Bacon and Games

Tag: essay (page 2 of 2)

Tips for Building a Successful Game Clone

Many times in my career as a game developer I’ve heard the phrase, “how tough would it be to build our own version of this game…?”. I’ve found myself in this situation for many different reasons. Sometimes it’s driven by a client’s desire to have their own version of a specific game. Sometimes it’s a choice my company has made in order to deliver something of high quality at a low cost to our client. And sometimes I just can’t help but challenge myself to code something neat I saw or put my spin on a game I’ve grown to love.

Whatever the case may be, it’s not unusual to wind up with the task of emulating or building on the concept of an existing game. This is especially true in the casual games space. If I see one more match 3 game I’m going to swap a bullet for my brain and hope for a big combo bonus. But since there are many reasons (all very different) you might rebuild or rework someone else’s game, I’ll hold my opinions regarding when this is appropriate and just talk about what happens once you’ve arrived at the decision to do so. In the interest of opening up on a positive note, let’s start by talking about some of the advantages.

Advantages of Working from Someone Else’s Game

  • Clients are typically not very good at visualizing a concept. Having a working version of what you’re proposing helps speed the pitch and pre-production process along considerably, which will save you time and money.

    YOU: “It’ll be a lot like this game, but with your characters instead of Mario…”
    CLIENT: “Super. Here’s a small shed filled with twenties. Quit your day job and don’t disappoint me.”
    YOU: “Wow, that was easy.” ;)
  • Having a clear picture of the final product from the start makes it much easier to estimate how long it will take you to program. Original ideas tend to evolve more than clones, because you often don’t know how a game will feel until you play it. Refining a game on the fly costs you money in the form of time. Accurate estimates usually mean higher profit margins.
  • Hopefully the game you’ve chosen to emulate has already proven to be fun, which can make it easier to sell the client on it. And more often than not, clients come to the table with a game they like and want to duplicate or build upon.

    CLIENT: “Have you played this, my kids love it!”
    YOU: “Really, your kids love Turbo Tax for the iPhone. Really? reeeealllly?”
    CLIENT: “As it turns out the closest thing I’ve ever come to playing a game is editing an excel spreadsheet. But let’s go with my game concept anyway. You only live, eat and breathe games. Here’s a dollar. Make me a version of Halo I can play on my watch.”
    YOU: “I’m going to pee in your coffee when you leave the room.”

    Just make sure the game you or your client choses to emulate is within scope and isn’t a piece of garbage.

Disadvantages of Working from Someone Else’s Game
Unfortunately, these advantages come with trade-offs. As I discussed in my article, The Difference Between Tetris and “tetris”, emulating a classic is an uphill battle. If you know the game, it’s likely other gamers will too. That means as soon as they figure out who you borrowed your idea from they’ll start comparing you to the original. If your game doesn’t hold up, you’re in trouble. On top of being compared to your game’s predecessors, you open yourself up to angry users who might take exception to your tampering with a game they know and love. And by opting out of an all-together original idea your game enters the world as a follower rather than a leader or an innovator. The good news is that if you’re smart about it these disadvantages can work in your favor.

Tips that might help your clone, tribute or adaptation to be a success:

