Saturday, February 23, 2008

Toys and Engines

These days, whenever I think of a game idea, it seems to revolve around a toy. Some system that lets you do a wide variety of irrelevant but interesting things.

For example, I just built a silly little prototype for a game based around building weird steampunky machines on the outside of a weird steampunky space station. Lots of levers and gears and winches and stuff.

The algorithm is kind of fun, you can build a wide variety of things with relatively few pieces.

But it's not a game, and that's an important thing to remember. When people say that Sim City is a toy, not a game, I have to disagree. The game is to build a functioning city. While you are not limited in your approaches, the simulation offers very clear guides. You get smacked down by traffic, pollution, power, sanitation, fire... all of these factors that you need to manage, not to mention the economics.

It's an open-ended game, sure. But the algorithm is very strict, very limited. The goal is very clear. If you call it a "toy", you're saying that every open-ended game is just a toy... I guess if that's what you want to say, that's okay, but I disagree.

See, a toy would be a box full of building-shaped blocks that you could plunk down to your heart's content. No zoning, no economy, no rules. Just doing whatever you want.

This is an important distinction to me, because recently I've been making a lot of toys. I've come up with a lot of rather nifty little rule sets that let you do a lot of interesting things... but they have no external factors. There is no goal, open-ended or not. There are no limits, and therefore no inherent goals to overcome.

It's important to have external factors when you're designing a game. Something to measure success and failure with.

Right now, I can't really figure out a way to make the steampunk machine thing interesting. There's simply nothing to do. No matter how miraculous your machine is, it accomplishes nothing. There are no goals.

I can't really think of any goals for this particular game, none that are compatible with the engine. So I think it's important to think up goals before you really come up with an engine. The goals can be open, like Sim City, or they can be closed, like 99% of other games out there. But the gameplay has to interact with external factors, or it's just plain boring.


Textual Harassment said...

You can make cool stuff happen with this toy, right? Just assign a number to every cool thing you can do, and give the player points every time that thing happens. Add a high score table and it will be an instant hit.

Ok, so some balancing will be necessary to make higher scores hard to achieve. But the scoring makes everything relevant.

Or if you don't like that, just put arbitrary limits on the numbers of parts you can use, perhaps with ways to earn more parts. Players will make their own goals.

Craig Perko said...

Yes, but the machines don't DO anything because there's nothing to do anything WITH. It's like Tower of Goo in some ways. The only goal would be to create more machine.

I've thought about it a lot, I tried to think of ways, but it was all very forced. It's better to start over.

Textual Harassment said...

"The only goal would be to create more machine."

In that case put in some limiting factor that increases with size--weight, heat, friction, and make the player overcome it.

The player's attention could be a limiting factor through micromanagement. Heh, make one of the tools a grease gun. You have to keep everything lubricated or it falls apart.

Maybe it would be better to start over. I wouldn't know, as I don't really know how your toy works or how hard it would be to add stuff.

But if you put any sort of limitation into a system, someone will make a game out of breaking it.

Craig Perko said...

I understand the theory, of course, but I don't think the game would be any good.

I'm working on something very different now, anyways.

Olick said...

What do you use to make your prototypes?

Craig Perko said...

Flash for the visual games, Ruby on Rails for the data-driven games.

Red Bull said...

That's so funny.... I just started messing around with a steampunk machine-building idea myself and hit the exact same problem.

But then I started thinking: every machine is designed to do something. That's why it exists in the first place. So you have to be clear about who the players' avatars are, what their relationship is to the machine, and what they're trying to do with it. Once you have an agenda, then everything else can flow from that.

Craig Perko said...