Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Metroid: Evolution

The latest Game Design Challenge, "Sidekick", required players to create a new sidekick for an existing franchise. The results came in today, and I must admit I'm a little surprised my entry didn't receive even an honorable mention. I'm not upset about it, nor will this stop me from entering future challenges... I'm just surprised.

In my opinion, there's a very fine line to walk in this challenge; either the sidekick is useless and serves no purpose, or they're overwhelming, dominating the gameplay and overshadowing the lead character.

A sidekick who just tags along and serves absolutely no purpose is simply a vanity item; witness Tails from Sonic the Hedgehog 2. If there isn't a second player around, Tails' impact is measured only in the pixels he changes the color of. Tails only contributes to the game by flying a bi-plane and rescuing Sonic during the ending, both roles that don't really require him to tag along the entire game. He's also to blame for the torrent of sidekick characters who would find their way into the Sonic series, and that alone merits his exclusion. Cute little bugger though.

On the flip side, a good sidekick is one who enhances the gameplay, but not to the point of being too easy or different. If Robin could beat up every badguy, why would Batman even show up? A nice example of this is Super Mario Sunshine's FLUDD Waterpack, who enhances Mario's abilities to the point of making the game a complete cakewalk. Using FLUDD, Mario can miss a tricky jump, but use the pack's hover mode to float back onto the platform. The best parts of Mario Sunshine, at least in my opinion, were the Secret Levels where Mario is forced to clear mind-numbingly complex jumps without the assistance of his sidekick. With the Mario games being all about platforming, having a safety net to catch you cheapened the experience.

Beyond just making the game easier, inclusion of a sidekick runs the risk of changing the gameplay of the original too much. Super Mario Sunshine is another great example; instead of jumping around, gathering coins, and doing everything we consider to define the Mario games, Mario is instead tasked with using his new sidekick to clean things. It's not as bad as it sounds, because the whole concept of running around spraying water to wash oily paint off of things worked, to some degree... but it felt less like a Mario game because of it.

So, I approached my own entry with three 'sidekick rules' in mind;
  • The sidekick must have a function that merits inclusion.
  • The sidekick's functionality must not make the game too easy.
  • The sidekick's functionality must not change the core gameplay concepts too much.
So, it was with these rules in mind that I worked on my own entry, set in the Metroid series. What follows is my submission, in its entirety. I tried to keep the new sidekick useful in specific situations, but not so powerful or complex that it changed the amazing gameplay of the Metroid series too much or cheapened the experience. I hope you enjoy...


Set after the events of Metroid Fusion, Metroid: Evolution finds galaxy-famous bounty hunter Samus Aran captured by the Federation. In the opening act, Samus' Metroid-infused body is being tested in a zero-gravity research facility orbiting an unknown planet. Breaking free during a power fluctuation, Samus escapes the facility, picking up a companion; a Metroid cloned from her infused DNA. Able to communicate via their genetic bond, Samus and the Metroid make for the main research structure buried under the planet's surface, to recover the various parts of Samus' suit being studied there and destroy the Federation's research on her.

Control:
The player controls Samus' Metroid via the Right Analog stick, which allows total freedom of movement within the 2-D environment. Movement is restricted to the edges of the screen, and the Metroid cannot pass through solid surfaces.

The player can also press down or 'click' the right analog stick ("R3") to direct the Metroid's behavior, based upon its position within the game;
  • When floating over an enemy, the Metroid will latch onto the foe, draining their energy. This energy is redistributed to Samus' suit energy (health).

  • When floating over an upgrade or puzzle object, the Metroid can be used to pick the item up. The item can then be carried about, and dropped by pressing R3 a second time.

  • When floating near or directly over Samus, the Metroid will land on her shoulder and remain there until R3 is pressed again. This is useful when you wish to keep the Metroid out of harm's way.

  • When floating over Samus when she is in Morph Ball-form, the Metroid will lift Samus.

  • Clicking R3 at any other time will cause the Metroid to remain stationary until R3 is pressed again or Samus moves off-screen (in which case, the Metroid rushes back to her side.) This is especially useful if you need to use the Metroid as a stepping stone.
Gameplay:
The most basic function of the Metroid is that of a shield; Metroids are resistant to all known weaponry (with the exception of ice-based weapons), allowing Samus to use the Metroid to block projectiles. The Metroid is also useful for scouting areas where invisible enemies may be lurking.

