Nine Dev Log #2: Design Research

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.

NordicResearch
Members of the God of War team on a Nordic Research Trip (photo from “Raising Kratos”)

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:

  1. Play reference games in the space.
  2. Research the subject matter.
  3. Learn from designers in the space.
  4. 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 roguelite and platformer genres.

#1. Playing Reference Games

Much of the reason Nine has evolved into a roguelite 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 roguelite 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 roguelite 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 roguelite 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.

In a future post I will round up some of the more interesting takeaways from my focused play research.

#2. Researching the Subject Matter

I did some research on cats and the “nine lives” concept, and went into a rabbit hole about the significance of cats in various cultures throughout history. It was a fun thematic exploration!

Bastet-MET
A statuette of Bastet at the MET Museum.

 

But I’ll save the details for a future dev log about theme. Let’s move on!

#3. Learning from Designers

There is a wealth of knowledge from game developers who have made roguelites 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?

SpelunkyBookCover

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 roguelites 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 roguelites like HoledownCard 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 roguelite 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 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:

  1. Doesn’t know it yet.
  2. Knows it, but doesn’t know how to ask for it.
  3. 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.

Conclusion

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!

Nine Dev Log #1: How Nine became a Roguelike Platformer

I did not set out to create a roguelike platformer. Nor would I advise any indie to make one.

Nine started with me pondering how the “cats have nine lives” myth could translate into a game.

I eventually came up with the following concept: “You have 9 lives to beat 9 levels in 9 minutes”. I liked the simplicity of it and that the “9” was universal across three properties. It also didn’t feel like anything groundbreaking, so I decided to shelve it in favor of other prototypes.

And yet… even as I explored other prototypes, I found myself coming back to Nine. With each revisit I’d come up with secondary features ideas like:

  • What if as you lost lives, you became stronger? This would create a rubberbanding effect that could make later lives more exciting.
  • What if you had a SUPER move that let you sacrifice a life to deal heavy damage? This could create interesting risk/reward tension and potentially satisfying payoff moments.

I started to think of lives as a dynamic resource. There was something here.

Becoming a 2D Platformer

I liked the concept, but I still didn’t know what kind of game it was going to be. I knew that the focus was action, and I knew that I wanted to make a 2D game, but wasn’t sure about the game’s perspective or moment-to-moment gameplay.

Then I remembered that it wasn’t just about “9” the number. It also mattered that you were a cat, as that was the reason you had 9 lives. This tiny bit of extra thematic information could help me narrow down the design space.

cat jumping
Cats are the ninjas of nature.

Cats are known for their agility and reflexes. Even my beloved fat cat Kit could suddenly switch into ninja mode on a dime and swat her “enemies” (read: toys and q-tips) with lightning speed. When I imagine a cat in an action experience, I imagine it jumping around and showing off its movement prowess.

And thus, Nine became a platformer.

Becoming a Roguelike

How did I get from platformer to roguelike? Honestly, I’m still in the process of deciding.

Nine had permadeath from the start. The concept of “9 lives, 9 levels, 9 minutes” sounds like a short term action thrill, and I didn’t think it would work broken up by save progress points. I imagined the player taking multiple attempts to learn the mechanics and finally complete all 9 levels.

But this led to an issue of repetition and rote memorization. Even when platformers have bite-sized challenges (like N Game or Super Meatboy), a very natural outcome is for players to grind through the same path over and over. Nine needed some dynamic elements to help players focus on building skills over grindy trial-and-error.

This issue was confirmed by an early prototype I dubbed “6 in 6” (6 lives, 6 challenges). The players who succeeded (including myself) did so through memorization. And many players found repeating early levels to be a chore, opting instead to skip to their current level using debug-cheats.

Spelunky solves this problem via procedural generation. Because the layout is different each time, you are forced to learn high level patterns, such as how enemies behave and how the physics system works. This systemic learning is informed by each run, and empowers you to perform better on average as you improve. It’s a very satisfying loop once you get the hang of it.

Spelunky Level
Procedural generation can break rote memorization.

But procedural generation is also a massive risk. On top of the heavy technical and production load, it’s a challenging design task to algorithmically generate layouts that feel unique, familiar, and fun all at the same time. Platformer fans are especially sensitive to the feeling of flow in level design thanks to decades of shared experience and built up genre expectations.

It’s not a perfect answer, but it’s a good starting point.

