Archive for the 'Game Design' Category


My newest victim: Pinball

My non-Mostly Tigerproof work is coming to a close, and I’m back to prototyping weird ideas again. This time the theme is pinball.

I’ve always loved pinball. During the 50-ish years between the advent of flippers and coin-op pinball’s commercial collapse, it has become a well-tuned and richly elaborated class of games, so it might not be obvious why I’d choose it as something to try to improve upon. In spite of how much refinement it’s seen, I believe the game still has glaring problems.

I play vastly more video pinball than real pinball. I grew up on video pinball, as did nearly everyone younger than me. In some ways pinball is poorly adapted to what is now an overwhelmingly software-based existence:outlane

  • It’s fundamentally portrait in a landscape world. I’m looking for ways to make better use of wide screens.
  • There’s no consensus on what the role of nudging should be. Is it cheating? Is it essential, because you have no other defence against the outlanes?
  • Nudging is usually poorly implemented in video pinball, due to its partial legitimacy. If nudging is part of the game, it needs better feedback: on-screen counters of how many nudges I have left before a tilt, hints about how far the ball will be nudged, maybe even a nudge training table. If nudging isn’t part of the game, the game needs redesigned so it won’t be missed.
  • And speaking of outlanes, they’re shitty design. They prevent good players from playing indefinitely (a particular worry in coin-op), but they do it through random instant death. There have been a couple of attempts to replace them with timers (Goin’ Nuts, Safecracker), but hitting a time limit almost feels even cheaper than getting an unlucky bounce. Luckily there’s no shortage of ways to make a game hard.
  • Pinball tables don’t do a good job of communicating goals during play, and the goals are arbitrary without much internal logic to them. Flashing lights and voice prompts are very helpful, but personally there’s so much unexplained stuff I wind up reading the manual. Reading the manual is a chore though. It’s a chore that recurs on every table, which might be unnecessary. Could there be a system of goals shared between a family of tables?

I think pinball’s most fundamental drawback is its uneven learning curve combined with its heritage as a game of chance. The challenge in pinball is directing the ball to where you want it to go. Catching the ball in the crook of the flipper is easily learned, but it takes precise timing to shoot at the angle you intend. A pinball will roll off a flipper in a second. During that second, the resulting angle of the shot varies by 60 degrees or more. What’s worse is that most of that variation is compressed towards the tip end. Each frame matters.

It’s wonderful that pinball rewards such high levels of finesse, but it’s hateful that even after hours of practice, beginners find their performance is dominated by random chance. Even when they do achieve things, it’s hard to take pride in it with the knowledge that flukes outnumber intentional shots. I think pinball should do a much better job of reflecting the player’s intent, even if their timing isn’t dead on. I’d love to bring the experience of being good at pinball to a wider audience, while giving old hands even greater challenges.

Those are my high-falutin’ design goals. More on my specific approach in the next post.


Satellite Launch is now on Kongregate

I’ve made a fresh new version of Satellite Launch and posted it at Kongregate. You can also play it at Mostly Tigerproof.

I’ve been eyeing up Kongregate’s Unity support for a while now, though it’s not much of a business proposition at the moment. Unity games on Kongregate get 40 times fewer hits than Flash games. Still, I figure it’ll be an interesting experiment, and I’ll get to see what their ad rates are like.

I’m mindful that I’m exposing it to a gamer audience instead of a game dev audience, so I’ve made a limited attempt to polish it up, but I’ve hit my self-imposed deadline before I’m truly satisfied with it. In any case, I’ve been operating in a vacuum for too long, and it’s time to get some feedback.

Scoring Overhaul

I ran out of momentum prototyping the concept 2 years ago because I couldn’t see any interesting progression mechanics to pair up with basic challenge of trying to launch as many satellites as possible. That and there was a fairly boring dominant strategy where you can just queue up a lane of satellites in the same inclination.

In the new version, the objective is to link up pairs of ground stations. This provides an incentive to spread your satellites across different inclinations. Also, picking orbits to cover the most stations possible makes the game feel a bit more tactical.

The scoring is now a multiplication of two numbers, so linear improvements in the player’s skill grant quadratic improvements in the player’s score. This is nice because when you’ve been playing something for a while, it’s discouraging when the law of diminishing returns kicks in. I want to compensate for that by spreading out the high end of the score distribution. Yet another little thing I learned from Geometry Wars 2. That game is an education.

Other Changes

  • I fixed some problems with the input that were hampering the player’s ability to place satellites over the ground precisely. Added an orbit prediction line too.
  • UI redesign. All the crappy programmer art has been replaced with programmer art that’s somewhat less crappy. Yaay!
  • The game ends now. It used to just run indefinitely, and save your highscore when you’d achieved a new personal best. This is the part I’m least sure about. You’re allowed only 5 collisions, so there’s a bit more tension. It feels more like Jenga now. That said, if I’d made an Undo function instead of a lives system, it’d be less frustrating.

While I’ve been writing this, the game’s been played more times at Kongregate than in the last year at Mostly Tigerproof. Heh.


The dangers of paper prototyping

I’ve been an enthusiastic proponent of paper prototyping, but I’m starting to see its limitations.

I’ve been playing The Void by Ice Pick Lodge. Ice Pick Lodge are the closest thing the game industry has to David Lynch. Aesthetically the game is remarkable, but I’m not going to address any of that.

In spite of an exhaustive tutorial, it’s actually even less accessible than their début game, Pathologic. It’s shorter and easier, but the gameplay is more difficult to grasp. I restarted the game four times after screwing the pooch so badly that the game became unwinnable. The game is just so abstract that it takes a while to understand the strategy.

