Leading design when you are not the lead designer.

I had the pleasure of speaking at the Game Design Conference in San Francisco last week.  It was my first talk I’ve given as a professional designer.  I’ve been asked for copies of my slides.  I’m providing the slides and the notes here.  I hope those you choose to review them find them helpful.

How to lead design when you’re not the lead designer.



A boy’s escape…

Since its announcement in spring of 2011, I’ve been excited to experience Papo & Yo.  Just from the initial teaser trailer it seemed like something whimsical and unique.  It wasn’t until closer to its release that I became aware of the dark life experience that fueled its inception.  The trauma of Vander Caballero, the project’s creative director, seemed inspire a new idea in the sea of game sequels drowning the industry.  How can one take their childhood trial of their alcoholic father and gamify the experience?  I downloaded the title with hopes of deconstructing the creative process.  Hopefully, I would be able to take away one bit of inspiration or insight I could apply to my own creative methods.

The game is easy to look at.  It doesn’t take place in the future with ray guns and plasma rifles nor does it take place in the forest where dark elves and kobolds roam.  It seems to take place in present day, but a mystical alternate interpretation of favelas, South American shanty towns.  Chalk drawings of gears, handles, windup keys, and ropes provide the central interactions around the world, each peeling away the realistic façade to reveal the blank paper like world beneath.  The composition of the real and the whimsical solidifies the feeling of seeing the world through a child’s vantage point.

The music only served to solidify the playful nature of the game, while flavoring the world with additional South American flavor.  Executed well, the beats did not overpower the experience but only served to accent the mood presented by the game.

Monster had a unique look to him that seemed to border on cuddly and dangerous.  I can assume this is intentional seeing how Monster’s look has transformed from the initial teaser video to the final product.  This much was inferred by Caballero in an interview.  It was interesting to feel the caretaker relationship between both Quico and Monster.  They seemed to need each other although it was obvious the brunt of the tension is grounded in the nature of Monster.

Some of the level design was particularly memorable.  Stacking houses one by one until they towered in sky was extremely empowering.  There was much glee in my heart twisting and tilting the tower to reach previously unattainable areas.

With so much that I liked, there were elements that kept me from truly feeling engaged by game.  You start off the game with very little context.  While this may have been intentional, I found it disorienting and off-putting.  There was no initial purpose to any of my actions other than puzzle solving busy work.  The main story thread seemed widely spread out through the game.  If it were condensed I would have felt a bit more connected to the overall purpose and objectives of the characters.

The navigation of Quico, the main character, seemed too responsive which made him hard to control or snappy in movement.  In contrast, Quico’s jump action had a slight delay.  The animators probably wanted a bit of anticipation in the jump, but it just made the character feel sluggish when jumping.  This is a no-no in platform games.

Later in the game there were some puzzles that utilized the design “rule of 3”.  Pull this lever to drop a box.  Now, do that twice more but with more complicated jumps, and avoiding a raging Monster.  In certain cases this felt forced and served to drag out the experience even more.

As a designer, I believe if one is to tell such an emotional tale with such a short arc, the game should shoot for the length of a movie.  An hour and a half should be sufficient enough to get people on the hook, but not feel as if the experience is dragged out.  While some of the puzzles of the game were clever and fun, others felt like busy work when I really wanted to experience more of the tale being told.  Condensing the experience would go a long way to connecting the player to the narrative.

To be fair, I’ve played this game after playing Journey.  Journey does an exceptional job of keeping the player engaged throughout the entire experience.  By contrasting the two you can see how Papo & Yo can be improved.  Most of that is because just controlling the character is a unifying experience for the player.  There is no moment where you feel disconnected from the character and the story elements are presented throughout the experience.

Overall, the game did a good job of presenting a brief and deliberate window into the auteur’s life.  It was palatable and not overly preachy.  I think it shows one can deal with subject matter other than saving the world from an alien invasion.  Such serious topics can be expressed through games and can use different perspectives, such as a young boy, to tell a story.  If more developers can take personal tales and express them through interactive entertainment, the game industry will take giant steps toward widening market beyond the typical gamer.  Papo & Yo shows the mainstream that not every game has to be some young boy’s escapist power fantasy.

Finding your Way

Just finished playing Way with a friend . It was unnerving with a test of patience. It took all I could muster to not call partner and talk about solutions directly. Just when I though the game was too hard, my buddy was able to help me out. I first saw the game at the IGF and didn’t get a chance to play it. I was happy to have a chance to play at home and truly take in the experience.

