Four triumphs of simple game design

Four triumphs of simple game design

By Billy Thomson

February 11th 2010 at 9:30AM

Thompson looks over the merits of simple game design

It seems that most of highly anticipated games of 2010 are big blockbuster games, so I thought I’d go in the opposite direction and talk about some of the more simple games that I’ve enjoyed over the past few years.

What I love about these games is they only take a few minutes to play from start to finish, and they all have instant replay with a scoring system that means you always, always want one more go. This is the ultimate reaction any designer wants from a player who plays a game they designed.

Stair Dismount – Porrasturvat
When I first played this a good few years ago, our entire team at DMA lost so many hours to experimenting it.
The goal of the game is to throw a ragdoll character down a set of stairs and inflict as much damage as possible. All you do is choose the point and direction where the force is applied that pushes the character down the stairs.

The fun of the game comes from a multiplier system where each body part provides a different multiplier to the damage inflicted. Throwing someone down a set of stairs and praying that you’ve pushed them in the right direction to constantly smash their head off each step has never been so much fun.

It’s one of those basic ideas that instantly gets you thinking of all the other games that could be made with that same damage score mechanic. Love it.

Cube Runner
This is easily my favourite iPhone game. You steer a flying craft by tilting the iPhone left or right; the craft moves forward at a constant speed and all you have to do is avoid the blocks that appear in front of you for as long as you can.

The game looks awful, and if you play it on the easy or medium setting it’s really dull, but if you play it on hard it really comes to life. Like a lot of these little games it’s unbelievably infuriating, but you can get straight back into the game so quickly that you always want one more go. Every single person I’ve shown this game to has instantly downloaded it and they still have it installed.
I’d love to work on an update to this game because it’s got so much untapped potential.

Canabalt
This is an incredibly simple concept: help a little guy run away from some unseen danger. All you need to do is press a single button to make him jump. The longer you press the button, the higher the jump. It’s a case of seeing how far you can get him to run along the constantly varying set of platforms and obstacles before he is killed.

Timing the jumps is everything in this game, what I love about it is you don’t blame the game when you fail, you blame yourself for being too slow or jumping too high.
My one complaint about this game – and Cube Runner – is once you get good at it, the difficult bit that you keep failing on is so far away from the start of the game that it becomes quite tedious trying to beat your high score. It’s a small complaint, but it’s something that I think could make these games even better.

Orbital
I was told about this game by a guy I work with and, after my first play, I wasn’t that impressed.
You tap the screen to release a little ball from the bottom of the screen that then bounces off the edges of the screen and expands in size after it comes to a halt. If any part of the ball touches the edge or another ball, it stops expanding. If any ball expands beyond the line at the bottom of the screen it’s game over. If any stationary ball is hit three times by a moving ball it disappears and you score a point. That’s it. I played it through again, then again and again and each time I got higher scores and learned different tactics to score more points.
For a game so simple, it requires a lot of skill and thought to get a good score. If you try it out I’d suggest you play on Gravity mode, which makes it even more interesting.

In a financial climate where the vast majority of game developers and publishers are focusing more and more on safe games that are almost guaranteed to make a profit, it’s comforting to think that most of these games are free to play and came to life as the pet project of a single person – someone who made the game purely for the joy of making games that people would love to play.