Like a Book with Faces

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I’m in the middle of some, let’s say stuff, regarding the possibility of doing all of this and maybe getting paid for it. The idea is thrilling, especially given the pedigrees involved and the whole idea of the thing itself. I can’t talk about it though, since it’s still very much on a simmer, but maybe soon. However, I have a small dose of The Fear, just enough to keep me from being confident. That fear, comes from some Tea Tabling that I went and did.
First though, some history. In certain Nintendo circles, it is said that Saint Miyamoto will periodically come around, like the jolly guy he is, and visit with the game studios at the Big N. All smiles and joy, he will request to play the game said studio is working on, then meet with the Producer or Director or Planner or whatever. These meetings, taking place in Japan, are based around the possibly stereotypical, but just as likely archetypal, tea table. It is here, at these meetings he will ask a simple question, which destroys possibly years of effort, “When are you going to make the game fun?” When Miyamoto thinks your game is broken, it just is. So the team will frequently go back and try to make it better. Consequently, the Nintendo studios and their adjunct Producers have a mighty and terrible fear of being Tea Tabled.
Which is what I think I may have done. The problem is, when I do it, I may come across as a punk since I currently lack an AIAS Knighthood. But that’s not the case at all, that’s more to do with the way that I design anything. I think another story is in line here, for illustrative purposes.
The story goes like this : As part of this new thing I can’t talk about yet, I was requested to play some Facebook games. So I went in a set up an account (which I may or may not let the rest of you have {“rest of you” really?}) and got to playing some “games.” I quickly ran into an issue. The problem has to do with how they are constructed. They seem to fall into 2 broad categories. The first of which is a Mafia Wars style click-fest. Basically, it’s something you can participate in without paying attention. Clicks are made, outcomes are calculated. That’s it. There is no gameplay. Yes I know, Diablo was clicks and outcomes, but there was more to it. Upgrades, the loot heap, different abilities that you could use, levels to gain. In it, the clicking is a means to an end, not the end of the road. So they’re screen savers for your brain. I moved on.
I then got into playing a little Farmville, which is like the base building portion of an RTS. Resources come in, buildings are constructed that provide additional resources, and you keep building until you like what you have. Having friends nets you more space somehow. It’s all fine and good, but what is called by Designers as The Core Gameplay Loop (not to be confused with the Programming Game Loop, which is a different thing altogether) is Build, Harvest, Repeat. That’s 3 things, with the occasional additional option of Shop.
In effect, the whole thing is totally self serving. You build stuff so you can build more stuff. There is no purpose, and frankly no point. Although now the Wife is totally hooked on Happy Aquarium and I have no idea why. It may have to do with the ability to teach her fish tricks, which possibly feeds the Poke-Cortex part of her brain. I keep asking anyway.
In any event, that’s how the story goes, and that second part is pretty much what I said in email when I was asked what I thought about Facebook games, having not played them before. But I’m in an odd situation with this one. If I come on to make more games like the ones I played, then that’s not really very good now is it?
The issue that I have, is one of bottom up design. I think I went into this before, but Bottom Up Design (also sometimes referred to as Inductive Design) is taking the vary small, and figuring out the very big. So as a Designer I’ll usually start with a Core Mechanic, a very specific thing and I’ll start building around it. So for Thief, I honestly started with the Triple Jump Mechanic – Jump, Double Jump, Dash. Then I built around things to do with that mechanic, and how to enhance it. So wall hangs, wall jumps, pits, lethal falls, all go into enforcing the jumping mechanics and exploiting them. The downside of this way of thinking, is that it is very easy to add stuff for no reason, since it is fully possible to lose sight of the overall vision when so much focus is put onto the details. On the other side, the basic parts of play tend to be better represented. It’s more of a True Game approach, which is why I like it so.
The other kind of Design is Top Down (or Deductive Design) which is having a Big idea, and figuring out the pieces that should go with it. If I were to do this for Thief, it would start off as, “We have this Thief character who is trapped in a dungeon and needs to escape. Very acrobatic.” So then we think he needs to climb and he needs to open doors and maybe he fights. Odds are, the game will look quite different than it does now. This isn’t a bad thing per se, if it is done right. Big thinking tends to work best in arty “games” where the core conceit is as important to the whole as the mechanics. Nothing wrong with that, it’s just not my bag.
Anyway, the clicky games all seem to come from the Top Down school of design. So they think, “We want to make someone a gangster, what do gangsters do anyway?” So they give an option to run missions, and give the whole thing a very gangster feel. But it’s all just window dressing really. The same mechanics are also applied to a Car Racing game (try it, the “racing” isn’t) and the only changes are that names of things and the coat of paint. It’s sad really, which is why I tea tabled them.
But, and here’s the kicker, they could be so much more. Facebook has an integrated community already, with preset groups, cliques and guilds ready to do something together. That right there, an open platform with built in multiplayer support is phenomenal. No getting servers to talk, nothing like that. It just is. That could be used for the powers of good.
Also, if making a game, give it a purpose. Give a player the option to do things for themselves (since it seems the “look at my giant farm” mechanic works for some reason) but then allow them to do something with it, something with tangible benefits. Give the Missions a reason as well, and most importantly, give the player a damn game to play while they do it. Click and payout is broken.
While I was looking at these, I was trying to find the reason they worked and started building my own. I’m not saying that I’ve gotten it all figured out just yet, but a Core Mechanic needs watering and love before it can grow.
I just hope that feathers haven’t been ruffled, since my intentions are pure.

– In development news, I’m seriously considering another Combat tear down. The current system works rather admirably, and plays rather well, but Producer me is thinking about cutting it because it is so asset intensive. I may be able to do more with less, but every place I start gets me back to the first iteration, or the current one. A paradigm shift though would likely undermine the entire project though. I’ll think about it some more.