The game establishes a jargon of it’s own from the beginning. Hearts, Colour, Nerva, Lympha are all abstract quantities or containers for abstract quantities. The colours crimson, amber, gold, emerald, azure, violet and silver all have special properties and uses. Before long, you start to feel like you’re playing Settlers of Catan.

If a game design is built wholly on paper, it’ll continue to reflect the limitations of board games even in its final form. The Void has all the hallmarks of being prototyped as a board game, then shoe-horned into a third person adventure game. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it has drawbacks:

  • Board games can get away with game mechanics that are less intuitive than videogames. The fact that the player is carrying out rules manually guarantees that the mechanics will be tactically transparent. A videogame will need lots and lots of cumbersome UI to compensate.
  • When designing a board game, it’s really tempting to leave the theme until later. You’ll tell yourself that if the game mechanics are fun, everything else will fall into place. Usually this results in a game that’s fun, but completely impossible to fit into a theme. A game without a theme is a very dry learning experience.
  • One of the biggest differences between Pathologic and The Void is that Pathologic started with familiar concepts (sickness, medicine, exhaustion, hunger), and then exposed the player to unfamiliar ones. The Void drops the unfamiliar concepts on the player all at once.

  • If you’re designing a real-time game, there will be a distinct seam between the nitty gritty details of your simulated world and the strategy layer. It’s very difficult to integrate the two after designing the pieces in isolation.
  • Board games tend to be a lot shorter than story driven videogames. To progress in The Void, you must plan at least 5 turns ahead. With the minutes-long turns of a board game, this forward planning gives a pleasant level of strategic depth. With the hour-long turns of this action-strategy hybrid, you’ll find yourself taking pages and pages of notes just to make sure you don’t spend something you were intending to save.

The sad thing is that I think the strategy layer would’ve made a fun board game, but it detracts from inhabiting the world and interacting with the characters. There’s no synergy between the two halves of the design.

I don’t know how much the awkward game mechanics are a deliberate part of the game’s message. The resource management aspect seems intended to provide irreversibility, so that the player’s decisions have weight and poignancy. Making these weighty decisions without understanding the consequences is part of the game’s theme. For less ambitious folks like myself, who are only shooting for an enjoyable game, it remains a counter example.


Mostly Tigerproof Launched

I’m pleased to announce my new website: Mostly Tigerproof.

“Huh, what the hell is that?”

Mostly Tigerproof is a place for me to organise my game prototypes and other hobby projects.

It has all the prototypes I’ve posted here, but in web player form, so you don’t need to go through the rigmarole of installing them. Prototypes are by their nature are small games, so I’ve tried to make the playing them as quick and convenient as possible.

If it’s not quick and convenient, comment about it and I’ll fix it.

“Yeah, yeah, but when’s the next game due out?”

Don’t know. I’m not sure what I’ll try next. If I build a game based around abusing particle systems, it’ll be next week. If I start making a 4X with a stone-age tribal theme, it’ll be a while longer.

“What’s this got to do with tigers? Are you even slightly tigerproof?”

It’s not named after me! It’s named after Aunt Barbara. She’s not allowed in zoos any more.



Looks like I wasn’t the only guy playing around with game concepts based on movement by firing reaction mass. Osmos is a game about collecting mass while trying to conserve the mass you’re using for propulsion. It’s played on a 2D plane and there are no sticky bullets, so I guess the territory I’ve been exploring hasn’t been completely mined out. 🙂


Engagement Distance

One of the key considerations in designing a shooter is engagement distance. This is the distance between the player and their opponents during combat.

Once upon a time (2001), I wrote an arena shooter called Mojotron as a hobby project. It was somewhat similar to Geometry Wars, except that Geometry Wars hadn’t been written yet (I was inspired by Llamatron instead). After I finished it, I worked on a sequel that would take that fast-paced combat and place it into a top-down maze exploration game. Like a combination of Gauntlet and Geometry Wars.

I took the Mojotron combat model, added scrolling and hooked up a random level generator that would produce networks of rooms (DungeonMaker, very cool).

Suddenly the game became noticeably less fun.

Continue reading ‘Engagement Distance’


GTA Beijing


After one of many close calls during our tour buses’ overtaking manoeuvres, one of the other tourists joked that it was just like playing Grand Theft Auto. He has a point.

  • No apparent speed limit.
  • Right of way isn’t enforced.
  • Nobody indicates.
  • Police only get involved if they witness an actual collision.
  • Even if the police do bust you, a donation can set you on your way again.

Seems to me like Asia is the natural setting for GTA. Why do Rockstar keep setting Grand Theft Auto in New York, Miami and LA lookalikes?

Think of the possibilities:

  • Denser, more chaotic traffic, to keep things interesting. Perhaps it’d be best suited if it were a final level of the game?
  • More varied interesting vehicles. I kept seeing tuktuks, rickshaws, huge tricycles with a big carrying tray between the back wheels (pickup tricycle? ute trike?), motorbikes converted into minibuses, tractors converted into minibuses, and so on. I even saw one guy cycling through the hutongs on a ute trike with its tray removed and a charcoal grill welded in its place. He was a mobile shish kebab stand!
  • Pedestrians whose courage and stoicisim is matched only by their keen senses and finely tuned reaction times. Not to mention their sophisticated flocking behavour which allows them to make impromptu pedestrian crossings, much like a column of army ants will form a bridge out of their comrades.