Game talk(Un)dressing a game

 Posted by (Visited 23211 times)  Game talk
Jan 062006
 

Phil Steinmeyer has a great post up going over the process of creating a look for his word puzzle game Bonnie’s Bookstore. What this reveals is both how important the dressing of a game is, and also how paradoxically unimportant it is. It also suggests ways in which we can drive innovation in games in general.

As you can see if you read Phil’s post, there’s a few standard steps that seem to go into this process of defining a look.

  • Developing multiple concepts, and being pretty open to what those concepts might be.
  • Using a focus group to sanity check your preferences against those of your target audience.
  • Choosing to put your preferences in anyway, to some degree (call this the creator’s privilege, if you like; in Phil’s case, he chose to meld into the concept, in fact as his framing device, the concepts that were largely rejected by the focus group).

And yet this process often seems to be very very hard. The typical places where it runs into trouble are cases like

  • Serving multiple masters (who may invoke creator’s privilege themselves)
  • Preconceived notions of what a look is, particularly on the parts of those who don’t have artistic background and cannot communicate what they want; this will lead to everything being unsatisfying
  • Excess of creator’s privilege overriding all market data — although occasionally this turns out to be a creator seeing a market that the market researchers don’t
  • Slavishly following a market trend (following is rarely a way to lead a market)

Now, ideally, your dressing picks up on or echoes some element of the game mechanics. Phil’s game is a word game — ending up with a theme about storybooks makes sense, whereas some of the other concepts don’t fit as well. Bookworm, by PopCap, plays off a pun.

It’s important to realize that Phil’s game works just fine with nothing but generic letters in a generic font on a grid. In fact, the oddly shaped grids that are such an important part of the final game aren’t present in many of the intermediate concepts. This reveals just how unimportant the dressing of a game can be to the actual gameplay, even though the industry seems to constantly get them confused. Dressing is important as a magnifier of fun factor, not as the fun factor itself.

Notice that in Phil’s process, he identified a look he wanted, but then had to change artists because of scheduling issues. The look evolved somewhat to reflect the different artists’ preferred styles and interpretations, but in both cases, the look was strongly defined by the chosen metaphor for the game. The exercise here was really in choosing the dressing, not the art style.

One area that I firmly believe can and should be explored as an obvious route towards innovation in gaming is to choose more diverse metaphors. The canonical example these days is to replace a gun with a camera but retain the first person shooter mechanic. In a word game, of course, that’s a bit more challenging, but I have gotten great mileage personally, for example, in making color-matching games (think Columns or the like) but with the theme or metaphor of a kaleidoscope — two completely different games so far, and I am pondering a third.

The more closely integrated the theme and the look are, the better the game will feel on a visceral level to the player. I don’t know how many reskins and remakes of classic games I have seen which manage to put a completely inappropriate look on a game mechanic, thereby ruining the player’s impression of the game — like replacing the ostriches in Joust with fluffy clouds, or something. This suggests that picking more varied themes and then identifying core elements of the theme and reflecting them back into the gameplay can introduce new game mechanics altogether. If you’re doing a Joust clone but changing the ostriches into fluffy clouds, adding a mechanic that is cloudlike may bring in fresh gameplay (it might suck too).

Abstractly, Pac-Man is about touching every portion of a map, but thematically, it’s clearly about eating; that’s why there were Bristles and Miner 2049er using substantially similar mechanics and yet achieving very different feels. In Bristles, where paint is the metaphor, the map can get “untagged,” equivalent to the ghosts “uneating” the dots. Whole new mechanic, whole new set of gameplay…

In many cases, this core theme will not be visual. It’s really a mission statement for what your game is about. My games were about a kaleidoscope feeling first, and color matching evolved out of that. You should choose to make a game about fluffy clouds first — that’s your core artistic statement as a game designer. Then select or develop mechanics that complement and work with the theme.

Sometimes, your theme will literally be about game design. It’ll be about a mechanic. I designed a board game where I wanted the theme to be about fractally placing pieces on a board. This game still has no real look, because in the end, the thing that best conveyed the theme was plain old color squares on a grid. Could the game be done with little Mayan temples or something? Well, yes. Would it help? No, not really. Sometimes abstractness is what the game is about, as in the example of Mono, where the game is about additive color.

A game that is about a mechanic is very much analogous to a formalist piece in other media; it’s playing with the same sorts of ideas as paintings about color theory are, or poems about language. Like other formalist pieces, however, it may be limited in its appeal precisely because of its lack of metaphor. It’s a piece of entertainment intended for people who are really interested in how games work. (Perhaps the most prominent example of a well-known game of this sort is the Wario Ware series, which were then expertly dressed as being about the process of making games and being hardcore game fans — a wonderful match of theme and mechanic).

If you really want to nail the dressing, in the end you’re using lessons drawn from other media, because that’s where games become a blended art form. You’ll need to know about things like art and music, because you want the tools of those media working to maximum effect for the art of the whole. There’s a jillion lessons from centuries of practice there, so you should seek to educate yourself on them.