Moving Forward

My early playtests are promising, but I need a little more time before I can start getting external playtesters to try out the first draft of proc gen levels. I should have a clear answer by the end of the month on whether I need to start shifting direction.

One possible fall back could be a dynamic Mega Man style model: 8 hand-designed levels/bosses, but you can choose the order and the remaining levels get dynamically harder, followed by a 9th final boss.

megaman select screen
Megaman lets you play levels in any order.

One other thing I ditched along the way was the “9 minutes” hard constraint. The whole point of the rubberbanding lives system is to create meaningful tension throughout the run. But if the player is mid-run and realizes they will run out 9-minute clock, they are likely to just give up instead. So instead I will explore some softer time pressures, and maybe offer a bonus reward (like an alternate boss/ending) for players who can get to the final battle in under 9 minutes.

So that’s the story how Nine became a roguelike! Or at least, why it is currently a roguelike. Time and iteration will tell!

Announcing: Nine

It’s official: I’m working on a new side project!

Nine is a roguelite action platformer about a cat who has nine lives to stop nine evil mice from stealing the moon. Nine was recently accepted into RIT’s MAGIC Community Incubator Program, and has been funded for development through Summer 2020.

I will be sharing more information both here and on twitter as the project takes shape. I am currently focused on core gameplay iteration and have begun the process of building a team.

Since this is my first major independent endeavor in a long time, I’d like to try to try and be more transparent with the development process than I am able to with my professional work. There are some meaty design problems to chew on, and I think the journey might translate into some interesting Dev Log style blog posts.

I hope you will follow along Nine’s development and enjoy the content to come.

 

Gaming Goals for 2020

As a designer, I put a lot of pressure on myself to play games. I want to be in on the real-time conversations centered around new releases (like Death Stranding). I want to be well-versed in recent high-impact games that are shaping the industry through popularity and/or innovations (like Fortnite). And I want to be familiar with as many classics and genre-defining games as I can through our medium’s evolution (like Myst).

But there are just too many important games out there. It’s not realistic for me to play them all, let alone complete or master them. With limited time/money/energy, I need to carefully prioritize to get the highest ROI.

Knowing this, and adjusting for the missteps in the 2010s (aka my twenties), here are my Gaming Goals for 2020.

Goal #1: Play Lots of Games

This might sound silly or obvious, but it’s really about trusting the process.

I’ve already put systems in place to vet and prioritize what games I should be playing sooner, as well as what games I hope to play on release. So if I just push myself to keep going, these methods will force me to play a bunch of games that meet my personal criteria of important. I have also come to terms with not finishing every game; I just need to play enough of it to “get it” (subjective), and then I can choose to move on.

According to my logs I played about 37 new games in 2018 and 38 new games in 2019. With a little extra dedication I think I can hit 50 new games in 2020. This is nearly 1 game per week on average, though in practice I expect it to happen in spurts.

Goal #2: Step Outside My Comfort Zone

This goal is about variety of play experience. Left to my own unconscious devices, I’ll just crawl back into my shell. This means playing games in the genres and by the developers I already enjoy.

It’s a particularly hard goal because the goal post keeps moving. For example at the end of 2019, playing a tactics game (Into the Breach) fit this goal, since I’ve historically struggled to get into tactics game. But now that I’ve done multiple runs of the game and love it, I have to weigh the value of diving deeper against moving to new experiences.

A new genre I’d like to try in 2020 is the Auto Battler. Some genres I’d like to revisit are first person shooters and open world RPGs.

Goal #3: Immerse Myself in a Big World

In my twenties, I spent a lot of time trying to figure my life and career out. Which I did! But to do so I actively avoided open-world games because of their huge time-commitment, with very few exceptions (such as Breath of the Wild).

While I was able to find immersive experiences in smaller games, there is something uniquely special about a massive world full of life and character and things to do. So in 2020 I’d like to climb into 1-2 massive worlds. This will help bring me up-to-date with modern advances in world design, and give me the kind of immersive experiences that only gaming can offer.

Existing candidates that intrigue me are Horizon: Zero Dawn and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, and 2020 release candidates are Cyberpunk 2077 and Gods & Monsters.

Goal #4: Deep Dive into a Multiplayer Game

It’s one thing to play a multiplayer game. It’s another thing attempt play it competitively. I still remember obsessing over every detail in Super Smash Bros. Melee like it was yesterday. I put in over 1000 hours, practiced advanced techniques, participated in forum discussions, and watched tournament matches on YouTube. So in 2020 I’d like to pick a competitive multiplayer game and dedicate some time to improving.

