Tuesday, August 18, 2009

My Rules of Kodu Design

1. Write it down on paper first
    I always write down all of the gameplay mechanics on paper – and I write down the progression of learning those mechanics down as well. This way, I know if the game progresses at an even pace, and when to introduce new gameplay mechanics.

2. Build your basic game play first, THEN embellish
    (This does not hold true if you are like Tavish or OoOoMonkey – half of the fun of their games is exploring the awesome artwork). I always make my environments SUPER stripped down first, then embellish later. This will make sure you have all your core gameplay elements in place BEFORE you start dragging down your resource meter. Plus, when you’ve just sketched out the levels, it doesn’t feel as disastrous when you realize that it’s not working and you need to throw an element away. 

    In Portal, the original boss fight was going to take place over a giant COMPUTER SCREEN on the ground. I spent a whole night writing text commands on it in Pixel Art, adding the boss into the center of the room, throwing a bunch of turrets in … and then I realized that I HATED the gameplay. I deleted the whole thing, rethought the concept, sketched it out on paper, and then re-created it with much more focus.

    Now, to be perfectly fair, I design my games to feel minimalistic, so this advice won’t hold true for everyone. Sometimes you need to create the environment around you to see what gameplay emerges.

3. Pick a Perspective
    For me, the “free” camera option is the least desirable. I know, some people love it – however, it makes the gameplay overly complicated when you have to worry about the camera and the bot independently. The camera just doesn’t respond as well as it needs to. I would rather a fixed perspective or a fixed offset camera – this way, I just have to worry about controlling the character and not about whether or not the camera is going to get hung up on a wall.

4. No instant death scenario
    If the player can instantly die and see a GAME OVER message within the first 10 seconds of play, there really is very little motivation to continue exploring the world. Very few games benefit from the 3 lives and then it's over scenario. The game has to be extraordinarily well-crafted for the player to fight death repeatedly to find the end.

5. Spend time on a robust SPAWN system
    The toughest part of designing any game for me is usually the spawn system. I spend a lot of time making sure everything plays the way it should. In Portal, it was easy – a cloud was listening for the player – when it didn’t hear them for a few seconds, it would score a point that a ROCK down below would register and respond to. In Dual, it was a little tougher – I had 2 characters to keep track of, as well as a KEY object. More “What ifs?” What if one dies while holding the key? What if one dies while the other one has already passed through the door? What if both die at the same time?

    At the end of the day, the respawn system is without a doubt the most important gameplay mechanic I work on – it enables the player to roam, explore, and keep trying even when the going gets tough.

6. Limit the amount of buttons to control
    Kodu games are meant to be pick up and play. If someone doesn’t understand the controls in a few seconds, they will never make it through the game. You can, however, have more complicated controls if you:

7. Introduce new control elements and gameplay over time.
    In Portal’s progression, the gamer first learns to press A to teleport. Then, in the next stage, they learn how to fire their own portals. Then soon after, they learn how to make their portals launch further. Then, in a subsequent stage, they learn how to teleport WHILE the portal is in the air. Then they learn how to use the SAUCERS to transport wisps. Then they learn that BOMBS can travel through the portals.

    So … Gameplay mechanics:
    1 – teleport
    2 – launch wisps
    3 – launch wisps further
    4 – teleport through wisps
    5 - use saucers to transport wisps.
    6 – use bombs to fire through portals

    That’s 6 gameplay mechanics … imagine if you started the game with all of those abilities. No one would be able to comprehend them all and would quit out before they got to the fun stuff.

    The important thing here is that by slowly introducing elements, you are building trust with the player. They get to see that you have thought it all out for them, so that they will not get stuck on a huge bug or an unpassable task.

8. Don’t sit on it forever
    So, finally – get the game to a place you like it … and then get it out there. You can always post new revisions, expansions, etc. But to help the community grow (and to allow people to help you refine the gameplay) you need to release it and get ready to deal with the feedback. If you can get a crappy youtube video of your game up, even better. It’ll encourage people to spend the extra time to grab your game.

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