Saturday, June 28, 2008

Shade: A game prototyping challenge

As a redhead, there's a little game that I play every day in summertime called "Stay in the Shade". The rules are simple: make it to my destination as quickly as possible while avoiding all possible sunlight. This involves hopping from shade patch to shade patch. The cost of failure is the dread Irish Tan. These bizarre antics were inspiration for a game design called Shade.

As with any of the designs you find on this site, I heartily encourage you to prototype it and use it as a learning project. I know that there is a group of you itching to try out the latest 3D engines with sex-a-licious real-time shadows. This is your chance to finally use the technology in a way that produces meaningful game play.

I'll give out the much coveted Bronze, Silver, and Gold Lost Garden badges to anyone who creates a worthy prototype.

Basic gameplay
You play the part of a rugged mushroom rancher who must collect adorable sentient mushrooms living in the shade. All you need to do is run up to a planted mushroom and touch it. It will pop out of the ground and start following you around. Lead it back to the start location and you'll be awarded multiple point based off its size.

Unfortunately, it is a scorchingly hot day. You can meander about the landscape of giant grassy blocks with impunity due to your meglo-awesome wide brimmed hat, but the mushrooms wilt quickly in sunlight. To lead them back successfully, you'll need to keep to the shadows and plot the optimal path home.

Basic Elements
  • Player: The player can move about on a 2D plane using the arrow keys or a joystick.
  • Blocks: Strewn about the landscape are blocks that cast shadows.
  • Planted mushrooms: In the shadows of the blocks, planted mushrooms will slowly spawn over time. If left alone they will slowly grow in size.
  • Mushrooms: If the player runs into a Planted Mushroom, it will pop out of the ground and start following the player's motions exactly. If multiple mushrooms are collected, they will follow in a line behind the player. A mushroom can last in direct sunlight about a second before they expire. This amount of time is cumulative and is shown by slowly shrinking the mushroom as it is exposed to more sunlight.
  • Homebase: This is a spot on the ground that you need to lead the mushrooms back to in order for them to be counted.
  • Mushroom score: In the upper right hand corner of the screen is the HUD. The most important element is the Mushroom score that shows you how many mushrooms you've collected so far today.
  • Day timer: The day slowly progresses from morning to evening over 15 minutes. The shadows change position as the day progresses.
Winning the game
The game is over at the end of the day. Total mushrooms collected is entered into a highscore table.


We've had lovely real time shadows for quite some time, but very few designs take advantage of the technology. Luckily there are an immense number of cheap 3D engines that can pump out real-time shadows. Some options:
Not so long ago, this tech was the exclusive domain of techsperts like id and Epic. But now there are no excuses. And the very clever folks will figure that you can make this game in a 2D engine with a little finagling.


Since this design is likely a 3D game, I'm not providing art assets. I recommend that you use cubes and other primitives for the various elements in the scene. They are inexpensive, highly effective and can always be replaced at a later point with more advanced models once you've proven out the gameplay.

With this type of game, a good amount of pleasure will come from the motion of the mushrooms following the player and the movement of the shadows over time. Slick graphics can enhance this, but they aren't necessary to find the fun. Again, no excuses.

Advanced gameplay
Once the basic gameplay is in place, there are immense opportunities for more interesting variations.
  • Movable blocks: Blocks that you can push around allow you to create optimal paths for harvesting mushrooms.
  • Muncher: Once a planted mushroom grows to a certain size and it is hit by the sun, it turns into an AI driven creature called a muncher. Munchers find a nearby green block (also known as a bush) and start munching on it. This reduces the size of the block and therefore the amount of shade it provides. Munchers can be stunned and killed by running into them repeatedly.
  • Bush seed: A dead muncher turns into a Bush seed. A bush seed is an object that can be collected by running over it with the character. If you press a button, the bush seed is planted on that location and begins to grow.
  • Multiple days in a row: What happens to the landscape if you let the world run for multiple days? With the inclusion of bushes and munchers, we have a self balancing ecosystem. As you plant more bushes, there is a greater chance that mushrooms will turn into munchers, which in turn reduce the bushes. Can you turn a simple landscape into a mushroom plantation?
This is the sort of game that lives or dies based on balancing all the various elements. There are a number of variables that you'll need to mess about with
  • Size of the blocks
  • Number of blocks and shadow area
  • Spawning rate of mushrooms
  • Size of mushrooms
  • Amount of sunlight to kill a mushroom.
  • Speed of the character
  • Size of the map.
  • Size of the viewport onto the map.
I don't have the answers. You'll get the answers by iterating on the basic design dozens, if not hundreds of times. Keep me updated and I'm happy to provide feedback on works in progress.

The Lost Garden Awards
Once again I'm giving out the always desirable Lost Garden badges for any prototypes that result.

