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Many games have interesting and rewarding minigames embedded inside of them. Think of the card game Pazaak in Knights of the Old Republic, which invites players to pause the flow of their adventure to reinforce lessons of skill and chance. Or the hacking minigames in Deus Ex, Fallout, and Bioshock, which present players with micro-challenges meant to give small rewards for critical thinking.
Games within games don’t often get a lot of notice. That may have something to do with how they're integrated into the overarching game--they’re often just an unobtrusive part of the open world, or they’re folded into normal gameplay routines and capped in difficulty lest they outscale the main flow of gameplay. But some of them are so memorable that they deepen and enrich engagement with he overarching game.
Kent Hudson’s excellent 2008 GDC talk gives a good overview of conceptualizing minigames, and it got us thinking about some particularly memorable and instructive games within games. We talked to several developers and assembled a list of particularly instructive minigames. Read on for a look at some interesting mechanics and clever integration, and see if there isn't a style that may deserve a fit into your next game.
1. Pokémon Diamond and Pearl's Underground minigames
Lesson: Minigames are a great opportunity to take advantage of unique hardware features.
Disney Interactive's Lauren Careccia remembers Pokémon's odd experiment--the Underground. It's an online/offline lobby for the DS's wi-fi system where players can enter by themselves or with friends to play capture-the-flag, check out customized personal zones called secret bases, and mine materials using the touch screen. She says she spent a surprising amount of time down there, even when she couldn't take advantage of the system's full capabilities.
“It’s actually kind of baffling that it was even included, since you never encounter or interact with Pokemon while you’re down there,” Careccia says. “You mainly mine stones and fossils to bring back to the main game. Mostly it’s a little mini world away from the main game.”
But for all of the awkwardness of the Underground's original incarnation, everything feels clearly designed around the DS's technological innovations, and would serve as a foundation for crafting minigames on the 3DS, where developers seem to have stretched their wings in making these minigames fit more naturally into their core gameplay. The Pokémon series in general has added technology-focused minigames to almost all of its post Game Boy iterations, so games like these may provide clear signals for how to use special hardware features to maximize your next game.
2. Fallout 4's Pip-Boy Minigames
Lesson: Giving players many different ways to access minigames can help them personalize their play experience..
Fallout 4’s recent launch includes not just the massive, open-world post-apocalyptic macrogame, but a handful of minigames ripped directly from the vaults of gaming history. Classics like Donkey Kong, Missile Command, Pitfall and Space Invaders get lovingly reverse engineered into Pip-Boy-themed reskins with mechanics that are relatively faithful to their original incarnations.
Fallout 4’s inclusion of these minigames doesn’t just provide fond memories of gaming's salad days--they also showcase a surprisingly functional use of second-screen technology in modern gaming, and accommodate the divergent ways that players are interested in accessing minigames these days.
The games are playable in multiple formats: on computer terminals in the game itself, out in the wilderness on the player's Pip-Boy menu screen, or via the companion phone app for Fallout 4. This app, also called Pip-Boy, can act as a second screen interface for the player’s inventory, map, and item navigation, allowing them to quickly make changes or review certain data without pausing the game. The app also plays Fallout 4’s minigames, including Red Menace, Atomic Command, Zeta Invaders, Pip Fall, and Grognak and the Ruby Ruins.
It’s a format that works surprisingly well for modern players---introducing these in-universe minigames in a way that will allow players to pause in their wanderings and tickle the memory of those fond of retro games, while also providing a mobile-friendly version for players who like to game on the go. (It also rewards players who choose to use the live features of the app instead of essentially pausing the game every time they want to access the data within.) The final result helps flesh out the Fallout lore with a deeper sense of how its post-apocalyptic society took to video games, and adds fun diversions for players who explore and poke around the environment.
3. Tekken's Loading Screen Version of Galaga
Lesson: Use loading screens to reinforce central skills and offer unique and highly sought after bonuses.
On November 27th, Namco’s patent on loading screen minigames expires, and developers will be free to implement them once again without crossing the US Patent and Trade Mark Office. If you want to study how these loading screen mini games function, you’ll have to dive back into older Namco titles like Tekken on the Playstation, which featured the ability to play Galaga while you waited for levels to load.
Developer Mike Traficante from Schell Games recalls that these minigames had extra value back in the waning days of the classic arcade, where a Galaga score was a competitive advantage among his friends and not just a marker of personal skill. “It was the only way to practice and get good at the Galaga challenge screens, which are crucial to getting high Galaga scores,” he says.
“More than that though, it was incredibly difficult and unlocked the devil kazuya costume--which had no gameplay value. But when people saw you had that, they knew you did something crazy hard to get it, and I love that kind of design.”
Tekken’s loading screens not only show how they can be used to offer small bits of practice time to the player, but also offer cosmetic rewards that trumpet the level of player skill and the mastery of core timing mechanics.
Minigames that help pass the time during obnoxiously long loading screens may be passe now that those long load times are no longer the norm. But since the option to implement them will return for developers very shortly, Tekken may offer a model for new kinds of micro-interactions that can surprize and divert players.
4. Red Dead Redemption's Poker and Blackjack
Lesson: Adding a few special details can make the most familiar types of minigames feel unique, and add a distinctive flavor to your game world.
