Learning to design video games

Almost 6 years ago, I published my first video game: Egg Savior. I thought it was a great opportunity to learn what it takes to publish a game, and I was right. I did learn a lot, specially a lot about production. I also tried to get some visibility which introduced me to the super hard world of marketing and advertising. I even had a partner for the distribution in South Korea which ended up being quite successful.

Game design is hard

egg_savior_shotI also learned that designing a video game is hard. When I created the first 10 levels, I carefully sorted them by difficulty, from the easiest one to the hardest ones. Then, I did some play testing with the help of a few friends of mine. I asked them to tell me how much time and objects they ended up needing to complete each level, as well as how many attempts. The results were shocking. 

I got most difficulties wrong. Except for the first level, which was kind of an easy tutorial on the mechanics, everything else was either easier or harder than I thought. Turns out that gauging the difficulty of puzzles when you already know the solution is quite hard.

I had to sort again these 10 levels, to reflect the reality that play testing had exposed. However, that wasn’t the end of the story. After a couple of years on the play store, I integrated the game with Google Analytics to get some insights into which levels were easier or harder for most gamers. This time the results weren’t as shocking as the first time, but I still had to reorder a couple of levels, because as it turns out, a few friends are not a representative sample of all the players out there.

Besides difficulty, I made many other mistakes with Egg Savior. Here are some:

  • Almost ignoring the story behind the main character.
  • Completely ignoring the story behind rule changes (e.g. why is that you suddenly have a teleport device?).
  • Forgetting that most users want to learn by playing, not by reading instructions.
  • It’s hard for players to explain to other people what the game is about.
  • The only emotion created by the game is frustration when the chicken doesn’t do what we want.

You may ask, why did I make all these mistakes in my game? Well, I didn’t know when I created Egg Savior. The only reason I know now is because I made the decision to have some formal learning, with the help of Coursera.

Introduction to game design

I’m attending the game design specialization by CalArts. The first course of the specialization, which I am about to complete, is called Introduction to Game Design. This course is facilitated by the awesome Fran Krause and just with that course I was able to analyze Egg Savior and spot all these mistakes I told you about earlier.

The way the homework is managed is quite unique. It would be hard for the students to make actual video games with such a little training (also, most students might not even know how to code). Fran had with this cool idea of creating one-page board games.

At first I was quite skeptical about the media. I thought a board game was a very limited way of exploring video-game ideas. Particularly, I didn’t know how to put in-game discovery of rules, or how to create a story that allows collaboration between the writer and the player. However, by brainstorming my own ideas and reviewing ideas from other students, suddenly I found myself breaking all these barriers with just pen and pencil.

I want to share my assignments here, to make my point about the possibilities of board games and perhaps trigger your curiosity to enroll in the course:

Week 1: The Simplest Games

Week 1: Save the cats!

Week 1: Save the cats!

For the first week, I created this simple game where you need to collect three cats and relies mostly on chance. There isn’t much skill needed, although the player can make some choices regarding direction of movement, and in the “x2?” cells, also quantity. The main objective of the assignment was to communicate a clear goal for the game.

Week 2: Rules and Discovery

As you can imagine, the main objective of the assignment this week is to improve the game rules. Particularly, maintaining balance and interest in the game.

Week 2: Save the cats 2.0

Week 2: Save the cats 2.0

In order to keep interest in the game once the player got the hang of it and crossed a couple of doors, I introduced one-way doors on ring 2. Also, I got valuable feedback from my peers that the goal was a bit weird, since you didn’t really help the cats escape, so I added another rule to take them to a particular location after collecting them all. As you can see, I also added some color, as advised by one of the peers who is a graphic designer.

Week 3: Tell a Story

This I admit is the week I learned the most. Many of the flaws in Egg Savior are related in one way or another to the lack of story, so this was clearly one of my weakest points… I had lots of fun creating this game.

Week 3: The kitty king

Week 3: The kitty king

I could have kept modifying Save the cats but I decided to create a whole new game for two reasons:

  1. I wanted to focus much more on the story.
  2. I wanted to go back to the brainstorming stage to flex that muscle a bit more.

As you can see, it is a sort of RPG on a piece of paper. I got some ideas from my peers on how to have in-game discovery, and put them in practice by “hiding” some rules until the player needs to know them. Despite the game having much more text to read than Save the cats it is much faster to start, because you don’t need to read most of it right away. Actually, some of the rules you might not ever read depending on your choices.

Week 4: The Friend and the Enemy

The topic of the fourth week is multiplayer games. Fran told us how to maintain balance between different characters in a game when they have different abilities or power-ups, and also how important is to compensate when a player is losing, so that they always have an opportunity to turn things around and win, which keeps the game interesting for all players until the very end.

Week 4: Alien vs Kitty

Week 4: Alien vs Kitty

This week again I decided to create a completely new game. In this case, two space ships fight each other. Both ships have different capabilities, but I made sure through play testing (and some number crunching) that they are quite balanced. Also, in order to keep the game interesting until the end, I added the red area in the shield that allows to fire more powerfully. This way, the winner is not decided until the very last turn!

Also, I decided to open the possibility for this game to be played by a single human, making the second player an NPC, since we also learned a lot about these on this week’s class. As long as the player doesn’t cheat, it should be balanced and fun!

Why so many cats? Well, Coursera is an Internet thing. The Internet loves cats, so it was a sneaky way to make these games more likable and get higher ratings from my peers 😉

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Acerca de Rubén L.

Software Engineer
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