Making a game based on a prompt is something I have always found challenging. It’s easy to blame the prompts when you can’t think of an idea. If you’re inspiration doesn’t spark immediately it can be a long road to discover a worthwhile idea.
I took that road most recently in a extra challenging game jam this past weekend. The end result is Star Gems, and part of this post will be describing how it came to be.
The game jam’s prompt was a youtube video by Mark Brown, a video game critic who highlights mechanics he likes in games. Specifically, it was his video on Downwell that highlights its multi-purposed design. Every game element in Downwell serves multiple purposes, epitomized in its main mechanic where jumping also serves as shooting. It was our task to do something similar with our game.
Does this sound like something that resonates with you, something you like, or would like to include in your games? Well I’ve written some thoughts below after immersing myself in this design concept, and making and playing games inspired by it.
Designing as problem-solving
Mark Brown’s video highlights the quote by Shigeru Miyamoto
A good idea is something that does not solve just one single problem, but rather can solve multiple problems at once.
If you frame your game as problems and the mechanics that solve them, it may be easier to find places for potential overlap.
Explore entities and interactions
Creating a emergent system goes hand in hand with multi-purpose design. Can entities interact in multiple ways? Does the entities’ state change those interactions, and how many ways can the player manipulate that state? This is how I designed my game for the game jam.
Think about the real world
I drew inspiration from stars, how they grow and can eventually become black holes. There’s a lot of potential for real world mechanics to add unique twists to existing game genres, because there is just so many complex systems to draw from. These could provide intuition across all ranges of skill, while also being new and surprising.
Watch out for confusing your players
I don’t believe that Downwell’s multi-purposed design does not make it easy to understand. The reason most players pick it up easily is simply because it leverages familiar game concepts (jump and shoot). Consider that with every interaction, Downwell can return two or three responses at the same time. Figuring out how to optimal descend and juggle its resources with pick ups only becomes clear after repeated play sessions.
Multi-purposed design adds complexity elegantly, but it still adds complexity. Super Mario Bros’ jumping to attack mechanic is not as intuitive as it might be in hindsight, and its level designers took care to make sure that the player got to grips with it. I think that casual gamers are more easily drawn to wide systems than deep ones no matter how elegant.
Capitalize on the difference
When your bad things can be good, and vice versa, the most interesting moment is when their polarity changes. Capitalize on that moment. Push the tension and release, and see how your play testers react.
Understand the purposes of your multi-purposed elements
Why? This was a question that rolled through my head for most of the jam. Is there a real reason to use multi-purposed elements other than to look clever? Yes it can create interesting choices, it can be a marketing hook, but how can it make my games more fulfilling and worthwhile?
Well, sometimes you don’t understand what a game or a mechanic’s purpose is until it’s a prototype. Sometimes it takes some heavy play testing and balancing to reveal it’s… beauty. I can say that through this jam I made a few of those discoveries on my own.