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  Mechanic #116 - Game Design Adventure
Posted: 6/11/11

It's like Professor Layton, but instead of puzzles, you design a game.

Icon image taken from the iPhone simulation game, Game Dev Story

  Game Design Adventure

I was playing Professor Layton a few months back and I realized how well the adventure portion of the game worked as a framing device for the puzzles. If the game were just a bunch of puzzles without context, the game would not be nearly as interesting or engaging. The adventure portion isn't even that deep or complex. You just wander from screen to screen tapping on people to give you a puzzle. At set places, a small cutscene plays, the plot progresses, and you move on.

So, I started thinking that maybe you could take a similar framing device to wrap around things that aren't puzzles. And that's basically where this idea comes from.

  From QA Tester #4 to Game Design Superstar

You play a character who starts out as an intern QA tester at a game development company which is filled with lazy developers. The story basically follows this character as they rise through the ranks from intern to producer to game designer. There's a lot that can be done with this story, but basically, it's just a framing device for the "puzzles". All the other characters are lazy or incompetent and they get you to do their job for them by performing game development tasks.

Each task is a small, focused task that is meant to be accomplished within a few minutes, similar to one of the puzzles in the Professor Layton series. However, instead of just being puzzles, they will also be design tasks based on the various disciplines involved in game development. There will still be a focused set of criteria that must be adhered to, but as long as you hit those bullet points, whatever you create is accepted. For instance, you might be given the bounding boxes to an enemy and be required to draw a sprite that fits within those boxes.

The story takes place over a period of three or four games, and at the end of each chapter, you will have a small game that you can play which incorporates all the tasks that you have completed. At the beginning, as an intern, you'll have very little control over the end product - instead, focused on testing and bug fixing to ensure the game that is made works properly. As you work your way up the ladder, your responsibilities will move first to things like art and programming, then to design - not to mention tasks that involve dealing with the production staff, like hiring new employees, solving disputes, or cutting features to mean a deadline.


It's really easy to just say, it's Professor Layton, but with game design, but knowing how to structure the puzzles so that they are focused and creative without making the resulting game a mish mash of mismatched ideas requires a little more work.


  • QA Testing - Testing is largely focused around finding bugs. A sample task might be that you are given a single level and told that there are 15 bugs in the level. Each time you do perform one of those actions (walking through walls, not blowing up when hit by a missile, getting to the minus world, etc), they are marked off the checklist. If you only need to find 10 of them and quit early, the bugs you've missed will still be in the game at the end of the chapter when it "ships".

    Another task might be getting a few emails which describe a specific bug and trying to figure out the minimum number of steps needed to reproduce said bug. I'm envisioning some sort of stack of actions that is automatically filled in as you perform. So you can start or stop recording and the goals is to narrow it down to X number of steps.


  • Art - The most obvious direction to take art-related tasks is to do something like the game "Drawn to Life". You are given a small palette of tools and a bounding box for each limb of the character. You can draw anywhere in the box, and it is animated automatically. Obviously, there's no way to have a "right" answer, so the player would simply be given a task like "this is a troll" and he'll just have to use his imagination.

    But there are art tasks that aren't as creative. For instance, you can have a task where you have to reduce the colors on an imagine from 18 colors to 16 colors. Or a task where you have to put a bunch of sprites onto a sprite sheet so they fit on a small grid that is a multiple of 2. Or you are given a large image which must be broken down into less than X number of unique tiles.


  • Animation - Animation is similar to art in that there is not really a wrong way to do it. It's just creative. However, I think it could be useful to have a stick figure in the background that shows you where all the limbs should be each frame. Similarly, you can do animations for cutscenes, like try to find the right mouths for lip syncing or telling actors where to stand and where to go along a timeline.


  • Programming - Programming is a bit tricky because you don't want to go full on programming. You don't want to have to teach someone C++ just so they can perform a half dozen tiny tasks. As such, I think using some sort of flowchart programming language for enemy AI, such as the one used in the game "Carnage Heart". You have a list of places the enemy must move and attack and it is up to you to create a proper flow chart which will move the NPC properly. For instance, a guy who is supposed to walk left and right on a platform and then attack the player if he sees them could be represented by two movement goals and a shooting goal that appears at a specific point along with a player trigger.

    Programming doesn't have to just be simple AI, but I think it is probably best to keep programming to a minimum. Not everybody likes to do it. However, if you wanted to take it further, you could actually should snippets of C++ and ask players to highlight the lines with bugs, or fill in the blanks - printf( ????, health, 4 + 3, "howdy");.


  • Level Design - Level design can be accomplished by giving the player the pre-made skeleton of a particular level. The player is tasked with placing decorations and enemies into the level. Setting up actions within the level, like kill these six guys and a door opens, can be created with the linked AND-gates thing that the game Abuse used in its level editor. The player could be given a textual description of how the level should flow, and success can be measured by whether certain objects are in the right places (like an ambush in room 4 when the player picks up the red key). Tasks could start simply, such as filling out a single room, and progress to entire levels as the player gains more responsibility.


  • Writing - I see writing as being similar to art, in that there should be a basic outline, but the player is free to be as creative as they want within that outline. I think you could have, for example, a skeleton dialogue tree with comments about what should be in each node. Even better, have a few lines of dialogue be predone, and the player has to write around it. Perhaps a multiple choice thing where the player can has a choice of five or six different lines and selects the one he likes best. Or an RPG town where you are given a bunch of NPCs and a bunch of sayings, and have to link the proper dialogue to the proper NPC.


  • Producing - This would be the most adventure-like aspect of the game since it would involve talking with your underlings and solving particular tasks for them. For instance, there's no toner in the printer, so you have to walk up to the supply closet, pick one up, and then install it into the printer. Or two programmers are fighting over something stupid (one drank all the Mountain Dew or something) and you have to speak with them and try to calm them down and find a way to peacefully end this. Or a simple dialogue tree as you talk to an employee you are about to fire and must find the easiest way to let him know. Or you are given three potential employees and a set of questions but can only pick which question you ask which employee (like the dating game) and have to pick the best one at the end.



  • Copyright 2007-2014 Sean Howard. All rights reserved.