Simplify Game Development: Think of it as a Toy

The Toy is built through iterations of development, play and tweak using the technology that will be used to build the final game.

One of the basic and most important components of a computer game is how the player interacts with the game. Many games rely on characters or objects that are controlled by the player. Very few players are consciously aware of this interaction and this is often the way it should be if the engagement in the game should be maintained. Therefore the feel of the game should be a central part of the game and iterated upon throughout the production.

This is the second in a series of articles on how to simplify game development based on my master thesis on game production. I hope that game developers will be able to simplify game production with these ideas in mind.

I will not go into details about what the definition of a toy other than it is something that you can play with. There are certain similarities to game development that I find interesting: Toys are made for play, which is an essential part of most games. Toys can be played with for hours at a time. Toys are mere tools for play and immersion – suspension of disbelief. Likewise will people probably play your games as much as possible if the toy their tool of choice when it comes to play. This is why it is important to perfect the toy.

I read in a book about game feel that Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Super Mario, spent a lot of time iterating over the Super Mario 64 controls in what he referred to as a “garden” – a virtual test environment containing elements of the game that have an impact on the feel. I am sure that iteration on controls is time well spent. I myself will not play a game for long if the controls are annoying.

I am currently in the process of porting a prototype to tablets where the controls are giving me a hard time. The initial prototype was made for 2-4 players using keyboards or joypads for input and was a thrill chasing each other around in a maze with different speed and drag attributes. At some point we decided that the game format would be better for 2 players on a tablet where each player had to control their character with touch input. The entire feel that we worked hard to achieve was lost. It was a brilliant idea to use the tablet for the immediate face-to-face interaction between the players, but the controls could not be ported directly. Mainly because we had spent some time tweaking the controls to the natural haptic feedback that the joypads and keyboard give, where a touch screen with a rendered image of a joystick is nothing like it.

Thinking of your game as a toy is one of the fundamental things you can do for your game design. If the toy is not fun to play with, why would anyone ever play a game? Start early playing with the toy, make sure it is fun, discard unnecessary features, hone what makes you want to keep playing it. Above all, get other people to play with the toy and tell why they want to keep playing and what has no significance.

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