My Introduction to Game Design

This past summer I had a summer internship at a SF based mobile tech startup, and the opportunity to see firsthand just how lucrative mobile gaming companies were. Naturally this piqued my interest. I actually think it would be fun to make my own game, so I’ve recently started to study the mechanics of game development in depth.

What is a Game?

A game as defined by philosopher, Bernard Suits, must fulfill three rules:

  1. Pre-game goal: all games must have some type of objective upon completion. In sporting games this is typically scoring a goal or completing a distance.
  2. Rules: a set of guidelines is what differentiates a game from general “play,” which can be thought of as an act where people release exuberant energy.
  3. Incorporate a game like attitude. This ties together the first two rules. A game’s end goal doesn’t mean anything if people don’t possess the inclination to follow the rules. For example if you were running a 400 meter race, you could essentially win the contest by cutting across the field. But this circumvents the rules of the game and destroys the game’s value.

Game Design

I started watching this course on gamification taught by Wharton Professor, Kevin Werbach. In his video lecture series, he distills a game into three basic patterns.

  1. Voluntariness: people must show a natural willingness to partake in the activity.
  2. Element of learning or problem solving: the most popular games all involve some level of mental agility.
  3. Balance of structure (game rules) and exploration (Playful fun): I think is the hardest element to do well.

As a part of my research, I started thinking about some of the favorites games that I play on my mobile devices, and why I liked them. The following is a list of three mobile games I’ve become addicted to at one point or another.

Whales Trail – This is a really childish looking game. But for some reason, I love playing it! What kept me coming back for more was that it has really good graphics, a catchy theme song, and intuitive controls. For example as you control the whale, the screen naturally zooms out to help you see what fuel items lay ahead when you are at the top of the screen, and it zooms in to give you finer control to avoid obstacles when you are at the bottom of the screen. Plus I like the rainbow and sunshine themes because it feeds my inner child and makes me feel slightly happier while playing the game. I didn’t really think there was much of a learning element present in this game, but as I reflect, I guess the learning is in how to maneuver the whale to avoid obstacles and collect items. A very simplistic model that is actually used in many classic arcade style games, such as Super Mario Bros.

Tofu2 – Oh man, I’ve tried explaining this game to some friends before and I always end up sounding like an idiot. The game has a fairly bizarre concept, where you move a kung-fu styled block of tofu around a maze to avoid obstacles. What makes this game memorable is also a set of good graphics and intuitive controls. Something weird is that I also like to see the tofu jiggle as I’m bouncing it around the screen and making it stick to walls. Maybe this falls into the good graphics category because it’s attention to details like these which makes a good game become exceptional. I think Tofu2 also does an exceptional job of balancing structure with playfulness. As the player, you are free to explore each maze to collect items. As this happens you learn how to move the game’s character and figure out the best paths to take. All of this happens within the confines of the maze and governed by how the tofu block is designed to move.

Angry Birds Space – I was hesitant to download this because at first I thought it was just a remake of the original angry bird, and I didn’t want to waste time playing different levels of what was essentially the same game. But I downloaded it and was pleasantly surprised to see that it was very different. What I like about Angry Birds Space is the pacing. It starts you off really slow as you learn about the new characters and controls in this new version, and soon ramps you up to solve more complex challenges. What I find most intriguing however is their star rating system. Angry Birds was the first game I ever played to implement this, and it’s one of the only games I’ve seen where the stars seem to actually have meaning. It’s pretty easy in most games to get a 3 star rating for solving a level but Angry Birds makes it damn hard to get 3 stars. I think this is one reason why their game retention is so high because people keep coming back to improve their scores and to find more efficient methods to solve a puzzle.

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