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Galaxians – in search of Space Monsters

Bubble Bust and HTML5 mobile casual gaming thoughts

I’ve been thinking a lot about some casual game ideas just lately.

In my notebook under future reference / potential game ideas I have so many things jotted down. Games such as:

  • Beach Head
  • Ballblazer
  • Bomb Jack
  • Jet Set Willy
  • Joust
  • Encounter!
  • Zork

…the list is about 20 long !
Zork obviously stands out here since it is a pure text adventure game. I actually wrote quite a bit of a JavaScript adventure engine a few years back. With minimal tweaking I reckon I could craft it in to a fairly useful mobile web game.

Bubble Bust ! screenshotBubble Bust!

But the point here is that regardless of this list the games that I’ve been playing a heck of a lot just lately are bubble popping affairs. Games such as Bubble Bust ! (above)
I’ve always resisted these games. Figured they were just mundane and far too repetitive for my tastes.
I was wrong. The challenges are clear and tough enough to keep me coming back for more on a pretty regular basis.

I’m a huge fan of any game that contains a strong core theme and with clever design presents numerous ways to challenge you around it.

For example, in Galaxians we shoot aliens. We also have to shoot them as they dive. Galaga expands on this and forces us to time our shots when the captured fighter is being flown around.

Bubble Bust! plays with its core design beautifully. Essentially we are in the business of matching colours (3 or more in contact pops the bubbles) but of course it doesn’t end there. Different bubbles presented to the player have different abilities. Bombs destroy bubbles in a small area. Rainbow bubbles can be used as a generic colour. Steel balls tear through bubbles destroying everything in their path. So on and so forth.

At its heart Bubble Bust! is a race against the clock.
As the bubble pack descends you have less time to think about your next move. The game ends when you either fail to clear the bottom most bubble before it crosses the line or when you pop the “key” bubble.

The pace of the game is high and for a casual game it’s perfect.

I know there’s a glut of games in this genre but of the ones I’ve played this one captures the excitement best.

So now I’m thinking about the whole “lots of decisions in a short amount of time” scenario and trying to apply it to some ideas of my own. Soccer, Horse Racing, Bingo … those types of things.

What’s more I want to try and honour the idea that if you fail you’re left with a sense of “with one more go I can crack it”. To achieve that I need to make the process of actually playing the game equal parts fun and rewarding.

It’s a new direction for me. To date I’ve pretty much made shooters in some guise or another. With my next project I’ll most likely be stood outside of my comfort zone !

 

Game Design Theory – Goals, Consistency and Controls

I love this article on Game Design Theory written several years ago for the book Atari Graphics and Arcade Game Design. Everything about it I find compelling and valuable in terms of considering the player and his requirements as a gamer. It goes in to detail about the benefits of well defined and above all fun challenges. It even touches on the player’s ego and its relevance to the broader game experience.

Naturally it was written at a time when arcades were king and home computing was still very much on the back foot. In fact the whole point of the article is how we as designers can capture the thrills of the arcade for the home gaming audience. It really is a perfect chapter for someone like me with a retro fascination in arcade gaming and a future that is very much about designing arcade thrills for mobile phones.

I’ve written about this several times before but I do believe there is a link between designing for the arcades of 25 – 30 years ago and designing for today’s casual mobile experience.
So let me pull just a couple of sections out of the article and try to make sense of them.

For a game to be considered challenging, it should have a goal where the outcome is uncertain. If the player is certain to reach the goal or certain not to reach it, the game is unlikely to present a challenge, and the player will lose interest. It is very easy to introduce randomness into the game either by hiding important information or by introducing random variables that draw the player toward disaster. Be careful not to overdo this, since a totally random game lacks a skill factor. Players quickly discover that they have no control over the outcome.

How many times have you played a game and quickly lost interest because you are just not challenged ? I see evidence of this quite a lot and have myself fallen foul of it. ( My Dragons game needs a better challenge, for example. It’s something that I aim to address at some point. )
The point about randomness is of course totally valid. As designers we probably rely on the randomisation of events a little too much.

