Archive for June 2012

What Is The Game About: JAMDAT NFL

June 18th, 2012 — 4:09pm

This is part two of a multi-part series on focus in game design, using examples primarily from Knockabout Games.  The first post can be found here.

In 2004 JAMDAT (now EA Mobile) contracted us to build an NFL-licensed title with full teams and rosters for a mobile phone.  Devices were pretty limited back then — the first real color handsets had only been out a year and the iPhone was a long way off.   Football games to that point were fairly primitive affairs with limited graphics.

Professional sports is well tread territory on other platforms.  Our thematic answer to the question “what is the game about” came with the license — this was “NFL football”, real as can be given the constraints of the platform, and all the expectations that come with that:  play calling, recognizable players and teams, season long play, etc.

But there were many options open to us on the functional side:  should it be about passing?   scoring?  play calling?  We ultimately settled on a very basic idea:  football was about “contact”.

Why contact?  Because it is what defines the real football experience and distinguishes it from other sports, and it happens on every single play.  It is the essence of football, and since we couldn’t replicate Madden on a 1′ x 1′ screen, we had to go to the roots of the game and build it up again from there.

In practical terms, here’s what that meant:

  • Tackling was not binary.  Every single tackle, once started, took time to resolve.  You’d push a player back, or you’d drag (or be dragged) another yard or two.  Sometimes you’d break free.  On rare occasions you and the defender would bounce off each other and fly 10 yards through the air.  But the guiding principle was that you always kept moving when tackled, and the play wasn’t over when the tackle began.
  • We tied phone vibration to tackling.  We didn’t use it for anything else, so the association was very clear in the player’s head (vibration means I’m being tackled, it’s not some UI feedback in the game).  And of course, vibration really does feel like contact, so the more we extended tackling, the more this feature enhanced the game.
  • Because tackling was no longer an instantaneous affair, things like horrible keypad latencies could be hidden by the tackle.  It’s frustrating to press a button on a phone and not have the screen update your action in time.  In this case, even if you were late on the keypress and got tackled, you could still, say, change direction and keep moving (the player couldn’t tell if they started moving a different way before or after the tackle, since they were able to continue).

We were the top rated football game for mobile for two years, and the game sold well for JAMDAT (although sports and mobile were not what we expected overall).  We got a lot of favorable comments about play balance and graphics and such, but I believe the thing that made it work was the underlying focus on football as “contact”.

Next week:  Precision Pinball

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What Is The Game About: Intro

June 11th, 2012 — 4:50am

This is part one of a multi-part series on focus in game design, using examples primarily from Knockabout Games.

One of the first things you should ask when designing a game is “what is the game about?”.  This is an old notion, and it’s not original to me.  The purpose is to focus the project and establish criteria against which to measure ideas and features.

This question should really be asked twice, once about gameplay (functionality) and again about context (theme).  Some functional examples might be “territorial acquisition”, “exploration”, or “physical contact”.  Thematic ones could be, say,  “19th century imperialism”, “street football” or “gumdrops”.

In either case, it’s important that there be only one answer.  That doesn’t mean you have to throw out your kitchen sink list of cool features you’d like to implement, but the question you have to ask of each one is simply “how does this feature support the core idea, and if it doesn’t then how can it (or should it be dropped)?”.

I should note that it’s possible during development for all this to change.  Sometimes a supporting feature unexpectedly emerges as the core element that makes everything tick, and by extension, the core focus of the product changes too.  Given the thought put into the relationship between the original core and different game features, that can be ok;  moving the new element into the primary role probably won’t be too hard (but you will have to re-think how, and if, other features still apply).

I could give some interpretations of existing games on the market and what I think they’re “about”, but this is backward looking and not terribly helpful.  Instead, in the next series of posts I’m going to talk about games I’ve actually worked on and how we answered that question at the beginning of the project (and to what extent it held true to the end).   These are all from Knockabout Games, a mobile game development shop I founded and ran from 2002 to 2006.

Next week, the first example:  JAMDAT NFL

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