2020 – My year in game design

Sometimes the old itch to write comes back and the end of the year is always a good time to make lists and retrospectives. So, I decided to write one on what happened in the world of game design during 2020.

There is pretty much nothing here on what I do during my day job as game designer. On that front, it has been a very rich year, with high highs and low lows, and it saw me changing jobs and getting onboard a fantastic project with huge potential. Hopefully I will be able to talk about that one day. For now, these are the things, ideas and trends related to game design that defined the year that just passed for me. It is highly subjective and completely arbitrary, just so you know.

Videogames outside the screen

I never liked the argument that games are useful because you can use games to push people to do something, teach them, or motivate them. A game that is just fun is already a miracle, and making people smile is one of the most noble and worthy things that a person can do. Having said that, Ringfit Adventure improved the life of a lot of people, mine included. In one of the worst years in recent history (and let’s just hope 2020 remains an exception) this game helped a lot of people to maintain their physical and mental health. Which is why it’s here even though it released in 2019.

We have seen plenty of fitness games before but, unlike those, Ringfit Adventure is not trying to look like something else. On the contrary, it is unapologetically a game. A lightweight RPG, but still a game. And being a game doesn’t prevent it from being an excellent fitness routine. A progressive, smart, balanced and good fitness routine, one that takes away the toxicity from working out and focuses and the real point of fitness. Ringfit Adventure is not about getting swole or losing weight. It’s about feeling good with your body and training it to become stronger, more balanced and more flexible. And, sure, it will help you lose weight and get some muscles. But it’s not the primary focus.

Squats should be classified as torture. Also, this game features the voice line “Your sweat is so shiny and beautiful!”. Seriously.

Again from Nintendo – this will be a recurring theme, I am afraid – Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit took Mario Kart out of the screen and in the living room. Nintendo is famous for using established technology to do new things with it, and Mario Kart Live is the latest example of Nintendo teaching a new trick to an old dog: an AR-enhanced game where you can drive a small RC car in your home. The miracle here is that it feels like Mario Kart. Even the most physics-defying feature of Mario Kart, the drift-to-get-a-boost move, is here. I am still unsure how the hell that actually works, but it feels right. And the perception of speed is incredible, even when you realize the actual speed of the toy car is not that great. In a normal year I would have started to organize office competitions. In the year of work from home, I accept that the best I can do is beat my own best time on the track I built, and that has to be enough. I wish I could say my kids where as excited as I am about it, but they really didn’t love it. Insert old man rant about kids these days.

Your home made circuits will NOT be as good looking as the ones features in Nintendo’s promotional videos. And your apartment is probably smaller.

The year of social games. No, really.

It may be a cliché at this point: Animal Crossing: New Horizons was the game of the pandemic and, by extension, of 2020. My first and most loved AC game will always be the original on Gamecube, but one thing that New Horizons reminded me about is that there is a lot of value in all those elements that we, as designers, often overlook. The pleasure of New Horizons is not only and not so much in the features and mechanics. Of course, at the core of every Animal Crossing game there’s a fairly sophisticated progression, collection and economy setup, and that’s what hooks players first. But what makes them stay is much more immaterial. It’s all the light mechanics about player expression, it’s the gestures, the cosmetic content, the absurdly big amount of lines that characters can say. That huge amount of content and features that have expressive value – with little or no mechanical consequence – is why people love Animal Crossing, and it’s what makes it the best social game in modern time.

Player self expression works in an interesting way, in Animal Crossing. The tools that players have to show their creativity are not particularly deep: you cannot model your own furniture, you cannot decide to place object at any angle, you cannot customize every part of your character and so on. But they are wide. There is so much content that players have found countless ways to create, arrange and show their personality. And this is what makes this game so incredibly social: me and my kids would talk so much about the different personalities of the characters in our island, or argue about island decorations. They quite soon started having small parts of our island dedicated to a specific purpose: they made little “stores” and gyms and spas that they would then show me. It is a social gameplay loop that is so much more rewarding and real and engaging than any “social game” I have seen.

