From Chef to Order Up!

Lee Cummings has just reminded me that a while ago I worked with him on a few bits of Zoo's Order Up (http://www.metacritic.com/games/platforms/wii/orderup). When we first started it was called 'Chef' and I have just dug out the original design brief that Lee sent over for some comments. I'll use that design document as an example later on and look how the end product changed from the early sketches.

What makes a great game: Part 1 – Simplicity

Before I look at what the experts have to say on what makes a great game I’m going to give my opinion on it. Not that I think that mine should come first but more that I want to see how far away from the truth I am. I imagine quite far!
 
As we’re considering the main mechanics for our game I’ve been going through a list of my favourite games (not just electronic) and looking at what makes then special. The first one I thought of is the simplest and is an electronic game that was made for the Atari 2600 [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atari_2600] some 20 years after that console had dropped out of the market. It’s called Man Goes Down and it was made in 2004 by Alex Herbet who literally published it onto the web forum Atari Age. The original post is here: http://www.atariage.com/forums/topic/53689-my-1st-atari-2600-game-man-goes-down/page__hl__man%20goes%20down
 
The game is quite incredible in its economics. You play the eponymous ‘Man’ and your task is to go as far down as you can by avoiding getting pushed to the top of the screen by rising platforms. There is fruit to collect and some objects to help (or hinder) your progress. Your score increases as you collect the fruit and stay alive. And that’s it. Doesn’t sound like much but it’s incredibly addictive. It also has something that might not be measured by an evaluation matrix, it has ‘charm’. Where the hell does ‘charm’ come from?
 
You can see it here:
 
With what is presented to the user on screen, it is an incredible achievement. It’s not completely unique and does borrow a little I feel from Imagine’s Jumping Jack but what it presents to us is a masterclass in what makes a game great. 
 
The graphics are important but don’t get in the way of the game.
The game is very simple to understand.
The play is short, focused and has a gentle difficulty that accelerates as you do
The game punishes your mistakes in a way that you understand that they are your mistakes i.e. not through poor design or implementation
The game has a great introduction screen and music theme, a great middle and a nice summary on game over.
It wants you to have another go.
So you do.
Again and again.
And again.
 
So back to the experts, how do you go about doing designing that, it’s not through serendipity is it? 

Do we need a formal way to evaluate our idea for a game?

Today Lee (http://www.linkedin.com/in/leecummings) and I started to knock around the start of a game idea but I had a couple of reservations. The first being that I wanted to have a nice big list of different ideas to choose from and secondly I wanted to have some way to evaluate these ideas. I felt the consideration and selection of the game idea at such an early stage without an effective way to decide how “good” it is could be dangerous.

To me, the actual idea that forms the game, the end product, is hugely important and central to its success. Or is this the first of a culture clash between the process laden (often over burdened) business software world and the game development world. Have I been brainwashed by years of using matrix based evaluation systems? Are games more art than science?

It’s probably the knock on effect from being around lots of Venture Capitalists over the years and perhaps that’s not a bad thing entirely. My instinct is to take my big list of game ideas and apply a strict criteria to each one to force the idea to hold up under scrutiny and see if it is worthy of my investment over the next six months.
 
At the moment we have a rudimentary table (attached as a spreadsheet) which I will use to list all the ideas then try to score them. The one with the highest score combined with my feeling for how much I want to do it will win (more on this touchy feely part later). 

Wow, check out all these cool graphs, this is how my amazing game will literally jump off the page at me. It will scream, “Oi! Bridge! Pick me, pick me. Look at my bright plumage. See how tall my y axis is. Don’t worry about your shaky assumptions that make up my foundations. Behold, I am here.” The figure above is totally unrelated to anything and is just a random graph I grabbed from Google. Still it looks nice doesn’t it.
 
Actually, this sort of process petrifies me. It reminds me of the many many many times over the past 15 years that I’ve sat in a meeting or a seminar and been assaulted by Powerpoint porn. You know the sort of thing: whizzing, fading, swiping and the gluttony of graphs that zoom in from outer space. Oh the humanity of it all. Pie charts, bar charts, splitter graphs, maps, isolines and much of it in eye piercing colours, sometimes in glorious 3D.
 
Is this really the sort of thing that we want to achieve? Can we really assess and develop our game idea out of something purely mathematical (our checking criteria being comically fallacious notwithstanding) or does there have to be a more human element to it and if so how large an element. Is this where you trust your instinct and experience. If to err is human then divinity aside (we’re not aiming that high) perhaps it is in these errors in between our formal calculations that we might find our inspiration? 
 
Since I have no idea I’m going to use some expert advice. I’m going to ask our three luminaries (Eugene, Peter and Giles) about it. Specifically, what inspired their ideas, did they over think them at all, how did the end result differ from the idea they started with and if it changed a lot what were the changes evaluated against? Did they just do what felt right until it was time to ship it?
 
In our next episode: Where do great ideas come from or is it down to bloody hard work and the end product polish that made them great?

Everyone seems to be making video games for Facebook and iPhone. It can’t be that hard,can it?

I’m going to start a games company, write a book about it and I’m doing it right now!

I’m going to give up my day job and for at least the next six months I’m going to become a video game producer and document the entire process. As background, I’ve spent the past 16 years developing secure web applications in startups for Zzzzzzz who cares, it’s not very interesting.

