Thursday, August 21, 2008

Shade: Prototyping Challenge results

It is time to give out awards to the Shade Prototyping challenge!

Every prototyping challenge I release is a grand exploration of a particular gaming system. The concept often sounds coherent on paper, but in reality it is composed of a series of small experiments involving movement, pacing, emergence and more. After every prototype, it is worth sorting through the experiments and seeing which ones are worth investing in further and which ones should be left behind.

Game design is a process, not a bolt of lightening from the blue. You build an experiment, reinvest in the things that work and try to fix the things that are broken. After iteration upon iteration, the game emerges. In this spirit, these awards are not the end of the Shade project, but instead are an opportunity to identify the next steps.

Even in these simple prototypes, Shade shows promise as a game concept. It just needs pass upon pass of polish to turn into something glorious.

Bronze awards

First, the bronze awards. These go out to the wonderful souls that made a game.

Of great interest was the fact that most people attempted 2D implementations of the concept. This makes sense considering the wide availability of 2D tools and skills on the market. Now that I have a better understanding of the dynamics of the game, I may release an updated version of the challenge in the future that includes a set of 2D graphics and a tweaked design that allows for an easier 2D implementation.

Silver award
We had one Silver award this time around.

The silver goes to Aras Pranckevicius for his lovely 3D implementation of Shade using Unity. I got a solid 5 minutes of fun out of his prototype and lots of ideas on what to do next. You can play it here:
Without further ado, let's get into a critique of the game as it stands now. I'll be use Aras's prototype as the baseline since it include a large number of interesting experiments in action.

Moments of genuine fun
First we'll start with the elements that were distinctly enjoyable. These are seeds that can be extended much further. You always want to try to identify these dynamics early since they can act as a focal point that guides the project. When you start cutting experiments, knowing where the core fun lies can help prioritize your culling.

1) Searching for the perfect mushroom is exciting: I had a surprisingly enjoyable time finding a good sized mushroom to take back to the drop point. Scarcity emerged as a major theme of the game. Potential improvements that can focus in on this include:
  • Increase the types and varieties of mushrooms. The act of finding something valuable in the scarce wilderness has all the hallmarks of a hugely addicting activity.
  • Create different growing cycles: Have some rare ones grow slowly or only grow quickly in the presence of other plants. If the player harvests them all at once, they are gone. This adds a resource management element to the game the reinforces the sense of scarcity and value.
2) The dynamically changing world is exciting. I didn't know where a mushroom might appear. In an early prototype, mushrooms would grow in the shadow of other mushrooms. The fact that the world was living and growing was immensely satisfying.
  • Implement Munchers and Bushes: These will add immensely to the gameplay by creating a dynamic ecosystem.
  • AI Seed transporters: Add simple AI driven characters that pick up seeds and move them to new locations will very quickly create amazing patterns. For example, one type of seed transporter might move small mushrooms 2 feet away from any other mushroom. Another might move seeds into the shadow of a smaller object. These simple rules will create all sorts of interesting patterns.
  • Vary the sizes of elements: Have some objects the grow very large. These will dynamically change the landscape over time and in turn create a wildly varying shadowscape.
  • Add more elements that grow in the shadows: The patterns that came about from mushrooms growing in the shadow of mushrooms was one of the more interesting emergent properties of the simulation. It was cool! Combined with a moving sun, all sorts of interesting hedges should pop up.
Moments of potential fun
The following elements were intellectually interesting, but didn't quite leave me as entertained as I was hoping. This is quite common and just means that you need to invest a little further in the idea.

3) Jumping from shadow to shadow
: It was interesting picking my way back through the 'shadowscape' of the level. A journey back to home base where I needed to precisely plan my movements gave the mushroom hunting experience a nice tension. However, in the prototype level there were a lot of sunlit areas and relatively small obstacles. As such the decisions made on the return journey weren't that interesting. Some improvements
  • Bigger, more maze like obstacles: I notice that when I'm walking around outside, I often have to make a distinct choice: should I got left around a large building sitting in my path or right? I rarely remember the future shadow terrain on each side of the building so I end up making a short term decision to reach the easiest shade. This often hurts me in the long run.

    By adding bigger obstacles that take time to navigate and that block off other options, the player is asked to make movement decisions that have a cost. In the best of worlds, players will find themselves jumping from shadow to shadow only to end up further and further from their goal. Some will heroically find their way back. Others will remember their failure and carefully plot out the terrain the next time around. Either way, it creates more meaningful decisions.
  • More contiguous areas of shadow: Taller objects would help as would objects that are skinny at the base and bulbous on top like trees. The amount of shadows is something you'll need to balance for.
  • Hungry monsters: The tension can be ramped up by including shambling monsters that move towards you when you have a mushroom in tow. Normally, they can be quite docile and may not even move. But as soon as you get a mushroom, they turn red and make their way towards you. One touch and your mushroom loses extra power. This adds some tactical and time-based pressure to your shadow picking steps.
4) Mini Map
The minimap solves an important problem: How do I find my way back home. However, it also removes a bit of the tension that comes from wandering and finding new paths.
  • Use a beacon system instead: Instead of a mini-map, a directional highlight like the ones used in Shadow of the Colossus or Knytt would do the trick quite nicely. A little glow at the edge of the screen or a compass that always points towards home help orient the player, but don't give away the terrain.
Things that didn't quite pan out
The following are things that didn't quite work and I don't see useful ways of making them a key part of the experience.

5) Gathering long strings of mushrooms: Once you start gathering long strings of mushrooms it becomes hard to keep them out of the sunlight. I noticed that as soon as I gathered more than one mushroom, I would simply zip to the goal as fast as humanly possible and ignore all tactical decisions. This is an example of a fun idea that actually reduces the complexity of the rest of the game.

The prototyping challenge doesn't really end until someone creates a game worthy of a gold award. So far gold is still within reach. There are some extremely promising mechanics at play in the shade prototype and I'm open to discussing and iterating on further tweaks if anyone wants to take the design further. Feel free to post to this thread if you come up with something cool. Who is going to grab the first ever gold award in Lost Garden history?

For inspiration, I leave you with this simple game that also uses some of the growing ecosystem elements we see hints of in successful Shade prototypes. It was built in 48 hours and easily has more than 15 minutes of game play. If this fellow can find hours of fun in a short prototyping exercise, I'm convinced that you can take your existing Shade prototypes and turn them into something wonderful.
Best wishes,