I recently acquired a shiny new Android phone. Over the Christmas holidays I spent a lot of time in airport lounges, so I decided to dive into a few little games from the Android Marketplace. One of them was Game Dev Story, a game available for Android and Apple phones. I had heard a fair bit of buzz about this game through the gaming blogs I read, but hadn’t had a chance to try it out. Not long after I started, I declared the game “clocked“. Nevertheless, it got me thinking about game design, especially with regards to mobile devices. As a very late Christmas present, I’ve wrapped those thoughts up for you and presented them here :)

The Game

Game Dev Story is about (surprise, surprise) running a game company. You design games and throw them out into the public, hoping to win acclaim and have large trucks full of money dump their cargo on your front step. Through and through, Game Dev Story is an RPG. Your employees each have attributes, levels and classes (ahem, employment categories). The games you design have a variety of attributes that you try to boost as high as possible before they are published. And like all RPGs, bigger numbers are always better.

Game Dev Story also exists in that smaller subgenre of “treadmill RPGs”. You have an endless quest of producing better and better games, making more money and getting more acclaim. Once one game is finished, you have little else to do except design the next game. Special things happen when you create extremely popular games, but more or less, the game is about churning out games. I expected more of a Life RPG like The Sims or the Princess Maker series – a game where you worry about the company and its employees more than what they produce, although you want them to be successful. And that’s fine, but we’ll see how they go with it.

Creating Games

Planning a new game in Game Dev Story is easy: you choose a system you want to develop on (from a list of clever riffs on real game systems), a genre you know about (eg, simulation, RPG, Action, Adventure), a type (closer to a “theme” – fantasy, romance, pirate, comedy, ogre…) and a direction (distinct tradeoffs between speed, quality and budget). You can’t develop games for multiple platforms simultaneously, and you need to buy licenses for each system you want to develop on. Once you’ve done all this, development starts with a proposal from your writing staff. Over time you hit alpha and beta stages and you have to assign someone to graphic design and sound design. Development time ticks along steadily and while your employees work, they contribute units of fun, creativity, graphics, sound or bugs to the game. By the end of development your game will have a certain number of units of each, and this measures how “fun” the game is. Once you hit testing, everyone is devoted to squashing bugs. Each squashed bug turns into a point of research, which are also accumulated randomly but can be carried over through the game.

Every so often your employees will be on fire (literally!) and produce a huge amount of points in some direction. You can buy manuals to give an employee an artificial boost in some direction. Finally, an employee can ask to try out some new idea to improve the game, which acts like an artificial boost but there’s a fail chance (depending on their skills and how much research you let them consume). This boost can often be much more substantial than artificial boosts.

The Black Box

Game Dev Story takes the time-honoured approach of saying that characters’ attributes indicate how good they are in some area, but there’s a component of randomness you can’t control. This works excellently in the general development – your power employees tend to produce much more than your weaker ones. Where this goes awry is in the boosts.

I pushed a lot of games over the line by a series of artificial boosts. There was unfortunately a bit of voodoo to it – my head coder could somewhat reliably produce 22 fun under a boost, but the producers, hackers and writers who had equal or better skills could barely make 6 fun under the same boost. It was not contingent on how much energy they had or anything else I could see or measure. Training my coder up didn’t appreciably increase his fun boosts. Sometimes he’d bomb out and I had no better indicator than “perhaps the RNG was mean to me”.

By the time I was consistently churning out #1 hits, I knew the end-game cycle of boosts I had to give. Some of them were counter-intuitive (my writer with little graphics ability was the one to boost graphics), but I had a system down. The fact I could do this consistently meant there was something going on that I had little to no visibility of. Given the characters have four attributes (coding, writing, graphics and sound) and there are four components to a game (fun, creativity, graphics and sound), you’d assume there’d be a 1-1 mapping going on. Not so. I had a Hacker with great abilities across the board, but could only be relied upon to do sound design.