Because of their strong mandibles, the Metroid can also be used to carry objects that would normally be out of reach. This includes puzzle elements and equipment upgrades. Some items may emit radiation that damages Samus; the Metroid can be used to safely transport these objects.

The Metroid can pick up Samus when she's in Morph-Ball form, though only for a short duration. Obtaining the Gravity Suit makes this lifting easier. When picked up by the Metroid, Samus is protected from all damage; this can be especially useful to avoid enemy attacks that would otherwise be impossible to evade.

Samus can also use the Metroid as a platform, to gain access to higher levels or cross dangerous terrain such as acid or lava. As with carrying Samus, the Metroid can only support her weight for a brief period of time, though the Gravity Suit improves this function as well. The Metroid can even move while Samus is standing on it, functioning as a mobile platform.

Finally, the Metroid can be used as a weapon, latching onto enemies and draining their lifeforce. Because the Metroid and Samus share a symbiotic relationship, any energy the Metroid drains from enemies is automatically redistributed to Samus' suit energy.
Some enemies may be distracted or fight to shake the Metroid off, exposing weaknesses that Samus can target.


I'm not sure why my entry wasn't selected, even for an honorable mention. While these challenges are meant to be a casual, fun experience, I have seen a few portfolios that include winning entries as accomplishments, so we are talking about something helpful towards a career in design, even if it's a minor bullet point.

Because the judges aren't identified, there's no one to request feedback from, and even if there was, doing so seems a little whiny, to be honest. I can't imagine anyone would want to sift through these design entries twice a month and then respond to individuals on why their designs weren't selected. In other words, I'm left to try and find my own answers and draw my own conclusions.

However, rather than dwell on what I consider a 'loss', I'd much rather move on to the next challenge, which should be posted tomorrow. I've posted the entry here for two reasons; to link to it for my list of Design Challenge Entries and to have something to share in this space, considering my last post was in September. These challenges offer me an opportunity to make at least two posts a month, so there shouldn't ever be an excuse for long gaps between posts.

I hope you enjoyed reading the challenge, and if you have any feedback or thoughts, feel free to leave a comment. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Blatant Self Promotion

I'm certain that all three people who regularly check this blog are quite surprised to find a new post. After all, it's been two months (and three days) since I made an update. During my unannounced hiatus, I paid a nice visit to Virginia, came down with pneumonia, and spent a good deal of time hunting for work.

What little game design I have done has been for the bi-weekly design challenges presented by Gamasutra's sister site, gamecareerguide.com. Every two weeks, the site asks non-professional designers to submit entries comprised of 500 words and up to three images that meet the criteria posted. After two weeks, the best entries are posted for all to read. Since I first found out about the challenges, I've submitted six times and received three winning entries and two honorable mentions.

I'll be honest, it feels great to even get mentioned, let alone selected as a 'best entry'. It's nice to have a little positive reinforcement, especially when it involves something you're not sure you're any good at but want to do professionally (and to have all but one entry selected for publication is a nice track record). I'm trying to make it a regular habit now (I skipped most of the challenges earlier this year), so expect regular updates on that. At the very least it will give me something to regularly post, which for you three readers should make your regular visits at least a tiny bit less frustrating.

You can read my winning entires by click thing the "Design Challenges Entries" link to the right, right under "Introduction".

On a related note, if you'd like to see more details on any of the submissions listed, I can provide additional materials and notes from each. Entries are limited to three pictures and 500 words, but I often have several pages of notes and concept sketches produced to get the entire concept fleshed out. If anyone is interested, I can provide these extras upon request.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Triangular Logic

In the spirit of my second post, concerning secrecy, I've decided to show off one of the concepts I am especially proud of and keep especially close.

Like every other game design hobbyist, I have that one massive dream project that I'm completely obsessed with. Even though game design is about being creatively nimble and working with any idea, deep down every designer has that one game they'd love to make. The concept I'll be covering today is at the core of my dream game, a deeply customizable action title I'm planning to unveil more of in the months ahead. A great deal of the customization revolves around the system we'll be discussing today...

