Monday, April 20, 2009

Game Design: Simplicity

This topic occurred to me the other night. I was watching TV and I found an old episode of The Andy Griffith Show and I decided to watch it. You know what amazed me? How simple it was.

Here's the plot of the episode, which was called "Otis the Deputy": Otis, the town drunk, realizes his family's coming to visit him. They think he works for the sheriff's office, so Andy and Barney feel bad and make him a temporary deputy so that he can impress Otis' brother. It turns out Otis' brother is just as much a town drunk at Otis is, so Otis needn't have bothered.

That's it. That's the whole episode. There's a sequence where we meet Otis' wife, and she makes him throw out his booze because he's a deputy and has to uphold the law, but there were no subplots, no other diversions. There's nothing more to recap.

And you want to know something? It was brilliant. Anything else would have just gotten in the way. They knew they had a good idea, so they just let that idea do its thing. It ended up being an episode that's consistently listed as one of the best episodes of The Andy Griffith Show, no small feat for a show that has some really good episodes.

This got me thinking about game design. I reviewed a game a while ago called Tornado that had a brilliant concept: You play as a tornado and you're supposed to suck up buildings on earth. It was a great game until the developers started throwing more ideas into the mix, like special weapons and opposing tornadoes that tried to bump you out of the way. It almost seemed like the developers didn't trust their idea enough to let it breathe. It ended up being a huge disappointment of a game.

It's really a common danger with game design. Designers are afraid that the great idea they have really isn't so great, so they start trying to mix it up and obfuscate it and end up making things far, far worse than if they had just left it alone.

I'm going to tell all the developers out there something that probably already know: You're all really, really smart. If you have an idea that seems like it will work, it probably will. Trust your instincts.

Look at last year's indie darlings, Braid and World of Goo. What is Braid? A side-scroller with time-controlling elements. What is World of Goo? A building game. Look at the year before, with Portal. What was the concept? When you strip away GladOS and cake and the Weighted Companion Cube, it's a first-person puzzle game.

Now, to be certain, the things that are piled on top definitely add to the game's charms, but would Portal still be a good game without GladOS? Yeah. Would World of Goo be great without all the wacky backgrounds and music? Yes. Why? Because the underlying idea never gets covered over. No matter how out-there the gameplay gets, the developers trusted the idea enough to never bury it under rubble.

Even more mainstream games like Gears of War 2 and Killzone 2 are basically using the same template that was set down way back by Wolfenstein 3D. It's just prettier. They're building on a basic idea, but they never cover over the idea with other flotsam.

So, when designing a game, remember, trust your instincts. If you have an idea that seems to be fun, it probably is. Just remember to let that idea breathe, or you'll be smothering it before it has a chance to grow.

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