A clear structure to your game with a well defined but out of reach goal is a great starting point for any design. Look at PacMan as an example. A maze full of dots and an animated mouth is a very clear instruction to the player of what she should achieve but is still quite clearly a) a big task and b) tricky.

 

pacman

Pac-Man

One of the more important design elements in any game is a logical set of rules. The rules can be extremely simple or utterly complex, but they must make sense. Since the game must follow its theme, any rules or variations should stem directly from that theme. It is pointless to throw in game elements that simply don’t belong just because you think that confusing the player would make the game more difficult. For instance, Donkey Kong, one of the best jumping, climbing arcade games, doesn’t require the player to shoot everything in sight, just avoid obstacles to reach the goal. Similarly, a tough, shoot-’em-up game like Galaxian keeps its fluid alien attack uncluttered by distracting game elements.

 

Donkey Kong

Donkey Kong

I suppose this is straight forward.
Whatever you define as your challenge for the player to overcome it should make logical sense. You really cannot afford to switch the rules of controlling the game, for example, just to add complexity. It doesn’t do that at all it just confuses and irritates the player.I have myself learned this lesson the hard way.
That said a game’s design that I was always proud of was Wizard Wars. It was consistent in its execution and extremely simple to pick up. Just tap the screen to move the Wizard and collect the shiny things whilst avoiding the nasty things.

The ideal arcade game should foster the illusion of winnability at all levels of play. One important factor is a clean and simple game design. Too much detail or too many rules may intimidate the player. If a player believes that his failure was caused by a flaw in an overly complex game or by the controls, he will consider the game unfair and quit. On the other hand, if a player perceives failure to be attributed to correctable errors on his part, then he believes the game to be winnable and will play repeatedly to master the game. It’s as if the player teases himself to play one more time.

In modern gaming this is epitomised by the game Angry Birds. Love it or hate it it is an immediately accessible game and one that we all feel that we can conquer with just one more “go”.  I mean what could be more simple than pulling the elastic on a catapult and aiming your bird to arc its way in to a fragile structure.

 

Angry Birds screenshot

Angry Birds

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that the controls are so simple that the player won’t ever attribute his failure to a problem with complex controls he will always assume that his aim or power was incorrect. Ludicrously simple to learn and yet extremely difficult to master. At least in one sitting.

These are just three of the numerous things that jumped out at me from the chapter.
There is a lot to take in within the chapter and I implore anyone with an interest in arcade game design to study it.

So what have I learned ? Here is just a short summary.

  • Define your goals well and make sure they are clearly visible to the player. Consider Pac-Man and how visible and obvious its challenges and goals are.
  • Be consistent. Be logical. Again consider Pac-Man and its very obvious and visible rules and restrictions. There can be no confusion. Your avatar is a chomping mouth. The maze is littered with dots to eat. The ghosts are coming for you. Surely that’s not fair ? What do the flashing dots do … ?
  • Make your controls simple and fool proof such that the player won’t ever confuse them with his inability to conquer the challenge. Consider Angry Birds. Simplicity is key. I’m sure there is further scope for analysing the balance between minimal input from the player in return for maximum chaos on the screen. A truly masterful game experience.

I really don’t wish to sound like someone who is obsessed with a formulaic approach to something that should be really quite natural. But I do believe that as designers we do well to learn from the experiences of the masters of arcade game design. These guys had nothing compared to modern gaming environments. Sometimes having very little forces some great innovation.

Galactians 2 – a new HTML5 arcade game with aliens that “splat”

It’s really quite simple – I always wanted to make a game where the aliens come diving at you and you pump some lasers at them such that they “splat” in glorious fashion all over the screen.

So that’s what I did and since it takes its lead from my Galactians game I call it Galactians 2.

