I like taking interesting chances. On new games, on new markets and new ideas. This week Spry Fox released a delightful original puzzle game called Triple Town for the Amazon Kindle. If you have a Kindle you can download it over at Amazon.
To my knowledge, this is the first indie title publicly available on the Kindle. An industry first, low dev costs, high potential payoff and a chance to try out an original game idea. What more could you ask for?
There are many design lessons, but I’ll focus on three:
- Evergreen designs are not puzzles
- Reinvent old genres from the root
- Create better games faster by killing visual and technological crutches.
The problem with puzzles
For many years I’ve been a fan of the Grow series of games by Eyemaze. In these, you slowly add elements to the world, the elements interact and the world unfolds and blossoms before you. With so many games being about destruction, any game that involves building something from nothing holds a special place in my heart. And they are so simple to play! Just click and go.
Yet the Eyemaze games also bug the game designer in me. They are single-shot puzzles. You figure them out and then you are done. The delightful animations are consumed once. The cause and effect sequence is discovered once. Each new version of Grow takes months, if not years to produce. And the player burns through all that painstaking labor in minutes.
Puzzles are a class of inefficient design. Avoid them. Why design one eureka handcrafted moment when you can design evergreen mechanics that yield thousands?
So I gave myself a challenge: Design an infinitely replayable Grow-style game.
Triple Town is based off a promising prototype that grew out of this original Grow challenge. It is its own game, but it keeps a simple UI, the delight of watching your map grow over time and of course the focus on building instead of destruction. There are no pre-baked levels or consumable episodes and you can easily play for hundreds of hours.
We’ve intentionally set up Triple Town to be an evergreen title. This gains us a slew of benefits. Once a long lived core mechanic has been established, it can be ported to almost any platform, any time in the next decade. If you are going to build something, you might as well build something that is designed from the start to last.
Reinvent old genres from the root
I also set another challenge for myself. What if we reinvented the entire match-3 genre? I’m fascinated by the longevity of popular genres and have a short list of well worn mechanics that I’d love strip down to their bones and rebuild from scratch. What if designers took a chance with their genre designs? What if instead of slavishly copying the 10th generation of a successful design, they went all the way back to the first prototypes that demonstrated a hint of deep fun and then made a few key decisions that were different?
Lasting genres tend to rest upon deep possibility spaces. How many variations of chess can you imagine? Howe many are fun? Despite our cultural inclination to settle upon one common variant, there is rarely a single ‘fun’ genre formula. Given time and enough prototyping, there are thousands of fun games in the possibility space defined by a genre.
It occurred to me that game design, like any evolutionary process, is sensitive to initial conditions. If you want to stand out, you need to head back in time to the very dawn of a genre, strike out in a different direction and then watch your alternate evolutionary path unfurl.
Folks that play Triple Town have called it the Civilization of Match-3 games. The play is quite simple:
- Every turn, you get to place 1 new piece on the board. In other Match-3 games, you only manipulate objects.
- If three or more pieces of the same type (like a tree) are next to one another, the last piece you place is transformed into a higher value object. So you start out placing bits of grass and eventually build out a land filled with castles, cathedrals and floating cities. In other Match-3 games, you spend most of your time destroying tokens.
- There are a variety of wild cards, wandering creatures and other object that you also place which clutter the board, but offer unique opportunities if placed correctly. In other Match-3 games, the board rarely feels like a ‘place’.
- The game ends when you can no longer place anything on the board. You get a score, see how you compared and then try again.
Like all good games, the game play evolves in the player’s head. At first, they randomly drop down objects. Then they start thinking ahead several moves. They learn how to turn enemies into resources. The board disappears into zones of influence and control. There comes a moment where you end up thinking “Just one more turn and I’ll finally finish my grand pattern.” The panic of imminent defeat and the elation of last minute recoveries never seems to get old.
Upon casual inspection, Triple Town is very much a match-3 game. After all, an early player skill involves matching 3 or more items. That’s the definition right? Yet, everything else is different. Tactics are different, strategies are different, the emotional experience of play is different. When someone plays Triple Town well, they feel pride in what they’ve created. They want to take a screenshot and share it with their friends. I’ve never felt that with a match-3 game before. Reinvention at the root, it seems is indistinguishable from innovation.
Another game that executed this design strategy well is Plants vs. Zombies. It is certainly a tower defense game. Yet, by prototyping from the roots of the genre, the devs discovered a set of mechanics that play quite differently than most. As a result, PopCap carved out a unique value proposition in the market that no other company has been able to successfully clone away.
Kill visual and technological crutches
When I tell fellow developers I designed a Kindle game, they have difficulty grasping how such a feat is even possible. The graphics are primarily black and white. The E-ink screen flashes and refreshes at most handful of times per second. What? No rumble? Can you make a great modern game with no animation, no color and limited processing power?
Of course you can. In many ways, these constraints focused development on the gameplay. With the vast resources available to modern game developers, we often lose track of what matters. Is the player making meaningful choices? Are those conveyed in a crisp, clear manner? Is the core play space deep enough that players can go for hundreds of hours?
Or is the player’s interest being artificially juiced by millions worth of throw away spectacle? Strip away the sadly lumbering zombie bulk of an 80-person team. Strip away the cocaine frenzy of marketing rah rah. The pure psychological heart of a design’s game play is what stands the test of time.
I would encourage anyone who considers themselves a professional game developer to build and complete one project with the following constraints:
- Limited resolution
- 2D, Black and white graphics
- No animation
- No sound
- Minimal computation
If you cannot use your existing game development skills to make something fun, you’ve likely spent your life worshiping at a false altar. The overworked tricks these constraints restrict (pick your favorite: AI, Music, Physics, 3D rendering, etc.) are debilitating crutches, not the essential soul of our grand and enduring art. I found something immensely satisfying about ditching the fluff and personally confronting the primal source of why games work.
There are practical benefits to knowing what matters. We were able to get to a playable production-ready state in a few weeks. And if our playtests are any indication, players will happily spend just as much time and get just as much delight as they would have out of an ostentatious AAA monstrosity. What low bang-for-the-buck features are drowning your game?
With Triple Town, we delivered a quality original game on a new platform all under tight time constraints. Key to hitting that goal were smart design choices. As a designer you need to answer questions that have immense business and technical impact.
- How do we create an evergreen title? Try avoiding puzzles and instead tap deep play spaces.
- How do we stands out from the inevitable crowd? Stop cloning and start designing from the root.
- How does design shape project scope? Focus on game design and ruthlessly trim the fat.
Ultimately, good design is an essential strategic tool for your business, not merely an implementation detail.
The other piece that got Triple Town out the door was the team. Huge kudos go to Hal Wasserman, the main developer on the project. Hal, more than anyone else, made the game real. Like all Spry Fox games, we built up a fresh team around the project, worked together as co-creators and reveled in doing something new.
This experience has solidified my belief that passionate, talented developers with ownership of their output are one of the few groups on this planet who will ever have a shot at making a great game. For the rest, bound by the golden handcuffs of mediocre corporate slavery, the compromises are too great.
Give Triple Town a try. Or drop by David’s blog for a bit more business insight into why we targeted Kindle in the first place. (Short version: Untapped market, Launch title, Low dev cost = Opportunity)