Check it out for yourself. You’ll be surprised at how two people can communicate with out talk or written word. Very nicely done.


Experimental Gameplay Project – Offspring

Here is my entry for the August 2011 Experimental Gameplay Project who subject was Offspring.   I have called this entry Survival of the Fittest.

Survival of the Fittest – Wave 4

In this game, the player must shoot square parent objects.  When a parent is destroyed, it spawns for children.  Those children then seek out other parents.  If they reach the parent, they add their attributes to the parent, making it stronger and more dangerous.

There are three types of parents and children, which bear strengths in different attributes:

  • Blue – Increased strength.  Can with stand more shots from the player.
  • Green – Increased speed.  Faster than the other types.
  • Red – Attack ability.  Fires shots at the player.

The concept is based on an idea another designer shared with me.  I put my own twist on it.  All in all full development took about 28 hours of actual work put in over a week’s time.


Download Survival of the Fittest

Survival of the Fittest



Move – WASD
Left Mouse Button – Fire

Tune now…clarity sooner

I continually forget the importance of evaluating your game systems immediately as they come online.  This can save you hours or redirection late in a project.  If you do it early enough everyone wins.  You give feedback on your tools , and you gain a deeper understanding of how to tune your game with the systems you have.

Meanwhile, the people who supplied the tools are still close to the systems.  It will be easier for them to make adjustments to the systems.  Better than asking them to make changes 6 months later when the intricacies of the code are not as clear.

This methodology is typically contrary my natural instincts.  I’d much rather have all the proposed systems online.  Then like a puppet master, I tug and pull at different strings until the game get the feel I’m looking for.  This method is not always best given a short schedule and clients who evaluate every step.

Moving forward it is best to keep the vision and heart of the game always within reach, regardless of the state of the development.

That’s not all we rabbits are good at!

I guess it was only a matter of time.

Guardian Heroes with Randy and Undead HeroTreasure is one of the best in the business.  It’s been awhile since they have done something that intrigues me.  I guess it would stand to reason a remake of one of their BEST games gets me giddy like a schoolgirl.  I’m still waiting for their other masterpiece to show up online.  Back when I was coaching wrestling I’d hold gaming parties.  Guardian Heroes was always a hit.  I just loved hearing the yells of excitement and the groans of loss.  The kids were engaged within a few moments of start.

I remember testing this game.  I remember my colleague doing the translation for the game.  It’s one of the better game translations.  Thinking back on it, who lets testers rewrite game scripts?  Well, that is a testament to the guys who did it.  But still, kinda ballsy.  It worked out well.

Guardian Heroes with Han, Goldie, and Giant PlantWhat is most amazing about Guardian Heroes is how well the gameplay holds up over time.  I challenge anyone to name a multiplayer brawler with the depth Guardian Heroes sports.  Guardian Heroes taught me complete multiplayer balance is silly.  Wild and crazy fun is king.  Giant Plant rules.

I look forward to playing online with the world soon.



The best laid plans…

Life is filled with everything but meaningful progress.  At least it feels that way sometimes.  I’ve been swamped at work and haven’t been able to put in great amount of work into my current prototype.

When we last left off… I had just started my new game idea.  I’ve made some initial progress.   I have the player character’s base abilities in.  Well, like 2 of them.  I have now moved on to making the enemy move around.  That is my new challenge.  What I’ve realized is that I shouldn’t build the enemy from scratch.  I’ve done all this collision and jump magic work for the player character, why would I rewrite that.  So, Plan B…which really should have been Plan A.

Build with modularity in mind.  I’ve heard this before, and but I needed to start it that hard way for it to make sense.  I’m not sure how I can break out my player character code into modules or scripts that can be shared.  That is the next big chunk of work that must happen.  Hopefully I can do that soon.  We’ll see how it goes down.

I got an article from a friend that will help with solidifying my engine architecture.  I have a programming background, but I haven’t really been a programmer.  I’ve been focusing on design more.  This is an attempt to marry both those experiences.  I’m not the strongest in either but hopefully this will strengthen my skills in both areas.

Bugs and Pokemon

Once the curtain is pulled back on game inspiration one can find their mind blown by the truth.  Looking at Pokemon now I can see how insects fueled this amazing property. It solidifies the idea that game designers should not just be avid game players, but also students of life.  We should generate systems from concepts around us.  Not just expand on the game ridden paths of before.  Game inspiration shouldn’t just come from what was done before. We should seek to look outside of previous genres and look at the physical world and history for inspiration.

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