It’s time for a second bout of game design discussion, this time focusing on the design (and finally, visuals!) of Heidegger.
It’s not a big project, but it is many things: a road test for our technology and the first prototype of a way more ambitious project, but first and foremost it’s a game about herding. The basic form of the system is that enemies respond to the avatar’s movement in a predictable fashion. That’s the premise, the game at its vaguest conceptual level. It only turns into a game once the system grows more granular, more specific.
The player can influence the movement of the herd, but to what end? Mastery of the herd’s behaviour must lead to something, must be exploitable. Let’s add bombs. Lead a swarm of enemies towards a bomb then blow it up to wipe them all out and earn points. That adds direction to the system: Enemies are herded so they can be blown up. Since they spawn from all angles, they form a mutable element of the game space, something predictable yet plastic that forces manoeuvring and constantly threatens to end the player’s efforts.
Since the player can be cornered, he (I’ll be nice and use “she” in my next piece) needs to be capable of more than just movement to avoid the frustration of unavoidable defeat whenever surrounded or cornered. The avatar is given a weapon, but not one powerful enough to discourage herding and turn the game into a pure shooter, and the player is not awarded any points for shooting enemies. Instead, to avoid negative reinforcement, the player is awarded with an increased score multiplier. Shooting enemies rather than herding them towards bombs take away direct reward and substitute it with future, potential and compound reward – like putting money in the bank (or so banks would have you believe).
The system is taking ludic form. We have encouraged certain types of behaviour, and allowed certain others but at the cost of immediate reward to avoid de-emphasizing the core of the system. It is now a game, but there is still plenty of room for elaboration and granularity, for exploring, focusing and deepening the herding system.
Enemies could exhibit different responses to incoming weapon fire, move at different speeds and in different patterns – each of the existing mechanics give rise to more. Some enemies could dodge attacks; others could split in two and flank the avatar. There could be several avatars with different weaponry and movement, each demanding different responses to enemy behaviour. The multiplier is still underdeveloped, more of a band aid on the thematic contradiction of shooting enemies than a real mechanic. Could it be tied back into the herding, strengthening the concept rather than uncomfortably correcting one of its flaws? Of course, a path-finding algorithm could be employed to ensure escape routes from any situation, but that could cheapen the player’s effort and skill.
Skilful herding could also add to the multiplier, making it part of the essential risk/reward loop and adding further substance to it. Playing with the herd, escaping it at the last second – letting it encroach and then barely scraping by with pixels to spare, could increase the multiplier even more than shooting. By herding well rather than thinning the flock when it grows unruly, the player is rewarded for acting according to the thematic premise of the game.
That’s the aim of granularity, to strengthen and focus the system rather than simply expanding it. Variation is built into the system, not around it. This is what I see as systemic aesthetic, epitomizing the potential of a concept rather than widening it, and there are even more nooks and crannies that can be filled with meaning.
At the moment, the bomb is almost arbitrary, arguably the crux of the system but also external to the effort of herding. Say bombs spawn at set times, indicated by a countdown, to give the player a certainty about how much he has to exert himself before reaping the reward, allowing strategy on top of the tactics. Then, when the bomb has spawned, a second countdown starts – slightly longer than the first one.
Suddenly the player is tempted to exert himself further since another bomb will appear after another known period of time. Can the player cope with the enemies that are certain to spawn in that duration, or is it foolish overreaching? It’s tempting to continue since the reward will be greater and while navigating the swarms of enemies is risky, that translates into even greater opportunity for building multiplier. The complexity is self-reinforcing and as the system folds in on itself, stronger emotions are elicited – a stronger aesthetic emerges.
The second bomb appears, yet another timer starts ticking down. The neon numbers pulsate as the background slowly changes colour; this is the final one. All the mechanics encourage herding and building skills related to it; all are contained within the initial conceptual space. The herd grows enormous, little safe space remains; dodging, scraping and directing the swarm takes all the player’s cunning and skill … before the third bomb finally spawns.
No more countdowns, just more and more enemies spawning at breakneck speed. Steer them towards the bombs; try to get the bombs close to each other so they will all detonate in a destructive daisy-chain, aaaaaaaaand BOOM, the bombs go off and the herd evaporates as fireworks cover the screen, the points are multiplied by a gazillion and the granularity coalesces into a moment of breath-taking reward: Beauty.
This is the second part of a discussion of game design and aesthetics. The first part can be found here.