“The Path”, a pattern of tileable terrain to be used to create paths in your AC island, is a community-created feature, with people exchanging the best patterns to personalize their island, and an example of how user generated content can enrich a game. Image credit: https://www.youtube.com/user/tanbelina

Another social gaming feature of my gaming 2020 was in the oldest way a game can be social: multiplayer. In particular, coop. This was the first year in which my children had enough confidence with games that I could play with them on a somewhat equal basis. Playing Fortnite on split screen on a PS4 and with an extra player on the Switch is still an absolute blast. I still have a certain resentment for how Fortnite weaponizes fear of missing out against children, but it’s impossible to deny that, at its core, the game is a lot of fun.

In a similar way, Sackboy: A Big Adventure turned out to be an unexpected little masterpiece. As a multiplayer coop experience, it gets so close to a golden Nintendo standard with new ideas introduced in pretty much every level and a difficulty level that hits the right spot for both experienced and less skilled players. And you can slap the other players, which is always hilarious.

Have you ever tried to jump between platforms on the sound of a waltz version of Madonna’s Material Girl? You can do that in Sackboy: A Big Adventure

Everything’s emergent

This is pretty subtle, and it has been going on for a number of years. However, I think that never like in 2020 it has been clear that emergent games are the future. When I say “emergent”, I mean it in the Jesper Juul’s “games of emergence vs games of progression” sense. In other words, we see fewer and fewer linear games, and even the ones that are linear try to give the player as much agency as possible.

Animal Crossing New Horizions is of course a prime example, but Roblox, Fortnite and, to be honest, most of the games in any monthly sales chart are part of this category. I found two examples of this trend particularly interesting.

The first one is Hades. Like many other roguelikes, Hades is strongly based on the surprising effects you get when you combine together different systems and mechanics (emergence in a nutshell). Unlike most other roguelikes, Hades applies that logic to its narrative as well. And so you get a very compelling puzzle where narrative bits slowly uncover a bigger picture, and those narrative bits depend on what you do during gameplay. I really hope to see this kind of narrative system applied widely. I think, for example, that it could be a great way of injecting meaningful narrative in multiplayer games.

Hades, also know as “the game where everyone is ridiculously good looking”

The other example of how emergence has taken over videogames is more unexpected. Many would say that the very clearly defined narrative of The Last of Us Part 2 is a prime example of linearity typical of a game of progression. Outside its story, though, TLoU2 does some pretty incredible things with its emergent gameplay systems. First of all, it has one of the best enemy AI systems ever. Enemies in TLoU2 are at the same time challenging, believable, emotionally interesting and fun to fight. And that’s a monumental achievement. But even beyond AI, TLoU2 is the best stealth and combat sandbox since Metal Gear Solid 5. It introduces large areas and still manages to create the anxiety-inducing and exhilarating feeling of being in great danger while barely surviving. That feeling of improvising during combat, thinking quickly and making plans just to get rid of the next enemy is something Naughty Dog are masters at creating, and it’s never being as well realized as in The Last of Us Part 2.

Also, Abby rules.

Yup, a Naughty Dog game in which you actually need a map.

Sense, touch and feel

Finally, what occupied a big portion of the game design part of my brain this year was game feel. It’s nothing new, really: I often say that game feel is 50% of the fun in games (another 25% is audio). However, three things in this area kept my attention in 2020.

The first one is PlayStation 5’s Dual Sense and its implementation in Astro’s Playroom. There has been a lot of talk about how the new PlayStation controller can give the tactile feeling of surfaces being walked on, weather effects or different resistance in its triggers so I am not going too in-depth in recapping it. What I am actually incredibly eager to see is what other developers will do, because I genuinely think it could be a game changer for a lot of games (looking at you, Ratchet & Clank). The importance of rumble and sound effects is often underrated, so I really want to see more developers taking the Dual Sense haptic feedback one step forward.

My only question is: when will we get Astrobot action figure and where can I buy them?

