Dev Blog 004: Testing the Scared Pufferfish

The things that draw people to try a game often have very little to do with the things that make a game great.

In fact, in trying to build for one or the other, they can at times actually clash.

While there are many things that can make a game great, at the core of all of them is gameplay.  The feel of the experience, the smoothness of it, the fun of it.  Gameplay is one of the first things I think about with any new game idea.  It's what drives and inspires me.  If I can spot the strong gameplay, I have a lot of confidence in the idea, because the rest can all be molded around it in countless ways.  On the counter end, good gameplay is often hard to come by, so if it isn't inherent in the initial idea, I'm very unlikely to burn time on that concept trying to find it.

Critically, gameplay is something you play, not something you describe.  Describing gameplay sells nothing, especially to the non-designer.  You can try, but you'll find all of the words inadequate and over-used.  Many games have described great gameplay only to never deliver on it, and no matter who you are, you're judged by the disappointments and betrayals of those who made similar claims before.  

No, gameplay doesn't sell.  Stories sell.  People respond to character and emotion.  They respond to unique concepts.  They respond to things that ignite their imaginations.

You draw people into your game by connecting them with a character or a world.  You keep them through gameplay.  And from there, they help spread the word of the game to others, hopefully leading you to success.

This is a similar struggle to movies and novels ultimately.  Drawing people in to take a look is often an entirely separate effort from making the content itself brilliant.  Sometimes frustratingly so.

There are of course exceptions, as there always are.  Tetris is all gameplay with nothing to make it interesting to describe to those who haven't played it before, yet it succeeds.  Similar story with the more recent game, Threes.  It is certainly possible to succeed on gameplay alone, without a gripping concept to describe to others, it's just more difficult.

In all of this, I know what the core conflict will be for me in testing my ideas and filtering down my list.  I will love the games where I can see the gameplay, but they won't necessarily be the ones that grip others, at least not looking at them on the surface.  In this, I have to trust my test and learn how to use it, knowing which answers really matter in a given situation.  And my secret hope is that through my massive over-brainstorming, I may have stumbled on an idea or two that accomplish both good gameplay and gripping concept at the same time, without having to stretch or compromise to get there.

So here we are at step 4.  We'll likely be spending a few entries here.

  1. Decide on the goals of my project as a whole.
  2. Brainstorm more ideas than I need.
  3. Create a list of questions I will use to test the strength of my ideas.
  4. Use those questions to filter my ideas down to a top 3.
  5. Research similar games to see what I'm up against, and what to avoid.
  6. Choose the single idea I'm going to dedicate myself to.
  7. Build a prototype of a section of core gameplay.
  8. If solid, start the project.  If not, fall back to one of the other ideas.

For this part of the process, I'm going to start by going deep on how I'm thinking on just one or two of my game ideas.  After that, I'll test the rest of my ideas on my own, but I'll write out some of the broader conclusions I come to in the process.

This is the first idea I'm going to test:

Play a scared little puffer fish crossing the Pacific. Only defenses are hiding or puffing up big and hoping not to get eaten.

That was explicitly shortened for twitter, but I think it communicates the idea reasonably well.

