The Bare Essentials of Game Design

13 09 2007

Indie Game Watch I
In the “Indie Game Watch” column I will talk about indie games I consider remarkable, or otherwise deserving of extra attention.

For computer games, size and ambition require resources. Indie game authors are often alone and generally work within a far modester budget than any large studio, and as a result games cannot be of the same size, scope, complexity or wealth of contents. Thus, many indie titles are small and harmless, often puzzles, repetitive and formulaic match-3’s or narrow simulations, quick-and-fleeting things designed to bring a smile or a few moments of distraction and then generally to be forgotten. However, I say there are ways of producing memorable high-quality games within the indie model, and one of those is essentialism – taking a concept (an idea, a genre, something) and successfully reduce it to its bare minimals, and turn that into a game. If done wrong this method may yield something lacking, insufficient and boring, but if done right, the result may be engrossing and teach us developers something about games we overlook without realising!

In this post I’d like to mention two games -tow absolute reductions- that have done this: the real-time strategy reduction Galcon -a stellar game of epic scope fitting on one screen- and the turn-based strategy game OasisCivilization in 100 tiles per map!

Oasis screenshotMind Control Software’sOasis, situated in ancient Egypt, is what you get if you take the archetypal turn-based strategy (“TBS”) titles like Civilization, keep all its concepts -exploration, cities, armies, technology research, roads- and boil it down to its monofilament skeleton. You explore the map (all of which fits on screen at once) find cities, workers, and mines by clicking on fog of war; you spend workers on building roads and researching technology (by clicking on land or mines); mines automatically generate technology, cities automatically grow when connected by roads; and after a given number of turns barbarians attack and you’d better be ready. There is no widget-interface, everything is done by left-clicking map tiles. It is everything you find in TBS games, contained in one screen and condensed playing time. It is easy to learn, entertaining to play, and beautifully executed. If you like the concept of Civilization but, like me, are loath to spend 15 hours or more on a game, then this may be for you. However, its strengths -tight focus and constrained game play freedom- are also its weaknesses: it gets “understood” fast and is quite repetitive. Technology comes in predetermined order, and due to the tightly defined game play, all games play out similarly. After the first hour, the game does not surprise you any more, but nonetheless, it is still enjoyable. Also, every game developer should study this game and so gain a better understanding of the mechanics of TBS games!
Calcon screenshotImitation PicklesGalcon – the answer to what you get when you try to reduce the RTS concept to the utter bare essentials, revealing the numeric attrition simulation underneath. You and your opponent start with a planet in a planet field. Your planets automatically produce ships, larger planets produce more. You can send an adjustable percentage of your ships to conquer other planets. That’s it. It is RTS gaming in its pure form, and is worthwhile for two reasons: one, it provides immediate and intense, though short-lived when you’ve learned it, action; and two, it is in effect a vivisection of the RTS concept showing the least common denominator for all games of the kind. Functional stylised graphics suitable for the game; minimalistic (again) functional interface that does the job, adequate AI that provides a challenge until you learn to beat it, after which the game lose replay value.

Two small masterpieces that prove that less can be more, that KISS can be fun, and that indie can mean more than only match-3’s.