Friday, October 15, 2010

Triple Town released for the Amazon Kindle


I like taking interesting chances.  On new games, on new markets and new ideas.  This week Spry Fox released a delightful original puzzle game called Triple Town for the Amazon Kindle.  If you have a Kindle you can download it over at Amazon.

To my knowledge, this is the first indie title publicly available on the Kindle.  An industry first, low dev costs, high potential payoff and a chance to try out an original game idea.  What more could you ask for?

There are many design lessons, but I'll focus on three:
  • Evergreen designs are not puzzles
  • Reinvent old genres from the root
  • Create better games faster by killing visual and technological crutches. 

The problem with puzzles

For many years I've been a fan of the Grow series of games by Eyemaze.  In these, you slowly add elements to the world, the elements interact and the world unfolds and blossoms before you.  With so many games being about destruction, any game that involves building something from nothing holds a special place in my heart.   And they are so simple to play!  Just click and go.

Yet the Eyemaze games also bug the game designer in me.  They are single-shot puzzles.  You figure them out and then you are done. The delightful animations are consumed once.  The cause and effect sequence is discovered once.   Each new version of Grow takes months, if not years to produce. And the player burns through all that painstaking labor in minutes.



Puzzles are a class of inefficient design. Avoid them. Why design one eureka handcrafted moment when you can design evergreen mechanics that yield thousands?

So I gave myself a challenge:  Design an infinitely replayable Grow-style game.

Triple Town is based off a promising prototype that grew out of this original Grow challenge.  It is its own game, but it keeps a simple UI, the delight of watching your map grow over time and of course the focus on building instead of destruction.  There are no pre-baked levels or consumable episodes and you can easily play for hundreds of hours.

We've intentionally set up Triple Town to be an evergreen title.  This gains us a slew of benefits. Once a long lived core mechanic has been established, it can be ported to almost any platform, any time in the next decade.  If you are going to build something, you might as well build something that is designed from the start to last.

Reinvent old genres from the root

I also set another challenge for myself.  What if we reinvented the entire match-3 genre?  I'm fascinated by the longevity of popular genres and have a short list of well worn mechanics that I'd love strip down to their bones and rebuild from scratch.  What if designers took a chance with their genre designs?  What if instead of slavishly copying the 10th generation of a successful design, they went all the way back to the first prototypes that demonstrated a hint of deep fun and then made a few key decisions that were different?

Lasting genres tend to rest upon deep possibility spaces. How many variations of chess can you imagine?  Howe many are fun? Despite our cultural inclination to settle upon one common variant,  there is rarely a single 'fun' genre formula. Given time and enough prototyping, there are thousands of fun games in the possibility space defined by a genre.


It occurred to me that game design, like any evolutionary process, is sensitive to initial conditions.  If you want to stand out, you need to head back in time to the very dawn of a genre, strike out in a different direction and then watch your alternate evolutionary path unfurl.

Folks that play Triple Town have called it the Civilization of Match-3 games.  The play is quite simple:
  1. Every turn, you get to place 1 new piece on the board.  In other Match-3 games, you only manipulate objects. 
  2. If three or more pieces of the same type (like a tree) are next to one another, the last piece you place is transformed into a higher value object.  So you start out placing bits of grass and eventually build out a land filled with castles, cathedrals and floating cities.  In other Match-3 games, you spend most of your time destroying tokens. 
  3. There are a variety of wild cards, wandering creatures and other object that you also place which clutter the board, but offer unique opportunities if placed correctly.  In other Match-3 games, the board rarely feels like a 'place'. 
  4. The game ends when you can no longer place anything on the board.  You get a score, see how you compared and then try again. 
Like all good games, the game play evolves in the player's head.  At first, they randomly drop down objects.  Then they start thinking ahead several moves.   They learn how to turn enemies into resources.  The board disappears into zones of influence and control. There comes a moment where you end up thinking "Just one more turn and I'll finally finish my grand pattern."  The panic of imminent defeat and the elation of last minute recoveries never seems to get old.

Upon casual inspection, Triple Town is very much a match-3 game.  After all, an early player skill involves matching 3 or more items.  That's the definition right?  Yet, everything else is different.  Tactics are different, strategies are different, the emotional experience of play is different.  When someone plays Triple Town well, they feel pride in what they've created.  They want to take a screenshot and share it with their friends.  I've never felt that with a match-3 game before. Reinvention at the root, it seems is indistinguishable from innovation.

Another game that executed this design strategy well is Plants vs. Zombies.  It is certainly a tower defense game. Yet, by prototyping from the roots of the genre, the devs discovered a set of mechanics that play quite differently than most.  As a result, PopCap carved out a unique value proposition in the market that no other company has been able to successfully clone away.

