Top Down versus Bottom Up Design
A few months ago I read through a Reddit thread waxing nostalgic about a Magic block about to rotate out of standard called “Innistrad.” Players were especially fond of the top-down approach to the block, but were also enthusiastic about how the designers blended the approach with gameplay. I am unsure if the term “top-down” is standard in this context, but for magic designers it means to focus on story and theme and let those elements drive mechanics. The other way around would be considered bottom-up. Unaware of these terms until relatively recently in my career, I would definitely consider myself a bottom-up designer. Especially considering my overexposure to heavy top-down design that dictated poorly thought-out mechanics with unfortunate and unintentional effects. What made Innistrad so good was not just that it had great top-down design, but that it married it with great bottom-up mechanics, both of which complimented each other and made the other better. Innistrad, and this Reddit thread, also helped me appreciate the influence top-down design has in games, and that it can enhance good mechanics rather than juxtapose them.
How Plants vs Zombies and Starcraft are Basically the Same Game
What PvZ has in common with Starcraft, and a lot of other classic, economic real time strategy games is its economy ramp. In every stage (with some exceptions) you begin building a Sunflower, and as sun comes in you build more and more Sunflowers. Eventually you have quite the sun-farm, powering a zombie killing machine. What conflicts with your building of this huge, sun-farming machine is of course the zombies. These guys just don’t want to give you the time to build your farm the way you want. There is, however, a super under-appreciated plant that let’s you ramp your sun super fast (probably too fast) and I feel inclined to defend him since he is secretly the best plant in the game. It is of course, the Potato Mine.
The Right Mentality
Apparently I wrote a very similar post on my DOTA blog about losing. I think I may actually like this one more. Either way, this is a cheap way for me to update. I hope to get back to both of these blogs soon.
Jeff’s post inspired me to write about something that I learned a while ago and what I think is critical information to, not only getting better at games, but getting better at anything.
I started working at Relic (Company of Heroes, Dawn of War) in 2008 in the QA department after leaving Electronic Arts. The most recent experience I had with RTS was actually Warcraft 3 and the original DOTA. I was semi-competitive in Warcraft 3, but I never really got good, and I also never really played solo. After working at Relic for about a year I became pretty close with the balance guys and they really opened my eyes to what it takes to get good at a game. The most important thing, above practice, is the right mentality.
One of the lessons I have learned as a game designer, that I appreciate the most, is learning that loss is part of getting better. Not only does losing increase your skill at a game, it increases your understanding of the game. Achieving the right mentality around loss is an extremely hard process and it requires getting over our own ego, or at least accepting that not all losses mean as much as we think they do. Once a player has the right mentality with regards to loss, he grows so much faster than before, and achieves a higher understanding of the game he is playing. This understanding is an invaluable asset for game designers, improving our ability to analyze and refine the mechanics of our games.
Progression versus Progression
Progression by now is no longer considered a buzzword, and it certainly isn’t new. It is however, an extremely important element in both the mobile and free-to-play spaces. Progression is especially important in free-to-play because in order for these games to make money they need to engage the player over long periods of time. The longer a free-to-play game keeps the player interested, the more likely they are going to spend money in that game. In this article I am going to compare the traditional free-to-play progression model against Clash of Clan’s and explain why I like SuperCell’s version better.
I definitely plan to get back to part 2 of my relationships article, but for now I really want to gush over one of my favourite board games. I bought Smallworld as a Christmas gift for two of my friends, and taught them how to play it over the holidays. It took only about ten minutes to explain the rules and after a single game they were fully on board, requiring almost no clarification on the rules. This is testament to the intelligent design decisions made by Days of Wonder’s designers. There are three things that I find exceptional about this game, and I am going to tell you about them.
Gameplay Relationships Part One: Weapon Relationships in Shooters
Game balance is often treated as something different, or complementary to core gameplay design. This is wrong. Balance forms relationships which are part of what makes up core gameplay. Weapon balance, vehicle balance, character balance, unit balance, economic balance. These are all informed by, and inform the core gameplay of a game. This is why game development is so difficult. You can’t develop these things modularly in a vacuum and snap them together in the end. The most compelling games weave relationships together elegantly, but obtaining this elegance is a long, complicated process.
In order to understand the balance of a game we need to move one step higher to relationships. Specifically in this article I am going to discuss weapon relationships.
Darts, a White Board, and Iteration
Iterative design is not my favourite thing in the world. It’s not that I think it can’t make a good game, but it is extremely time inefficient and usually the result of a lack of confidence in one’s design. It is also the result of communal design, which usually lacks focus, but under the right circumstances can create something quite engaging, such as DOTA. This is the story of my iterative design — DartNations 3: 2 “The Dartening.”
At work we have a white board and a bunch of nerf suction darts. In a game studio there can be down time; waiting to compile, waiting for a server to return, etc. Naturally the nerf darts are going to get a lot of play. Throwing darts at a blank board isn’t all that entertaining, so I began to draw games on it. The first that I can remember was poker. I drew a bunch of squares up with cards on them and everyone tried for the highest hand. There were a few instant problems with that. The first being that you can get five of a kind with five darts, the second and far bigger problem is that the end game comes very quickly. The moment someone gets five of a kind, you are pretty much done. To improve this I changed the game to Yahtzee. Numbers in squares were drawn on the board and players would aim for the best score they could. It worked better than poker because the ultimate score was harder to achieve, gaining a longer end game. Yahtzee didn’t hold our attention for long though, and thus was born “DartNations.”
With the recommendation of a co-worker I have been playing a lot of 10000000 recently. It is a puzzle game for iOS where you match blocks to defeat monsters in a dungeon. There are a couple of critical design decisions that make this game incredibly addicting, and easy to reengage.
The two most important features I feel are its slightly random nature, and the fact that sessions remain short even as the player’s score increases over time. I’ve been addicted to a couple player-versus-game puzzle games over the years. It started on Gameboy with Tetris and Revenge of the Gator Pinball, continued onto the PSP with Lumines, and now has landed here on iOS with 100000000. The problem with the previous games was that the better you got at them, the longer you had to play to come anywhere close to beating your previous score.