Methods of Advancement...
Games involving character customization tend to use a variety of methods for character advancement, with the most common being a level-based system. This type of advancement has been relied upon for decades, from Dungeons & Dragons all the way up to modern MMOs like World of Warcraft. In a level-based system, players earn experience points and move up to a higher character level at set thresholds. Each level grants the player increased statistics and usually a new ability or two depending upon the type of character class they are playing. There are few, if any, real choices; players earn only the stats and abilities that the developer gives them.

As a result, level-based games (of which the majority of RPGs and Action/RPGs are) tend to feel very linear and restrictive in terms of growth. You can only get as strong as the developer allows you to, and are painted into a specific role with specific options unless the developer says otherwise. The strictly vertical scale on which level-based systems work also promises more power only when your level increases; you can't beat up the Level 10 dragon now, but if you gain a few levels you can destroy him later. Thus your goal is to get stronger as quickly as possible and to overcome any challenge you may face with sheer statistical superiority. As a result, most players are intent on leveling up in the fastest way they can, ignoring the journey and focusing solely on the destination; stronger characters.

Despite the bile with which I seem to describe level-based systems, I must admit that they do work in certain applications. Traditional RPGs, where the pace is intentionally slower and focused on micromanagement, make great use of level-based systems. In any kind of multi-player experience or any game that advertises a focus on developing a unique persona, level-based systems (in my opinion) fail. Anything else I might say on the subject beyond that statement has already been covered in greater depth by others, and those interested might find the following articles worth a read:

Kreation's Edge: Treatise on Character Advancement Systems

Buzzcut.com:
The MMORPG motivation?

The system we'll be examining today, as you might expect, does not use a level-based system. Instead, it uses a variant of another popular method of character advancement; a Skill-based system. Skill-based games have been around for a while too, from GURPS to EVE Online, though they are much less popular. In these types of games, players are presented with a large number of abilities their character can learn; by choosing only the abilities they want their character to have, players develop their own character 'class' rather than playing only the roles which the developers have provided. Because growth is horizontal, rather than an experience 'ladder' going straight up, players must use strategy and their ability to skillfully play to advance, rather than overcoming obstacles on the virtue of having a bigger number floating over their character's head.

Skill-based systems have pitfalls of their own, though they are easily dealt with if the designer is aware of them and can devise creative solutions in advance. The most notable flaws are a steep learning curve (many different options presented all at once can be a bit intimidating) and a tendency to become unbalanced easily because limits
to prevent players from collecting all the best skills are weak or non-existent. I feel the Triangle System handles these flaws quite nicely, as we'll now see.

The Triangle System...
This particular skill-based system has a unique method of balancing which skills a player can use, sidestepping the pitfalls common to this type of advancement process. First, all abilities the player can learn within the game are divided into three groups, and these groups correspond to three stats that all characters have; the Physical, Mental, and Spiritual scores. In order to utilize a given ability, the character's score must be at or above the required amount (i.e. to use a Physical ability with a requirement of 20, the player's Physical score must be 20 or above.)

What makes the Triangle System unique is that all three of these stats do not work independently of each other; changes in one aspect cause changes to all of the others. The sum of all three stats is constant, and will always equal 100 percent; what a character is capable of depends on which aspect the player favors. For example, a player who wishes to learn a great deal of physical skills would want to increase his physical score, but this comes at the expense of his mental and spiritual standing. A physical score of 80% means the mental and spiritual scores of that character can only ever add up to 20%.


To make this information quickly accessible and easy to understand, it uses a graph in the form of an equilateral triangle, with the physical, mental and spiritual scores set at each vertex, or point. The player's current statistical makeup is represented as a point within this triangle; this type of graph is known as a ternary plot, for those remembering their high school Statistics classes. To get a clear idea of this works, mouse over the triangle image above; as your cursor moves within the triangle, it represents any combination of the three statistics that a player might have. This flash example comes courtesy of James Mastro.