Kill visual and technological crutches

When I tell fellow developers I designed a Kindle game, they have difficulty grasping how such a feat is even possible.  The graphics are primarily black and white.  The E-ink screen flashes and refreshes at most  handful of times per second.  What?  No rumble? Can you make a great modern game with no animation, no color and limited processing power?

Of course you can. In many ways, these constraints focused development on the gameplay.  With the vast resources available to modern game developers, we often lose track of what matters.  Is the player making meaningful choices?  Are those conveyed in a crisp, clear manner?  Is the core play space deep enough that players can go for hundreds of hours?

Or is the player's interest being artificially juiced by millions worth of throw away spectacle?  Strip away the sadly lumbering zombie bulk of an 80-person team.  Strip away the cocaine frenzy of marketing rah rah. The pure psychological heart of a design's game play is what stands the test of time.


I would encourage anyone who considers themselves a professional game developer to build and complete one project with the following constraints:
  • Limited resolution
  • 2D, Black and white graphics
  • No animation
  • No sound
  • Minimal computation
If you cannot use your existing game development skills to make something fun, you've likely spent your life worshiping at a false altar. The overworked tricks these constraints restrict (pick your favorite: AI, Music, Physics, 3D rendering, etc.) are debilitating crutches, not the essential soul of our grand and enduring art.  I found something immensely satisfying about ditching the fluff and personally confronting the primal source of why games work.

There are practical benefits to knowing what matters.  We were able to get to a playable production-ready state in a few weeks.  And if our playtests are any indication, players will happily spend just as much time and get just as much delight as they would have out of an ostentatious AAA monstrosity.  What low bang-for-the-buck features are drowning your game?

Conclusion

With Triple Town, we delivered a quality original game on a new platform all under tight time constraints.  Key to hitting that goal were smart design choices.  As a designer you need to answer questions that have immense business and technical impact.
  • How do we create an evergreen title? Try avoiding puzzles and instead tap deep play spaces.
  • How do we stands out from the inevitable crowd?  Stop cloning and start designing from the root.
  • How does design shape project scope?  Focus on game design and ruthlessly trim the fat.
Ultimately, good design is an essential strategic tool for your business, not merely an implementation detail.

The other piece that got Triple Town out the door was the team.  Huge kudos go to Hal Wasserman, the main developer on the project.  Hal, more than anyone else, made the game real.  Like all Spry Fox games, we built up a fresh team around the project, worked together as co-creators and reveled in doing something new.

This experience has solidified my belief that passionate, talented developers with ownership of their output are one of the few groups on this planet who will ever have a shot at making a great game. For the rest, bound by the golden handcuffs of mediocre corporate slavery, the compromises are too great.

Give Triple Town a try.  Or drop by David's blog for a bit more business insight into why we targeted Kindle in the first place. (Short version: Untapped market, Launch title, Low dev cost = Opportunity)

take care
Danc.

22 comments:

  1. Congratulations! You have cut modern game design to the core by trimming the fat. Strip away the eye candy and what you are left with is the soul.

    I am inspired by your wisdom - as an indie game dev I know I have fallen into the trap you describe many times (worshiping at the false altar of AI, Music, Physics, 3D rendering, etc.)

    Thank you for giving me a kick in the pants! I sincerely hope you make bucketloads of money from Triple Crown.

    Kind regards,
    Chris K of www.mcfunkypants.com

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  2. This sounds like a game you could mostly prototype on the tabletop with scraps of paper and a GM to "run the simulation". Did you try that?

    A while back I was charged with "brainstorm an arcade basketball game". I went back to Atari's trackball basketabll title from the mid-1970s and then walked the chain of titles, including stuff like EA's pioneering One on One title. About two minor iterations past NBA Jam was the sweet spot (I think it was called NBA Primetime), and right after that everybody just screwed the pooch and kept on screwing it for a decade all through the EA "Street" titles and so on.

    I'm glad to see NBA Jam coming back this fall and I hope it wipes the slate of that lost decade.

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  3. Excellent post. I loved the bit about branching off the root of a genre. Genre is so often defined by one or two works.

    One thing I don't agree with you is the whole "gameplay gives the most bang for the buck" thing. Gameplay is good. Gameplay is core. But the game experience is what will draw them in and keep them playing. The game experience includes visual, audio, and all those things you "stripped away". It's like a story I heard about Purina making this "perfect" dog food chemically and nutritionally balanced to give the dog health and energy and a sheen to their coats. One problem with it, the dogs wouldn't eat it.

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  4. I've recently heard a complaint that the new crop of HTML5 games typically lack sound. My own shot at it (shameless plug: http://notimetoplay.org/our-games/square-shooter/ ) certainly does. But you know what? It's one of the few games I return to again and again.

    "Fluff", as a friend of mine likes to call it, does add to the experience. But it's like the icing on the cake; if you don't have a cake in the first place...

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  5. Joe Larson said:
    "But the game experience is what will draw them in and keep them playing."