Red Dead Redemption's poker is a beautifully meta minigame. The way it's integrated into the open gameworld reinforces the violent and ethically dubious Wild West setting. When players encounter it as part of sidequests or random encounters, they aren't just tasked with bluffing, drawing, folding, and raising--they watch out for system-generated "tells" from the AI, they can choose to cheat, and in an instant, they can whip out their six-shooter and start a bloody gunfight worthy of a Leone spaghetti western.
“The randomness and accessibility of violence seemed like it doubled down on the theme of the game, and that worked,” says independent developer Annie Mitsoda of DoubleBear Productions.
Mitsoda also enjoyed blackjack in Rockstar's Wild West. “I believe I kept more towards blackjack, since it was hugely accessible and it never felt like you would be fighting the AI,” says Mitsoda. “To be sure, having the common adage ‘the house always wins’ with casino-type games of that nature works towards its advantage digitally, but I have a very gingerly relationship with AI in certain games, especially games of chance, and I prefer ones that are easily digestible.”
Mitsoda says developers could learn a lot by mimicking the execution of these in-game card games.
5. Animal Crossing's Nintendo Games
Lesson: Minigames can deepen players appreciation for your entire game catalogue.
Animal Crossing’s in-game Nintendo titles first appeared in the series’ original Nintendo 64 incarnation Dōbutsu no Mori, but became a series staple when the Gamecube version launched worldwide in 2002. These games were complete ports that the player acquired through buying, trading, or using peripheral experiences like the Game Boy Advance island and the e-reader to trigger systems that made them available. These games include lesser-celebrated classics like Balloon Fight, Ice Climbers, and Clu-Clu Land.
Wayforward Games’ James Montagna says these in-game ports are a unique highlight, and in important step in preserving and celebrating classic games. In 2001, with no e-shop and not many mass-produced copies of classic games commonly available, Animal Crossing made these games far more accessible than they had been before, and gave them a uniquely involving game world as packaging.
Animal Crossing also creates thematic reasons to hunt down retro games that are similar to what drives people to snatch up old collector’s editions in real life. The unique in-game consoles can provide a point bonus to the score of your home, and fit in neatly with an entire set of Nintendo furniture the player can gather.
Montagna says these were the focus of his playthrough of Nintendo’s normal life simulator. “I spent most of my efforts trying to amass all these games, even though some I had to get through hacking the game itself. But I was able to spend countless hours on the meta experience of playing the classics in the ‘gaming basement’ of my virtual Animal Crossing home.”
It’s worth noting that Animal Crossing’s debut of these minigames happened around the time that the Super Smash Bros evolved beyond being a mascot fighter and became a sort of museum of Nintendo history--a marker of how good Nintendo would become at celebrating (and repackaging) all of its first-party franchises.
6. The Witcher 3's Gwent
Lesson: Your in-game CCG's power and experience curve can intertwine with core gameplay
For a brief moment afterThe Witcher 3's release, Gwent was something of a running joke amongst players. Here's this bitter, violent medieval landscape filled with monsters, liars, and murderers... and it's pierced with the sound of players inviting merchants, barons, and crime lords to take join them in a CCG.
But, there's a reason the card minigame was roundly praised. It's a fully fleshed out minigame that rewards patience, consideration, and thinking ahead. It's also a minigame with a surprising flow into the game's general open-world systems. Cards can be bought, won, or stolen through various means and mechanics, and the game pops up at surprising intervals within the various sidequests and storylines. One quest can see the player besting a roomful of gamblers to acquire specific information, while another involves them battling for a man's life on a quest to obtain 3 powerful Gwent cards. It's an integration that even Knights of the Old Republic's Pazaak couldn't swing, and the ability to build sidequests and rewards out of the various cards help ascribe value to them beyond their power for a player's deck.
To be blunt, the only other time a CCG has gotten this much integration with the main map of a game has been in the Yu-Gi-Oh and Pokémon's Game Boy RPGs.
7. Shenmue's many, many minigames.
Lesson: Sometimes players like it when minigames interrupt flow
When the Shenmue III Kickstarter was announced at E3 this year, it brought many players back to memories of hunting for their father's killer, finding love in the middle of Christmastime---and hauling loads and loads of boxes, throwing darts, and other tiny activities that define the Dreamcast cult classic. These minigames aren't just seamless open-world integrations, however. They set up a new set of mechanics and objectives with each incarnation that slightly shifted what the player was doing.
Narrative designer Toiya Finley explains that these tiny minigames that made up so much of Shenmue's open world gave her a very specific feeling that helped set the tone for its urban landscape.
"I love the feeling of "Oh, so I can do that too?' that comes with the sheer number and diversity of minigames in those circumstances, or something that comes as a delightful surprise."
"I liked hauling boxes! It was kinda relaxing."
The multi mini-game mechanic isn't just limited to Shenmue though. Suda 51's No More Heroes series on the Wii and Playstation consoles peppers its open-world laser sword brawls with minigames that take wildly different forms, even shifting format down to pixel graphic games to create specific repeating loops for how the player earns cash to get access to the next killing frenzy. While it's certainly a laborious production model to faithfully recreate these kinds of minigames, they can possess a unique feel that players frequently respond to.
Go a level deeper
While micro games within larger macro games sometimes feel like chaff added to help populate a large open-world space, try to keep an eye out for those minigames and distractions that slowly suck you in. It's clear that many add something that players truly value. They may provide inspiration for how to make your game stand out.
(Header images via Animal Crossing Wiki and Gosunoob)