The triangle is effective as a method for players to build a unique character because it self-balances. A
player can never become the best physical, mental, and spiritual fighter at the same time; gaining new abilities and growing stronger in one area means giving up abilities and growing weaker in another. By finding just the right balance of the three aspects, a player can build their own clearly-distinguishable persona without being able to become omnipotent.

In order to change their position within the triangle, players spend special points earned by completing storyline segments, defeating especially powerful enemies, or meeting special objectives. Each point increases a given stat 1%, but players can expect to earn several of them at once. It is worth pointing out, however, that even a starting character (whose scores are all divided equally, resulting in 33% in all three aspects) is fairly powerful. In fact, being completely balanced during the entire game can be fairly effective itself; while most games punish versatility by putting must-have special abilities in either/or positions, a 'Jack-of-all-Trades' character has access to a wealth of abilities and has the statistical strength to make all three effective.

Because of this non-linear growth, there is never a point where a new player is worse off than someone who has already been playing, at least from a statistical point of view. While there are differences in abilities and gear, these can be overcome with player skill; new players are not automatically excluded from content designed for experienced players. This allows players to experience the excitement of character advancement without leaving their friends behind at a lower level.

Conclusion...
The Triangle System is something I have been working on sporadically for several years, with several revisions, tweaks, and overhauls to make all of the various interconnected elements working in unison. It's something I am especially proud of, and have constantly flirted with showing off, especially when class or level-based game systems are discussed. Though we've covered the basic mechanics, there is still a lot of details yet to be revealed. For example, we have not covered the abilities that characters can learn, nor have we examined the core statistics that the triangle builds upon (including those used by equipment).

These will have to wait for another day, as there's another unrelated project I want to discuss, and that will prove to be a much more difficult piece to write. I also have been working on improving elements of the system (and the game it belongs to) that are not quite ready to be shown here, as well as a community based project that is in the early planning stages. I will attempt to update more regularly, as I now appear to have at least a few readers.

As always, feel free to leave any thoughts or comments you may have. This is a concept I am especially proud of, and would be happy to candidly answer any questions my readers may have about it, and am also interested to see what others think. Thanks for reading.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Doppler

I've recently been working with the folks from the Game Career Guide forums, mostly a few people looking to put a game together as a community effort. We've been pitching several ideas, looking to produce a short, simple demo game to see how everyone gets along as a team and what the group is capable of.

One of the ideas I submitted was Doppler, a project that I developed a while back, but one that is fairly interesting. While it doesn't look like we'll be making this particular concept, I would like to share it with anyone who may be reading.

Doppler is an arcade-style scrolling shooter, in the vein of Xevious or Galaga. I came up with the idea one night while considering the state of my brother. Without getting into personal details (which I'm not sure he'd appreciate my sharing), he has limited vision in one eye. I realized that if something were to happen to the other eye, he would be legally blind. That meant we'd no longer be able to share certain hobbies, specifically, video games. It made me wonder what kind of games could be designed for the visually impaired.

In theory, a blind player could play the basic part of this game because the audio cues sync up with what is happening on screen. However, the concept evolved much further to the point where a special 'visually-impaired mode' would be required, rather than just the main game, because there will be other things happening on screen.

What follows is basically the 'pitch' for the game; a short version of the design document intended to explain the entire game quickly to whet the appetites of publishers so they will give you a green light to develop it. It's the fastest, easiest way for people to get the idea too, so... here it is;


Doppler Summary...
Concept: A game focusing on the use of visual/sound cues which must repeated by the player to complete each stage. It is best defined as a rhythm game, but the player has direct control over which cues must be repeated, and must also avoid obstacles that cannot be defeated by this method.

Target Platform: Gaming consoles, via community based development programs (X-Box Live, Wiiware, etc). Console specific details below are given for the X-Box 360 platform.

Basic Outline: The player directly controls an aircraft as it completes precision bombing runs on targets (located at the end of each stage). This craft is not a fighter, but instead a stealth bomber with a radar-jamming node that floats directly in front of the ship. Each vertically-scrolling stage is filled with not enemies, but stationary radar 'drones' that come in 4 different color/sound types (set to match the 4 face buttons of the X-box controller). Each drone has a radius around it that will detect the player and increase his threat level. If the player's threat gauge is filled, the player comes under attack and must defeat enemies while the gauge resets. In order to avoid detection, the player must either avoid each drone's radius, or jam it. This is done by pressing the corresponding face button when the jamming node is within the drone's radius. Advanced concepts expand upon this basic premise.