The second thing that got my attention was A Short Hike. Apart from being a delightful experience (more games like this, please!), A Short Hike is a great example of the power of game feel. Everything in this game is more rich, pleasant and fun to interact with that it has any right to be. Moving is fun – and faster than I would expect in such a game -, flying and jumping and climbing are all absurdly satisfying. We, as game designers, tend to think way too much about mechanics and systems and not enough about the subtlety of interactions, and A Short Hike is proof that they can make or break a game.

Flying in itself is worth the price of A Short Hike

Speaking of which, the last thing (and my only personal project this year) was an exploration on these detail-oriented design decisions. I spoke more in depth about the making of Pancakes? Pancakes!, a game inspired by Game & Watch games I made using Dreams, in a previous post. It took a good chunk of my free time, and I have to say that it has been refreshing to put so much thought and effort in a game of such small scope. It allowed me to really focus on game feel and presentation and I am pretty proud of the final result.

I made a game based on making pancakes. Based on a true story.

To close up this thing: 2020 was a pretty good year, if seen through the lens of game design. I got to work on some very cool things, I played a lot of good games, and I taught two Advanced Game Design courses at the Futuregames school here in Stockholm. This last experience, especially, has been an absolute pleasure. I loved working on lectures, interacting with students and seeing their projects take shape. It’s definitely something I want to do again and I learned so much doing it: it may be a cliché, but it’s true that in order to really know something you should try to teach it. So at least something good came out of this garbage year.

Now let’s hope for a better 2021.

Making Pancakes? Pancakes!

It began when I started collecting old Nintendo Game & Watch. I got my hands on one of these old LCD handhelds from the early 80s and I feel in love. Of course in part it is nostalgia, but there’s also something so charming and compelling about these tiny games based on modified pocket calculators. They are gaming haikus: with extremely limited controls and incredibly tight design constraints, these games still manage to be fun, varied and challenging, forty years after their launch.

So I got into the rabbit hole of collecting Game & Watch. But, as it always happens for my personal projects, I started having a persistent thought that wouldn’t go away. This time it was “could I make something like that? Something so simple but polished and refined? Can I make a Game & Watch-like game in 2020?”. One year and a few hundreds of hours later, the answer is… maybe? You be the judge. Pancakes? Pancakes! is out now on Dreams (you can play it here)

As the original G&W games, Pancakes works with very few elements and with no fluid animations. The main character is a father who is trying to make as many pancakes for his infant child. The child will eat an infinite amount of pancakes – based on a true story – so the game always ends with a game over. Although the theme and the juggling seems similar to Chef, the real inspiration was from Tropical Fish, one of my favorite Game & Watch. My small contribution to that core juggling gameplay is the cooking feature: every time an egg bounce on the pan, it gets one step closer to be a pancake. If the player is too fast or too slow in delivering the pancake to the kid, the pancake will be under- or overcooked, giving a lower score than a perfectly cooked pancake.

How it started, a looong time ago

The eggs move in exact steps on every tick of a timer, and the player can only move in three positions. This very simple setup turned out to be much more complex to realize in a good way than I expected. It may not be obvious at a first glance, but Game & Watch games are much more subtle than it appears.

I found that having more fluid animations when the pancake bounces on the pan helps with game feel and feedback

First of all, the mechanical core of the gameplay is generally skewed in favor of the player. For example, in G&W games with a juggling gameplay, such as Chef or Tropical Fish, being in the right position at any point during the last time tick before game over will result in the object being juggled. Game over only happens if the player is not where they should be at the end of the tick. This means that a player can hit multiple objects during the same time tick and game over only happens when there’s a genuine mistake instead of a lack of perfect timing. Implementing something similar in Pancakes took me some time. In part because I found using Dreams’ scripting system a bit clunky in these kinds of logic loops compared to a programming language, but also because it is genuinely hard to marry the clockwork style of this gameplay to the necessity of preventing players’ frustration.

