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Opinion: Constrained Design And The Merit Of Simplicity
Opinion: Constrained Design And The Merit Of Simplicity Exclusive
August 19, 2010 | By Brandon Sheffield




[In this editorial, originally printed in Game Developer magazine's August 2010 issue, editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield plays the LCD game Super Racing obsessively and finds within its simple constraints game design elegance.]

Around Christmas here in the office, a coworker was given a very simple LCD game as a joke. The game was Super Racing from Techno Source, and as we kept it on a divider between our cubicles, the staff of Game Developer and Gamasutra wound up playing it more than any other game we have in the office.

Why would this be? There are a few reasons that are beyond the scope of the game itself. First, its simplicity is inviting—we can play it while having conversations about our plan of attack for the day, or simply to take a break from work, and it’s a very low time and mental investment. This has obvious parallels to casual and social games, which have low barriers to entry, simple mechanics, and (in some cases) almost no consequence for failure.

Obviously the game is not an amazing world-changing piece of software, but more than the fact that it’s easy and available, the game’s simple design does a good job of reminding us of the importance of each decision we make when developing a game.

How It Plays

The aim is to race down a track, avoiding (or passing) all other cars along the way. Your car can absorb three hits before it’s game over, and there are three waves, each with increasing speed. All you can do is move right and left. So why is this fun? That’s where some very simple design and art choices help to elevate this game above the rest (we’ve since tried other LCD games here, and most are nowhere near as good).

LCD games usually play on a static field with an image, or no on background at all, and there is a set placement for the icons or dots (what we might call sprites in a traditional game), which can simply be on or off. In Super Racing, the background is a road, and approaching cars are indicated by larger and larger identical vehicles that simulate increased proximity. Here’s where the first critical design choice comes in—the road is curved, and all the cars are drawn with some perspective, which helps tremendously with the sense of motion, compared to the straight-on perspective of many LCD racers.

Then, as a step to distinguish your car from the others (which are all drawn the same way), other cars never pass into your horizontal space, so it’s more like you’re aiming your vehicle into open spaces than actually passing cars in real time. The final piece of the puzzle is that the pattern has a degree of randomization, so there’s always at least one space for your car, but you pretty much never play the same wave twice.

And that’s it! There are a few more flourishes, like beeps for feedback when the cars advance, and a visual hit state if you’re struck by another vehicle, and of course the necessity for responsive control, but that’s by and large all standard stuff. The game proves that with a combination of a few smartly-realized elements, you can turn even the most simplistic of interactions into something enjoyable.

What Does It Mean?

This may all sound silly, but the fewer game elements you have, the more important each one becomes, and for me, dissecting what made this game work versus other similar products was a good reminder of what’s important in game design. At this scale, basic elements of art, gameplay, and systems design can have a huge impact on fun—and so too in casual games and the social space.

PopCap’s Bejeweled, for instance, has had countless match-three imitators, but none have achieved the former’s success. Bejeweled wasn’t the first game to use the matching of three or more items as a main gameplay feature, but it succeeded because of its polish and attention to small details, from the physics of the jewels, to the satisfying sounds, to the visually uncluttered interface and large, colorful graphics. Without that focus on minutiae, it would’ve been just another puzzle game.

These lessons can be extended throughout game development. It’s obvious that polish helps a game, and that critical design choices work best when finalized early. But when you look at it on the scale of an LCD game, a social game, or a casual game, you begin to appreciate the gravity of each choice.

Applying these lessons to create a game of similar constraints, or even simply paper prototyping an idea seems like a good exercise to help you refocus on what’s important, and in fact got me unstuck in a recent project of my own. And it turns out that stepping back and analyzing what makes games fun, even something as simple as Super Racing, can be a real help in terms of getting your priorities straight. So break out your favorite Game & Watch and get on with the analysis!


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