Presentation: The game focuses heavily on sound cues as well as visuals, with each type of radar having a different sound as the player approaches it. These sound cues also have realistic 'moving' sound, with the pitch increasing as the player approaches and decreasing as the player passes. The visuals of the game do not require photo-realism or even a very realistic approach, but cartoon or cel-shaded visuals are undesirable. A stylized approach is recommended. Music is kept to a minimum due to the emphasis on sound, and is mostly of an ambient nature.

Heritage: Doppler is an evolution of classic vertical-scroll shooters such as Galaxian (Namco, 1979) and Xevious (Namco, 1982). It also has elements of rhythm games such as Dance Dance Revolution (Konami, 1998) and Guitar Hero (Harmonix, 2005), though emphasis is placed on a limited set of sounds rather than musical harmonies. Recent titles that would be viewed as competition include Geometry Wars (Bizarre Creations, 2003) and Ikaruga (Treasure, 2001), although neither possess the passive-aggressive gameplay style of Doppler.


Control Scheme...
Left Stick: Moves the player's craft around the screen. The player has full freedom of movement.

A,B,X,Y: These buttons are used to emit a pulse of radar-jamming energy that will disable an enemy drone's ability to detect the player. The color of the button is the same color as the pulse, which must match the color of the drone the player wishes to jam.

R Trigger: This uses the player's Unlimited-use counter-measure or weapon (if in Combat mode).

L Trigger: This uses the player's ammo-based counter-measure or weapon.

L + R Bumper: By depressing both bumpers at the same time, the player activates his 'super' ability.


Basic Concepts...
Scoring: The player is awarded an increasing number of points for completing each level, with bonuses for various achievements, such as completing the level in one life, collecting a number of special items, or avoiding detection entirely. In addition, the player scores points for each radar drone jammed, with more points being awarded for getting closer to the drone without crashing into it. These different levels of scoring are visually represented as rings within the radius of the drone's radar range.

Difficulty: The game includes three different difficulty levels; Easy, Medium, and Difficult. A training mission (Stage 00) that can be skipped is also included which walks the player through the basic concepts of the game. The main differences between these difficulty levels are:

1. Points: Players are rewarded more points in easy mode, while the difficult mode rewards less.

2. Node:
The distance between the player ship and the jamming node is increased in easier stages, making it less likely the player will crash into a drone while trying to get closer for a higher scoring jam.

3. Weapons:
The blast radius of the chaff grenade and the number of homing missiles launched decreases with the harder difficulty levels.


Advanced Player Concepts...
Combat Mode: If the player's threat gauge is filled, the aircraft has been detected and attack aircraft are sent to eliminate him. The player enters attack mode and is able to shoot. The player must survive this onslaught until his threat gauge is completely drained, at which point the enemies stop appearing and the gameplay returns to the normal 'radar jamming' concept.

Counter-Measures: Players have two types of counter-measures; one which is unlimited use, and another which has a limited amount of uses (restored by gathering icons during gameplay). The unlimited counter-measure is an air-brake, which slows the rate at which the stage scrolls, giving the player a longer reaction time. This brake will 'burn out' if the player holds it too long, however. The ammo-based counter-measure is a chaff missile which, when launched, completely nullifies all detection areas in it's blast radius. The size of the blast radius increases in easy mode, and decreases in difficult mode.

Weaponry: Players also have two types of weapons for when they enter combat mode, and like counter-measures, one is used for free while the other has a limited amount of ammo (restored in the same fashion). The unlimited weapon is a rapid fire laser cannon which can be used to defeat enemies. This weapon will overheat if it is used too much without pause. The ammo-based weapon is a homing missile cluster which launches a cluster of 2 missiles that seek out the nearest enemy. On easy difficulty, 3 missiles are launched, while only a single missile is launched on Difficult level.

