Almost everyone involved in indie game development these days gets into it for the same reason – we played games, we liked those games, and they inspired us to make our own games. We want to capture whatever it was that made us love the games we played when we were younger. Whether it was the storyline, the art style, or the gameplay itself, these games made us who we are, and they influence every decision we make in our own games.
A few weeks ago, I was discussing game development with a friend when they asked me “what are your favorite video games?” After I rattled off a few, they asked another question – “Why?” This was followed by a really interesting conversation, because the games I chose were so different, and yet they all influenced the way that I design and make games now.
So I’m going to share that list with you now. I’m going to tell you my favorite video games and how they have affected my own game development, and I hope you’ll think about your own answer to the question as well; what games make you want to make games?
I’m gonna start here, because I mentioned it last week, and because everyone is expecting it. If you’ve played Where Shadows Slumber, then it probably reminds you of Monument Valley. This isn’t exactly intentional, but I would be lying if I said that we weren’t inspired by Monument Valley in a lot of our design decisions.
There are a few things that Monument Valley did that were very important. First and foremost, it’s beautiful. I’m not one who really focuses on how the games I play look, but Monument Valley manages to be beautiful beyond the point of ‘good graphics’ and actually into the realm of ‘art’. This aesthetic quality is something that isn’t necessary for a game, but if you go for it, it definitely wins some points.
Secondly, Monument Valley showed that you can have a game with an incredibly simple concept, yet still have intricate, mind-bending puzzles. Additionally, it does so on a form-factor (mobile) that doesn’t lend itself nicely to this type of intricate, high-quality game, and still managed to do well, despite the industry’s focus on the ‘freemium’ monetization model. Monument Valley showed, most of all, that if you really put a lot of work into making a truly incredible game, you can be rewarded for it.
StarCraft: Brood War
Ah, StarCraft. This is really where it all began for me. This was one of the first games I really got into, and it became a very important part of my childhood. If I had to pick one game on this list as my all-time favorite, it would have to be StarCraft.
When I was talking about my favorite games and StarCraft came up, I tried to think of why it was my favorite game, from a game design perspective. StarCraft is a very complex and strategic game. The skill cap is incredibly high, and there’s always room for mind games and counter-play. I played a lot of competitive games of StarCraft, and I spent hours perfecting my worker split (for those of you who don’t know what that means, just be glad you didn’t have to do it). The depth this game has is fantastic – but are any of those really the reason I loved StarCraft so much?
No – the reason I loved StarCraft so much was the way it created memories of playing with friends. It wasn’t the game itself that made it fun, it was the people I played it with. When I think of StarCraft, I think of the 5-player game where one friend had nothing but a single pylon and about 40 Corsairs – every time someone else won a battle, those corsairs would arrive to finish off his fleet. I think of the time I won a game by building nothing but Ghosts and Valkyries, for some reason. I think of the EMP-Nuke rushes, the epic micro battles, and the mind games. Most of all, I think of laughing with my friends as it all went down, and even occasionally loading up a few replays and just watching them.
Children’s special on the meaning of friendship aside, these stories and interactions are the reason I love StarCraft. Unfortunately, that doesn’t really inform any of our game design decisions – you can’t build any of that stuff into a game. What you can do is make a game that has the potential for these stories. Make it so that your players can do crazy, funny, awesome things. Your game may be strategic, intense, and mind-blowing, but, above all else, you need to make sure that it’s fun.
Cave Story is a testament to what indie games can accomplish. Cave Story was created, music, art, gameplay, and all, start to finish, by one guy in his spare time. And, aside from being an inspiring story, it’s also an incredibly great game!
In my mind, the reason that Cave Story is so good is that it doesn’t make any concessions. Every part of the game is great. The storyline? Funky, but really cool. The gameplay? Skill-testing and engaging. The music? Amazing! For almost any facet of a game that you might ask about, the answer for Cave Story would be “yeah, it has that, and it’s awesome!” It just feels like an absolutely complete game. Comparing a game like Cave Story to a lot of the pretty good, mostly-finished games you see really drives home the importance of actually finishing your game. Rather than saying “yeah, the controls are a little off, but it’s not a big deal”, get in there and fix them!
The other big reason to talk about Cave Story on a game development blog is because of its development. Cave Story has become a sort of cult classic, in a good way. It’s so incredibly inspiring that one guy can make such a great game in his spare time.
Rocket League, also known as Hot-Wheels soccer, is the game I’ve been playing the most recently. As such, I have a pretty good feeling for why I like it so much. There are really two reasons.
(1) The controls in Rocket League are phenomenal. Imagine you’re playing some other game, and you miss an objective (whether it be a goal or a kill or whatever). Inside your head you’ll end up saying “I would have had it if the controls were better”, or “I was trying to move to the left, but my guy didn’t go where I wanted”, or something like that. You can always blame the game, rather than yourself.
