Sunday, October 9, 2005

Space Crack: Monkeying with 2D art

I've been playing around with a variety of styles for Space Crack. Everything from giant robots to completely abstract shapes to Sanrio-inspired space monkeys.

Assuming for a moment that you have a decent game design, one of the most difficult decisions facing a game is the setting and theme. It is a topic so important that many gamers often mistake the theme of the game with the actual design of the game. You'll hear "I have a great game design. Imagine chickens with chainsaws."

This speaks to the heart of the importance of a game's theme. When you think of your ultimate game, you'll almost always gravitate towards a description of the game's theme. A visceral vision of the game will pop into your head, a fantasy involving concrete characters often complete with movie like action. If I wanted to sell you on a game, all I have to do is describe your fantasy game and you'll be slavering for my title in a heartbeat.

A good theme is what causes the player to pick up the game in the first place. It is a hooks that ties into their existing fantasies. If you create a theme for a game that does not resonate with the fantasies of your target audience, they'll never try your title and regardless of the quality of your game design, your title will sit on the shelf.

I remember a wonderful little title called Moon Base Commander. It had delightful game mechanics saddled with a boring as dirt theme. Generic groups battling on a generic lunar landscape. Do you fantasize about being a Moon Base Commander? I don't. There were no doubt other reasons for the title's commercial failure, but the theme was a complete killer.

Searching for a theme
Often, a game designer will find themselves in a situation where they have an interesting game mechanic but they then have to come up with a good theme. The original Nintendogs training mechanic was used in a parrot training prototype. It was interesting, but didn't have a theme that would connect with a large population of gamers. Now, tie that parrot training game with a new skin that has you training puppies instead and voila, you have a commercially viable title.

SpaceCrack intentionally started out with a somewhat generic space theme. Sometimes as you are prototyping, interesting game mechanics will pop up and it can be useful to adjust the story to fit the reality of your game. I wanted to bake the game mechanics a bit more before I assigned them a theme.

So now I'm at the point where I need a theme. And I'm stumped. Since I'm an artist, I started doodling, just to see what would happen. After a while, the monkeys started to speak to me.

My thought process for the current Space Crack theme is rather simple. I wish there was more depth behind it, but there isn't.
  • Monkeys are a popular pop culture icon
  • If I make monkeys a major theme of my game, everyone who likes monkeys would be tempted to try the title. "It's got monkeys. Sweet! I'll give it a shot."
  • I personally enjoy monkeys. When your are slaving away on game art at 2AM in the morning, it is good to work on something that you love.

Hope you enjoy the graphics. :-) (When I draw all day long, there tend to not be as many essays.)

take care


  1. The only thing that would be cooler than monkeys is if they were fighting dinosaurs. Or pirates.

    I'm all about the monkeys, and those pictures look like a fantastic game. Thus demonstrating your point.

  2. Echoing some of the sentiment above, I think monkey pirates fighting in space would be awesome. If the monkeys were pirates it would explain why they were fighting each other for planets and what not. But then, I don't think them being pirates would make or break the suspension of disbelief for many people.

  3. Sweet, sweet, monkeys...

    Then again you could do this with ANY animal... or vegetable for that matter. In Japan, they even have a hero named Kikko-man, the soy sauce superhero.

    I suggest you give players choices... sure I love monkeys, but I also like hamsters... and cute and fluffy bunnies... and cats... and frogs... and starfish... and... ah heck... just make it Pokemon in space! ;)


  4. if you're just going for themes that are popular and can draw people in, don't forget ninjas. As they say, when in doubt, simply use ninjas.

    Seriously though, even if you don't go with the monkey's specifically, I think the "worlds" you set them on is great. Just seeing that gives the game a lot more life in my non-game designer eyes.

  5. Putting the issue of monkeys aside for a moment (although they are very cute indeed), I think that the visual design works because it looks like a board game, and hence appears less "threatening" to a casual gamer than your bog-standard screen from MoO2 or Pax Imperia or whatever. The way the whole thing is shaded (is that effect replicable?) enhances the dimensionality of the thing; the pieces practically invite you to pick them up and move them around.

    Speaking of which, there's one caveat... it looks like it's difficult to tell which pieces are movable (ships) and which aren't (planets, moons?). Could you use a common "socket" design for every space on which a ship can sit?

    Would you consider doing it in 3D? It would be interesting to allow players to look at the "board" from different angles. I'm not sure if that would actually add anything to the experience, though... just a thought.

    Wild idea: perhaps the "power" of a ship could be visually indicated not just by size, but by its "piratical-ness". Thus a level 1 ship would look like the ones in the illustration. A level 2 ship might sport a Jolly Roger, and from then on the possibilities are endless. Eyepatches, hats, hook-hands, parrots...