Super-Ability: In addition to the weapons and counter-measures, the player can consume multiple uses of the Ammo-based item to generate a special effect. In normal jamming mode, the player becomes completely invisible and cannot be detected for the duration of the effect (but can still crash into objects). In combat mode, the player has an "EMP Bomb" that greatly increases the speed at which the threat gauge decreases.


Advanced Stage Concepts...
Mountain Surfaces: Impassible terrain sometimes appears in the form of mountains or walls that the player cannot pass through. Hitting one of these surfaces will result in player death.

Spotlights: Un-jammable detection area that slowly pans across the level. If the player enters the area of the spotlight, his threat is increased substantially for as long as the player stays within the spotlight area. These features cannot be destroyed.

Stationary Guns: These turrets are ground based and fire shots blindly across the level where the enemy thinks the player might be. The shots will result in player death, but can be avoided easily as they are fired at a steady pace. These features cannot be destroyed.

Stationary Rockets: These turrets are ground based and fire player-seeking rockets. The color of the launcher and missile designate what type of pulse will disable the rocket; the player must match the color of the rocket in order to disable (and thus, destroy) the rocket. The launcher cannot be destroyed, but the rockets can be if the player is in Combat Mode.

Chaff Cannons: Like the Gun Turrets, the Chaff Cannons are ground based and fire steady shots into the air. However, the projectiles of these cannons explode in mid-air and leave behind a cloud of Chaff that clings to the player's ship and increases the amount of threat generated whenever the player misses a jam or somehow causes his threat gauge to increase.

Proximity Mines: These floating objects are stationary, with a detection radius similar to the Drones. However, if the player enters the radius of the mine, it will explode, causing a loss of player life. These items can be destroyed if the player is in Combat Mode.

Weather Effects: Stages can take place in 1 of 4 condition types; Day, Night, Fog or Storm.

Day: The detection radius of all drones is increased.
Night:
No special conditions.
Fog:
The detection radius of all drones is decreased, but colors are more subdued and harder to see.
Storm: The detection radius of all drones is decreased, lightning flashes raise threat level.

Recon Ships: Flying craft, manned by human spotters, that slowly flies through the stage. If the player enters the detection radius of this craft, his threat level is instantly filled to max. This enemy can be destroyed if the player is in combat mode, and can be blinded with Chaff.

Ammo Cannister: This type of friendly item contains a special item the player can obtain simply by running into the cannister. Items include (but are not limited to):

Score x2: Any points the player scores are doubled. Lasts 30 seconds.
Score x3: Any points the player scores are tripled. Last 30 seconds.
Ammo: Grants the player an additional use of his ammo-based Counter-measures or weaponry
Extra Life: Grants the player an extra life.


Mod Cannister: This type of friendly item contains a special ship modification that will remain with the player until he loses a life or replaces it with a different modification. Note that this detail can be removed if it is deemed superfluous. These items include (but are not limited to):

Extended Node: Increases the distance between the pulse-generation node and the nose of the ship.
Heat Sink: Increases the overheat gauge for the Airbrake / Laser Cannon.
Camouflage: Increases the Threat Meter, so it takes longer to fill.


Conceptual Artwork...



(Conceptual gameplay screen shot, showing player interface)
CLICK IMAGE FOR LARGER VERSION.







(Conceptual gameplay screen shot, showing game elements w/ explanations)
CLICK IMAGE FOR LARGER VERSION.






That about wraps it up. As you can see, it's somewhat of a fleshed out concept that I think is pretty much ready to be developed realistically. Feel free to leave any comments you like.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Secrecy

Amongst amateur game designers, there is a widely-spread deep-seated paranoia that someone somewhere is trolling the internet looking for the next big game concept and is perfectly happy to steal their idea. I will admit that I've often struggled with this fear myself. After all, when you put a lot of time and effort into something, even if it's something completely intangible like an idea, there's a strong desire to protect it. So while it may be naive and a little self-absorbed to think that your ideas are worth stealing, it is still a pretty natural and valid response.

However, there are two very strong cases for sharing your work in an open manner. First, game design, more than any other form of entertainment, is audience-driven. The people who play it have an important, active role to play in the scheme of things. While a film or book can be interpreted differently by everyone, the work is still the same for everyone who experiences it. You will see the same scenes or read the same words as I do; whether or not we see them in the same light or read them in the same context doesn't change the media.

