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Going Grand

Blog posted by Ste Pickford on Thu, 14 Feb 2008
Subject: Magnetic Billiards: Seriously Casual

Ste Pickford

I've not written anything for the blog for a while (apologies to both my dedicated readers), because there's not been much to write about as far as the new project goes. We're coming up to the end of development and we're at the stage where we're tweaking, revising, tidying up and finishing up some of the dozens of little threads which were left hanging earlier in the project.

I think from the outside this stage probably looks pretty exciting - finally broken bits of the game are getting fixed, features promised since the beginning finally work, it all seems to be falling into place. On the inside it's not so exciting, it's more of a slog. Finishing games is always the hardest part.

Because we're the developers, in our imagination the game has looked like it was finished for months now. We've discussed and designed most of the features, and when we play the latest demo we're playing it like the finished game, making tiny allowances in our minds for all the little missing or broken bits. Actually adding and fixing all those missing and broken bits is proper work, but the end result is only to make the game match how it already is in our heads anyway.

So yeah, I've not written about work because I've just had my head down doing fairly unexciting tidying up jobs.

That said, we did have a bit of a breakthrough last week. We started off with so many ideas for the current game that most of the design process has been more about editing, streamlining and simplifying, rather than about inventing new features. We've been mindful of a Miyamoto quote we read recently where he said, "a good idea is one that solves more than one problem," or something along those lines. Quite a few times already we've spotted ways we can simplify the game by combining two features, or using one variable for more than one function, and in almost every case the game feels better, more intuitive and more natural when we do this.

We were determined to copy the excellent 'restart bonus' idea from Jeff Minter's Space Giraffe game, and we had a version of this feature implemented, with some refinement. It made sense, and really improved the game in that you could work on your high score over multiple games, but it always felt slightly awkward. It was something which needed to be explained to the player, something a which a new player might not get, or overlook, or something which could potentially contribute to 'new concept overload' which a lot of supposedly casual games on the likes of Live Arcade suffer from.

We weren't especially looking for a solution to this. We were actually talking about some user interface / level select stuff, and how clearly we were communicating different concepts to the player, when we had a Miyamoto-style good idea; one which not only solved multiple problems, but solved problems we weren't even trying to fix.

I'm not going to go into the fine details here, but basically we swept away a whole chunk of the game structure which (we now understand) was only in there because that's how games have always been, and we were blindly replicating conventions from other games. I'm talking about the traditional coin-op mentality of 'killing' the player, of having 'game over', of playing from the beginning and trying to get further than last time. All concepts that only exist because you're trying to maximise the number of coins the player will feed into the machine, concepts which are unnecessary for a game which the player actually owns, but which have hung around for no good reason other than they are what we're used to.

I think we've gone a step further than the restart bonus, and come up with a system which truly fits in with the philosophy of 'casual gaming'. We've almost eliminated 'game over' entirely, certainly removed the concept of a linear play through from level 1, and perhaps reinvented what a high score is (we've given it a different name, anyway). Like a lot of good ideas, it almost looks like there's no idea there at all. Hopefully it will just work, and the player will barely notice it, in the way they would have noticed the three or four more elaborate features this idea has replaced. Of course, our system has probably been thought of already, and used in some other game, but I can't recall playing anything which calculates your high score in the way we've come up with for our game. The idea came to us naturally, based around solving the problems presented by this particular game, rather than us looking around for ideas to pinch.

There's always the danger that deviating from the norm - from the conventions of previous games - is a big problem in itself. Gamers, particularly casual gamers, want familiarity most of all it seems, and we've been conscious from the beginning of the need not to bombard players with new concepts if we can avoid it, but this idea was too good not to use. I hope it works. I hope people get it, and like it.

Maybe one day some other developer will rip off our idea for a 'Grand Score'...


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