This not about some external goal like placing at a tournament. It’s about that feeling of pushing yourself to your limit; of being so comfortable with technique that you are operating on a higher level of strategy. That feeling when you’re in the zone and connecting with your opponent… there’s nothing like it.

Top candidates are Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Rocket League.

The Meta Game

Developing a strategy for how to approach playing games is game-like in and of itself. But winning this meta game is only worth it if it does not detract from other parts of my life, including my personal game development goals. And once you are playing a game out of obligation, it begins to feel like work.

I think success here will require a delicate balancing act, but I also think it’s okay to fall short of some of these metrics. In any case, I imagine I will come out of 2020 a more experienced gamer, and by extension a stronger designer.

 

 

Directory of Posts

Like anything, the only way for me to get better at blogging is to practice. But I am often hesitant to publish new posts because writing is a challenge for me, and I am self-conscious about my website which also serves as my portfolio.

So as a temporary solution, I present a pinned Directory of Posts! Here is a list of my higher quality stand-alone posts:

  1. How Game Jams Jumpstarted My Career: A personal exploration of the impact game jams have had on my life and career.
  2. Really Bad Theming: How does Zach Gage’s “Really Bad Chess” make effective use of theming?
  3. A Better Term for “Metroidvania”: What lies at the core of the Metroidvania sub-genre?

This approach lets me surface my stronger content to new readers, while I continue to build out my collection and iterate on my skills. I look forward to seeing how this will evolve over time.

-Roh

How Game Jams Jumpstarted My Career

I am a huge advocate for game jams. Whether you are a fresh novice still finding your way in games or a seasoned AAA veteran, there is a ton of value in participating in a game jam.

However, there are already plenty of articles and resources detailing the potential benefits of game jamming. So instead, I want to discuss how game jams served as a turning point for me personally. When I was at a scary low point in my life, I did 4 game jams in 4 months, and it jumpstarted my career.

Now, I know that is a strong claim. So to ground it in reality, here are some important disclaimers:

  1. My game jamming experience is just one of many factors that helped me get started.
  2. Game jamming is not a guaranteed path to success. Like anything, results will vary depending on approach, timing, and luck.
  3. Game jams are not a replacement for personal projects. Rather, they are something you can do in addition to (or to take a break from) your personal projects.

Getting those out of the way, I stand by my claim. Today I am a happy game designer/programmer hybrid on a healthy career path, and I truly believe that I wouldn’t be here without game jams. Game jams gave me the confidence, skills, and portfolio to jumpstart my career.

Post-Grad Blues

In 2013, I graduated from RIT with a B.S. in Game Design & Development. But due to my poor performance as a student (the details of which I can cover in another blog post), I returned home to Long Island with a sparse portfolio and zero job prospects. Meanwhile, some of my fellow RIT graduates were getting hired by the likes of Bungie, Zynga, and Microsoft.

It was a tough time for me, and I questioned whether or not I was on the right path. Slowly I began to realize how many opportunities I passed on at RIT, and how many great resources (professors, game lab, etc.) I no longer had access to. How could I turn things around on my own?

The Turning Point

One night, at the height of my frustration, I decided to try and make one of my simplest game ideas: a top-down puzzle game where you control two characters simultaneously with arrow keys. I described the idea to my gamer friend Marco, and asked him to design a level on graph paper while I set the code up.

Once I had the absolute basics – a red and blue dot moving simultaneously with the arrow keys – I asked Marco show me his level. I must have described it poorly, because he misunderstood and thought the characters were supposed to keep sliding until they hit something (like a sliding ice block level in Pokemon or Zelda). Instead of ignoring or correcting his design, I ran with his interpretation, and the result was a fun spatial reasoning puzzle!

An early prototype of Brain and Brawn

Though not officially a game jam, this mini jam-like experience gave me a fun, playable prototype in just one evening. It was an incredibly empowering experience, and I found myself compelled to keep iterating on the prototype (that would later go on to become Brain and Brawn).

With this boost of confidence, I decided to try some game jams in NYC.

4 Game Jams in 4 Months

In a period of about 4 months (October 2013-January 2014) I participated in 4 different game jams.

