In 2015, I attended a Boston Post Mortem talk by veteran developer Steve Meretzky. It was jam packed with great advice, but one bit that stood out to me was that a good designer strives to be an “overnight expert”.
The concept is fairly straightforward: game designers have to make countless decisions that impact the player experience. The more context a designer has, the more informed those decisions are. And one way to gain this context is to prioritize design research in the early stages of development. I have come to believe that good research can significantly increase your chances of designing a successful game.
Designers at large studios may have great resources for doing design research during pre-production. For example, Sony Santa Monica funded a small portion of the God of War team to go on a “Nordic Research Trip”, to countries in the Scandanavian region.
But as an indie, my options look more like:
- Play reference games in the space.
- Research the subject matter.
- Learn from designers in the space.
- Learn from the potential audience.
Note that when I say “the space”, I’m referring to the “design space” surrounding the game. This can be very broad, but for the purposes of this post I am going to focus on learning about gameplay systems in the roguelike and platformer genres.
#1. Playing Reference Games
Much of the reason Nine has evolved into a roguelike platformer is because of my past influences. On the platformer side, I grew up playing classics like Sonic, Mario, and Donkey Kong series, and am familiar with some of the modern takes such as Celeste and Hollow Knight. On the roguelike side, I’m a big fan of some strategy games like Into the Breach and Card of Darkness, as well as some action games like Cadence of Hyrule and my primary reference: Spelunky.
But there’s so much more to learn!
In the coming weeks I hope to play:
- Games that combine roguelike and action platforming elements. This is the core focus area and includes games like Dead Cells, Rogue Legacy, 30XX, Noita, and Catacomb Kids.
- Popular games with roguelike elements (Crypt of the Necrodancer, Slay the Spire, Roundguard), which can teach me about procedural generation, progression systems, difficulty pacing, and more.
- Popular action platformers (Ori and the Blind Forest, Cuphead, Guacamelee 2), which can help me make the player feel like an agile warrior cat.
- Notable flops in the above genres (critically and commercially), so I can learn what mistakes to avoid!
It’s worth mentioning I don’t have the money or time to buy and play all of these games. But I can at least play through the early parts of the best ones, and watch streams and reviews of the rest.
#2. Researching the Subject Matter
The origins of the “cats have nine lives” myth is a bit vague.
There are some direct references such as:
- An old English proverb: “A cat has nine lives. For three he plays, for three he strays, and for the last three he stays.”
- From Romeo & Juliet: “Good king of cats, nothing but one of your nine lives.”
- The Egyptian sun god Ra, who sometimes took the shape of a cat (Mau), gave birth to 8 other gods and thus represented “nine lives in one”.
And there are many more stories of cats having “multiple lives” has broader origins, with various cultures referencing 6 or 7 lives instead of 9.
The takeaway was that I had a lot of flexibility, as there was not one specific history or myth that people would associate the game with. I toyed with the idea of an Egyptian theme focused on Bastet vs. Apophis, but decided in the end to settle on a more cartoonish theme of cats vs. mice.
But we can explore the theme further in a future dev log. Let’s move on for now!
#3. Learning from Designers
There is a wealth of knowledge from game developers who have made roguelikes and/or platformers in the past. This information has been dispensed through design blogs, youtube videos, GDC talks, interviews, podcasts, and more. Why should I reinvent the wheel?
The biggest and best reference so far would have to be the Spelunky book by Derek Yu, which dives deep into both the personal story of creating Spelunky and the design challenges Derek faced. It surprised and inspired me to learn that relatively simple algorithms could create such rich emergent gameplay. It was also humanizing to see that even a legend like Derek had real struggles dealing with conflicts both personal (like parting ways with Alec) and professional (like dealing with varying player response to Spelunky’s difficulty and randomness).
There are also some great youtube videos on procedurally generated levels by authors like Extra Credits and Mark Brown, but they are mostly a higher level overview of what the Spelunky book covers. Still, it’s handy to see how these authors chunk complex ideas into accessible presentations.
Finally, the podcast The Spelunky Showlike has been a wonderful reference. The show is rooted in pure love for Spelunky, and they use roguelikes as a lens to which to discuss game design. The result makes them feel like a team of allies in my quest to understand the design space. I trust that they “get” Spelunky, which means the discussion can focus on the challenges of making those games shine. They have also interviewed designers of notable roguelike like Holedown, Card of Darkness, and Roundguard.
#4. Learning from the Potential Audience
The potential audience is the theoretical group of people who might enjoy the game.
A good place to start is with the audiences that already exist. These might include people who enjoy specific games on my reference list or love the loosely defined genres of roguelike or platformer. It makes sense to try and win them over, since there is clear overlap in gameplay systems. Such audiences may also include people who appreciate lighthearted cartoony aesthetics, themes that don’t take themselves too seriously, and action without excessive violence.
But an existing audience also comes with expectations. A roguelike/roguelite fan might expect the deep progression systems of Dead Cells or the emergent physics of Spelunky. A platformer fan might expect the tightly designed rooms of Celeste or the big roller coaster moments of Sonic. I’d like to win these people over, but there’s also a part of me that needs to accept that Nine is its own unique game that doesn’t fit neatly into those boxes.
To learn from these audiences is to find them, talk to them, and most importantly listen to what they have to say. Even when they’re not articulate, their experiences are just as valid. And the good news is that their expressions of opinion can be found everywhere: in reviews, youtube comments, discords, and more.
Much harder to find is the theoretical person who wants something just like your game but:
- Doesn’t know it yet.
- Knows it, but doesn’t know how to ask for it.
- Asks for it, but is ignored. (<- Actually this is the story of some memorable crowdfunding successes).
I can’t talk to this nonexistent portion of the audience just yet. But I look forward to it very much.
It’s tricky to make time for design research. And it’s hard to prioritize in the early stages especially when you are still rapid prototyping. But I think that if you are trying to maximize the chances of making something great, you really want to immerse yourself in the space and strive to become an “overnight expert”.
I’d hardly call myself an expert of course, but the research I’ve done has already helped frame my iterative goals. I have a better idea of what kinds of problems I’m likely to run into, as well as a larger toolbox for solving this problems. And the immersion has reinforced that I love living in this design space.
I’ll be back soon to report what I’ve learned. Thanks for reading!