Let’s discuss the design of Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine for a bit, shall we?
You start with the basic structure of Pac-Man. The key feature of Pac-Man is that the game is bipolar – it frequently switches back and forth between placing you in predator mode (kill everything!) and prey mode (run away!). Monaco’s first stroke of genius is to take this basic bipolar two-mode gameplay and seamlessly adds a third mode – puzzle mode – where you need to avoid detection and solve puzzles (none of which have one set answer). Having these three very different but related modes and having to switch between them, often very quickly, makes for a very compelling game that really rewards skill & mastery. And once the player realizes that the game isn’t really a stealth game (where your goal is to stay hidden at all costs) but is a time-attack arcade game (where your goal is to complete your objectives in the most efficient manner possible), then the whole design space really opens up.
However, Monaco doesn’t stop with its one good idea (take the bipolar gameplay of Pac-Man and make it tripolar). Its next great idea is to abandon the arena level structure of Pac-Man in favor of a more typical single-player story structure with a series of unique levels (filled with unique power-ups) to complete. This is further complicated with the fact that you get to choose one of several thieves to use in the level, each with their own unique ability. Depending on which character you pick, the balance between the three modes of play (predator, prey, puzzle) may skew to one mode or the others. These two additions (unique hand-crafted levels & different abilities via character selection) serve both casual and hardcore gamers alike – casual gamers will enjoy the greater variety in gameplay provided by the various stages & playable characters, while hardcore gamers will enjoy mastering the different styles of gameplay & figuring out which are the best characters to use in each of the game’s levels.
The third great idea is how they managed to increase the complexity of Pac-Man while still keeping the learning curve very low. Beyond the direction pad, Monaco basically just uses two buttons (there’s a third button to see stats as well as a button to pause but we won’t count them). One button to use power-ups, one button to sneak (which is slower than normal movement but not agonizing slow like you see in some games). They could have added an additional button to interact with on-map items but in a very smart move, you interact with these items by just holding the direction pad in their direction. By doing this, they improved the game flow (entering a locked room just requires holding a direction rather than walk to door, hold unlock button, and then walk through door) and also increased tension – holding a button/direction that normally does something (moves) and have it do nothing but fill up a meter feels more stressful than it would have if the action was assigned to a separate button.
The fourth great idea in Monaco is how they take the abstract visual style of Pac-Man and keep part of the abstraction (retro, non-realistic visuals) while tying it to a solid theme – romanticized heist movie. This gives the player a shared background that helps them quickly understand gameplay concepts (Oh! Civilians will alert Guards if I bother them! That makes sense!) while still giving the player enough leeway to let their imagination fill in the blanks to create an amazing & immersive experience.
The fifth great idea in Monaco is that they realized that all of these gameplay systems they created could also result in a very fun, but very different experience if multiplayer co-op was added. With single-player, you have a fast-paced action/puzzle score attack game. With multiplayer, you have a fast-paced action/puzzle mayhem game where everything can (and probably will) go wrong to the amusement of everyone involved.
So in summary, Monaco’s design is genius because…
#1 – Tripolar game design where the player has to master three modes of play – predator, prey, and puzzle.
#2 – Variety through the use of hand-crafted stages & a number of unique abilities through the power-ups and the player’s choice of playable character.
#3 – Simple controls reduce the learning curve, improve the flow, and increase tension.
#4 – Mix of abstraction and theme makes the game easy to grasp while still allowing room for imagination.
#5 – Single-player and multiplayer modes cater to each medium’s strengths.