“Simplest Game”

Well, it’s my birthday.  The contest started yesterday.  I haven’t entered yet.  Not sure if I will, or not, but my wife is blogging madly away on her artblog (textiles, painting, fun stuff), and she thinks getting my thoughts down on ‘paper’ might help even if I don’t enter.

So here I am.  It’s late, things have quieted down.  And I’m thinking again about this concept I have been tinkering with – of a “simplest game” design.

What do I mean by simplest game?  Just that, really.  A game that is refined down to some core component or concept.  I think that too often, indie devs – especially that moderately insane breed who want to make online persistant world games – tend to suffer from a specialized form of feaure creep disease.  I’ve felt it myself often enough.  It goes something like this:

We play MMORPGs.  And somewhere along the line, we realize that something is missing.  We might all disagree on precisely what that missing thing is, but we just know in our hearts that given a chance, we could do something better than the stream of cloned, uninventive games that the market seems constantly bombarded with.  All it would take would be some creativity!  Right?

So we design our dream game – the one we’ve always wanted to play.  We write our zillion page design doc (or if we’re less organized than that, we write it in our heads).  We design new features, new concepts, innovative gameplay, and an extraordinary tableau of creative brilliance.

In the process, we basically add everything but the kitchen sink to our game idea.  Sometimes, we even add the sink.

Guilty as charged – WOW, am I ever!  I have wanted to make the pvp game that my guild (http://www.defendersoforder.com) would love.  Meaningful pvp with conquest, but that allowed recovery.  Player built structures that could all be destroyed or fought over.  Resources that made locations valuable to control, but were spread out so that a true economy could form.  Story as a vital concept for the game, with player actions fueling the development of the story, instead of stemming from a static plot.  A world that changed as the players changed it.  A balanced skill based system with templates to encourage some specialization.  Leveling that wasn’t a grind.  Permadeath with inheritence as a crucial part of character development.  Oh, and buckets of other things that I’m just not thinking of right now.

So, one sits down to Realmcrafter/Dream Kit/MOM Kit/Multiverse or whatever else, and looks over how to make that dream game.  And you realize – wait! – I can’t do it with this engine.  Or any other, for that matter.  They are not developed enough yet; they lack the graphics I need; they don’t have <insert feature I want> yet; they are not stable enough for such a game; and of course, the list of excuses goes on.  I know a lot of would-be game devs.  Almost all of them are simply treading water, waiting for an engine to “get where it needs to be” for them to make their game.

So I thought back on the contest I won last year.  It was a “MMO in a Month” contest using the Realmcrafter engine.  My twin girls had just been born two weeks prior; I was off from work, and was home taking care of them and my wife – and all three of them slept a lot.  My wife supported the push to try for the contest, and I thought it sounded like fun practice.  So Zones of Contention was born.  It was a simple game – five zones, with two in space stations and three in space.  Characters who could train skills, learn abilities, shop at stores, pick up quests.  Oh, and ride racing wolves around, on one of the stations.  The idea was that humans and a wolflike alien race were in conflict over resources in a system far from Earth, and were out in space in fighters duking it out.  Players could board a fighter, shoot NPCs, mine rocks for minerals, and engage other players in space.  The main space zone was a big asteroid field with lots of rocks to mine, and dozens of NPCs from each side flitting about and shooting at each other – a chaotic mess that was even more fun with some players added to the mix.

Much to my surprise, I won the contest.

 I think I won for a variety of reasons – lots of unique and fairly good art was a big one.  But there were a couple of key lessons I learned there.  First, I finished the game.  Most of the entrants never got a game done; a month was a short time and too many people tried for something too complex.  Starting simple let me get the game done in time.  Second, the game was fun to play, despite not having a ton of content or a huge play area.  So a simple but fun concept could make a decent game, it seemed.

I’ve been thinking about those lessons a lot lately.  There’s a game out there being published by NCSoft shortly called Dungeon Runners.  Kicked out by a small team, this game is a great example of the Simplest Game.  It’s just instanced dungeon crawls, with WOW style quests and random dungeon layouts.  It’s like Guild Wars without the pvp, in a way.  It’s the ultimate online Monty Haul game.  Oh – and it’s FUN.  I don’t often like the pve element of games, but the vaguely twitchy feel and fast paced gameplay keeps me interested here.  It’s free, too, with a $5 monthly fee for extra benefits.  Fun, casual, easy to learn, and vaguely Tetrislike in its way of keeping you whacking things.  They picked one core concept, and then they did it better than anyone else has.

A couple of people on the Realmcrafter forums are on the right track here too.  One guy is making a game that so closely resembles a fantasy version of ZOC that its funny.  Humans vs liches, couple of zones, big keep in the middle for them to fight over.  Sort of like DAOC with just the battlegrounds, no frontier.  Another excellent team is working on a game called Knight’s Frenzy – players start as an English knight, gain ranks fighting the Viking invaders, with more abilities and better gear over time.  At some point, they get the option of instead playing a Viking (something like the LOTRO monster play, I suspect) so they can log in and beat on the knights with a big and VERY tough Viking character instead.  Simple – just a few zones, some pve, some pvp, and a keep or two to fight over.  But if they do it well, it sounds fun!

That’s the idea behind simplest game:

1) Make a game that is focused on a single gameplay concept.  You can always add more later – refine it to barebones.  This makes the game finishable for an indie.

2) Do that one concept well – make it fun.  Since all we are worrying about is one concept, it should be possible to make that one thing enjoyable.

 More later.

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