A partial view of the logic of the game. The object manager is what controls the movement of the eggs and pancakes

Then there’s difficulty: the best G&W games have near-perfect difficulty curves. Rather than constantly increasing the speed and difficulty of the game, G&W games usually start slowly and they increase the tempo of the gameplay until a certain point; then the difficulty sharply drops before starting to increase again. These peaks and valley of difficulty give players some time to breathe while guaranteeing challenging gameplay. It’s a surprisingly refined and modern approach to difficulty progression, and one that I tried to apply to Pancakes. Of course, I also had to create two different game modes called Game A and Game B, with the former being easy and the latter harder.

Finally, the audiovisual part. One of the most important things for me was to try and make the set design charming, clear and attractive. I iterated for a long time on a color palette I liked, on the placing of the elements and, even more important, on the poses of the main character, trying to make them as expressive and funny as possible. I also wanted some animation for the kid when each pancake is delivered, and on game over.

When it comes to audio, I didn’t want a traditional soundtrack. I like the clicking and beeping of Game & Watch but I felt that exactly replicating that style of sound would be a bit sterile. So, I decided to use single notes from different instruments for each movement and action: drum sounds for the eggs/pancakes, acoustic bass sounds for the player movement, and piano chords for the feedback from the kid. I am quite happy how it ended up: a game of Pancakes sounds like a syncopated jazz jam session and it has a sort of nice wonky rhythm to it.

Once more, my kids helped my by providing the voice for the baby

I had a blast making Pancakes? Pancakes! . It turned out to be a much longer project than I expected – like every project, really – but I am extremely happy about how it turned out. I tried to cram as many details I could into this tiny game and I hope someone will try to chase a high score, even for just five minutes. As Game & Watch prove: even one minute of fun can be enough.

Media Molecule played a game I made in Dreams

As a huge fan of Media Molecule, it was a delight when, on their weekly highlight stream, I saw them playing the game I made in Dreams. Even better, they said nice things about it!

The game is called Mini Astro in Timeland and is a platform-adventure I made with input from my kids. I did everything except character animations and music.

I may post more about how I made it – and possibly other stuff made with Dreams – later when the game is released.

If the timestamp doesn’t work, the level is shown at 42:40 min

New site

Hi,

I lost my site and I’m working on fixing it. Come back – hopefully – soon to see the new site.

In the meantime, if you need to contact me write me to the address made by my name plus @cinquemani.it

See you soon,

Ferruccio

EDIT: I made it! The site is back, still looking dry as a rock, but now there’s the potential for a lot more interesting stuff.

Unreal Tournament CTF Map – The Cake

Overview:

The Cake is a medium sized action-oriented Unreal Tournament Capture The Flag map designed for 8 or 6 players.

Goal:

The map is designed for dramatic changes of pace and basic but balanced strategic planning. Ideally the setting of the map should be a space station or similar sci-fi ambient.

The gimmick: the cake

The gimmick of The Cake is the cake-looking structure at the center of the map. The structure works both as a simple hill where getting to the top allows for a tactical height advantage but also as a way for player to quickly get cover: going up a level gives coverage, at least until the pursuing player follows.

On the top of the cake are placed a rocket launcher and a minigun, two health packs and a redeemer. Getting to the top, however, is not free of risks. To make climbing with Translocator less overpowered and make players think before teleporting a level up, some killing fans are placed in the second ring.

The top of the structure has the most powerful weapons.

The circle motif of the cake is repeated throughout the map, as all rooms are circular and even the placement of the spawning room and the flag room is based on an ideal section of a circle.

Originally the “cake” was supposed to slowly spin. The first section would spin clockwise, the second counter-clockwise and the top would stay still. This worked very well in local play, and created very interesting dynamics (notably by making the use of the Translocator much riskier) but, unfortunately, I couldn’t find a way to make the segments move smoothly during LAN play.

The spawn room

The bridge outside the flag room has a sniper rifle that encourages shooting into the spawn room through the large windows.

