Monday, February 25

Developing Game Design

The other day, I recieved a message from my friend with a link to a flash game. The message's subject line read, "An interesting Portal rip-off." The game in question was SHIFT, designed by Antony Levell for Armor Games. Incedentally, I had already played Shift the previous night, but what intrigued me was my friend's chosen tagline: "Portal Rip-off."

Please make sure you play through Shift before reading on.

Unquestionably, Shift does share similar design to Portal, the likeness especially obvious given certain in-game refrences. But is it a rip-off? I would argue not. In fact, Shift is an extremely high quality game supported by excellent design. Shift is cool, fun, challenging, thought-provoking, all tradmarks of good design. We can, however, immediately percieve the Portal influence. Where Portal is designed around a single principle of gameplay, so too is Shift. Portal has players using a gun to solve puzzles. Shift has players flipping a level to solve puzzles. The problem is, "rip-off" comes with too many connotations. Shift is more so inspired by Portal, and that is a good thing.

Game design is like anything else in this world: its a process. The art of painting isn't revolutionized every day, nor is cinematography, nor is game design; all of these evolve as art forms incrementally. Artists learn from one another, we look at what has been done and see how it was done and what was good and what was not so good, and we iterate. Hence, genres. Game design, like other mediums, is influenced by its own creations. The fact is, Portal has been hugely influential to game design. The game exemplies the core of what makes games fun: learning through experience, excellent balance of difficulty, simplicity. In a way, our industry needed Portal. In a time of insular design, Portal proved to be an elegant example of the beauty of video games. And therefore, a cornerstone of modern game design.

Which brings us back to Shift. Shift was designed using the same philosophy behind Portal. The developers of Shift clearly appreciated Portal's design, and more importantly, learned from it. This is what we're doing as game designers, and as an industry, learning. There's nothing wrong with learning, its beautiful. Does every game need to be a revolution, an utter innovation? No; thats not the way things work. We build. We learn from experience. We take the blueprints of successful game design and resketch them, improve them. We are developing the artform. Our goal is to contribute to that development, to push ourselves to push forward the medium.

Another example very similar in vein is Fez, the winner for Excellence in Visual Design at the Independent Games Festival at the 2008 the Game Developer's Conference. Fez is being developed by Kokoromi for Xbox Live Arcade using the XNA development tools. Fez is an original title, but its gameplay is not unique.

Look familiar? It should. The primary gameplay mechanic is an iteration of Nintendo's Super Paper Mario and Zoe Mode's Crush. All three of these game function off a similar principle, that of 2d/3d perspective switching. In Super Paper Mario, players can flip the world to look up and down a three-dimensional hallway angle of a level. In Crush, players can flatten the world into two-dimensions either as a side-scroller or top-down. The world of Fez can be fully rotated three-dimensionally to reveal new platforming pathways.
Zoe Mode's Crush, for PSP.
Fez is awesome. Watching the gameplay trailer, I was consistently amazed at how cool and fun it looked. The style is similar to games by Nifflas' (a good thing, to be sure), but suddenly, a whole dimension is revealed, and the game becomes something else entirely. Fez's similarity to Super Paper Mario and Crush is undeniable, but this is not a bad thing. Fez is designed off a relatively new gameplay mechanic, but not staticly. Kokoromi is using this perspective switch mechanism, but developing it further, advancing it. What we are in danger of is designing games that are the same as previous titles. Designing games built on solid, effective gameplay principles, and expanding upon them, improving them, innovating, is what we want to do. Development is a process, a progression. In fact, defines development as the "act of improving by expanding or enlarging or refining." Rome wasn't built in a day. Innovation doesn't happen overnight. Learn from other games. Its not stealing; its saying "Thank you for being so awesome. Let me try and do even better."

Images from Gamespy
Trailer from Gametrailers

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