A video game, on the other hand, will always produce a different experience based on whoever is playing. So unlike other forms of entertainment, the experience taken from a video game is defined by those who play it, not just by those who create it. A game designer makes the game to a point, but once he's finished, the gamer takes over and 'finishes the job', so to speak. In that respect, all game design really is 'made for other people'.

Thus, in my opinion, trying to work on a game design from an isolated, sound-proof broom closet will inevitably lead to the kind of game that only the designer would ever want to play. In the coming posts, I will inevitably be sharing my ideas. What I consider a good idea may in fact turn out to be a horrible idea. I like to think that I would know the difference, but I've often been surprised when I work on something, show it to a few friends, and get completely negative feedback.

To think that an amateur or student game designer can tell the difference between a good idea and a bad idea is foolhardy; natural talent only goes so far. Thus, by sharing my ideas with the world, the world can then look me square in the eyes and tell me I'm an idiot. Or, more eloquently, If you don't know when you're making mistakes, how can you ever hope to learn from them?

The second reason not to hide your ideas away is that game development is inescapably a team-driven effort. Most games today aren't produced by a single person, but instead a large group of creative individuals each with their own idea of what's entertaining.

Of course, you could make the game all by yourself and hope nobody comes up with the same idea in the 20 years it takes you to make it. Assuming you live that long, since you'll be living in poverty; producing anything amazing is going to come with huge personal costs. For example, Braid cost Jonathan Blow $180,000 of his own money and took three years to produce. I don't think most of us have that kind of cash lying around or that much free time. Braid also wasn't made entirely by one person; David Hellman produced the art and all of the music is licensed.

The only realistic option for most of us is to study hard, dream big, and work with like-minded individuals (either at a job or through social networking) to get something done. You absolutely cannot go it alone anymore.

I consider the widening of the target audience and the greater odds that your game will actually be produced to be worth the slim chance that someone who reads your idea will have the opportunity to act on it and steal it away. As I've said, game design is largely concerned with making something for other people, and getting a better idea of what those people want to experience can, in turn, help to make better games. Or at least games that can reach a wider audience. If you're not concerned with that, that's perfectly fine; just don't get upset when all of that fortune and glory you feel your game design should be earning never materializes.

As I write in this space, I will try to be as completely open and forthcoming as possible, though I am sure that I will have a great difficulty exposing my fledgling ideas. In that regard, this post was written to address my own fears and concerns as much as those of other amateur game designers. I am sure I will look back on it whenever I get that sneaking suspicion that somebody is about to snatch up my life's work, and remind myself that the benefits far outweigh the risks. Life is far too short to hide your passion in a bubble.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Design Challenges: Winning Entries

Here are my winning entries and honorable mentions for the Gamecareerguide.com Game Design Challenges, listed by date. As I receive more, I will continue to update this post and make announcements. Additional materials and notes from each entry can be provided upon request. Articles written for non-winning entries or to provide additional info are listed as "Blog Article".

Unofficial community-run challenges appear at the bottom of this post.

Challenge: Make Monopoly Fun (9/17/08)
Create three rules for the board game Monopoly, that make it more fun for all players.
Winning Entry (Second Place): Monopoly: Fame and Fortune Edition

Challenge: Create an Achivement (11/5/08)
Invent an achievement.
Winning Entry (First Place): Grand Theft Auto IV: Playing it Straight

Challenge: Reboot the Series (7/22/09)
Reboot, reimagine, redesign your favorite game series.
Honorable Mention: The Last Strider

Challenge: The Letter (8/12/09)
Design a game which opens with the main character receiving a very significant letter.
Honorable Mention: Chain

Challenge: Be the Hero (9/2/09)
Take a side character from a game and promote them to a hero.
Winning Entry (Third Place): Space Invaders: The Second Wave

Challenge: Photographic Interpretation (10/21/09)
Create a game design based on the sample photo.
Winning Entry (First Place): Burning Man

