Top Down Design / Toys in the Attic

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Hmm, no posts since the 13th eh? That brings 2 thoughts to mind. 1 being that I’m lazy (which isn’t exactly true – just too busy to update which is odd considering). 2 – That I’m sure that 80% of blog posts begin with “I know, no update. I’ll try harder I promise.” Which is also the last post for that particular blog since people stop updating it at some point.
So, what have I been doing? Well, working…and having a birthday. So now I’m 26, and I feel a few (new) weird urges. The first of which, I suddenly feel the need to update my Halo 3 guy and change his call sign from E25 to E26. The second of which is to buy a skateboard before I become too old to try to start. That way, I’m that cool guy that knows how to skate. Finally, at what point do I become too old to be the plucky young upstart? When do I stop being the bull headed rebel and start being the respected Revolutionary? Or even worse, when does it get to the point where it’s just a sad thing, like that 50 year old guy at the Comic-Con with the sketches binder hoping that this year will be the year that gets him signed?
Right, but that has nothing to do with anything. Back to the work and the whole point of this in the first place and the point of the Title. I finished the layout for the Cliffs Level and started going on the Wall+Rooftop which is going to be a lot shorter than originally planned (damned deadlines). For the Cliffs I tried something different from a level design perspective. I drew out what the level would look like before I started building the level itself. With the previous levels I worked out a basic floor plan, but there was no overall plot to the levels, instead each existed as a series of puzzles.
This is perfectly fine, but it does lead to making the individual levels a lot less special from a layout standpoint. Case in point – the second half of the prison level was supposed to be a sewer, but after designing the layout I realized that it didn’t look anything like a sewer. So I thought about it for a bit and now it’s a Storehouse with crates and things like that.
With the Cliffs I first designed what the cliffs look like and decided that having a sheer wall is not very interesting from a platforming perspective. So now it’s more of a large area cleared out by the sea with rocky overhangs and all that. So I drew that on my graph paper and then started going in and designing puzzles around the geometry that I had made. After doing this I realized that since the level wasn’t designed to be a series of puzzles, the puzzles that are there are not as difficult as previous puzzles, but they link better. For example, there is a series involving climbing more or less sheer walls. The puzzles are not that hard, but there the sequence has to be done right the first time, since a single mistake will make the player fall. Linking the puzzles to do that from a puzzle first perspective is actually quite hard, but it occurred naturally from the Top Down Design approach.

-So what does that mean? Top Down Design? It’s the process of creating the “Big” picture and working down from there. So visualize what you want and then figure out the steps to get that. This is in contrast with Bottom Up Design in which the Designer begins with a system and rule and then extrapolates and builds the game around that (which is what I prefer since I like rule systems). So an example : A Top Down guy thinks, “I want to have epic battles with X weapons. With Y types of monsters.” The Bottom Up guy thinks, “I think a Repeating Crossbow can be used for some cool stuff, like climbing walls or fighting monsters.” Both with eventually lead to some good stuff, but I find that Bottom Up often has better gameplay mechanics, since an entire game can then be built out of a few mechanics. Unlike say, GTA4, which I believe is a Top Down design, where there are a lot of things with very limited depth. On the other side is something like Ninja Gaiden Black, where it seems to have a Bottom Up design focusing on the combat which lead to a very deep Combat system and a more focused title (which I like more).

-Anyway, enough of that ramble and on to something else. I was looking at some previous IGF winners and a thought sprung to mind, “These aren’t games, they’re toys.” WTF? I’ll explain. Games and Toys are both fundamentally a system of rules. The difference is scope. The systems of a Game allows it to be expanded with little effort. It’s very easy (comparatively) to make new levels for Super Mario because the rule set allows for expansion. Or, the rules exist to allow the exploration of content.
Toys on the other hand exist only as an end to their own means. A Rubick’s Cube is a toy. It has well defined rules, but they are only there to deride pleasure from the Cube itself. The Cube will never have long term compelling gameplay and cannot be easily expanded. That’s not to say that Toys are not fun. Sim City is a Toy, and it’s a very fun one at that. So is Spore.
The point is when I see Crayon Physics Deluxe winning anything at IGF other than the Tech Award it gives me The Rage. If you want to show me good mechanics show me something that can be expanded to a full game that I will play for 20 hours. Do not give me a 20 minute diversion and try to pass it off as something groundbreaking.
So, with The Thief’s Tale I’m giving a more basic gameplay (I want to use the non term “Neo-Retro”) but then showing to what lengths that gameplay can be spread. I didn’t agree with many of the design decisions in Braid, but based on the amount of content, it deserved to win.
-Yes, “The Rage” is capitalized, like “The Fear.” If you think that’s a MGS3 reference, go read something by Hunter S Thompson. Pleeb.