In Rocket League, you don’t have that luxury. Once you figure out the controls, it’s all on you – when you tell your car to do something, your car does exactly that. This can lead to a little frustration, but it also leads to some absolutely incredible plays from the pros, and it means that every time you do something right, you feel that much better about it. There’s no better feeling than flying through the air, using your boost and turning you car in exactly the right way to score a crazy goal, and knowing that it was all you. That feeling wouldn’t be possible without the most finely-tuned controls.
(2) The other great thing about Rocket League is what I’m going to call it’s ‘skill curve’. This is different from a ‘learning curve’ – a learning curve implies that the game gets harder as you go, so you have to learn in order to beat it. The ‘skill curve’ is the inverse of this. You’re never ‘not good enough’ for a game; rather, as you play, you get better. This is true of most games, but it feels the most rewarding in Rocket League.
When you first start to play, you have a hard time hitting the ball. With enough practice, you start to hit it pretty consistently – that advance in skill is noticeable, and it feels great. Just as you’re getting good at that, you realize you’re not rotating properly. When you start to master that, you begin doing aerials. You’re always getting better, and you always feel like you’re getting better – your skill level never plateaus, you just keep getting good at the game.
Rocket League isn’t what I would call a deep game. There’s no storyline, no (or very few) different levels, nothing really new about the game. Psyonix does release different game modes and new maps from time to time, but the core gameplay remains mostly unchanged. And yet, despite this, it’s the game I keep returning to. It never really gets stale, thanks to its controls and skill curve, which is incredible for such a straightforward game. Rocket League shows that you can give any game a lot of replay value just by making it well.
Portal is just an incredibly solid example of a well-put-together game. At the time, it seemed to be a sort of ‘add-on’ game, a little nugget that Valve added into The Orange Box. While the other titles in The Orange Box (Team Fortress 2 and Half Life 2) were really awesome, it was Portal that stood out to me, and to most people that I talk to.
Why? Well, Portal wasn’t just another game. The thing that excites me most about any game is when it explores new design space, and that’s exactly what Portal did. There were no guns to shoot (well, no real guns), no enemies to destroy, no princesses to rescue. You’re simply introduced to the world and the theory of portals, and you have to make your way through it. Your only weapon is the portal gun, and your only enemies are the levels themselves. It’s a very simple distillation of the essence of a puzzle. This is something that I aim for when designing my own puzzles – if you still have design space to explore, there’s no need to complicate your levels.
Portal really provides us with a master class on not overstaying your welcome. Really, it was the perfect length for what it was. You learn the mechanic, you get to used it, and you advance through puzzles with it. By the time you reach the end, you’ve explored most of the design space, but haven’t gotten to a point where it’s become timesome or tedious.
Plus, Portal does a great job of indicating its short, jolly mood through the use of its witty writing. This combination of very pure puzzles and inviting storyline is a design marvel, as it makes it very easy to draw a player into your game. The biggest takeaway from Portal, for me, is that more game doesn’t necessarily make for a better game. Content is king, and having more gameplay is usually a good thing, but it is possible to focus too much on length, rather than good design or implementation, and end up ‘overstaying your welcome’.
What I’m Most Looking Forward To
In addition to games from the past, let’s take a look at a game from the future! The future game I’m most looking forward to (other than Where Shadows Slumber) is a game I saw at PAX East this year. I only got to play the demo for a few minutes, but I’ve been really excited for it ever since. And the winner is… The Gardens Between!
After checking this game out, I’m sure you’re not surprised that I chose it. After all, it’s an indie game with a cell-shaded art style, a slight metaphysical twist, and gameplay based at least in part on lanterns! How could I not love it?
Parallels with Where Shadows Slumber aside, this game looks awesome. The controls are very simple and intuitive, and yet the puzzles show a depth that promises very interesting and challenging interactions. The game looks relaxing, sleek, and challenging, which, to me, makes for an awesome upcoming game. Props to The Voxel Agents on what looks to be a great title!
That’s Not All…
This list is by no means exhaustive. In fact, in an effort to pick my favorite games, I’ve left out some games that perhaps played an even bigger role in turning me into a game developer. There’s the first game that really got me into gaming (Runescape), the game that first got me interested in making games (Block Dude), and the game that I probably spent the most time playing (World of Warcraft), but, as important as these games were to me, I don’t really consider any of them to be in my top 5 favorite games.
Despite their differences, each of these games (and any game I’ve ever played, really) has had an effect on the decisions I make when working on Where Shadows Slumber or anything else. These games are all very important to me personally, and I hope I’ve done a decent job of explaining what each of them brings to the table, design-wise. Hopefully you’ll be inspired to examine your favorite games, and the design patterns involved in them!
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If you have questions about my favorite games, or just want to share your own, feel free to contact us on social media! You can always find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, find us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebook, itch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly with any questions or feedback at contact@GameRevenant.com.
Jack Kelly is the head developer and designer for Where Shadows Slumber.