What is more interesting, to me at least, is the potential of the project as a document to chart if it’s possible or just a pipe dream. It’s come about by two things, the first is wondering why, if I love games so much, why don’t I try to make them and secondly can the development experiences I’ve had in the web industry be utilised in the video game industry. For example, my last position in an online CRM company (Woosabi) opened my eyes to the need to have a huge war chest for marketing. It was clear that without it, no matter how great your idea, if no-one hears about it, it’s a dead idea. And you’ve wasted your time. I don’t like wasting my time. By the way, Woosabi is far from dead, has a warchest and I’m still on the board as the technical director.

So I’m going to test the idea, I’m going to setup a games company and document its progress as it designs, builds and markets its first game. Being a good engineer I’m going to use as much expertise as I can and not re-invent the wheel: that includes people’s experiences. I’m lucky enough to have some good friends in the games industry so I’ll be taking their advice in big doses. 

Birthday Presents

Today is, co-incidently, my birthday and I’ve just had two great things happen to me today. The first was being woken up by my 2 year old daughter to give me presents and then spending the day playing with the family in the park. The second was receiving replies from Eugene Jarvis (Defender, Robotron, Smash TV), Peter Liepa (Boulderdash http://ca.linkedin.com/in/peterliepa), Lee Cummings (GTA, Bully, Order Up http://www.linkedin.com/in/leecummings) and Giles at Llamasoft who have agreed to let me interview them on game design and development. Sadly Bill Williams (Necromancer) is not with us any more, I would have loved to hear his thoughts. As yet I’m waiting to hear back from Bill Hogue (Miner2049er), Manfred Trenz (Turrican), Howard Scott Warshaw (Yar’s Revenge), David Crane (Pitfall) and a few other luminaries. Cheeky I know. But what the hell, I’ not getting any younger and if you don’t ask, you don’t get!

Today is now also the birthday of Collision Games Inc, my game development company whose goal is to produce a single game for the current social & mobile platforms that incorporates social aspects but remains true to classic design templates. Oh, and I’ve only got 6 months to do it in.

What do I know about making a game?

This is pretty much the question that is circling me like a vulture at the moment. I made a few in the 80s on my spectrum, the usual derivative stuff, like Space Invaders (though for some reason I drew acorns as the invaders, probably a BBC micro thing!). I also built a tool for rendering newspaper stories on the spectrum, pretty much like teletext and the web does now. But apart from that, I’ve spent my career building business applications and they are very different beasts. However, I’m going to use the premise that my experience and long standing obsession with games will be enough to get me through. I know, it’s crazy house of cards isn’t it. Still, I hope my collision with the games industry is at least entertaining.

Interesting things happen when objects collide.

For example, take these two seemingly different forms of entertainment: Rugby and Video Games
(I should declare here that I’m Welsh and liking Rugby in Wales is probably genetic). Rugby is a sport that is all about collisions: where they happen, the utilisation of space in between them and what happens in their aftermath as part of a continuous feedback loop that is entertaining to both the participants and the audience.

This, to me, is the essence of a video game. It’s all about objects colliding (or not) within clearly defined boundaries using balanced rules to encourage repeated playing through a feedback mechanism e.g. hit the block to reveal coin, pickup coin get increase score and nice jingly sound. It is when these key areas are constructed to co-exist harmoniously we find the Finite State Machine entertaining. Take the classic game Boulderdash, it has an internal integrity that is mathematically simple and as is often the case, simplicity is beautiful. The game design is, at all times, true to itself. That is, its internal logic is consistent and coherent to the player. When this happens we can lose ourselves in these worlds as we’re not jarred back into our real surroundings. This to me is what art is.

The play’s the thing

Great video games have always struck me as miniature theatrical plays. They have a dramatic effect upon the observer borne out of their ability to playout a lifetime within a heavily condensed time frame due to their precise design. The following quote by British playwright John Osbourne has always felt as relevant to game design as playwriting:

“A play is an intricate mechanism, and the whole mesh of its engineering logic can be shattered by a misplaced word or emphasis.”

By the way, I wrote a single act play a few years back after being inspired by Osborne’s Look back in anger. It was called the Dead Orchestra and it was pretty awful. The process of writing it though was very interesting and much more hard work than I thought it would be. Seeing it completed was satisfying but the sense of wanting to constantly improve it was maddening. I am going to assume that game development, like application development follows a similar path.

Measuring Success

In order to achieve success you have to define clearly what it is you are doing before you start so you can measure your progress against it. You also need a crystalised view of the end product’s usablilty and its market. It is unlikely that you will end up with the exact product you started out on paper to build (the testing feeback will modify that) but the market function, user and size should not change. If it does, it’s a different project. I can already hear Giles from Llamasoft disagreeing with most of that but for the purpose of this project I am going to use the following evaluation criteria:

1. The game must be social and will be available for the common platforms of the day e.g. Facebook, iPhone & Android

2. The game must relatively small in development terms to alleviate risk, has to be releasable within 6 months

3. The game mechanic must incorporate viral messaging to promote marketing

4. The game must be simple to pick up and hard to put down (of course, this is probably a near impossible task)

5. The game must earn money (we will leave it as loosely defined as that for the time being)

6. The game must be released as early as possible, using an agile release early release often methodology.