  • Bronze Medal: You built an interesting software toy. If you make an attempt at a design and it is interesting to futz about with, you get the Bronze Medal. Most people never get a Bronze medal due to the simple fact that they prefer to sit around and think rather than make something. Simply by doing (instead of not doing), you join an elite club.
  • Silver Medal: You found the fun. You've iterated on your design and have identified a few key elements that make the game enjoyable. There is at least 5 minutes of interesting play. It likely isn't polished and some of the higher order reward loops are broken, but the core is there. If past challenges are any indication, I'll give out only a handful of Silver Medals per challenge.
  • Gold Medal: You made the fun repeatable. The game that you've built is entertaining enough that I'm willing to play it for 15 to 20 minutes. This is a hard level to reach and it is only populated by the most elite cadre of weekend warriors. An entire production team could be seeded by your efforts. To reach this level, you've made some critical design steps beyond the initial concept and built unique and sustainable gameplay based off dozens of game play iterations. To this day, no one has won a Gold Medal. You could be the first.

You need to post a public, playable version in order to be eligible. I'll issue the rewards about one month after the initial challenge is posted. If something comes in after the original deadline has passed, I'll add it retroactively to the award post. If you win a Bronze or Silver, you can still come back later and make an attempt at the Gold. Anyone who gets a Gold medal is an automatic rock star in my book.

What do you get if you win? First off, you get the right to post a snazzy LostGarden medal on your website. Most importantly, you get that warm fuzzy feeling in your tippy-tip toes that stems from a job well done.

Shade is an interesting game design to me for the following reasons
  • Exploration-based play: The joy is in exploring the ever changing landscape and finding mushrooms and interesting paths back home. It is more strategic than action oriented.
  • Simple controls: All you need to play are directional controls and one button. It should be pretty easy to pickup.
  • Non-violent: In general there is very little combat. I like this. I can imagine the title having a very meditative feel.
  • Uses real-time shadows for some unique gameplay. Real-time shadows have been used for sneaking games, but little else. Surely it is time to expand the number of games that use this fascinating technology.
Enjoy! If anyone makes something and puts it online, I'm happy to discuss it on the website in a follow up post.

take care

Past challenges

Saturday, June 14, 2008

What actitivies can be turned into games?

Techniques for designing consumer scales

Recently, my amazing wife picked up a copy of Wii Fit. No, this is not a review.

Here is something you may not know about my wife. For the past year, she's been dealing with a rather serious, debilitating illness. One side effect is considerable and undesirable weight loss. On the positive side, she has enjoyed shopping for a new wardrobe to match her more petite frame. On the less positive side, many stores no longer carry clothes that are small enough to fit.

So when the Wii Fit first booted up and cheerily prompted her to set a goal, she decided to try to get her BMI back up to the 'normal level'. Every day or so, she's been exercising, weighing herself and doing yoga. So far she has found the game to be convenient and highly motivational tool for helping her to track her weight.

We've had other exercise equipment around the house before, as well as gym memberships, yoga classes, etc. None of them has been as motivating as a simple set of exercises wrapped in a system of game-like rewards. My wife's experience with Wii Fit speaks volumes about games potential to turn an often mundane activity into entertainment that is delightful, exploratory and highly meaningful.

Thinking beyond scales
Yet, who would have ever thought that weighing yourself could be turned into a game? Miyamoto did, but then again he is widely considered to be an uber genius. The skeptical observer might imagine that successful cross-over games like Wii Fit are one-in-a-million success stories. Suppose it works for Wii Fit, but nothing else.

However, if the lessons of Wii Fit were broadly applicable, entire industries could be transformed. Games are a competitive advantage that can turn a commodity scale into one of the hottest consumer products of the year. In highly competitive markets, that is the sort of product design super power that lets innovative companies walk away with market share.

As I contemplate my wife's success with the Wii Fit, I'm struck by a multi-billion dollar question: What other activities can you turn into a game?

Almost anything
First, though there is no doubt that Miyamoto is a genius, what he does is reproducible by mere mortals. He is able to apply his game design skill (or at least his greenlighting abilities) to non-traditional games like Wii Fit because he understands game design at a very atomic level. Here is another way of looking at it. A craftsman builds tables the same way he was taught by his father and his grandfather can only build tables. But someone trained in mechanical engineering can use the fundamentals to build chairs, bridges, cars or even cathedrals. Similarly, by understanding the fundamental science behind traditional games, you can apply the theoretical tools of game design to transform wildly divergent activities into games. I've written about some of this in the past with essays on skill atoms.