Bottom line:

  • Choose a theme, not a look
  • Design to that theme, but don’t pile in your dressing until the game is fun
  • Dress to the theme — and try out multiple takes on that dressing, using the process Phil followed

If you manage to pull all of these things off, then you might even end up with a game whose action, theme, and dressing are all encapsulated in a single dressing element, which then becomes iconic to your game, and a powerful marketing tool. The little Sims diamond, the Quake logo, the Tetris block, Pac-Man himself. If anything, this is one area of dressing that Bonnie’s Bookstore didn’t quite nail; the Bookworm worm is more iconic, as is the Zuma frog.

I highly recommend Bonnie’s Bookstore if you like word puzzle games, by the way. It’s a great next step after Bookworm.

  9 Responses to “(Un)dressing a game”

  1. del.icio.us RSS Raph%u2019s Website � (Un)dressing a game Duotris: modded Tetris Wooly Thinking :: Games for Brains! Flashing the Xbox 360 at Suttree, Elixir for Immortal Baboon ~ Casual Games development Launching Swf Files Via Kiosk Disk – Xbox-Scene Online Web Community

  2. s a shame that word games have become the ugly cousin to Match Three, Grouper style games. Word games are notoriosuly hard to create and localise though, as Phil Steinmeyer has illustrated. Raph Koster calls it ‘don’t pile in your dressing until the game is fun‘, and this is where I think word games get discarded as too difficult in comparison to match three and card games. PopCap go clearly have a culture for rapid iteration which is something that their framework surely helps with. I think that this is

  3. Blogroll Joel on SoftwareRaph Koster Sunny Walker Thoughts for Now Sex, Lies and Advertising

  4. […] Raph Koster has a nice, lengthy posting, riffing of my piece but going beyond that with his own views on the importance (and best techniques) for doing concepting in general and art concepting in particular. Gamasutra has reprinted (with my permission), the article in full. Nothing added, but it’s always nice to get ‘in print’ on one of the bigger sites. […]

  5. John Tynes’ article about war photography works even better than “Wild Earth” (gamespot’s page http://www.gamespot.com/pc/adventure/wildearth/screenindex.html)

    I’d claim that photography is only distantly related to FPS mechanics, since (a) you don’t always want your subject to be centered in the photo or zoomed in, and (b) the target’s facial expressions are key to the value of the photo, (c) lots of other reasons I won’t bother detailing.

    Which is part of a larger issue, that dressing significantly affects the game mechanics.

    You could start out with a FPS, and figure out how to redress it as a photography game. However, as soon as you have a photography game, the mechanics of your shooter changes, and new sub-games are introduced, such as interviewing NPCs; you never interview NPCs in a FPS.

    So wouldn’t the process be more like tightening the bolts on a tire? Repeatedly try on different dressings and mechanics, until the wheel is completely tight?

    Example: I haven’t played Bonnie’s Bookstore, but once you create the dressing of “Bonnie” (based on the original word-puzzle mechanics), wouldn’t you use the puzzles to affect Bonnie’s story? (The game may well do this.) At which point, the mechanics are now changed by the dressing. Of course, what you could end up with is something similar to 7th guest, puzzles that fit a story and a story that fits the puzzles.

  6. I’d claim that photography is only distantly related to FPS mechanics

    I’d call photography an evolution of FPS mechanics. In FPS, you have three to four fundamentals: manuever, twitch accuracy, tactical decision, and occasionally, strategic planning (in CTF games, generally). All of these are easily integrated into a photography game, but photography games provide a much larger realm of possible development, like adjusting length of exposure, holistic aesthetics (rather than merely capturing the subject at hand).

    You could, in this analogy, consider a gun to merely be a stripped down camera (photon cannon, anyone?), good for only lethal delivery of projectiles.

  7. Mike, the player can’t affect the story in Bonnie’s Bookstore — it’s more like having a bit of art reward getting to the next level.

    Popcap’s games tend to have better themes and greater polish than competing games with similar play mechanics. Most of them are very story-lite, beyond theme, although Astropop has a nicely intertwined storyline involving three characters.

  8. […] https://www.raphkoster.com/?p=248Phil Steinmeyer has a great post up going over the process of creating a look for his word puzzle game Bonnie’s Bookstore. What this reveals is both how important the dressing of a game is, and also how paradoxically unimportant it is. It also suggests ways in which we can drive innovation in games in general. […]

  9. I’ glad you’ve pointed out the difference between theme and dressing. The dressing goes on last, but the interaction between theme and mechanic needs to be explored early. Merging the two is at the core of game design. A theme can be just the constraint you need to come up with a new mechanic.

    This is insightful to me because I usually argue for ignoring theme until the mechanic is defined. My actual process has often been to merge theme and mechanic, but I wouldn’t have described it that way.

    You’re also right that pure mechanic games can be very interesting (mostly to other game designers), but tend to be unpopular. What a bummer.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.