  6. I think you actually had the perfect style in one of your earlier postings: the one labelled "Space Crack: Graphics Mockup" from sometime in June.

    Not that the monkeys aren't cute.



  7. I love the idea of monkeys in space! I've always enjoyed stories that involved the early space race and them shooting monkeys off in rockets (not that I enjoy the thought of putting monkeys in danger, but the image is a fun one).

    Although I do love the cute monkeys on space ships thing, I'm not wild on the actual design of the monkeys. The design is basically your generic Japanese cartoon monkey. I think the monkey will basically be the central image of the game, and I'd like to see that be something that stands out as unique as possible.

    Keep up the great work!


  8. I just thought I'd voice my dissent. Like Steve I prefer your older vision of SpacCrack as a simplified and abstract space opera. The monkeys are fun, but they take away any sense of grandeur, which to me was kind of the cool part. Of course that's just my taste.

    Best of luck,

  9. If you ever have to change the title for the sake of political correctness, "Space Monkeys" actually sounds rather nice.

  10. Is it egotistic of me to assume you used Moonbase Commander as your example because of our conversation on Saturday?

    In response: There's a role-playing game based entirely on your Space Crack theme. It's called Monkey, Ninja, Pirate, Robot. (

    I wonder if Monkey Island counts as an early adapter in this respect?

    Peter Schaefer

  11. I think it might be interesting to include many styles, some serious, some light-hearted, some cartoonish and some realistic, and let the player choose at the beginning of the match. That way you could have cute space monkey pirates battling "giant" robots and whatnot. (obviously the scale would need to be somewhat similar) This could give immediate visual cues about the state of the game, especially if the planets took on the style of the controlling player as well.

    There are two obvious problems that i can see with this though (and probably many more that i'm missing from this casual glance). First, what if multiple players want to use the same style? (everyone loves monkeys!) Second, the art resources must be developed for all of these things.

    For the first problem, i would think this would have to be addressed with a single style as well, perhaps give them different colors or something if they choose the same style? For the second, perhaps the players could purchase additional styles with their Stars (if that financial model is used). New styles could be introduced as they are created, and perhaps, contrary to the power-up model, only players who purchase the style can actually use it.

    I suppose this is somewhat diluting, so if the intent is an epic space opera (with recurring captains/ships), it may not be appropriate.

  12. Let me give you my humble opinion.

    Themes are important in that they communicate things to possible players. You need to communicate very well, in a clear maner what the game is about before they try it. So, how to communicate how the experience of play is?, trough previous knowledge of the chosen genre or, through theme if the game is not from a known genre.

    Theme will tell players what to espect from the experience. If they see monkeys, theyll expect monkey behaviour, if the game doesnt have monkey behaivour, then what are the monkeys for?, nothing?, or making it cute only?, think on the kind of experience, is it a cute playing experience?, or is it a very tense experience?, it will be like 2 forces pulling to oposite directions... they will not add, they will supress each other.

    Shouldt gameplay be TIED to theme?.I know there are many abstract games (tetris for example, with no theme tied to the gameplay), but, choosing themes in such games should be a matter of matching them in the same kind of experience, so they push the player to the desired feelings, both doing the same effort, i the same direction.

    As is said before, if you include a theme, players will expect things from it. If you include no theme, then there will be less things to expect, and it may be better in the case of abstract games like yours.

    In conclution, it may be a better idea to communicate just the necesary, this doesnt mean that it will look bad, not at all, just limit the things that can be expected from how a game looks. How about using colored rounded tokens, for example, or bricks, symbols, etc. (sorry for my english)

  13. Addressing the comment before last - solving that wouldn't be hard. Use the same graphics with pallete swaps. The graphics and sounds are just a skin. Give the players the options for their opponents to be displayed in the skins they specify or in the players' own choice.

    In fact, I'm seeing it now... an advanced options menu prior to gameplay where you can choose any set of skins and assign one to each player, and the decision would only have an impact on local play.

    The real problem would be how to tie it in to a business model that sells extra skins... would you be unable to play with a friend because they have the Hirez Ultimate Awesome Skateboard Bolshevik Medieval Ninja skin pack, that they paid five bucks for and you didn't? You couldn't just download the skin yourself, since that's just begging for piracy.... You could have it display one of the local skins, but finding out how to manage that without forcing the player to dig into the advanced options will take more than three minutes of thought.

    I loved the way that the original theme felt very grandiose, and while nobody can hate monkeys, you run the risk of alienating players who are looking for something a little less whimsical. Fighting monkeys are whimsical. War in space is not whimsical. If you make the game two-dimensional, you can easily appeal to both tastes.