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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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Glenn Storm
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"This may all sound silly, but the fewer game elements you have, the more important each one becomes..."

This is in line with fundamental design philosophy. The initial example that came to mind is in the culinary arts; where putting together a simple dish, with fewer items presented alone, demands that each item be exceptional. Similar examples can be found in haiku or other concise writing, minimalist painting/architecture, commercial advertising, even in common tweeting (as an art).

Definitely a valuable point to make to an audience likely mired in an avalanche of design scope and detail.

Owen McNamara
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Something I've always argued: game mechanics are more important than just about anything else involved in game development (with the exception of controls/interfacing so people can actually get to those mechanics). After all, what is a game without game mechanics? And what is a game worth playing without good game mechanics? Focus on that, get it right, and even if, say, your artwork sucks, people will still play your game.

Jed Ashforth
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This is absolutely true, but remember that for a sizeable portion of games, the primary aim is not to make a game that people will play, but to sell units of your game. The argument that graphical quality can be marginalised as long as the game plays well is an idealism that rarely has worth for commercial titles - graphics will get people to play your game, gameplay retains them once they're there.

Aaron Burton
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i disagree to an extent. Remember the first game revolution in the 1960's. The graphics where terrible. People will play anything that's out and trendy. But buyers do get spoiled with good graphics these days , ill give you that.

i think kids will accept mechanics over graphics, teens and adults want the good graphics.

Enis Bayramoglu
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I think it's more complicated than this. At least acceptable mechanics is a must-have to keep the players in the game, but IMHO at any given moment, a player enjoys one aspect of the game exclusively. It might be connected to the fact that our minds are built to focus on one thing at a time. What we enjoy might switch often of course. So I guess, a good game keeps the player pleased through many aspects. One moment you're enjoying the mental challenge, the next you're enjoying the beautiful explosions. Personally, when I think of my old favorite games, it's mostly some prominent sound effects that I remember. Another point is about graphics. I think graphics should never look dated. I don't mean you should always make games that look better than the state-of-the-art. What I'm saying is you should never make games that look like old games. A good example in this aspect is paper wars: cannon fodder. The graphics are crap, but it's new, so it looks fresh.

Michael Eilers
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For eight years I have developed and taught a course on the Evolution of Electronic Games, focusing primarily on the birth and early history of the industry and specifically on the design of the Golden Age of arcade design, in which titles such as Space Invaders, Pac Man, Centipede, Donkey Kong, Frogger, Robotron and Marble Madness were created. There are no better examples of constrained design than these early arcade titles. They ran on processors that clocked in at barely over 1mhz; RAM was so expensive that it was sold in individual 128-byte chips (to get 2K, you'd need 16 of them) and constituted almost 2/3 of the motherboard cost - this meant that every pixel cost money and cut into the profit potential of the game, and thus every bit of content had to be weighed and considered extensively. The games were written in assembler by individual programmers, and in some cases the programmer was the sole creator of the design, art, sound and code. Despite these issues the Golden Age games created IP and game design models that we slavishly follow to this day - the scrolling shooter, the rail shooter, the platformer, the maze game, rolling-marble games, dual-stick shooters and more. Pac-Man and Jumpman (known of course now as Mario) are indelible characters to this day. Certainly we can learn to re-think game design by looking at a recent constrained example, but our extremely young industry also has a design history full of lessons and examples that seem to frequently be ignored or forgotten. Essentially I'm supporting Brandon's position; this isn't silly, some of us think about this issue every day!

Breno Azevedo
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I completely agree with Jed's point up there. In the other hand, it's a mere statement of a fact that souped-up graphics (aka. "realism") generally *will* complicate gameplay. I'm not even getting into the merit of how hard pumping out triple-A graphics is, not to mention how incredibly hard it is to produce high-quality animation to fit the graphical quality and not disrupt the experience quality. What I'm talking about is that if you simply go from 2D to 3D you've already tied yourself to a world of pain to get the gameplay mechanics feel just-right. Suddenly there's physics and collision to worry about, there's the viewing restriction of the perspective - guess what, flat and isometric 2D gives you a much better field of view than any perspective-based solution - there are camera, height and target lining-up adjustments problems.. bottom line, it becomes a monster that can easily wipe the floor with you without breaking a sweat.

Even the simplest game idea can never turn into a reality if this fact is not properly respected - in advance.

Aaron Burton
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Simple game mechanics are a good way to make a fun and addicting game. Sometimes people wanna play long time investing games and sometimes you just wanna pick up a cheap hand held device from target that requires little to no time investment.

For example today i had a little time to kill before i took off to school so i started playing final fantasy X. i only got to play for a little while and i lost track of time lol. But i do remember how fun those tiny hand held games where back in the day. I had a basketball version and it was really addicting. I also had a tamagachi or digimon pet if you will. Those are dying off unfortunately. That's why i really hope people don't go overboard with virtual reality because we will forget the little things that make games fun.

Enis Bayramoglu
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Agreed. I think there's a huge market in "restroom gaming"...