Warning: Programmer Art Ahead.
“What makes this a unique experience?”
I’ll approach this question in a broader sense, but mostly in the context of our project. This is a big question, since it affects all parts of a game’s design. The reality is, at the time, we didn’t have a great answer. We had the setting/space for our game that was new and interesting, but how it echoed throughout the experience was an answer we just didn’t have. It took a fair amount of talking, arguing, prototyping, and scratched ideas before we came up with a design that we actually deemed worthy to answer this question. Often, we start with one good idea, which is a small piece of a larger puzzle, but we don’t want one interesting thing in a sea of reused pieces. We had to come up with interesting twists each step of the way, making sure the game we designed was unique throughout its design. I won’t go through the process (or bad ideas we had), but, instead, the conclusion we reached. I’d like to share some of the unique things our game is doing. An important note for this post: different doesn’t mean better. We definitely set out to make unique games, but unique doesn’t imply quality, nor entertainment. There are other important questions to ask about game ideas, but what’s being done that’s different is still an important one. A game can get lost in the crowd, unless it stands out. Be it the game structures (space, narrative, and rules), audiovisuals, or player experience, this question reaches all corners of game design and development. I’m a cold-hearted programmer with blood of iron, so I’ll keep this question in the context of game structures for this post. Game structures should serve some major theme, and if done well, they’ll all likely overlap each-other. In many games, it’s actually hard to separate this conversation into three parts, since Space, Narrative, and Rules often overlap each-other heavily in a game’s construction.
Where the game takes place. The setting and its implications.
Space is where the game takes place; it’s the literal room, boundaries, and sections of the game. It’s the geometry, not necessarily the artistic representation. Artistic representation and geometry obviously overlap, but this is in regards to the effect it has on game-structures. In other words, this is how the location and space of a game affects the mechanics, gameplay, and ludonarrative of the overall game. Space is as significant as the mechanics that take place in it, so it should be memorable and fit the game you’ve set out to make. An interesting twist is that you can create mechanics to fit a space, instead of a space to fit your mechanics: this is what happened on InnerSpace.
Typical flying games have space issues. You have this neat “ground” thing, which I’ll refer to as “content” for now. Content is fun to fly in, around, and through, but it really only makes up a small amount of the game. The vast majority of it is just open air. Games like Crimson Skies fixed this, in part, with levels filled with skyscrapers, which filled the play-space with “content” or bits of terrain that were fun to fly through. And to be fair, most of the game is filled with dogfights that pollute the play-space. The second problem typical flying games have is that five of the six boundaries are invisible. There’s content below you, but invisible caps North, South, East, West, and Above you. In typical flying games, you can fly super high or go super far, until you hit an invisible boundary and are “LEAVING THE BATTLEFIELD.” InnerSpace’s setting does something really cool with it’s play-space. In InnerSpace, you’re faced with content and places to explore in all directions. Want to go up? Sure! There are things over there. Want to just keep flying until your eyes bleed? You’ll circle around eventually, but hey, we aren’t stopping you. The world abides by its physics: ropes slack outwards, away from the center, and objects fall out towards the surface, but we didn’t want to put this restriction on the player. Sense of direction is only as relevant as the obstacles that face you, and there’s content and interesting things all around you.
The world(s?) as you encounter it
Ludonarrative. Player incentive. Etc.
The second part of crafting InnerSpace was the “What” and the “Why?” The Why is the bit that really sets the player up to do what they need to do. In Mario, it’s to reach the pole, and in the larger sense, to save the princess. There is an interesting theme that was explored by Starseed Pilgrim: finding your objective can be an objective in and of itself. In addition, the player comes to the table to have fun, so you don’t always need to tell them why they’re about to have fun. Sometimes, providing a fun system is enough for the player (e.g., sandbox games). I’m sure there are many other player motivations and hybrid classes here, but we wanted to pick one and stick to it. The “What” is the beef, or content, of your narrative. It’s the driving theme or concept behind it. Journey is the purest example of a “What.” It’s a literal “journey,” and every single function of the game serves to promote this theme. This is likely a conversation for another blog post, but the gist of it is this: know the “why” for your game, its mantra, even if the player doesn’t. Then, try your best to ensure everything you do, and everything the player does, serves this goal. Even if it’s “because it’s fun.”