    I strongly strongly disagree with this statement. No player will EVER keep playing because of good art, visuals, sound, etc. Flash games with extremely mediocre visuals/sound are able appeal to millions of gamers and keep their attention. The decades-long success of roguelikes are the ultimate example of the fundamental primacy of design over any other aspect of a game.

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  6. Very enlightening post and Triple Town looks and sounds very interesting. Unfortunately I don't have Kindle and by your post I presume it's never going to get on pc.

    Anyways, good work, post and luck!

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  7. Would I be able to play this on my iPad via the Kindle App? I'd really like to give this game a try.

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  8. Dan - congrats to you and David on the release!

    I like the "Efficient Game Design" chart. There is a lot of wisdom there. My own philosophy is the time-honored KISS. More specifically, only grow scope and complexity to the extent that it is delivering proportional value. I believe that having super high production values, costs, and complexity can be justifiable but only to the extent that it is delivering value.

    I think your concept of "Efficiency" encapsulates that well. The general philosophy applies to design of almost anything, I think (airplanes, cars, buildings, etc.).

    When I finally get a Kindle (been on my shopping list for some time), I will certainly check out the game!

    --Tyler Sigman

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  9. Congratulations on this release - hope it does well and I'm eager to try it out myself sometime.

    "Limited resolution
    2D, Black and white graphics
    No animation
    No sound
    Minimal computation"

    Sounds like calculator games! I should get back to that - thanks for reminding me. :D

    And yeah, the whole message of the article is really useful and interesting too, I just don't have anything worth saying in response to it yet. :p

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  10. First, great post!

    I, too, am a fan of the Grow series of puzzles. But everytime a new one comes out and I play for a bit, I just start wishing big time this guy did a real game (with long term play) rather than another (short term) puzzle.

    So, I'd really like to play Triple Town. I have an original Kindle and also the Kindle app on my iPhone 4. Can your game be played on either?

    (I don't think it's cool that it doesn't say it doesn't work on original Kindle in the Amazon store page listing. Nor does your page on the game at Spry Fox say anything one way or the other. Your contact page links don't work either...so I couldn't ask there.)

    - Jack, mercatorgames

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  11. @Jack

    Appreciate the heads up on the support links. Those are fixed.

    Amazon's apps only work on Kindle 2 and Kindle 3 hardware at the moment. I suppose it is somewhat positive that when I read the app reviews, the biggest complaint is that not enough people can get their hands on the apps. Heck, I certainly want you to be able to play Triple Town! :-)

    I added a note to the Spryfox.com Triple Town description that explicitly calls out that these work on the Kindle 2 and Kindle 3. Also, the apps don't yet appear to be available to international audiences either. I've had some notes on that as well.

    At the very least, it can't hurt to communicate better. ;-)

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  12. One of the best game design articles I've ever read.

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  13. Congrats on the release Dan; hope this does well & looking forward to numbers later on (if you can share!)

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  14. I somewhat disagree, Dan, I think that this kind of an experiment could only work if what we're attempting to achieve with a game doesn't require an emotional response. (ie: a puzzle, a casual game, a timewaster, a raw concept.)

    In essence, an experiment like this could only prove that the game works on a technical level, such as that the underlying mechanics of the game are satisfyings.


    I kinda get the sense that this train of thought is very reactionary to how the huge games are trying to replicate Hollywood, to the point where they really are just cut scenes with filler in between. I completely hate that direction of the industry, just like most of the bloggers I talk to, but the thing is, I really don't think the solution is to take a step back to when games where simple timewasters with fun quirks in order to avoid it.


    It takes alot of courage, but I really think the solution is to take a step forwards, and to develop a product that can develop powerful themes, and an emotional/intellectual response in ways that only games can.

    Developing something that shows what only an interactive medium can provide while still creating the emotional and intellectual response of the Goliaths of any medium, is really where games NEED to head if its going to outgrow the cutscene driven bullshit that the industry is miring in.

    I'm a firm believer of the idea that a medium is a tool, not a canvas. We can't fit everything onto one canvas, and nor should we. The appropriate tool will always convey an idea on a level that just any tool won't. If interactivity is what distinguishes a game, than it must also be what drives it.

    What often holds that back is the insane amount of specialization that developers in any medium have gone through. A game developer might have a fantastic idea for a movie, but won't have the resources to develop a movie, and so he creates a compromise. He makes a game that is anything but interactive, and so what should be the driving force behind the game becomes redundant filler.

    It takes alot of ambition to push forward in the game industry though, as it really would be akin to climbing a waterslide from what I've heard. However it would be immensely rewarding, and we'd would be essentially writing our own rules.

    Also, I'd love to hear a bit more about your development company, and maybe, considering I'm entering Uni soon about programming, (I'm still learning the basics), talk to you about any positions you might have available, I really want to get a foothold in a company that cares about games as much as I do.

