Thursday, December 12, 2013

Archives- how game design haunted my childhood

Have you ever stumbled on a memory chest in the attic?
Well more like old crap! But still the crap that tells you about what sort of a dude you were before. Some times we forget about the dude. I discovered that he was  absolutely obsessed with designing games on paper. It's so silly that it is bad :D

The old console days
I grew up with a whole lot of 8 bit and 16 bit games. 
Atari, then NES, then Mega Drive. A lot of action platformers, occasionally a jrpg or a zelda clone. A lot of games were short,but difficult to complete. 
With no budget to create tons of cut scenes that today's AAA titles take for granted, games from the days of past expected you to figure out what to do just by doing. Some people argue that it  made them crappy,but I think those restrictions forced designers to use the layout and logic to teach you how to play.

First game that ever made me think about the importance of level layouts was Phantasy Star 2. I love it to bits ,can talk for hours why. 

But It's one of those old jrpg games where the dungeons are an absolute maze nightmare. Every corridor tends to look the same and there are very few landmarks to give you a hint if you have already been in an area. Also dungeons use a lot of teleporters- some times zapping you to different places on the same floor or to a different floor. There is rarely indication as to which floor you are on. The only way to progress was to figure out and memorize the layout of dungeons, with a lot of flashing battle interruptions and dead end corridors trial and error.

So me and my brother would play it together. Close to the end of the game, we made maps of entire dungeons on paper - just to mark the dead ends. 

To contrast above example, Platformers from that time are full of great level layouts. And that sort of aspect has always fascinated me in the games I played. It really makes a huge difference when the layouts are both fun and original.

This is when the game design fever must have started. 
I had a thick square paper diary notebook in 2nd grade - scribbled all the pages with  imaginary level layouts of platformer games. Complete with jumping springs and spikes. Not really a playable thing, but still fun to do. Unfortunately the item is (still) lost somewhere. So no screenshot.

Book Game days
Book games and board games were huge in Bulgaria. "MEGA" published a new one almost every month and most kids collected them. Accidentally or not, being designed to be affordable made them extra fun.
Instead of using any plastic or having an actual box,all the MEGA games were completely made out of paper. The folded board sheets acted as the box- wrapped around the game book, and other sheets for the game items.
The player had to cut out the uv unwrapped dice,characters and cards from texture sheets fold and glue them accordingly before playing the game. This cutting and gluing  work sounds terrible, but it is in fact the ritual that made kids feel like they are part of the production process of the game. It makes you more invested in the board game even before playing it. When you have to put it together in that way, you are forced to get a good look over the illustrations,packaging design,etc. It is a genius packaging design.

Hey, if I can cut and glue all this stuff, it must not be that hard to try and make one myself!
This is what got kids into making their own book/board games. Check this list of book games published in Bulgaria.

I think roughly around 4th grade I started making my own book games and board games for fun. It became a huge hobby. Some of my friends did it too.
Most of them are on notebooks. I have made about 4 and half are incomplete.

In this example from 4th grade the character you play with is a ninja. It's a sort of a fighting comic book game that uses numbered panels as event containers.
  Instead of reading left to right like a normal comic, each panel gives you the number of the next one to go to. This allows for the story to take more than one route and be determined by player choices, set variables (is health>x, is key=id) or chance (throw a dice).

It's for one or two players, you take turns with the enemy. A turn is like an event loop,determined by your choices and chance (the dice). That loop moves you through different panels- some of which take away from the enemy health or your health. It eventually leads to a panel that tells you that it's the other guy's turn.


Ninja man in mad max blade runner world (with zombies!!)
Then after the fighting, the game sort of evolved into a more elaborate story. Some panels became mini games involving more than just luck/choices. The loop started relying on a rudimentary paper variable system, which requires the player to fill an array table on request- ABCD-1234. So Lets say on a panel I tell you that B4=356 because of a choice you made. You write it down and then later on another panel will ask you to go to B4, which equals 356 in this case because of that choice.

A world map was added, also battle maps with their own sets of rules. The story tone switched from silly to serious drama sci fi.


And then as you would when you are in 4th grade, the game turned into vulgar jokes and silliness and somehow evolved (again) into some sort of a fantasy horror story about zombies and knights.

The RPG maker days
I got my first computer very very late compared to others. I think around 2000. It wasn't long before I discovered the rpg maker engines. Enterbrain officially released them only in japan at first, so the english localization was available only in unofficial copies. rm2k, then rmxp (today known as the rpg maker xp).

I made a few games with the thing. Nothing complete, mind you. But still something. Those engines are designed for jrpg style gameplay and it is very difficult to hack into them any original game logic.

A lot of the ideas on rm2k games were just left on paper and abandoned, since it's too hard to implement. A whole notebook of paper.

The Disney Interactive days
The internship brought me back to game design in a way.
First of all, I was told that one of the main reasons they picked me among 120 candidates was the game pitch I gave them. 
A pitch that was born out of the necessity to reuse a bunch of old robot drawings. Hey University has deadlines too you know.

It's actual presentation is lazy and terrible (I didn't think it would be that important when applying), but ultimately the ideas that it proposed won them over! 
Alex, who was the Design director at the time really liked it. 

The experience  is a mixture of many different types of jobs. 
One of those at some point was to come up with new game ideas to pitch. 
When this sort of brainstorming is working as a part of a business system, a number of interesting factors are added to it:
  • The target audience and the IP that the game is going to use.
  • Target device.
  • Market research - competition.
  • How can we make the core mechanic look right in the context of the IP. 
  • How can we create other franchise and products around this game.
These days
Game design is not looking like a feasible job to apply for. I have no idea how to, nor the confidence to claim the skill. But is there any hint of the old design fever, a hobby even?

Recently I got a personal license for SCIRRA Construct. And must say that it is absolutely fantastic! Never has it been so easy for me to get custom made game logic to work. It's like rm2k all over again, but without the restrictions of rm2k!
You may not see an actual finished game from me any time soon, but that doesn't mean I am not having fun making one in my head movies. It's hard to stop that.

Does anyone have similar experiences with board games? I would love to hear some stories.
What got you into game design?

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