What we did
Alright, so we had this really cool setting, and the fact that we wanted to make a flying game. The questions then became, “What are we doing,” and “Why are we doing this?” Flying games are more often about action than not. Dogfights are something I’ve done in every single flying game I’ve played (bar Flight Simulator). Hell, there are even other awesome indie games in development that are making some awesome dogfights (check out Air Brawl). With InnerSpace, we also set out to subvert this expectation. We wanted to take what you expect from a flying game, throw a big chunk out the window, and then craft a unique experience out of the remains. InnerSpace is more of an adventure game than an action game. It’s about exploration, coming to understand the universe as you encounter it, and trying to unveil the significance behind your actions. It’s a game of mystery, discovery, and realization. There are tools to interact with the environment, blade-wings (oh, man they’re cool), and guns. But instead of a means to destroy all that lay in your path, they serve as a hand to extend into the universe, . We want flying to be an action used to explore, not an action used to maneuver in a fight. This is our mantra. The space and mechanics of InnerSpace have all been designed (and/or heavily modified) to mirror this, as should any game who has found it’s “Why.” As for the “Why,” I’ll have to skirt this mostly to avoid spoilers. We want the player to see the interesting and cool things that they want to explore, the something in the distance that they want to see. We want the adventure to be driven by wonder. There are narrative bits that provide an actual objective, but I’ll save that for a later blog post.
Rules / Mechanics
The mechanics of the game. What you are and aren’t allowed to do.
This is the nitty-gritty, the implementation. The 1’s and 0’s, the bit that programmers sweat blood over. This is the part that actually defines a flying game. The rules that define completion, provides and defines gratification, and the bit that the player actually needs to figure out. There’s something very important about mechanics though: they need to be fun. Fun can come from a lot of angles for games, but mechanics have to be entertaining to be make a good game. Keyword, to make a good game. Telltale Games’ works have great narratives, but utilize terrible, terrible, terrible mechanics. If you take the story away from The Walking Dead, it’s boring. It’s terribly boring. As a game designer, this is likely the most important bit to me and takes priority over the prior two sections. This is my own preference, and each designer has to make the decision that’s right for his or her game. Some games thrive on doing very little new in this domain (Spec Ops: The Line) and others thrive on doing everything different and new in this domain (Orcs Must Die). And some games just want to be the best of its type (Super Meat Boy), without doing a lot new to the mechanics or rules. In the context of InnerSpace, we did some pretty unique things, but it’s also the slave of the prior two (narrative and space).
What we did
InnerSpace’s narrative serves its setting, as do its rules. All of the mechanics have been designed to make the exploration of this world more enjoyable and more accessible. Up is down, and it’s not an action game. This part of design really makes InnerSpace interesting, but also makes traditional flying mechanics unfitting. Neither the narrative nor the space are usual, which means all the rules are changed. There are really only a few flying game themes or tropes we abide by in the mechanics. We want just enough that it’s familiar to those who have played flying games, but deviate enough that it’s something entirely new. With this game, we didn’t want to fall prey to the usual: “Skyrim, but with guns,” or “modern shooter, but in space.” As far as flying goes, there are a few familiar controls (Pitch, Roll, Yaw), but we tried our best to diverge from there. Those are the base rules interaction with our PC, or PP (player-plane). Then, there are additional controls: diving, boost, and stalling. The boost is also a pretty typical interaction: hold the button and you go faster. The next two really change the way you can play a flying game. Diving further manipulates the space in which this game takes place. The player can go into a kamikaze dive, folding the plane’s wings and losing control, but instead of plummeting to their death, the plane actually transforms into a submarine mode. This serves the game’s main purpose, exploration. Reinforcing the theme, diving encourages the player to explore and go to places they would normally neglect or ignore in other flying games. Bursting out of the water and transforming before you fall back in also just looks damned cool. Besides, what’s a videogame without a water level? Stalling makes the plane much more agile and makes for easier maneuvering. The easiest way I can explain it is “air drifting.” …Which sounds awesome. (It sort of is.) Just like drifting in racing games, stalling lets you face a direction before you actually go that way. It allows the player to take faster and sharper turns and to face things without actually moving towards them. It also functions as a turret, facing any direction without changing the plane’s flight-path. However, instead of just the turret turning, it’s the entire plane. It actually might be the coolest, albeit simplest, mechanic we have, yet it’s hard to explain.
I’ll keep it brief. When designing a new game there are three domains I keep in mind: Space, Narrative, and Rules. Space is the area that the players observe and play inside of, the space they are bound to. Narrative is the experience as they encounter it, this includes the bits that they can control and the bits that they are told. Lastly, Rules, these are the mechanics that the players can utilize and the rules they must follow to interact with your game. I often refer to these three as “Game Functions.”
Game functions can serve one underlying mantra, doing something unique and catered to the specific game. Echoing and keeping one consistent experience. We relied on a few flying game tropes to draw connections to prior games that players may be familiar with, but only to serve that purpose. We’re trying our best to keep it fresh, keep it funky, and make it unique.
Make unique games with unique mechanics that promote one primary theme. We’re creating a flying game that promotes exploration/adventure. Please buy our game when we finish it.