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DW Lesson 4: Play and Push

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:

  • max 120 objects into a stage
  • unlimited background tile elements
  • can only set one starting position for all players
  • max 8 targets
  • can't alter or remove any player abilities including health, Ex meter, SHOOT, EX WEAPON, or BOOST
  • all targets will drop money when destroyed
  • all non targets/non health will drop fruit when destroyed
  • can't start the player with a specific combination of weapons or EX weapons

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.

  • can use falling Rockboxes and explosive lines to create timers
  • can use gates to influence the player to destroy enemies in an area before moving on.
  • can use fastbot, ninjabot, bigbot, or longai-o enemies to force the player into defense
  • can use cores to reflect player attacks to influence the player to play more conservatively
  • can use mines and lasers to influence air travel.
  • can use spawners to influence players to systematically destroy targets instead of clearing everything in one wide spread EX Weapon attack
  • can use narrow passage ways to encourage the use of the bounce weapons and EX Weapons
  • etc.

 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...

  • focuses on and governs mechanics and functions, pushing involves adjusting the frequency and difficultly of executing the mechanics. With that in mind, pushing such a game idea can also involve adding complementary elements/game ideas to give the core idea more definition and the entire level a more complete sense of a beginning, middle, and an end. In the level Which Way? players must travel down through a series of floors. On each floor, the players have the choice of going left or right. In each direction, enemies await the player. The first few floors are straight forward with the obvious strategy of "pick the direction with less enemies." But on the last few floors, the game idea becomes apparent: looks can be deceiving. Though one direction may appear to have fewer enemies, they're actually many enemies stacked on top of each other so that they appear to be just one. In order to effectively communicate this clever game idea, the level was designed to develop the player's assumptions step by step.

  • governs and privileges form over function, pushing involves figuring out what associations are linked to the form and how those associations can be married with the game's core mechanics and functions. For example, in the Bangai-O Spirits level DS of Doom, the entire stage takes on the form of a Nintendo DS. The DS gaming machine has two screen which means the action can take place in two places at once. So in this level, all the enemies are positioned in the spaces that represents the two DS screens. In order to access these enemies, you must blast through a small barrier that opens up both screens of enemies at once. Thus the game idea privileging the form of the DS was pushed to reflect the dual screen form through gameplay.

  • communicates meaning though interactivity, like writing poetry, the designer/writer/creator must create situations that allow the audience to experience varying degrees of freedom. When interactivity delivers meaning in the context of a gaming, winning, losing, and almost losing are games states that are directly tied to that meaning. Be careful of what kinds of functional messages are being communicated. Also adding additional game ideas or forms may be necessary to create an environment where the meaning can be most clearly communicated. In the level Push the Limits, in order to travel through the falling barriers, players have to BOOST through explosions. If you make it through the 5th barrier like this you'll most likely be very low on health. With little energy left, the final room contains a handful of enemies and a lone target. Just getting to this final stage requires players to push themselves near death. If the player takes up their freedom and "plays it safe" they will inevitably be locked out of achieving victory. To win the player must push. Thus the game idea of pushing oneself to the limit is expressed through the near suicidal level design. In this case, nearly losing doesn't mean failure.

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.

  • communicates meaning through non-interactivity, be aware that not interacting is a type of action. If the meaning of the level is communicated from little to no action by the player, keep in mind that these types of levels are like small jokes or snappy oneliners. Because the player isn't exactly engaging with the meaning/game idea, you must be careful to keep things as concise as possible while making the "punch line" as clever as possible. In the level Space Message, a player can start the level, receive the punch line, and destroy the target in under 8 seconds. If that's all you've got, then that's all it takes.


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

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