What made an unimpressive game stand out

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It was the final presentation of the Fukushima Game Jam.

My team and I were showing off our game. Since the organizers of the event were in Japan, our display was being streamed live to them, and when we finished, they gave us their opinion: it has potential, keep on working on it. Good right? But what made their comment special is that, out of all the teams here in Chile, we were the only ones who were told to keep on developing our game.

To be honest, our game wasn’t that great, and some of the other games looked much better than ours, so I wondered why us? What made our game stand out among the others? That’s what I hope to answer in this post.

Scott McCloud’s Six Steps

I recently finished reading Scott McCloud’s classic “Understanding Comics”, a meta-comic on the history, structure, and art of comics. I really enjoyed it (and should get around to reading the other two in the trilogy), but what really stood out to me was the chapter on the “six steps” an artist must go through.

SixLayers

They represent the main phases a new creator can master when learning a new medium:

  1. Idea/Purpose: The content you want to convey.
  2. Form: The form the content will take, like a game, a book, or a comic.
  3. Idiom: The style you will convey it in, the genre.
  4. Structure: How you will convey the content, the building blocks you’ll include and the ones you won’t.
  5. Craft: The actual production of the content, the practical skill.
  6. Surface: The polish, the superficial aspects that are most apparent at first.

It’s a good breakdown, and I like it a lot. But what makes it special? What I found revelatory is when McCloud pointed out that they’re usually mastered in reverse order.

You start with a vague idea and the form you want it to take. As a novice, you’ll probably want to make something like your favorite game/book/comic, and thus will look to it for inspiration. But since you have so little experience, you won’t be able to truly grasp what makes them good; you’ll only be able to copy them superficially.

But you won’t even do it well. Your first attempts will be rough and unpolished. You will practice, try to get better, and hey, you’ll eventually be good at making stuff; you’ll have gotten good at crafting pieces of work. But that doesn’t mean they’re good yet. Since you’re now proficient at creating, you can lessen the focus on execution and work harder on planning stage, the structure of the work.

As you can see, the order was steps six, five, and four. And with these steps and this perspective, I think I can answer my question.

Superficial Games

I’ll be honest: many games I’ve seen at Chilean game jams aren’t that great. It’s not that surprising since most of these events attract people who have never made games before. But why do people who have never made games before make boring games? What always annoyed me is that, even though I tried, I could never put my finger on exactly what made them bad, because they actually looked and sounded like good games.

Now though, thanks to McCloud, I can express the problem clearly: beginners make games that are superficial. The focus is  presenting a (usually quite charming/creative) idea and making a game that works and looks well. But once you look under these aspects, at the structure of the game, it falls apart. And I know this all too well because I’ve actually made jam games like these! Games that looked and sounded interesting, but were terribly boring to play. What was the problem? As a team, we’d have endless discussion on the concept, story or style of the game, but we’d rarely talk about what makes games a game and not just a “interactive experience”: the mechanics. They’re essential, but not as visible as other aspects like visuals, audio,  or story, so beginners have problems thinking about them. Even though I tried to push the conversation towards mechanics from time to time, they just couldn’t get past superficial ideas most of the time (“uh… how about if the player has to button mash?”).

At the Fukushima Game Jam, most of the teams were teams that had worked together and made games since before the event, so they definitely had the “craft” of making games down pat. They were games that looked well and sounded interesting. But if you looked past these, the “structure” was wonky; none of them had particularly engaging mechanics. 3 of the games were basically “move character to dodge upcoming obstacles”, and another one was a mix of a platformer, a infinite runner, and a shmup-like thing, but it did none of these well. I feel like the problem with most of these teams is that they start from a high level concept (“this should be a game about space aliens that invade the moon and…”) and build the mechanics from there (“I think it’d work as a side scrolling shooter”). The thing is, this is a really superficial way to design a game!

What did our team do right then? Well, mostly thanks to chance, we designed the game the other way around: we started with a mechanic that was interesting and then came up with a concept that worked with the mechanics. The execution was terrible but the idea was quite fun: it was a local co-op shump where the two players were tied together by a rope, and had to work together to control the rope and defeat enemies.

Taking A Step

As everybody presented their games, the jam’s organizers looked past the superficial aspects and truly inspected the structure of the game. I think that’s why they liked our game, why they told us it had potential. They realized that, even though it didn’t look that good, it had interesting mechanics.

I don’t mean to be too harsh on the other teams though! It’s not like I’m much further down this path. Looking back, I feel that, under my previous criteria, Dreams and Reality is actually quite superficial!  I’m currently trying to remedy this though, and I’ve pretty much gone to the other extreme: I’ve been trying to make prototypes where the only thing that matters are the mechanics and I’ve been ignoring everything else.

How long will I be in this “mechanics-only” mode? Probably quite a while… But I’ll be trying to participate in game jams from time to time so that my other skills don’t get rusty, so you can look forward to small games from time to time! Hopefully now, they’ll be even better games, because I’ll think about their structure.

 

 

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