The take-away thought I got from this is that regardless of your underlying game mechanics, you should be able to signal what’s going on in a consistent way. If there was a 1-1 match between attributes an game components, make sure that is obvious and consistent. If there isn’t, don’t mislead your players by accidental coincidences like having attributes having the same name or indicative connections.

Coherency

Game mechanics need to have a coherency. By this I mean when a game reports to you something from the game world, that should consistently apply to the rest of the game world. As an example, I had decided to go crazy and get my game company to create all sorts of new types (after mining the rich vein of Fantasy RPGs and Adventure games) . I decided on a “Detective Table” game. To be frank, it took me ages to figure out what a table game was (I now assume it’s games like Pacman or Asteroids that were played on cocktail cabinets). My secretary advised me this was a bizarre combination of genre and type, but remained optimistic. In the end I released “Sleuth” on the Nintendo DS Intendro DM, garnering 34 out of 40 points in the review (enough to get it into the Hall of Fame), hit the first-week charts at #1, selling 6.5 million units and earning $19.5 million. Awesome. But then the yearly Game of the Year awards rolled around and “Sleuth” got Worst Game of the Year. Maybe Yahtzee’s worst game of the year, sure, but the game industry’s?! And if it was so bad, why did it rate and sell so well? This is a failure in game mechanic coherency, in my opinion. At least I got a million dollars consolation prize from the game industry.

Another example is assigning a person to graphic design. Surely someone with higher “graphics” skill would do better than someone with a lower score. Nope. And hiring very expensive “world experts”? Sometimes they would paint you the Mona Lisa, sometimes hand in stick figures. For $4.5 million dollars, I’d expect something better. Some of this can be explained away by the contractor’s byline (“Specializes in cute pictures”, leading to them absolutely nail graphic design for a Fantasy RPG). But then the same guy would do excellent work for a hardcore F1 racing simulator, and a terrible one for a Romance RPG. It’d be nice if this was a meta-gaming nod to fact that you can’t treat your artists like vending machines, but similar coherency issues litter Game Dev Story so I’m not sure it’s deliberate satire.

The Crunch

Despite my original addiction, Game Dev Story didn’t hold a lot for me. I kept treadmilling, hoping a new game mechanic would come in and enrich the experience. Basically once you’ve buzzed through the main mechanics (making a game, doing contract work, hiring, advertising, trade shows and going to awards ceremonies) there isn’t anything much to do but churn in the same way you always have. By exploring the options they arbitrarily give you access to further options. This is different-flavoured grind for the sake of more grind.

They have an artificial limitation that if you repeat your previous work then your fans will hate you. Yep, because people hate Square Enix putting out fantasy RPGs, and Valve for doing First Person Shooters. I figure the game designers spotted the obvious strategy of once you found a winning combination, you’d just keep hitting that until you got bored, but they didn’t have a good way to notice or balance the in-theme strategies of “stick to tried `n’ true” versus “innovation makes money”. Either way, they replaced one Skinner box with another. Not only that, but the options aren’t actually functionally different. It’s just a different string-table lookup.

In the vein of Chris Hecker’s talk, my only wish for Game Dev Story is that they’d Finish their game. Namely, explore the unique setup and mechanics they have there. If they could boost the bang-for-buck for the bytes you download, it’d be a classic. As it stands, it’s a neat little game worth a week of game time whilst waiting for busses, but easily discarded once Rovio throw out another level pack for Angry Birds. Nevertheless, I wish the devs the best of luck with their future games. I’ll have $2.50 waiting for the next one.

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3 comments until now

  1. Paul Murray

    “Basically once you’ve buzzed through the main mechanics there isn’t anything much to do but churn”

    In other words: the game lacks a plot. The soul of RPG is *story*. Narrative. I remember Baldur’s Gate II fondly because it had one (also, the artwork was great). The “Ultima” series is another standout.

    The difficulty, however, is a) when you’ve played though the stories once, that’s kind of it. and b) railroad adventures.

