gamedev and things

Two Months of Prototypes

Sep 9, 2023
Using small prototypes to explore different thinky mechanics

In July 2023, I was honored and grateful to be selected as a part of the 2023 Astra Fellowship Cohort. The fellowship encourages developers who are intereseted in thinky games. defines thinky as

Thinky games are those that ask you to carefully reason your way through puzzles and challenges; games brimming with curiosity and discovery. If you find yourself thinking through a problem and then, when the insights finally dawn on you, exclaiming “aha!” – you’re probably playing a thinky game.

I have been writing a little bit more about my fellowship experience on another site.

Over the first two months of the fellowsip, we focussed on experimentation through game jams. We had four week long jams, and two two-week long jams. This was a super fun experience for me, because for the longest time, I had avoided working on smaller projects as I felt that they would be a distraction for me. But now that I have completed and released one proper game, I am not quite as worried about the distraction factor. Also having a bunch of fellows to work alongside helps as well.

The two months taught me a lot, and I think I would like to sum up the things that I have learnt.

1. Get out of your comfort zone

As a game developer, I need to work on multiple aspects of the game. Programming, UI, Design, Art, and all of those other little things. What ended up happening was that I would end up spending more time on the aspects that I was comfortable with, which in my case is programming and UI, and ignoring the uncomfortable parts, design.

If I want to learn and improve, I need to get out of my own comfort zone. In my case, I find design very hard, because it’s newer to me, and there isn’t instant feedback the way that there is with polishing a button, or writing some code. It’s important to spend time with that discomfort, and slowly get better.

When I avoid the things that I am bad at, because I am bad at them, I will remain cursed to that fate. It is only when I accept that I am scared, and that it’s going to be hard, and the things that I make are likely to suck; that’s when I have a shot at getting better. And I get to be a little less scared, things get a little easier, and things that I make suck a little less.

But that’s only when I put in the work that’s actually hard.

I think at some level we are good at knowing what we suck at, and our discomfort is the compass that points in that direction. And we have to decide how we want to deal with that.

2. Make it easy to explore

When a game is designed around systems and discovery, and the game is designed around the players eureka moments, as a designer, work should be put into making things easier to try out.

When a player has to put in a lot of work to try out an alternate solution, they are more likely to just move on to the next thing. So as a designer, I have robbed them of that moment of joy.

Specifically, in the juggling prototype, I saw that when the interface is complicated, and a lot of time and effort is required to do tasks that feel simple, then that spark of exploration gets extinguished by the anguish of bad UX.

So when the game is designed around a particular type of exploration, make all the common interactions in that space easy and simple.

The best example of this in general would be the undo feature in puzzle games. Allow players to take back their mistakes so that they are not scared to try out different things.

3. Constraint is a puzzle design tool

One of the games was about creating a cellular automata. Basically, you would set up a certain set of rules based on the initial state of the simulation and the goals, and then watch those rules as they were applied. It is a huge and interesting problem space, and I made a bunch of levels that were very interesting.

The issue was that since the player had a huge amount of freedom on how they want to solve the levels it meant that they could easily break the levels, and implement solutions that were dull and boring. Given the chance, players will optimize the fun out of the game, and as a designer, my tool against that is adding constraints.

Honestly, it could be argued that a puzzle is mostly about constraints, but I definitely learnt that the hard way with this prototype.

When designing systems and mechanics, it is important to see how they all interact with each other. But as I learnt, it is also important to see how much freedom they give the player. Too much freedom makes for “optimal” strategies that are boring to input, while too little freedom means that the solutions become obvious.

Finding that sweet spot is what the magic is all about.

4. Role of randomness

I love Slay the Spire. One of the most interesting things in that game for me was how randomness in the early stages of your game affect the rest of your playthrough. If you find a certain card early on, or start off on a certain build, then cards that come far in the future appear in a totally different light.

This was one of the ideas that I was playing with, but I went about it all wrong.

In a game with intended strategic elements, randomness needs to be offset by player agency. Players need to be able to develop around randomness, and be able to account for randomness should they so choose. So every choice that is randomly presented should also allow for a unique playstyle built around that.

I fundamentally misunderstood this, and my deckbuilder ended up just being a random machine where if you are lucky you can score a few quintillion points, or otherwise score in the low thousands.

I do still intend on making some kind of deckbuilder some time, and I hope I have learnt enough that the next one isn’t quite such a disaster.

5. Enjoy the process

When you’re like me, and possibly a little too passionate about your work, then an experience like this can be a real roller coaster. My mood can often be influenced by how well my work is going. So making a new game every week, means a new opportunity for delight or despair every week.

When it comes to games built around systems, things almost never go the way that you imagine. Until you have a set of systems implemented and start playing around with it, it’s really hard to tell whether there will be all those magical moments of emergence and joy or not. That’s why playing thinky games is so fun. You never know when your mind will next expand as two systems interact to create magic.

So developing these kinds of games presents that same risk. Maybe the idea that you thought of had a lot of potential, and you’re in for a great week. Or maybe it doesn’t and things might resemble a slog.

After seeing a few weeks of this, I had to take a step back. I am getting to do what I want. I worked hard, and took a bunch of risks so that I could be in this position, where I get to work on things like this. I chose this life. I need to choose to enjoy it as well.

I would ofcourse love to say that that realisation made me transcend all mortal concerns, but no. It’s still hard. I still despair. But I also sometimes remember that I chose this struggle. And then I choose to get back to work.

Looking Forward

The next ten months of the fellowship involve working on a longer term project. I have one in mind, but there are a few things that I need to work out. That’s what this time and this fellowship is for, and I’m excited to spend the rest of the year doing that.