The room where a team spawns can be both used in defensive and aggressive ways. If they have a sniper rifle, defenders will be able to shoot attackers passing the bridge visible from the big window, which is wide enough to not allow defender to camp because it keeps them too exposed. Also, the room contains a BioRifle, which is especially useful for protecting the flag in the closest room. Attackers will be able, if quick moving, to gain the best protected access to the flag room.

The flag room

There are no long sight lines to or from the flag room. The reason is that I wanted to have easy enter and exit from the room. The flow of the room is very circular: all entry and exit points in the room are placed in a way that creates circular motions. The room is designed for quick incursions and quick exits. If the flag is stolen, defenders have a better chance retaking it by using the spawn room or the closest part of the main room.

Testing

I tested the map throughout development and this is the feedback I got:

  • The map is fun and balanced
  • The weapons are well chosen and placed in interesting locations – the placement of the Biorifle, in particular, was appreciated by several players
  • The map is small and may not be suited for teams of 5 or 6
  • The cake structure provides good variety of situations. Some players were slightly frustrated by the fact that it’s not always easy to climb up one level in the structure, but others appreciated that because it gives a bigger advantage to those who do climb, so I decided to not add more jump pads or ramps

Breaking Brix – Breaking down a design exercise

So, let’s try to kick off this part of the site with something that might be useful or interesting.

What I would like to do in this post is break down the design of my latest game, Breaking Brix, and analyze the decisions I took and why I took them. I honestly do not know if this can be useful to anyone, but at worst it is something I can revisit in a while to see if – and how – I improved as a game designer. Also, I love when people get in detail about game design, so I want to contribute to that.

So, after launching Heads Will Roll, in a very, very minimum viable product version (stress on minimum) I felt burned out with the whole idea of making games in my spare time. A fairly basic concept of a mobile game took years to complete and it still lacked the punch, the polish and the sheer amount of stuff – please never say “content” – I wish it would have. I guess everyone making anything remotely creative sooner or later gets to the “what’s the point of it” point. One year ago, I was there. Either I quit making games or I had to change approach. I decided to change approach. I realised that what I really like is learning, and so I decided to do exactly that: focus on the process of learning and, maybe, in the meantime, this would result in better games.

Even though I had worked on three original games, this was the first time I would design and code a game all by myself, and so I took the most common advice given to absolute beginners: take a classic design, remake it and study why it works. I decided to add an extra bit to this idea: find how that classic design could be twisted in a slightly different direction. I have been fascinated by how games such as Pac-Man 256 and Crossy Road adapted classic ideas to the context of mobile gaming, and I wanted to do something in that spirit.

The concept

I decided to take the most classic of classic games, Breakout, and make a version that would make sense on mobile.
Controls had to be touch based, but instead of having a paddle move only left and right, I though it would be more interesting and more fitting to the form factor to extend the movement on the whole bottom half of the screen, where the thumb of the player has the easiest reach.

Bringing the classic 1D movement to shiny 2D
Bringing the classic 1D movement to shiny 2D

The second choice was about the paddle itself, its form and behaviour: having the paddle always present on screen felt somehow wrong and static. I wanted to give a more tactile feeling, so that it’s almost like the thumb itself is the paddle. So I decided that the paddle would spawn only when the player touches the screen. Now that the thumb is the paddle, it was logical to give the paddle a curved shape, like a thumbnail.

Super mode

A paddle that spawns only when the player touches the screen creates a new opportunity, as the timing of the spawn can be used in a creative way. I had an idea: by spawning the paddle one second before it hits the ball, the player can super charge the ball, and a supercharged ball will go through bricks instead of bouncing off them. This mechanic rewards timing and skilfulness and fits with the core idea of the game: simplicity. I wanted to ship a game quickly, and this meant that I had to try and limit the scope as much as possible. I also wanted to make a game that was simple to play and that would allow for extremely short sessions. The super mode activated by timing allowed me to avoid implementing bonuses: I briefly considered the idea of implementing multiball or other typical bonuses of this genre but it just didn’t feel they added much. It felt like something that would just add unnecessary systems.

Also, changing palettes between levels gives some visual variety.
Also, changing palettes between levels gives some visual variety.

