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  • Student Postmortem: Cowboy Cave

    [01.08.08]
    - SCAD Applied Game Design students
  •  Cowboy Cave was a game design project for the Applied Game Design course at Savannah College of Art and Design. The course is designed to accurately simulate a production environment of the video game development industry. The students create their own projects and manage their own teams under the supervision of the professor, who takes the role of executive producer. Students pitch a game idea or a role preference and then vote on their favorite pitches.

    Four projects are then green lighted. The teams are assigned by the professor, and from then on it's the students' show to run.

    Cowboy Cave was the union of two pitches: a narrative concept and a design paradigm. Matt Kohr, concept artist, says of the premise, "Think Diablo, but as a cowboy exploring a cave."

    David McDonough, designer and project lead, brought the design paradigm. His work was derived from a core set of simplified yet abstract objectives, referred to as design kernels, which were used to drive all the game mechanics.

    We (the Cowyboy Cave team) initially decided to use two well-defined avenues of development. First, we chose to work in an established genre: 3D third-person adventure, level-based, with enemies or monsters as the primary obstacles, and survival/escape as the objective. Second, we wanted to use a traditional design method by creating a fully realized, industry-grade design document, with a prototype under consideration for development beyond the course.

    The concept art for Cowboy Cave was done by Matt Kohr, whose portrait
    of the cowboy (left) and original cave concept (lower) are shown.

    What Went Right
    1. Kernel-based design core. McDonough, the project lead, came up with the concept of using a "design kernels" model, which provided a language and common denominator for design decisions. Each kernel represents a simple, low-level, abstract design principle or objective, and its purpose is to function as a watchword when conceiving and testing new gameplay systems.

    A low-level mechanic is built on the kernels themselves, and high-level or complex mechanics are built on low-level mechanics. At every level, the kernels persist and ensure cohesiveness and flexibility of design. With the kernel model at the center of development, our game designers identified several core objectives they wanted to keep at the heart of Cowboy Cave:

    • simplicity
    • speed
    • low-level persistence
    • the rewarding of player individuality
    • tactical character construction.

    The last point was particularly interesting to us. We wanted to incorporate a "crafting" system that let the player imagine and construct either their own embodiment or another entity as the game progressed, to strategically invent and re-invent the character in response to the game obstacles. We weren't doing an RPG with overlapping layers of character construction and advancement, but we wanted to retain the net effect of an RPG through its core mechanic, "player as character designer."

     Our kernels demanded a system that was fast, simple to use, and promoted imagination and tactical thinking. From this impetus, the sidekick character was born. The sidekick character is a robotic companion that the cowboy commands, but which can be built and rebuilt as the player sees fit.

    This concept sketch (by Matt Kohr) shows how the sidekick would be constructed.


    This idea of a configurable sidekick sparked the designers' imaginations and shaped the core of the entire game. We envisioned the sidekick as a companion and counterpart, not a minion. He was to have abilities and advantages the cowboy did not (and vice versa), and the game obstacles and encounters would be designed to encourage cooperation and teamwork, a "balance of power" between the two protagonists. Thus, we defined the core: "Cowboy-sidekick partnership play."

    We then defined the roles of the two characters and the mechanics that would support their complementary nature. The kernels came back into play as we built all the subsequent systems, each designed to support the new core.

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