    EVNova deals with this by having several stories that you can play out. You decide which you are playing by decisions you make at key missions. It all comes down to a dialog box, in the end, but artfully camouflaged.

    I wonder if it might be possible to plot out a story as a state machine with compound states, using UML. At each chapter, you might have an option to play out the chapter as character A or character B. Meanwhile, the machine rolls to determine if character C’s quest succeeds or fails.

    A possibility – a game where you never actually play the central protagonist: you just hear about their doings in the newspapers. But the missions of your various characters influence what happens to them. “The West Wing”, where you choose at each chapter which of the President’s advisors you will play out, but never the president himself. And where your decisions as publicity advisor in chapter 4 have repercussions on your game as defense secretary in chapter 9 (indeed, *if* you choose certain plot paths in chapter 4, *then* you actually cannot win the game unless you play as defense secretary in 9 and move the game in certain directions).

    This idea – it’s all about the president – is no different to your characters affecting a world … but you tell the story as if it were about a protagonist. Again, the key is story.

    At the end of the day, what an RPG writer badly needs is a collaborator who can write a decent book.

    ====================

    PS – for a gunslinger western, an obvious “story” is the spread of railroads across the west. The gunslinger’s acts affect (in indirect ways) the route(s) that the railroad takes, and thereby whether the evil rail baron or the good(ish) rail baron winds up controlling the west. The railroads brought an end to the “cowboy” way of life – no need to drive cattle to slaughter when you can pack them on a cattle truck. Maybe you’d like to bring the invention of barbed wire into the game.

  2. Paul Murray

    @Paul Murray

    So, you are a gunslinger, your cousin has been shot by the Lazy-H boys. Do you head down to the Lazy-H ranch and start shooting? Do you take a job as Sheriff’s deputy (and discover their plot to dynamite certain railroad bridge to keep their competitors for getting to market quickly), or do you leave town and head for town X?

    The key to the “campaign” is the map of the west, showing where the (existing and planned) rail lines are, where your hero is, where the injuns still control the territory. Events driving the plot forward would include indian attacks, gold strikes, and – of course – the outcome of certain gun battles.

    One of the characters you have the option to play is a soldier in chapter 5, defending a fort. And how about a chapter where you might play a prostitute with a derringer, dealing with a john attacking one of the other girls? Who turns out to be someone rather significant? The girl herself winds up in jail, or dead, but it drives the overall game along a certain direction.

    Actually, another benefit of this “pick a character to play chapter 6″ is that you can tell stories that end unhappily, while still making it possible to win the game.

    If you want a more open-ended game than the plot-driven state machine, then perhaps a civilisation-style mechanic for the larger world. Hexes with %lawless, %settled – heck – %voting democratic/republican. Alternate history: win the west for the USA and Jesus, keep the mexicans out of Texas and Lincoln out of the presidency! A state-machine, where part of the campaign landscape is the US/mexico border. If a southern hex is (considerably) more lawful than the adjacent US-hex, the US hex switches. Tying this to the outcome of gun battles (which is what the RPG is about) might be a bit difficult, though.

    How about – you wind up fighting one of your previous characters, who has all the gear the that character had when you finished chapter 3 (the better guns, in particular).

    Speaking of which – gunsmithing. Calibre of bullet, chance of jamming.

  3. I like the idea of indirectly affecting a plot, but there are a lot of issues. Especially when you want to take the player further away from the main action, but still have them affect things. If you take a certain path in a section and that has too indirect an effect, the main plot looks like it is independent and/or random, so why do anything? This is even worse if the main plot is your win condition. And if players replay the game they can get in a twisted sense of causality and agency when they care about the main plot and make in-character irrational choices to achieve the result they like.

    This is basically second-person point-of-view for game mechanics. And in much the same way as there is rarely any successful 2nd person perspective novels, it’d be crazy hard to pull it off in a game. Especially when you intentionally and continually void the player-agent connection every chapter. These problems aren’t insurmountable but they are significant. Very interesting idea, nonetheless.