For the last 15 years or so, a close friend and I have fairly regular conversations about game development. We like to run ideas by each other, especially to develop game mechanics to make games more playable and enjoyable.
Now, neither of us has published a for-profit creation (yet), but my friend has published a variety of Starcraft I and Starcraft II boards. In our discussions, I always feel that we spend too much time debating game mechanics. I reached a point where I refused to talk about game mechanics unless the game in question had a solid theme.
No one plays a “mechanic”. People play games, first an foremost in my opinion, because of the sense of immersion they experience, even if the story is not terribly detailed. A good example of a story “light” game would be Magic the Gathering. Two wizards battling to the death for power, control, etc. It’s easy to forget the point of that particular game, and get lost in the mechanics of the cards, but that theme at least sets the stage.
One problem I often experience when trying to think about game development is paying too much attention to mechanics too early. My experience with Dungeons and Dragons and other tabletop games has taught me that any gaming entity can easily be “re-skinned” as something else… and this applies to theme and mechanics. Stats for a minion skeleton can easily become a minion kobold or goblin or whatever you want it to be.
I believe success in gaming design is achieved when a great theme is paired with great mechanics. However, mechanics alone do not make a good game. Theme must come first.
Case Study: Angry Birds “Theme”
SPOILER ALERT! Angry Birds was NOT the first game to introduce catapult mechanics to knock down structures and destroy living creatures. Crush the Castle was first released on www.newgrounds.com years prior to the release of Angry Birds. Crush the Castle is a very enjoyable game, but it is not as satisfying as Angry Birds, and most people have never heard of it. Why you ask? THEME!
The story of Crush the Castle is “The King has ordered you to crush all resistance in order for his kingdom to survive. Crush castle after castle by wiping out all of it’s inhabitants with a powerful Trebuchet and an arsenal of 8 different projectiles.” Knocking down castles and murdering the rebel nobles was not very effective at engaging players in the “story”. There are some levels where the goal is murder a small castle full of women. Not cool man, not cool.
By contrast, Angry Birds establishes a strong motive for play in under 30 seconds with a great video that doesn’t have a single word of text. The pigs stole your baby eggs, and you will stop at nothing to get them back! The lack of blood and the “justified revenge” storyline makes the game more accessible to a wider audience. With a strong theme in place, the finishing touches and refined mechanics are really what gives the player a sense of satisfaction. Music, goofy sound effects, a smooth physics engine, and an elaborate scoring system keep people engaged and playing over and over again.
The Evolution of My Board Game
I actually have a lot of ideas for different types of games, but many of my projects have not grown beyond outlines because they are too complex… and in some cases I need to find a Smart Phone application developer… but that’s another problem entirely.
For this game, my wife and I were having a sort of belated Chinese New Year party to “Celebrate the Water Dragon”. We started thinking of decorations and activities, and I thought to myself, we need a dragon themed game! The theme and basic mechanics came to me almost instantly. After writing everything down, I’ve revised the document at least three times now. I playtest the game both in my head and on paper, and iterate towards a refined design.
At this point I think I’m ready for a playtest at our party this Saturday. Oh, and most importantly, here is my theme! Game title to be determined.
My Board Game Theme
YOUNG DRAGONS are wild, playful, and unruly. They must find wisdom in life to become great, wise, and powerful dragons when they grow older. High up in the sky, there is an ancient temple built by some of the first dragons. Over thousands of years, the temple slowly collects the cosmic energy and knowledge of the universe in magic pearls. With the knowledge in these magic pearls, a dragon could become very wise indeed!
On a quest for wisdom, you and your dragon friends fly to the top of the great Cloud Mountain in search of the ancient temple. You fly high, High, HIGH up to the very top of the cloud mountain. Exhausted from the long journey and strong winds, you rest at the summit. Through the mist and cloud, you spy the golden glowing pearls atop each temple spire, but you are shocked to see that there are not enough pearls for each dragon! Quick, you must claim a pearl before your friends absorb all the wisdom for themselves!
Without going into too much detail, I built in rules and mechanics to support the theme. There are wind effects that randomly move players around the board, combat effects for both in-flight scuffles and landing on pearl spires. The goal is to acquire wisdom, which the dragons acquire by occupying pearl spires and absorbing the energies of the universe.
In last iteration, I started going through the rules and adding “story” justifications for why certain rules were included. This may not be necessary, but I think describing the play environment in this way improves player immersion. We’ll see how the players react on the first read-thru.
Have You Tried to Develop a Game?
What was your experience? Did you sell it, or just play among friends?
Are you optimistic about the development of 5th edition DnD? I’m very much looking forward to playtesting… some day… *sigh*