  1. Can I pitch this idea to someone in 2 sentences and get them excited?
    • Another advantage of the twitter exercise I went through is that I was essentially already tackling this problem, as I had to "pitch" in a small space.  I think that idea actually sells itself relatively well already, and could be refined more with time.
    • "scared" Attaching familiar emotion makes it easier to connect with something immediately.
    • "little" Sets the tone that you'll be playing the underdog.
    • "puffer fish" Familiar enough to evoke imagery, but at the same time unique enough to stand out from any other game you might want to compare it to.  It probably evokes Finding Nemo comparisons, which is healthy.
    • "crossing the Pacific" Sets a goal, and a grand one.
    • And the second sentence helps affirm what the gameplay will be like pretty concisely, suggesting dodging, hiding, or facing up to bigger fish, sharks, and other similar threats.
    • The whole package seems approachable as a children's game, and might hook parents as such.  But at the same time, the suggestion of imaginable gameplay might be sufficient to peak the interest of experienced gamers as well.
  2. Do I know how I would hook people with a trailer for this?
    • Honestly, this seems like its in a pretty good place too.
    • It should be able to yield immediate cute-factor with the puffer.  An early shot of her hiding from a threatening shadow with an adorably scared look on her face could be key to communicating a lot of the concept.
    • Some clips to show exploration of some beautiful ocean environments.
    • The gameplay should be very visual and intuitive, so it would read pretty well in a trailer.
  3. Is there an audience out there for this?  Is it big enough?  Or am I trying to create one?
    • Honestly, I think I might want to ditch this question.  It's a super-marketing focused question that I think it's a trap to dive to deeply into.  Surface-level consideration may help me make sure I'm putting it on the right platform for the right audience, but I also quickly find it steering me towards making the game for an end-goal that uncomfortably influences my decisions about what the gameplay should be like.  I want to make the best game I possibly can, and if I succeed in doing that, I will find its audience.
    • As an example of a thought with this that made me really uncomfortable: This feels like a type of game that on a surface-level could be very appealing towards children and families.  If I'm making it for them, I should make sure it doesn't have any graphic violence (getting eaten by a shark or some such).  I also should make it more linear instead of open-ended, so it stays approachable.  AND NO, that's where that chain of thought needs to stop.  I don't know that linear is better than open-ended for kids, that assumption could be reversed.  Why am I making gameplay decisions based off of this?  This problem with trying to assess audiences is that it's useless unless you're making assumptions about what those audiences like, which can easily be wrong.  Besides, innovation comes better from personal passions than by appealing to someone not you, who you don't necessarily understand.
    • I think I'll tap into the surface-level important considerations that are valuable in this space as part of thinking about my other questions anyway.
    • It's decided.  Question 3 is cut.  Bye question 3.
  4. What other games are similar to this?  How do I stand out by comparison?
    • This is a strangely hard question for this idea, as I haven't been playing games in this space for quite a while.  In that, it's already highlighting something important to me though: I need to do some research if I want to develop anything in this territory.
    • Questions to research:
      • Are games like this succeeding recently?  
      • If so, what are some common elements in the ones that do?  
      • Has anyone tried anything with this core concept or gameplay that has failed (and thus I haven't heard about them yet)?
      • If so, how am I different enough to not meet the same fate.
    • Where I'd start my research:
      • Cartoony console adventure games.
      • Ocean themed games.
      • Games that focus on hiding/evading as a core mechanic over combat.
    • A good example I could learn some lessons from: Journey.  It has the right visual appeal, the feeling of exploration, and it regularly uses fear, avoidance, etc. as core gameplay elements.  Interesting comparison, as it was made almost entirely to explore shared player experience designs, even though it doesn't read as that on the surface.
  5. Do I know how to start building the core gameplay for this?
    • Most of the core gameplay would be about awareness, creative hiding, and in emergencies playing chicken with predators by puffing up.  I'm not sure that will be sufficiently deep, so I really just need to build it as a part of a prototype to find out.
    • Major steps to construct core gameplay:
      • Build a small representative ocean environment, as subtleties of space will be key to hiding.
      • Build basic ambient predators, and give them some simple parameters for determining if they attack:
        • Sight, as it will be the most intuitive for play.
        • Hungriness?  The random-feeling nature of this may be key to simulating that ocean life fearful question of, "Is it going to attack?" with tension until it passes.
      • Create some system for environmental sight-blocking, shadows, or some other intuitive element of hiding.
      • Create a few predator types that have to be evaded in different ways when necessary.  Sharks that patrol the open vs. eels that strike from crevices.
      • Create the puffing up mechanic with a goal of frantic button-pushing when safety is out of reach and a threat seems real.
      • Explore predators having subtle behavior shifts that indicate when they're thinking of striking.
    • I strongly suspect that this core gameplay will be weak on it's own, as the factors in play are few and may feel frustratingly random to those not observant enough to notice the behavioral queues.  It may be worth exploring other options.
    • Considering what I'm trying to get out of this question, in the future I should probably rephrase it as, "What is the core gameplay?  What components are necessary to prove it is fun?"  And honestly, anything beyond a general idea isn't really relevant until I'm actually planning to build a prototype anyway.
  6. Do I see potential to discover new gameplay as I go with this idea?
    • Sadly, I think the potential is low on this one.  Attempting to appeal to real-feeling representations of oceanic predator/prey behavior is severely limiting.  It may need to embrace more gamey elements to open it up to a broad-enough spectrum of gameplay potential, but does that entirely compromise the core-concept in the process?