    My email is Orbis.w@gmail.com

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  15. Wow, that was a messy post. I guess I like to ramble.

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  16. @Daniel

    I've sat in on dozens and dozens of play tests. In the process I've gotten quite good at judging the emotions of players.

    What I've noticed is that players are often just as emotionally active and involved with games that rely on mechanics as those that rely on visceral visuals or story. Delight, fear, anticipation, thrills of victory, feeling sneaky, pride, anger and hatred all showed up quite regularly for people playing Triple Town.

    The game happens in the player's head, not on the screen. There is nothing purely 'technical' about game mechanics. Game mechanics build systems of value that can elicit strong emotions in the players who have bought into that value structure.

    IMHO, these types of games bonk us over the head when we stray and say "Look, this is what actually works. Explore this path further...this is the future." it is not a step backwards...it is a call to action to expand upon the successful elements of games and stop wasting so many careers futzing about with frosting.

    take care
    Danc.

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  17. As a side note, Triple Town is now rated at 4.9 out of 5 in Amazon's reviews...the highest ranked game on the Kindle. It is resting happily at the 9th best selling Kindle product (This includes books)

    take care
    Danc.

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  18. I do't agree with your view on puzzles. You're right about the Grow puzzles, but there are tons of puzzle games where, once you have the mechanic developed properly, you can keep creating puzzles with little overhead. And with each one its own little eureka moment, giving the player a strong incentive to keep playing.

    And from a business standpoint, it can be quite effective... three of the top selling iPhone apps recently (Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, and Trainyard) are all puzzle based apps from small studios. Porting them to new environments will always possible, as well as releasing new level packs to attract new customers, keep people talking about the game, or even as an additional revenue stream.

    I'm not saying it's the only way to go, but it's certainly not a bad one.

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  19. On an intellectual level, maybe, I've seen lots of friends develop almost instinctive responses that could perhaps be interpreted as emotions towards the mechanics of a game, fear of the consequences of dying in Demon Souls or elation at finally hitting the next save in I Wanna Be The Guy.

    However, these act more as pavlonian responses than intellectual/emotional stimulation. Its difficult to illustrate exactly what I mean without a guidepost example, so lets look at Ico.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lMahz4jFeCs&feature=fvst

    Now, if you haven't played it, then its your loss, but most of this will go right over your head.

    Ico was probably the most emotionally powerful game I had the absolute pleasure of playing that console generation. A lot of people consider this the greatest game on the PS2 (Browse through a few pages of comments), and its been hailed as a game that defied the bloated redundancy of many games conceptually similar and emerged victorious. It relishes and requires its interactivity, not as a staple of emergent gameplay, but as a method of creating full emotional involvement. It fails the test of being a great game, but instead acts as an incredible piece of art.


    And it would have failed your experiment miserably, without any question. Your experiment punishes those who use interactivity as a method towards a common goal, and favors those who believe that the only common goal is the gameplay.

    What you have developed, is a method of rooting what is fun from what isn't primarily fun. What I'm saying is that games don't have to be inherently fun as the name suggests. This is a brave new industry, and like the evolution of the movie and comic point, there must be a point in which a medium evolves from a fun time waster into a canvas for something much more.


    Ico at its most primal, is a clunky, irritating, boring escort mission. Really, thats it, the soul of Ico doesn't lie in the variables it sets for damage and speed, but in the world it creates audio visually. This extends past pavlonian responses and hits much closer to the heart. Ico succeeds because the world is immersive and its characters are lifelike, we learn to love and foster an emotional attachment with a collection of polygons and textures, because to us, they're no longer just polygons and textures.



    So what I'm saying I think still holds true, that your test really doesn't encompass the broad range with which interactivity can be used in a game.

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  20. I agree with Daniel that with the right kind of interaction that a deeply emotional connection can be made. However most people aren't willing to invest so much into a game, and the casual game space is probably beetter suited to Danc's approach to developing fun.

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  21. While I quite like Triple Town, and it is by far my favorite game on the kindle (thusfar), it is not my favorite game of all, and is in fact far from it. You've done well with making a game with some amount of depth on a very limited system. This doesn't mean that things like physics and animation are "debilitating crutches" as you put it. Physics systems in particular have spawned some exceptionally entertaining game mechanics, and some brilliant titles. While it's good to be able to make entertaining games with limited or no graphics/animations/sounds/etc, using technology is not some artistic crime. Games like Fantastic Contraption, Cortex Command, Braid, and World of Goo prove this notion patently false.

    Keep up the good work, though, I love the game. One thing, as a player, that I'd like to try, is a larger game board. Also, a "next piece" box might add a little more depth to the tactics the player is able to use.

    Or, you could just make another game. I think a turn based strategy or RPG might be fun, but that's just me.

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