It turns out that most learnable skills can be turned into a game. However, there are constraints. A skill must meet the following criteria before it can be turned into a game:
  1. Decomposable into simpler skills
  2. Skills can be nested
  3. Skills can be arranged in a smooth learning curve
  4. Skills are measurable
  5. Performance can be rewarded
  6. Skills are locally useful.
Let's look at these one by one.

1. Decomposable into simpler skills
Complex learnable skills can be broken down into sets of easily acquired core skills. Players can only learn so much at once and overly complex skills overwhelm all but the most persistent players. By breaking skills up into digestible chunks, you are now able to apply many of the basic techniques of game design.

In Wii Fit, the complex activity of "Becoming fit" is broken down into skills associated with using the board, testing balance, endurance activities and more.

2. Skills can be nested
Complex skills should build upon and reuse earlier skills. Advanced skills are best taught by the extension of existing skills, not introducing new metaphors.

Game design is built around the idea of core mechanics, skills that are exercised over and over again throughout the game experience. If you can't find a set of basic reusable skills that can be incorporated as the foundational elements of more complex skills, players will deem the activity shallow and lose interest.

In Wii Fit, the act of balancing while following rote exercises is used repeatedly throughout. It is an activity that is easy to learn, hard to master and contributes nicely to a wide range more advanced activities.

3. Skills can be arranged in a smooth learning curve
There is a smooth ramp from learning easier skills to learning more complex skills. Initial skills should take only seconds since they leverage existing skills. Afterwards, learning activities should build in complexity until they take minutes, then hours. If the initial learning ramp takes too long, players will be confused or bored and stop playing.

In Wii Fit, you can learn to use the board in seconds. Just step on it. However, more advanced games are slowly introduced until must spend hours of your time to unlock that last activity.

4. Skills are measurable
The game can detect when a skill is used correctly or incorrectly. Without this the game cannot provide timely feedback that pushes the player in the right direction.

The fact that Wii Fit is a giant sensor is perhaps to be expected. Within limits, it knows exactly what you are doing and when you doing something incorrectly. This is a dramatic difference from most exercise equipment or a workout video.

5. Performance is rewardable
The game can provide the player with a timely feedback and rewards. If the game provides feedback too late or in a manner that is disconnected from the original action, the player won’t learn.

Unlike traditional exercise equipment, Wii Fit judges your performance. It lets you know when you are doing poorly and it praises you when you are doing well. It is not a passive tool, but one that seeks to mold you. This is how games work and is an integral part of their success as a teaching tool.

6. Skills are locally useful
The skill can be exercised in a useful manner by the player in a variety of meaningful local contexts. If the skill isn’t useful, the behavior will extinguish.

Local utility is a tricky concept for many, especially those trained to think in terms of filling measurable customer needs. It basically means that the player finds an activity useful in the short term within the local context of the game. Grabbing a coin in Wii Fit may accomplish absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of the player's week. However, it does let the player unlock a new exercise. So for the moment, the player considers frantically gathering coins to be a completely utilitarian activity.

Skills that are eliminated by these constraints
What skills are eliminated by these constraints? Surprisingly few.

The biggest sticking point often ends up deciding how to measure complex skills. With Wii Fit, they needed to engineer an entirely new device. It is not uncommon to invest substantial amounts of effort just gathering the right data so that you can reward the proper skills accurately and in timely manner.

Machines alone have a limited understanding of many cultural human activities. In these situations, you need to build your games to use other human beings as measurement instruments. The rating techniques of sites like Hot or Not or are widely applicable.

The other constraints end up being easily worked around with a little bit of thought and prototyping to find what works.

When I look at our list of six constraints, it is obvious to me that there are a plethora of skills that are just waiting to be turned into games. Games like Wii Fit or Brain Training may seem exceptional strokes of genius, but in reality they are merely the tiny tip of an immense iceberg. Almost any human skill, be it physical, cultural, political or economic can be turned into a game that enlightens and enables.

As more leisure games emerge that mediate and accelerate the acquisition of skills, there is going to be a economic incentive to spread the science and craft of game design far beyond our tiny game industry. Game design is not just about games. It is a transformational new product development technique that can turn historically commoditized activities into economic blockbusters.

This morning, my wife came back from her morning Wii Fit session and proudly announced to me that she just worked her way back to her normal weight range. She is still on the light side and this odd little game was by no means the only source of her success. But it had its place as a tool that measured, encouraged and rewarded progress. As such it was worth every single penny.

When I look at Wii Fit and I hear the delight in my wife's voice, it is apparent that game design is again breaking out into the broader market. Obviously it isn't happening quite in the way many have predicted. The harbinger of game's ascendancy to all aspect of the modern life is not some piece of evocative art or Citizen Kane-a-like. Instead, our future appears in the form of a glorified bathroom scale. Still, if we can improve people's lives with a bathroom scale, just imagine how games can transform the rest of our world.

take care