a small set of games with multiplayer editors. So in general, play-brainstorming will be a solo activity.

When play-brainstorming in the flexible editor environment, if you stumble upon something interesting, fun, or cool and decide to develop that discovery into a game idea, you already know the idea will work in the game. When playing around let your curiosity be your guide. If you ever find yourself thinking, "I wonder what will happen if I do ....." then be sure to follow inkling. Because by this point in the process you've already outline the range of mechanics and have significant experience with the game, the thing you're wondering about is most likely quite unique. I remember wondering what would happen in Super Mario Brothers if I kicked a Koopa shell against some bricks. We all know that the shell bounces off the brick breaking it in the process, or so we think. Apparently, in Super Mario Brothers, the shells only bounce off of the bricks without breaking them. At first I found this to be odd going against years of Mario teaching. But on closer investigation I realized that there isn't a brick in the entire game set up so that a Koopa shell can be kicked into it. So even though the bricks don't break, you'll never know by playing the game. So my inkling was indeed telling me to do something unique. "Trust your instincts," Peppy Hare.

Play around. Experiment. And be sure to take note of the results and any other interesting occurrences. It's a good idea to have a pen and paper nearby or a computer handy to keep track of your progress. Even if all designers could keep everything straight in their heads, it never hurts to have a back up. Plus, it's easier to show/explain your ideas to others if you have an organized record of them.

4) Identify and Push the Game Idea

To push a game idea means to dig deep into the idea so that it delivers an experience that isn't flat or lacking. It means being creative, finding the heart of the idea, connecting with the inspiration, and understanding its parts so you can control the balance between them. Pushing an idea means being aware of common associations that stem from the idea and doing any necessary pruning so the idea can grow in a clear direction. Pushing a game idea means asking yourself "Is this as far as this idea goes? Is this as far as I can take it?" Depending on what type of game idea you decide to use, there are different methods to push it.

For a game idea that...

When trying to convert and push an action/concept from life into a video game level to be communicated via interactivity, it's important to ponder the function, action, or general motion of the concept. Generally, if a concept involves time, the conceptual time translates into game time or even game space. Moving forward in a game is functionally similar to advancing time. After all, when Mario stands still in Super Mario Brothers and there are no enemies around, it's as if time is frozen. If the concept involes actions, the actions translate into mechanics or forms. The concept of punch in a video game would most likely feature a character punching. However, if you put the image of a fist on the end of a stick and gently knock over an object with this stick, the idea/action of "punch" would also be successfully communicated. Finally, if the concept is a function, then it can only translate into game function. If the function yields a positive result, then it's best to have the translated function advance the player towards completing the goal which is usually a positive thing for the player.


In the next lesson, I'll detail several game ideas I'm working on for Bangai-o spirits.

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (http://critical-gaming.com/).
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