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CAKE: Core analysis, knowledge and execution
by Elendil Canete on 02/13/13 02:00:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


It's a great time to be a game designer, but you have to learn how to bake.

With all the available tools and resources we have at our disposal it's no wonder why so many people are starting to have the guts to come forward with their own nifty ideas. Development has been streamlined to a point that a game could be developed in a ridiculously short time, even in less than two days, by a handful of people or a solo visionary armed with enough sand and coffee.

That being said, ideas are cheap and currently in great abundance. Most existing concepts could easily be traced back to their references, and more often than not proven as almost-uncanny reproductions of their inspiration. From visuals to mechanics, and at some cases narrative, there has been an influx of bestseller clones swarming the market.

The industry's brain-drain could possibly stem from the desire to simply copy a proven title's elements to the letter and slap on it a fresh coat of paint, hoping to make a quick buck. It's cost-effective, but no different from the mass of incoming recreations and iterations of the same design.

Any developer worth their salt know that players are always on the lookout for fresh ideas, one that will provide them an experience so magical they'll take the experience long after the game is over. Yet there's nothing more dismal than playing a rehash of a title that's sold well in the market, so how does one go about fixing this dillemma?

Core Analysis: Making a great sponge cake

I gave a talk once in a local development summit about a design process I call CAKE. Being a cake enthusiast, I chose a more relaxed manner of relaying core mechanical game design to a crowd consisted mostly of people who have never had formal training. If you're a seasoned baker, you're in for a treat. All you need is some flour, eggs... oh wait.

What is a core mechanic?

A core mechanic is the most basic element of a game; it is the heart of the system, encompassing functions and rules that will determine the user experience and the flavor of your dessert.

Much like a basic sponge cake, the core is the key requirement to your design. A bad tasting one will greatly impact your game even with excellent narrative or visuals; it's the mechanical facet of your design that will fundamentally shape user interactivity, with the visual, aural and possibly narrative elements serving as supporting icing and occasional cherry on top.

Practice this: When starting an idea, list down all the elements you want to have in your design as well as their contribution to the game and how they can be achieved/performed. Once that's done, begin by taking them out one by one and check if the game will still function the way you want it to with each exclusion.

If you encounter an element that breaks the game if removed, then you've just taken out a part of the core.

Putting it into perspective:
 Let's analyze a basic platformer game, like Mario Bros., with an objective of moving from point A to B. The elements the game provides to perform this task are the following:

  • Directional movement
  • Jumping
Removing movement would disable you from achieving the goal of the game. Taking out jumping would prohibit you from overcoming obstacles.

Knowledge: Chocolate cakes versus wedding cakes

Although I love cakes, I simply despise the ones they serve at weddings. They're huge and wonderful to look at, but it's that gaudy shell that masks the undesirable sponge within. I prefer a delectable slice of chocolate cake with a cup of coffee over an overly sweet and base wedding cake chunk, and I'm sure you do too as well. I mean, look at that picture above and tell me that you'd go for the latter.

But enough of that! Let's put it in perspective.

What's a feature?

More often that not, it's easier to think of the icing you'll put on your design rather than refining the core you have. I have to admit that it's a joy talking about the lavish environs and how wicked this special skill is that the player will acquire at level 45, but if your icing overpowers the taste of your weak sponge, then congratulations: your batter has beaten you.
Puns aside, one of the keys to a great design is knowing the difference between a core mechanic and a feature. I've already explained what a core mechanic is, so what constitutes a feature?

Putting it into perspective: Let's go back to our earlier game example, namely Mario Bros., which has a decent set of features:
  • Uppercut (Yes. Mario uppercuts, not headbutts)
  • Stomp
  • Fireball
  • Mushroom
  • 1-UP
  • Star
  • Dash
  • Dash jump
  • Crouch
  • Crouch slide

With the exception of the fireball, mushroom, dash, crouch, star and 1-UP, the other features are also core mechanics that have been refined into new functions. Jumping then colliding with a box allows Mario to uppercut it, jumping then dropping down on an opponent allows him to stomp it.

Another notable thing that was done with the design was the combination of certain features with core mechanics and/or other features to create additional ones without having to create too many unique functions. Dashing forward then jumping allows the player to scale wide gaps or jump farther, while dashing forward then crouching allow access to narrow locations.

Designing features that compliment core mechanics rather than overshadow optimizes development, which in turn translates to faster iterations, prototypes and a more coherent and cost-effective game system.

Execution: Mixing it all together

They say the cake is a lie, but in this case it's the gospel truth.

To conclude this article, why are core mechanics important, and why keep them minimal? Well for starters, it allows for a modular approach in development. By developing a strong core system, one can wrap around the other elements around it with little to no worry whether the game will be enjoyable enough.

I'd like to quote an entry from Brandon Sheffield's article: "the the fewer game elements you have, the more important each one becomes". Core analysis and knowledge allows one to focus on the fundamental elements of the game, giving way to an upward design style rather than a wide one. It requires the player to focus less on figuring out how to play your game and more time being challenged by the tasks your mechanics will be used on.