Purgatory (NYC Gamecraft 2013)

First there was the New York Gamecraft, where we were asked to make a game about “Lost Doorways” by the end of the day (7.5 hours). I planned to team up with a friend but he did not show so I was forced to improvise and meet people. Somehow we managed to build Purgatory: a simple arcade-style game where you must avoid enemies/obstacles and get to the door in a rotating room.

The whole experience was a blur, and I couldn’t believe it when we won “Best of Show”! This was my first hint… maybe I could be good at this after all?

Face the Music (Indie Speed Run 2.0)

High on the success from Gamecraft, I asked my Purgatory teammates Andrew Kelley and Anthony Nguyen to join me again for Indie Speed Run, an online game jam that generated a unique theme for each participating team. For this we built an action platformer called Face the Music, which attempted to convey “procrastination” (our assigned theme) via its mechanics.

However, sloppy platforming physics and a mismatched rock & roll theme (which came from the required element “microphone”) got in the way of our mechanics-driven metaphor. It was an early lesson in unification: the different parts of your game should all be working towards a common goal.

Corporate Pie (Indie Speed Run 2.0)

I managed to do Indie Speed Run a second time, this time with my artist friend, David Wallin. We made a puzzle game called Corporate Pie, where players attempt a “corporate takeover” of a literal pizza pie by strategically placing and removing toppings with different abilities. We were never quite able to solidify the core mechanic, so we were making huge changes all the way to the last minute, and the result was a bit sloppy.

I learned from this how important it is to find the fun in your core mechanics as early as you can. Otherwise, if you try and make everything click only at the last second, you run into the risk of never finding that fun at all.

Negative Space (Global Game Jam 2014)

For Global Game Jam 2014, I teamed up with David again and with another programmer Altay Murray, and we built an art game called Negative Space based on the theme “We don’t see things as they are we see them as we are”.

Once again I was making a game using mechanics as metaphor, but this time we did everything right. Our team had great chemistry, we had a fun prototype by Saturday afternoon, and I even had some opportunities to run around with my laptop and get feedback from external playtesters.

Our success in this game jam reinforced the hard lessons from earlier jams. Unlike Face the Music, everything from gameplay to aesthetics were all working towards clear goal of how different the world seems to an introvert and an extrovert. And unlike Corporate Pie, we found a fun core less than halfway through the jam, which gave us plenty of time to iterate on the delivery.

What I Gained

In addition to the lessons I learned from game jam individually, what did I gain from the overall experience of doing 4 game jams in 4 months?

First and foremost, game jamming gave me an incredible amount of confidence and validation. I went from feeling like a failure in September to a legitimate aspiring developer in January. It’s hard to quantify these qualities, but they absolutely contributed to my overall drive and willingness to take creative risks in 2014 and beyond.

Second, game jamming quickly set me up with a portfolio of several 1-3 minute web games. It was hardly ideal, but it was great starting point that I could improve on over time. And it turns out that short web-playable games gave me an edge, even over some large scope games that took many months or years to make, because employers are starved for time and do not want to download software of any kind.

Third, through game jamming I discovered that I had an affinity for level design. I was responsible for designing the levels for 3/4 of my game jams, and each time I had a blast and felt like I made a meaningful contribution.

Last, but not least, I discovered that I can code! I had a mixed relationship with programming at RIT, because I had a naïve understanding of what game design was, and it felt more like a graduation requirement than anything. But through game jamming it became crystal clear: programming enables iteration. And rapid iteration is integral to the game design process. So while on some level coding will always be a “means to an end” for me, I am fully capable of delivering production quality code, and I am happy to do so for the sake of improving a game.

Takeaways

What should readers take away from my experience?

Quite simply, game jams have incredible potential to jumpstart your career. When I go to meetups, I keep hearing aspiring indies and fresh graduates looking to break in complain about this catch-22: you need experience to get a game job, but you need a game job to get experience.

But game jams are, in part, a solution to that issue. Game jams require zero experience to participate and contribute. And they are probably the quickest method for an individual to build confidence, skills, and a portfolio of game prototypes. It may not be equivalent to industry experience to an employer, but it is very productive use of your unemployed time.

So if you are looking to turn things around and jumpstart your career, there is nothing stopping you. Go participate in a game jam!

Game Jam Resources

Regularly scheduled game jams:

  1. Global Game Jam (biggest jam, once a year – usually in January, sites around the world).
  2. Ludum Dare (online, worldwide from the comfort of your home, once every few months)

GGJ also has an amazing list of tools and resources to help you prepare for a jam. (Not that preparation is required).