  • Play the original. Beat the original. Learn the original top to bottom and then make sure you at the very least get the game mechanics right. People familiar with the original will have expectations, meet them and then some. If you make a Super Mario Bros. clone and don’t give the user a run button your users are going to be pissed, get frustrated and give up on your game.
  • Figure out what frustrates you about the original. This is your opportunity to fine tune some of the things that might have made the original clunky or frustrating. Super Mario Bros. was great, but not all first runs are that well polished and even that game wasn’t perfect. If you’re copying a that didn’t allow you to restart levels as quickly as you wanted to, make sure yours does it better. Improve where there’s room for it, emulate what you loved.
  • Give credit where credit is due. Gamers (and developers) appreciate a nod to the creators. It shows that you’re not trying to pass a concept off as your own, which is endearing and comforting. If you’re making a web game you’ll want to do everything you can to avoid the wrath of angry forum kiddies itching to flame content thieves. Plus it’s just plain respectful to give thanks to those who came before you. Do the right thing :)
  • Gamers are a fun crowd with a sense of humor. If you can be funny and down to earth about the ideas you’re borrowing you’ll find that your game will get a much better reception. Making a game very similar to Super Mario Bros? Have the rescued princess ask you where Mario is and have your hero respond “he’s out on a call, Koopa clogged his toilet…again”. Gamers love references, easter eggs and other quirky inside jokes.
  • If you’re making more than just a clone, have a hook. Make your version unique enough that it feels like its own game. I LOVE orange juice and I like vodka. When I have a screwdriver I usually just end up wishing it was orange juice and move on to a gin and tonic (keep your groans to yourself, Jack and Coke lemmings). If your version is only slightly different than the original, people are going to wish they were playing the original and resent yours. You need to add more than one new piece to your Tetris game in order to make people want to play yours instead of the original. Maybe you let your users rewind the game (a-la Braid) so they don’t have to live with their ill-fated decision to wait for that straight piece. What if the entire board, along with the gravity, could be rotated 90 degress? These kinds of changes maintain the mechanics of Tetris but create opportunities for completely different strategies to emerge.
  • Be smart about who you choose to emulate. It’s probably not a good idea to take on EA Sports’ Madden series. Sometimes choosing a game to emulate also means you’re choosing an opponent. If it ends up that’s what you’re doing, pick a fight you can win or at least survive. If you can’t win, can you benefit from associating yourself with the right competition…which brings me to my next point.
  • Recognize the power of generics. Drug companies know the power of this approach. They know that X number of people will always buy their name brand drugs, even though the cheaper generics are literally the same as the name brand. By selling the Walgreens brand (which is often actually made by the same company that makes the name brand and is then packaged by Walgreens) drug companies accept the fact that making a fraction of their name brand’s retail value on a generic is better than making nothing at all. So what does this have to do with games? Farmville has upwards of 80 million active monthly users. If you create a Farmville clone and expect to earn the same numbers, you’re probably setting yourself up for failure. Whether your game is better or not you’re starting 80 million users behind (is an iPod really that much better than other mp3 players?…maybe but their head start has served Apple pretty darn well.) If you instead create a Farmville clone with the expectation that you’ll get a 10% runoff from them, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the still impressive revenue you can earn on 8 million active monthly users. The question then becomes not, “how can I do exactly what Farmville does so I can have 80 million active monthly users?” rather, “what generic version of Farmville can I offer that appeals to people who aren’t ready for Farmville but might be interested in my game/app.” (This of course assumes that you’re not trying to be better than Farmville, which is most admirable approach, but that isn’t the subject of this article) There’s nothing wrong with creating a game that feels like a widely successful game with the intention of taping into the gaming market equivalent of “swing voters”.

Certainly I’m not suggesting that it’s a good idea to go out and poach other people’s ideas. But from time to time, for whatever reason, this becomes our reality. Whether it’s our own idea, our boss’s idea or the client’s you might find yourself in that situation. When you do it’s worth your time to think about how you can use it to your advantage and what things you can do to help make it a success.

I suppose in a lot of ways this article strays from the spirit of this site, which is about making great games. Much of what’s in this article touches on the business/marketing side of making games, which isn’t really what the site is supposed to be about. As much as I’d love to just hole myself up in a room somewhere and just make great games, that isn’t always the reality of my job, though some of it is and I’m thankful for that. Regardless, repurposing games and emulating successes has been a hot subject lately so I thought I’d put some of my thoughts in writing. It’s certainly more relevant than an AT-AT made out of bacon ;)

UPDATE – 4.30.2010 – For a perfect example of someone rebuilding a game as a learning experience, read this interview with Jay Pavlina about Super Mario Crossover or my article about what makes Super Mario Crossover so impressive.

Developing a Visual Vocabulary for Your Game

Unless you’re making a game like Obey, you don’t want your game to be difficult because it’s confusing. You’ve probably got masterful level design, ingenious AI and all sorts of other neat stuff to throw at the hero. These are the things you’ll use to challenge your audience. People new to your game will be learning and trying to master your control scheme, memorizing the rules of the world you’ve created and are likely trying to keep track of as well as predict what your levels have in store for them. They’ve got enough going on, the rest of your game’s stuff should be as simple and intuitive as possible.

A great opportunity for this is in the imagery you choose for your game, particularly when it comes to collectibles, powerups, obstacles and enemies. The last thing you need is for your gamers to be pausing to recall if the balloon was good or bad. Or worse still, having them pick up the sexy ball of energy that looks like it will transform them into a god only to find themselves a bloody stain on the ground where they once stood. It’s one thing for a gamer to die at the hands of a well designed level. It’s an entirely different thing for them to die just because they couldn’t remember which things were helpful and which were dangerous.

An easy way to illustrate this point is to take a look at 2 common types of game objects: powerups and obstacles. In the most general terms, powerups have a positive effect on the hero and should be collected, obstacles have a negative effect and should be avoided. These are objects taken from 2 different games. See if you can tell the powerups from the obstacles.

