Designing the Core of a Game

There are a lot of things to consider when designing a game – controls, gameplay, visuals, sound, narrative, user interface, target audience, and depending on the game, networking, databases, social aspects, and much more. However, the one that stands out is gameplay. Play is what separates a game from other forms of media like movies and books. As such, I believe that gameplay should be a major focus of any game. This is what drove me when designing g.R0b0.

Of course, none of the aspects I mentioned above happen in a vacuum. They are all interrelated. Most games are mainly focused around a single aspect or idea. Tetris is entirely about puzzle gameplay. Papo & Yo focuses mainly around its narrative. Zelda: Breath of the Wild is all about a sense of adventure. The Fire Emblem series such as Fire Emblem: Fates is about leading an army of individuals. All of these are what you would consider the core of a game. The aspect or concept that the entire game focuses around; the point that a perfect game would highlight through every component.

The aforementioned games, while not perfect, accomplish greatly on focusing every aspect to highlight its core. Tetris has no narrative at all. It’s controls are simple and easy to understand. Visually, it is also simple, and in terms of audio, while Tetris songs are iconic, they are also simple. Tetris focuses solely on its gameplay, and everything else is there to enhance it, but not distract from it. Papo & Yo is a brilliant narrative indie game developed by Minority Media Inc. It has amazing, fantastical, yet themed world design like a seemingly endless tower of Brazilian favelas to mirror Papo’s poor life and the fact that the game takes place in some sort of world in Papo’s imagination. Papo, mechanically, also feels a bit simple and there are times where it seems like something would be possible, but isn’t because Papo is an inexperienced, normal child and not some sort of badass hero like Master Chief from the Halo franchise. Zelda: Breath of the Wild is renowned for the ability of the main player to, if they have the skills to, go immediately to the final boss after doing only a few dungeons in the game. The game allows the player to get there are any point after those dungeons actually. Getting there, however, is a difficult feat, and there are measures in place to dissuade people like hazards and very difficult enemies. This means people would want to train up more, and the only way to do that is to explore. The game also uses vantage points excellently by letting the player find places of interest while high up on a mountain, or while a player is walking through a forest, they can see the tip of a tower over the treeline. These garner a sense of curiosity and a desire for adventure. Fire Emblem is a series of tactics games that have a heavy emphasis on individual characters. Characters have support conversations with each other that can only be unlocked by fighting near one another during battles in which player has total control over units in their army. These conversations reveal backstories of the characters involved as well as their relationships to each other. In several games, the player is either the tactician, the main character, or both. They are focused around allowing the player to lead (tactics) an army of individuals (unique characters).

When designing a game, it is always important to remember what the core of your game is, and to make sure what you’re adding enhances that core. Even if you think of something super awesome, if it doesn’t support your core, then it will feel tacked on in a weird way. What I’ve learned from being an indie developer is that you have to take that a step further. I often ask myself, “Is this component I want to add necessary for the core of my game?” There are certain super awesome ideas that you’ll have that do support your game’s core, but are not necessary for people to identify and enjoy your core. So you put those ideas in a bucket that gets put off to the side. You only reach into the bucket when you are ahead of schedule and have finished what you did identify as core to creating your game.

So, let me explain what the core of g.R0b0 is as an example. The core of g.R0b0 is a puzzle platformer about gravity manipulation that fits on a mobile screen. As such, I chose simple base mechanics to play the game: the ability to change the direction of gravity and the ability to move. A player can change the direction of gravity by using the Arrow keys on a keyboard or by swiping on a mobile device. A player can move by using WASD on a keyboard or a D-pad on a mobile device. Those are the only two core mechanics in g.R0b0. To achieve the core that the game will fit entirely on a mobile screen, there are a few limitations to these mechanics. However, first I must explain a little bit about the levels. Every level is designed to fit on a phone screen meaning there is no sidescrolling aspect like in Super Mario games. So, each puzzle is 12×16 tiles for a total of 192 blocks – no more, no less. That’s rather small for an entire platforming, puzzle level. So I had to limit the core mechanics a bit.

First, the player cannot jump. The player can already change the direction of gravity, so a jump feels unnecessary. But also since every map is small, this limits the ways a player can solve a puzzle in a way that strips away platforming mechanics in favor of the core identity of gravity. Platformers have been around for a very long time and most include some sort of jump. Not all include gravity manipulation. This means the player should have a fresh experience to solving these puzzles as it won’t be the same as other games.

Second, the player cannot do anything while in midair; the player cannot move and cannot shift gravity. Since the puzzles are so small, there can only be so many open areas for players to move through. If you could move while in midair, then any obstacles to get to those open areas have significantly less value. Moving in midair would make it so that puzzles would be too easy to solve. Sidescrollers can allow this because they have much more “track”, so to speak, for a designer to put in obstacles and for a player to have to avoid.

To talk about other aspects of the game that highlight the core of g.R0b0, the game has no narrative. While I have plans to create visual assets that can hint at a larger world, there will be no focus on it. It will be there for the player’s own curiosity should they notice, but not prevalent. Background music will have no words or tie in to mechanics. It will simply be there as ambient music to enjoy while playing, but there will be no need to pay attention to it. Overall, aesthetically, the game is futuristic to help furbish the idea that it is possible to control gravity. The game has it so that the player moves with the direction of gravity, but the world doesn’t turn. This means that the player has to throw away their concept of “gravity is down” or, if they’re on a mobile device, physically turn their device to retain that conception. It forces the player to have the mindset that they have control over gravity in the game, and that the puzzles must be solved by thinking that way. As g.R0b0 is an ongoing project, there is surely more to come.

To expound on what I said earlier about putting things in a bucket that are not necessary to a core. I originally had a narrative for g.R0b0. In fact, it wasn’t even called g.R0b0. The project originally started as Deadly Delivery as it was about delivering pizza to people’s space homes that have insane security due to some sort of event in history. The player worked as a delivery man for a small time space pizza business and the more levels they completed, the more popular their company would get. This would have a large amount of aesthetic impact. However, while this idea is cool and can still support the core of g.R0b0, albeit altering it slightly to include the narrative, it was not necessary to create the core of a puzzle platformer game focused around gravity manipulation. Implementing it would be extremely costly, and while it could give another layer of depth to the game, it ultimately is not necessary. So, it went into a bucket along with other ideas associated with it.

The core of a game is what should drive a game in design and implementation. It is important to identity what you want the core of your game to be and then to work towards making that core a reality. After that, it’s about augmenting your core further and further. For g.R0b0, that core is a puzzle platformer about gravity manipulation that fits on a mobile screen. It meant stripping away things like narrative to achieve.

Next for g.R0b0, I plan to start diving into the puzzles and explaining my thought process when designing them.

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