Challenge: Sidekick (11/12/09)
Invent a Sidekick.
Unselected Entry: Metroid: Evolution
(Blog Article)

Challenge: A New Vision (2/03/10)
Re-envision a game that was ahead of its time.
Winning Entry (Second Place): Castlevania II: Simon's Quest
(Blog Article)

Challenge: Romance (2/23/10)
Create a romance game for Western audiences.
Honorable Mention: Someone for Everyone

Challenge: Rickroll (3/25/10)
Rickroll your way to a great game.
Winning Entry (Third Place): Rick Role

Results:
First Place: 2
Second Place: 2
Third Place: 2
Honorable Mention: 3
Unselected Entries: 1


Unofficial Challenges:

Challenge: Be the NPC (9/26/10)
Make a game where the player takes on the role of a common video game NPC.
Winning Entry (First place): Adventure Insurance
(Blog Article)

Introduction

Congratulations; you've stumbled into yet another completely useless corner of the internet. And it gets worse; this particular corner happens to be one of those damn blogs where self-important people ramble on senselessly, pretending the rest of the world is listening attentively.

Well, as long as you're here, you might as well take a look around. Based on the pixel-art joystick, it's probably safe to assume this blog is going to be about video games. That's good news, right? I mean, considering what's out there on the internet these days, you're lucky it's not more kitten pictures...

... or porn...

... or kitten porn.

Upon closer inspection, this blog appears to be about game design. That must mean the author is one of those basement-dwelling ultra-nerds, not content to play video games but rather obsess over them as a form of "creative expression". Look, it even has a witty title! Level 1 Game Designer. I bet he starts calling it "L1GD" before the end of the month like it's some kind of trendy internet hot spot all the kids want to abbreviate.

Perhaps you're not so lucky after all. These amateur game designers can be a pretty horrible lot, talking about about how awesome their game is and how awesome they are for coming up with the idea, and if only someone would give them a million dollars they could prove it's the Best. Game. Ever. In fact, amateur game design blogs are such a common sight these days, you could safely put money on it. Twenty bucks says there's a notebook full of scribbly notes and stick-figures having sword fights.

If I were a betting man, I'd bet against me too.

After all, this is the new millennium; video games are part of an enormous, profit-driven industry, not the kind of place a single guy working alone can hope to make any impact or produce anything worthy of attention. The days of the renegade coder putting together a shareware game are well behind us, replaced by big-budget productions and create-by-corporate-consensus design. A good idea by itself never was never worth much, but in the game development industry, you can't even get a penny for your thoughts.

On top of that, the game industry is notoriously difficult to get into. Most of the game development studios require a potential employee to have a few years of on-the-job experience under their belt, but it's difficult to earn that experience if you can't get a job without it in the first place. Quite a catch-22, that is.

Well, if you're at all familiar with gamer lingo, you probably picked up on that not-so-subtle level 1 / earn experience bit. Clever, eh? It only took six paragraphs to get to the point, the reason behind this little patch of cyberspace. I have, for almost all of my life, had a casual interest in game design. I have pages of crudely-crafted level designs from my youth, drawn in the finest shades Crayola can provide. I have spiral-ring notebooks and D-ring binders filled with pages of ideas.

Unfortunately, I'm a terrible self-educator and am treading water financially; there's no fancy game design schools in my near future. While I would eventually like to turn it into a career, at the moment I am just happy to treat it as a hobby.

So now we come to it, what this corner of the internet really is; a space for me to toss ideas around and maybe share them with any poor souls who accidentally wander in. I have no grand hope that some angel-developer will come across this space and 'recognize my genius', because that's not the way the real world works. The way I look at it, we have painters, sculptors and poets who have never made a dime off their endeavors, but keep painting, sculpting and writing because it brings them joy. I don't see why game design has to be any different.

So that's that. If you have even a passing interest in game design, gaming in general, or just enjoy reading the opinions of others (and really, who doesn't?!), you may find something worth reading. I'll keep updating as long as I have something to write about, which, given the length of this introduction post, will probably be a while. I hope you'll stick around and maybe share a few thoughts of your own.

Ugh. When you look away all you can see is an inversion of that hideous blue gradient. Really wasn't worth the click, was it?