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How many did you get right? If you got them all I guess you can stop reading, but I suspect you didn’t.

How do you solve this problem? There are a couple of approaches. The most basic approach is to use objects in your game that are consistent with our model of reality. Hearts, stars, rainbows (hungry for Lucky Charms yet?), coins, gems, shoes, food and generally sparkly or glowing items look friendly and make for good powerups. Spikes, fire, rabid animals, lava and ticking bombs all scream “stay away”. Certainly you can be creative with your art, but if you ground your game imagery in a bit of reality you will save your gamers from the burden of memorizing a new set of associations. They’re free to immerse themselves in your game because the “ooh I want that” and “yikes I better avoid that” moments in your game become reactions rather than decisions. And really, the fun and challenge usually isn’t in remembering what to avoid or collect, it’s in skillfully navigating to or around those objects.

If I asked you to remember these 5 names, Zack, Jennifer, Oscar, Jamie and Clark and then 2 months later asked you what the names were, you would probably have no idea. However if I asked you to remember Bart, Maggie, Marge, Lisa and Homer you would probably remember because I’ve connected the list to an existing mental model. Get it?

“But Sean, what if I want to create a game about far off worlds that have nothing to do with our reality?” No big deal, I’m not an unreasonable man. Besides designing your imaginary powerups and obstacles using elements of real-world imagery (space mines with spikes or energy pills with a soothing sparkle-glow) you can use subtle color schemes to group objects into similar types. For instance greens and blues are typically friendly colors while reds and purples are considered more “angry”. By using these colors (or whatever scheme you choose, so long as you’re consistent) your users will quickly learn that all red objects are bad and the green ones are good. Consider this new scheme for the objects from before:

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Granted these aren’t the nicest looking objects and in some cases changing the color just isn’t an option (such as the ice ball that’s now red an no longer looks like ice). It’s not my execution of this technique that’s important it’s the power of the approach. The above is just a cursory attempt at illustrating how color can suggest a theme that your users will pick up on. Certainly when you’re designing your objects you can inject color themes into them in a much more subtle and stylized manor. The Gears of War team used soft blue highlights to mark all the good guys, teammates who otherwise bore a striking resemblance to the goons you were frantically trying to blast. Mirror’s Edge, a game of agility and timing marked all the interactive walls, railings and other points of interest with bright colors that stood out against the game’s bland, meaningless background. EA recognized that the game wasn’t about hunting for the points of interest, it was about timing your interactions with them.

I don’t mean to suggest that game designers should dumb their games down or that we need to agree on green powerups across the board. Variety is good and inventiveness breeds new and exciting games. As game designers we strive to challenge our audience, but we want those challenges to come from the sum of its parts rather than the ambiguity of any individual ingredient. Whether you choose to piggyback on existing mental models or opt for using subtle color cues, it’s important to develop a visual vocabulary that will help gamers remember the rules of the world you’ve created. When walking down the street, we don’t have to stop and choose not to step in front of an approaching bus. We don’t even really acknowledge that choice. It just happens while we stay focused on the conversation we’re having and the nice weather we’re enjoying on our walk. If you can create the same level of obviousness in your game; “that fire is bad” or “that heart is good”, than your gamers are free to spend more time thinking about how they want to move through your game (the challenge) and less or no time thinking about what the objects in your game represent (the frustration).

The Difference Between Tetris and “tetris”

TetrisIt’s been over 25 years since Alexey Pazhitnov unleashed Tetris on the world. In that time, several million new games have been thrown into the mix. So why am I still playing Tetris? The obvious explanation: Tetris is a fantastic game. Well duh, but why? If you answered: ”the concept for Tetris is damn good” again I say duh, except that you’re only partially right. It takes a lot more than a good idea to make a great game.

To Illustrate this point I want you to think about all the Tetris clones you’ve ever played and how few of them, if any, are as much fun as the original. I think it’s safe to say that most of them don’t even come close and almost all of them feel at least a little bit off, even if it’s not obvious what’s missing or different. The rules of Tetris are simple, well known and it’s not terribly hard to get your hands on a copy. Over 30 million copies of Tetris were sold for the original Gameboy alone, which is to say nothing of the NES versions and arcade cabinets still in use today. So how can it be that a game so ubiquitous, so simple, so well known and already proven to be such a phenomenal hit be so difficult to copy? Simple. It takes a lot more than just a good idea to make a great game.

