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  • Minimal Risk Designs: How to Design a Game When You Don't Have the Time

    - Brent Ellison

  • Other Examples of Guaranteed Fun

    So whatever you do, you will need to choose game mechanics that work and delight from the moment they're implemented. Obviously there are too many factors for any gameplay to be a truly "guaranteed" hit (you're rarely going to get by with sub-standard implementation), but here are some examples of mechanics that have a great track record while requiring relatively little balancing or tweaking:

    Swarms of Enemies: As in the above example, this is a great way to immediately create a fun and frenzied game. If you're making a 2D game, it's especially easy to throw hundreds of enemies at players at once without affecting performance.

    Geometry Wars - Screen full of enemies = fun.

    Super Powers: Again, as seen above, this is a great way to give that "big" feeling relatively cheaply. Don't have your character throw rocks at enemies; throw trucks instead. If other games let you jump 5 feet in the air, your game should let you jump 100 feet.

    Platforming: Although this mechanic is almost as old as video games themselves, it has recently become a template on which to deconstruct the entire medium. If your goals are to explore interactive narratives or showcase your art, platforming is a great mechanic to build off of that is naturally fun. It's also an excellent jumping-off point for experimenting with other, more unusual gameplay elements (see Braid, Don't Look Back, and countless other indie examples).

    Arcade-Style Progression: High difficulty can be a great motivating tool for certain types of players, and the play-until-you-die approach of old-school arcade games guarantees a challenge for all as players of different skill levels set goals for themselves. This takes some of the balancing duties off your hands, but it's still important to make sure that players experience the core of what your game has to offer before it gets too hard. Luckily, you don't have to be subtle about it; just pick a tipping point at which the game should start getting difficult and let the challenge increase from there.

    No Middle or End Required: Another advantage of an arcade-style game is that they easily do away with expectations of a traditional narrative structure. Any time you try to tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end (especially an explicit one with text and/or voice acting), there's a good chance that one of those sections is going to get cut, or implemented only weakly. For minimal risk, you should focus resources on highlighting your game mechanics instead of the narrative. The "premise" should be fun enough to be the whole.

    Player Creativity: Any mechanic where players feel like they're actually creating something usually has instant appeal, even when it's something as simple as Line Rider. Giving players tools to play with rather than just a couple of levels to blow through also automatically increases depth and extends the life of the game as players create gameplay for themselves.

    Visceral Theme: Not a mechanic per se but a dressing for one, having an impactful and satisfying theme behind the gameplay can add to a game's fun factor immensely.'s games do this to great effect, re-engineering old game mechanics with new and amusing motifs. One way to pick a successful theme is to make sure that the results of a player's interactions are physical and immediate rather than abstract.

    Violence is the most common example, and virtually guarantees this: even a match-3 game could be made about punching people in the face, and it would be more memorable and fun than matching geometric shapes. But there's more to physicality than just violence, of course. Zuma seems like a very abstract concept, but they made it very clear that it's a game about shooting weighty little balls at each other, and that visceral quality adds to the fun. When it comes to implementation, sound is key here, to the point where it's almost worth making sure you have the right audio files before settling on your design.

    Zuma - Surprisingly visceral.


    Keep in mind that this is only one method of development, tailored specifically to reduce risk in a short development cycle where polish is a luxury. Dedicated teams with plenty of time at their disposal can afford to play with their game balance, subtlety, and deep mechanics. But it's nearly impossible to get accurate time estimates from inexperienced developers -- proper game project management is an art form that takes years of experience to develop.

    On indie and student games it's very unlikely that you'll have someone with that sort of skill set at your disposal (at least not managing you day to day). Immediately fun, basic mechanics ensure that you'll have something to be proud of at the end of development, and may even give you the flexibility to consider a proper polishing phase.

    Of course, there are countless other mechanics out there that can be fun without a lot of polish necessary, and you should innovate whenever possible rather than picking your gameplay from a list of known successes. In fact, depending on your goals, it's quite risky not to innovate if you want your little game to stand out. But when you have a design in mind, you should compare it to mechanics like these and see if it holds up in terms being easy to implement and immediately entertaining. Happy developing!


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