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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.

Conclusion
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,
Danc.

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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.

Technology

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.

Art

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?
Balancing
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.

Conclusion
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
Danc.

Past challenges
Mockup


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