If you were asked to list the rules that govern the way Tetris behaves, you might come up with something like this:

  • There are 7 different blocks that fall randomly from the top of the screen into the play area, one at a time. You would of course have to somehow detail each of the 7 shapes and describe the play area.
  • The player tries to arrange these blocks into contiguous lines stretching the width of the play area. Upon doing so, this line is removed and the blocks above shift downward.
  • The user may rotate and move the blocks left or right as the block descends in order to position it as desired.
  • As the game progresses, blocks spawn and descend more quickly. As blocks drop, they drop in increments equal to the size of the squares that make up each block. i.e. the blocks are confined to a grid.
  • When the blocks pile up such that they extend above the play area the game is over. The goal is to last as long as possible.

In a nutshell, that’s the overarching concept behind Tetris. They are the rules that explain the way the game behaves, what the player does, what the goal is and how a game comes to an end. They are the rules we all know off the top of our head and could probably articulate if asked to. What makes the original stand out from its clones are the touches Pazhitnov applied to the game as he designed it. These are the things that you might have sensed were missing or different in the clones but just couldn’t put your finger on.

Here are some of the rules that fall just outside the general concept of the game. How many of these can you answer without going back to play the game?

  • Can a block be rotated when it’s up against the wall of the play area?
  • When a part of a block is removed and the remaining square is above a gap, does it fall until it hits another block? Does it fall by only the number of rows that were removed? Does it fall at all?
  • Does the block rotate when you pressed the button or when you released it?
  • After a row is removed, is there a pause before the blocks above drop into place? How long? Do the blocks above drop all the way down or do they drop one row at a time until they’ve moved as many rows as were removed?
  • Around what square of each block does the block rotate?
  • Does the music speed up as the game gets faster? Does the music change when the game ends? Are there sound effects when a block is rotated, dropped or spawned? Is the Tetris theme music playing in your head yet ;)
  • How many more points is a Tetris worth (clearing 4 rows at a time) compared to clearing 1 or 2 or 3? Is the difference linear or exponential?

It’s likely someone cloning Tetris would miss these points, because they’re not part of the core rules of the game. They’re the supporting cast yet they can make all the difference in the world. Regardless, if a programmer cloning Tetris did think to ask these questions, he or she could play the game and get a concrete answer to each. However, some of the most important details can’t be extracted just by playing the original:

  • How long after a block has touched down can it still be rotated or moved?
  • At what speed can you no longer slide a block horizontally into an opening?
  • By how much does the speed increase each level?
  • Are the blocks generated completely at random or are they chosen based on previous blocks chosen, a weighting system or even what the player might be waiting for? (how many times have you been dying for a straight piece and never gotten it?)

These lists are incomplete, but they ought to be enough to illustrate my point, which is not to say that Tetris cannot be copied. Of course it can, any game can if you’re willing to spend enough time testing and tuning. I’m also not interested in the reasons behind why so many Tetris clone programmers couldn’t make the grade; lazy, rushed, low budget, first time programmer, bad eye for detail, whatever…the reasons are of no consequence. What’s important to note is that Tetris is an extremely well known game with a simple set of rules that isn’t much of a technical challenge to program, yet so many of its clones just don’t cut it. Why do you think this is so?

The answer is simple. It takes a lot more than just a good idea to make a great game. Is it sinking in yet? When it comes to game design, the final product is very much the sum of its parts, which include but are not limited to concept AND art, sound design, interface, difficulty, originality, learning curve, proper tuning and those extra touches. Without getting too analogous, a game, like a house needs a solid foundation. But in order to be a great house it will also need sturdy walls, furniture, nice carpeting, hopefully a tv the size of a small country, maybe a snappy doorbell ring and with any luck a sexy wife with a penchant for cleaning in the nude…but I digress. The point is, even with a solid concept every game walks a fine line between flop and phenomenon. Most of the Tetris clones out there follow all of the concept’s rules but miss just enough from the other lists that they feel dull. You don’t have to stray very far from Tetris before it becomes “tetris”.

But it’s easy to compare a classic to its clones and see where one succeeded and the other failed. How do you identify these key elements before you send your game out into the world? Are there blanket rules that can be applied to all games in order to make them better? What kinds of questions can I ask about my games in order to identify the important details that will transform my good concept into a great game? How do I know when my concept is good or my game is great? Which of our contemporary games have gotten it right and why? These questions are just a very small sliver of the things I’d like to tackle here at Bacon and Games. Thank you for taking the time to read this.

I play games. I make games. I love games. And I really love bacon.

– Sean

P.S. Yes I know that versions of Tetris existed before Nintendo came along, but let’s not kid ourselves about who put the game on the map. For the purpose of this discussion it makes the most sense to treat the version the vast majority of the world is familiar with as the original.

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