It encourages mastery of less, more important elements rather than drowning the user in so many functions. Think about this for a moment: how many people utilize all of the unique functions in a game that has sixty of them? Now translate that to the amount of time invested in developing each of these sixty unique elements, and you have your answer.

By crafting a smart set of a few core mechanics that can be mixed and matched together and allowing features and sub-mechanics to support them rather than take the spotlight, you have saved so much time developing your game. In a modular perspective, if a particular feature does not work, you can always remove it without impacting the core. The game's usability will not suffer, and will still be fun to interact with.

It's a great time to be a game designer, and I believe everyone can design smart. Go out there and start baking.

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Nick Harris
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Fewer elements are just more likely to work together in harmony to make a balanced recipe.

I don't like marzipan and for similar reasons I don't like the map screen in Far Cry 3 as it is external and thereby introduces immersion breaking discontinuity to the appreciation of core gameplay ingredients. Oddly, the 'hand-held' in-game map in Far Cry 2 was far superior as a way to orient you to your immediate environment. If Ubisoft had stuck with this they wouldn't have needed to add an intrusive HUD, something they had all but eliminated from Far Cry 2.

Elendil Canete
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Marzipan indeed is fragile. Imagine the time spent to create something like that just to serve as a shell for the cake, and at most times acts as an adrenaline stopper whenever you would have to check where you are. It would doubly be dismal if the cake itself was bland, which thankfully is not the case with Far Cry 3.

I totally agree about how FC2 did it; the immersion of the handheld map really puts you in the game and not some disconnected menu interface. I'd also like to add another sweet example in the guise of Dead Space; the way it keeps you on your toes with its immersive UI really amplifies the sense of terror. It's these integrated elements that make games more enriching; by limiting transition from one screen to another and instead placing required external interfaces in the game itself (and not some screen you access by pressing triangle or start), you can create a deeper experience.

Rick Gush
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get a job as a baker. You're obviously not a real game designer

Elendil Canete
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As much as I adore baked goods, sadly I don't have the qualifications to create the delicacies I enjoy. Thus I must disappoint you in your suggestion.

Thanks for reading the article, though! If you've got suggestions on how to improve upon the process, or maybe a counter-argument of your own, I would love to hear it. Some of us prefer vanilla over mocha, after all.

P.S. If you're THE Rick Gush that penned Dune II: Building of a dynasty, then it's an honor having this exchange with you, albeit it be a distasteful one. If not, then have some cake. I guarantee its freshness.

Rick Gush
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Ha! Sorry, sometimes I'm in a jerky mood.

I think game design is an evolutive social process, and not really ever something done in a void. My game design experience is that every inevitably highly opinionated member of the team already knows exactly what they think or want the game to be before I ever arrive on the scene, so my game design work is pushing and guiding the social process whereby the alternate possibilties are discussed and some of those possibilities are implemented. I find the mechanics you mention as being just one of a great many possible tools. Your article sort of sounded to me like a Master Cookbook that just discussed different types of forks and ignored everything else about cooking.

Please accept my apologies for the unjustified insulting tone. We're all just trying to figure it all out.

So, what are you up to these days? Still with Alawar? You in Russia? Know my Floodlight buddies by chance? rickgush at g mail dot com.

Elendil Canete
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Hey, no worries! The process is a little rough on the edges, but I found it to be very effective to people just starting out. I've come across many a fledgling designer asking for the exact development process I do rather than crafting their own.

To put in in a metaphorical context (I being a food enthusiast as you may have noticed), it's like them asking "hey man, gimme the exact recipe for this awesome dish" rather than asking me "hey, how do you use this stove?"

With that said, I find it better to get them started with something extremely basic, like CAKE. There's no set in stone design process, as I'm sure you know, and every designer will find their own tricks as they succeed and fail in their endeavors. I have a firm dislike of topics telling designers "the formula to success", like a cut and dry bullet point of things to do. It's no different from a production line that stamps down individual creativity.

I myself have a bag of tricks I've developed throughout my years of designing games, but am still reluctant to share it. Not everyone will agree with the way I do things, so I wanted to share something that's easier to digest without invading in anyone's creative space.

You said "Your article sort of sounded to me like a Master Cookbook that just discussed different types of forks and ignored everything else about cooking." and this is exactly what I was aiming for. The article simply wishes to motivate designers by telling them the different types of forks in their arsenal; it's up to them which one they want to use, how to use it and what dish they want to make.

"So, what are you up to these days? Still with Alawar? You in Russia? Know my Floodlight buddies by chance?" Nope, I'm no longer involved with Alawar; I only did a small project with them a few years back. I'm not in Russia, but I would love to visit it someday! And sadly no, I'm not familiar with Floodlight.

I'm currently involved with Studio Kontrabida on a certain project:

It's one heck of an endeavor, and I must say I myself might not be following my own advice, but that's how the cookie crumbles.

Thanks, and I hope we can get to network soon! It's always fun to meet another designer. Maybe we can exchange theories. Shoot me up an email at ravenwolfshin at yahoo dot com