Deeper super

I started, instead, to layer the super mode feature. At the most basic level, the mechanic already has an implicit risk/reward: instead of always keep touching the screen, the player can decide to risk missing the ball and touch the screen with the right timing to activate super mode, which in turn will give the player the reward of more bricks destroyed. On top of that I created another risk/reward mechanism: bricks destroyed by a ball in super mode will give twice the amount of points. However, every time super mode is activated, the minimum speed of the ball is slightly increased, permanently. This is an advantage in the beginning of the game, as the player can clean up a screen faster, but becomes progressively a handicap after the first couple of levels, when more speed means more risk of missing the ball.

Bend it

After that core mechanic I wanted to implement a more subtle feature. I always felt a weak point of the Breakout/Arkanoid design is that once the ball bumps off the paddle, the player can do nothing but wait. The player also has limited control, as the angle of the ball determines where the ball will go. Inspired by the bending of Sensible Soccer (in which the player could bend a shot left or right by moving the joystick after a kick) I implemented a system where moving the paddle right after the ball bounced would bend the trajectory of the ball left or right. The effect had to be noticeable but subtle, so I chose to show it in a toned-down way, with a small dot rotating around the ball clockwise or anticlockwise depending on the direction of the bend.

Like all good design, it breaks the laws of physics and it's fun.
Like all good design, it breaks the laws of physics and it’s fun.

It was now possible to direct the ball in a more active way, but I still wanted to tackle a couple of weak areas of the classic design. One of the most annoying problems of Breakout is that the game becomes frustrating when only one brick remains. Even using the bending mechanic, too much precision is required to get that one last brick. Also, losing by letting the ball fall down off the screen feels somehow too sudden. Even a game over shouldn’t be too frustrating. It became clear to me that this was an issue of control: as it often happens with player’s frustration, the issue had to do with a feeling of not being in control. And that’s where I got the idea of adding a new way to interact with the ball.

Pull it

I created a pull mechanic. If the bottom half of the screen is where the player can have the ball bounce off the paddle (push), the top half can be the “pull side”. When the player touches the top half, a sort of black hole attracts the ball to the touch point. The pull mechanic felt good and finally allowed for more control after the ball hit the paddle. Of course, it was also insanely overpowered. The pull move had be balanced with a strong incentive to limit its use. Considering that part of the initial concept was to focus on short sessions, it made sense to have a time limit. I’m not generally a big fan of time limits in games, but I do feel that they have a place. In this case, especially, introducing a time limit fit the rest of the mechanics. For example, with a time limit it becomes even more important to use the super mode, as super mode allows the player to beat a level faster. More importantly, now I had a tool to balance against the pull mechanic. Using the pull by touching the top half of the screen now drains seconds really fast. A quick tap will lower the timer by a couple of seconds – an acceptable trade off when correcting the trajectory to destroy the last brick – but holding down can sensibly reduce the available time.

Useful for changing directions...
Useful for changing direction…

 

... and for last second saves.
… and for last second saves.

Once the timer was in place I had to find a way to give the player extra seconds. I decided to award seconds at completion of a level and when the player destroys some special bricks. To make things a little more interesting, time-awarding bricks give one second less each time the ball bounces off the paddle, thus giving an incentive to the player to try and destroy the special bricks as soon as possible. Finding the right amount of seconds to give and how many special bricks to show was then a simple process of testing and tuning until it felt hard but not punitive or stress inducing. Most of the other design-related choices had to do with tweaking physics, correcting edge cases and try to keep everything – from UI to graphics – as simple as possible without making it completely dry.

Conclusion

The game took almost a year to complete. It was made in my spare time and it was put on hold several times. However, I am pretty satisfied with the results: Breaking Brix is, in my opinion, a fun tiny score-based game to play in the time between two subway stops or while on the toilet, which is exactly what I tried to create. Using a proven design as a base on which new ideas can be built upon is an invaluable exercise.

Now, I just need to find a way to make Tetris better…