The premise is very retro and very simple. It’s also fast becoming my signature style of game. Aliens line up in rows above you and you sit beneath them with a ship / tank of some kind blasting them all to kingdom come.
I should add that when writing down a high concept for this game I considered the following 3 things: Galaxians, Starship Troopers and the classic 8-bit Defender clone Dropzone.
Galaxians for its format, Starship Troopers for its relentless bug invasion and super splatting and finally Dropzone for its visual style.

Here’s how it currently looks.

Galactians 2

Galactians 2

To create the moonbase I took a long look at Dropzone and got a feel for how the developer used just 3 or 4 colours to create the effect. It’s far from finished but let me tell you there’s quite a thrill for an aging Atari nerd such as myself to have Photoshop and Wacom open in one window and an Atari emulator running the aforementioned game in another.

I would quite like to blog the creation of the moonbase at some point in the future. I haven’t kept each stage of the drawing on file but I could probably get around that by starting a new, smaller graphic and employing the same principles.

It’s a real thrill to be making good old arcade games again. I know I’m not always very adventurous with my games but who cares. It’s great fun :-)

Incidentally the game will work on desktop and mobile. Depending on how you start the game (mouse click, fire button, touch screen) determines how the game is controlled.
Naturally iPhone 4 users will struggle since it’s Apple’s decision not to currently give their paying customers any flexibility with browser / JavaScript applications. Let’s hope that the new OS due any day now goes some way to addressing this.

 

The aliens are coming ! Man your starfighters…

Galactians screenshot Galactians screenshot

Galactians is a game I’ve wanted to make since I was 9 years old.
I’m so pleased with it. It’s arcade short in terms of time, has a solid challenge and is (I think) a lot of fun.
My high score is woeful – I still can’t get to a million. But I’m going to keep trying !

It’s probably the game that I always wanted HyperGunner to be in all honesty. The trouble with HyperGunner was that I just didn’t know when to stop. With Galactians I knew exactly where to stop. It was to be a game like the Galaxians that I grew up with and to that end I’m very happy with it.

Anyway you can find the link down the side and in the games page. Give it a blast and let me know your high score :-)

Galactians – a new mobile HTML5-based game in development

As a kid growing up in the 1970’s the world of video arcade gaming gripped me in a way that I’ve never forgotten. I devoured Space Invaders and everything like it.

Galactians

Galactians - screenshot

I remember where I was the first time I ever saw Pac-Man (a game that I really disliked) – on holiday in Newquay, Cornwall Summer 1981 – I also remember where I was the first time I saw Space Invaders, Scramble and Defender. But the game that really did it for me was Galaxians.
I’ve blogged on this topic before (http://rebelfive.wordpress.com/2010/11/26/how-galaxians-changed-my-life/) but it’s only now that I’ve managed to get off my behind and create what will become my homage to that great Namco game.

Whilst I piece together the various parts that will become Area51 I decided to take some time out to create what I now call Galactians. The premise is simple. You sit at the base of the screen and are faced with a few rows of bobbing alien insectalikes. Every once in a while they swoop off down the screen littering the place with bombs in an attempt to destroy you. Some have an intriguing kamikaze style approach to achieving this.
The player has his star fighter that spits out 3 or 4 shots in quick succession. The closer the diving alien bug is to you when you destroy it the greater the rewards.

There’s no fancy trigonometry or parabolics in this. It’s just not required. It’s just a case of modding the alien x co-ordinate in order to give a satisfying and graceful descent. Quite often, as with the original Galaxians, there is a very uncomfortable feeling of being cornered or trapped. This I like. Fortune favours the brave as they say but occassionally you pay the price for your bravery.

I still have a bit to do with the game but it’s pretty much there in terms of providing a quick challenge to the player – perhaps a bus rides worth or even a bathroom visit ! I don’t want to make it complicated. These 30 years old arcade gems were never complicated.

As soon as I have a complete game I’ll share the link through my mobile arcade game portal at m.spacemonsters.co.uk.

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