    • That being said, it's a type of gameplay I haven't seen explored much in any games I've played.  Maybe because it's proved weak for the developers who've tried it?  But it's possible there's a diamond in the rough that might be identified through a prototype.
  7. Is this idea bringing something unique to the table that other games haven't?
    • Non-violent caution-based gameplay that depends on assessing subtle behavioral queues.
    • An attempt at an immersive representation of being ocean prey, a dynamic that humans are very unfamiliar with on whole.
    • An opportunity to teach about ocean-life without blatantly teaching.
  8. Does this idea bring more value to the player than just passing entertainment?
    • Yes.  
    • Challenge.  Encouraging interest in oceans.  Expanding imaginations.
    • I don't ever expect this to be a hard question.  I wouldn't filter an idea to this test that wouldn't pass this question.  Maybe I should leave it anyway and just accept it as a Yes/No sanity check?
  9. Is this a game I'd need to maintain after shipping?  Can I do that?
    • This would likely be focused on a one-time experience.  Outside of diligence for initial stability and bugs, replay would be minimal, and thus lasting obligation would probably also be minimal.
  10. What's the basic art style for this game?  Do I have what I need to accomplish that?
    • Creatures: lightly stylized representation of real sea creatures.  Likely not something I could do on my own, but very possible to seek out in the Asset Store or through contracting.
    • Environment: Would need to be highly detailed and colorful.  Probably hard to contract on the scope that the idea would need - I'd almost certainly need to collaborate with a dedicated artist for this.  I know one indie artist who is exceptional with environments, and who's work on seascapes before.  An option to explore if this idea bubbles near the top.
  11. Do I have the right people on my team to build this?
    • This is probably a 2-3 person project, unless I find a version of it that is quite small.  I need to collaborate with at least one person for the art.  That would have to be explored.
  12. Do I have the right tools to build this?
    • Unity seems great for this.  It wouldn't demand any other tools that I wouldn't already need to have for other projects.
    • This question is kind of dumb in the modern era of hugely available toolsets.  If I need tools, I'll find them - this should really influence whether I decide on a game or not.
    • Sorry question 12, your life was short-lived.  I appreciate you trying to watch out for me, but it's time we part ways.
  13. Do I have the time to build this and remain financially stable?
    • Ignorantly, I'd guess this would take me and a dedicated artist 6-months - 1 year.  I can easily remain stable for that long.
  14. What is the smallest possible version of this game that could be justifiably complete?
    • I should explain what I'm going for with this question.  I believe heavily in what I like to call Layered Planning.  When I plan out a complex design, I want to have a good idea what my fallback points are if I realize I'm in over my head and need to scope down.  I'll aim high at an Idealized Plan, tuck behind that a more realistic Strong Plan, and somewhere behind that have an Efficient Plan.  This mostly involves identifying the break points of what's really important to the design vs. where you're idealizing extra content or "cool factor."  Ultimately, it requires discipline to push yourself constantly when you know the safety net is right there, but without this kind of layered planning, you may find yourself breaking your core game or wasting extraordinary amounts of time when you inevitably have to scope down in the latter half of the project.
    • So the core of this question is really, "What are the critical elements of this game that make it fun and complete?"  I'd break them down as this:
      • Core gameplay loop with multiple options in any given situation, and a skill curve to ascend over time.
      • A variety of enemies to discover and learn.  At least one new enemy type per level.
      • A variety of environments to keep the experience fresh.  I'd guess at least 6 to not feel anemic.
      • Progression in the levels, in terms of leaning and in a sense of working towards something.
      • Satisfying soft story-arc.  I don't think a hard narrative is necessary here, but well-communicated soft goals while leaving the player the ability to strategize towards them is important.
      • Unless the game is incredibly short, it's going to need to tap into some gameplay variance along the way (outside of just learning new enemies and environments).  A chase or run-away sequence perhaps, or a particularly custom sequence trying to survive in a coral reef while a giant octopus reaches arms through all of the crevices trying to find you.
      • It may be possible that a very short 2-hourish version of this game could be shippable if it was downloadable at a low price-point.  Some games very healthily focus on only exactly as much gameplay and story as they need at that length, creating short, potent, memorable experiences.  So that might be the extremely scoped backup plan, or the plan that allows for larger amounts of iteration on a tighter goal.

Okay!  That was a pretty long exercise.  It will get shorter the more I do it though.  Keep in mind that is a way deeper dive than this process actually demands, but I thought it valuable to express thoroughly how I think about these questions for the sake of these entries.  In actual practice, the questions are intended as soft reminders to help me better identify the strengths and weaknesses of any given idea, but I certainly don't expect to have answers to ALL of those questions this early in the process.  Just knowing what I don't know has value in itself.

All of the more detailed thoughts aside, the key conclusions are essentially these:

  1. This idea feels potentially strong for being describable and generating interest (though I might be overestimating interest in ocean concepts based on personal bias).
  2. The gameplay is a little questionable, and will require a prototype for me to be confident in it.
  3. It will almost certainly require a dedicated artist, so I'll have to explore that ahead of time.
  4. I haven't spent a lot of time with games in this space recently, so I'll need to do some research.
  5. There may be a very small version of this game that that could be strong, so I should consider ahead of time what size of game I really want to make with it.

Oof.  Getting into some more gritty parts of the evaluation at this point, but it's definitely helping.  More soon!



[My thoughts and opinions are my own.  They are not those of Blizzard Entertainment, and they do not necessarily represent Blizzard design philosophies.]