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Three words – just three little words – that will save your game

By on October 4, 2012

I have started doing a new exercise with many of my consulting clients. I call it “three little words”.

The idea is to find the three words that encapsulate the “feel” of your game. It’s not quite the same as the hook or the elevator pitch. The three little words are not supposed to be used in your marketing materials, or to attract players. They are a development tool to enable you to make a better, more coherent game.

So if you are working on a game, take a moment to write down on a scrap of paper the three words that encapsulate your game. Do it quickly, without too much thought.

Done it?

Good. Now lets look at two games and how the 3 little words can make a real difference.

When a game is not a game

The “endless runner” genre is now well established. Games like Jetpack Joyride and Temple Run have had chart success from an easy pick-up-and-play mechanic. Your character moves through the game at a steadily increasing pace and you have to duck, jump, dodge or otherwise avoid hazards until you, inevitably, die.

Take a look at the screen shots below. Temple Run is the Tomb Raider-esque, Indiana Jones-esque endless runner set in a jungle. Jetpack Joyride by contrast, is a side-scrolling endless runner where you blast out of a laboratory and try to escape while wearing a variety of improbably jetpacks. The graphics – and many other aspects of the aesthetic – are quite different.

So what do you think the three little words were?

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For me, both games are about adrenaline. The developers wanted the player to be on the edge of their seat. For the brain to engage fight-or-flight mode, scanning the tiny screen for threats in an attempt to stave off inevitable destruction. For the player to search out that elusive “flow”, a trance-like state where a player is one with the game.

They are also about exhilaration. They are fast. They get faster over time. The entire design gives players the illusion of speed, and this is key to both games.

The third one is where they differ. I think that Temple Run is about the feeling of being out of control while Jetpack Joyride is about being in control. In Temple Run, you are being chased by skull-faced monkeys. Your character runs as if he is running for his life. He stumbles across tree roots. The control mechanism is very forgiving – if you swipe or tap at vaguely the right time, you turn or jump. This is important, because the hazards come thick and fast. The scenery is scrappy, organic, falling to pieces. My overwhelming feeling while playing the game is that every second that I survive is a miracle. I am lucky not to be dying every single moment.

Contrast that with Jetpack Joyride. The side-scrolling viewpoint gives you more time to consider hazards than the third-person viewpoint used by Temple Run. The animation is precise, not scrappy. You never trip or stumble. The backgrounds have the clean precision of a laboratory or scientific facility. Even the bits in a jungle put the jungle behind glance. This is a precise, controlled environment for a precise, controlled game, albeit one where your precision is happening at breakneck pace. (As an aside, I wonder this is why AAA game developers, and particularly coders, all seem to prefer Jetpack Joyride.)

Is that what the creators intended?

I doubt that Halfbrick and Imangi sat down to look for these three words. I bet that – as happens with so many endeavours – the creative team came up with things that just felt right together. The organic jungle feel of Temple Run, its animations, art style, messaging, menus, music, everything, integrated into one wonderful whole. Ditto Jetpack.

To take analogy from another creative endeavour, books often benefit from searching out their theme. In his excellent On Writing, Stephen King proposes that would-be novelists put their finished manuscript in a drawer and ignore it for six weeks. They should then revisit the story, looking for the big themes that connect the important parts of the story. When you find the underlying themes, strengthen the elements that use the theme. Change metaphors, cut whole scenes, add others that make the theme (or themes) more relevant throughout the book. In short, work out the story is really about, underneath the tale it purports to tell. The result will be a tighter, more satisfying read, even if most readers will never notice the effort that you have gone to.

How to use “three little words”

That is the idea behind three little words. If Jetpack Joyride is about adrenaline, pace and control, that would suggest one art style, one animation style, one music style. If it was about being “out-of-control”, it might suggest a totally different one.

Note that the words you use need to be precise. It is no good saying that your game is humorous. Is it slapstick? Gross? Dry? Deadpan? Over-the-top? Satirical? Sharply-observed? Witty?

You need to live and breathe the words throughout your game design. You can say your game is “cute” just by drawing cute characters, but if the animations, music, menus or even core mechanics are not cute, you just have a game where the different elements jar, not meld.

And that is what you are looking for. A game where all the disparate elements meld into one perfect little gem of an experience.

What do you need to make that happen?

Just three little words.

What are yours?

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: thecurveonline.com
  • nachoB

    -fast

    -tight
    -in/out of control

  • http://twitter.com/TwiceCircled Twice Circled

    Really interesting article. It reminds me to similar concepts I read about in The Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell when he talks about themes. He illustrates this by comparing potential themes for a pirate game. Consider “A search for hidden pirate treasure” and “The fantasy of being a pirate” – the latter captures the imagination so much better!

    When I tried to define my own project I originally came up with the word ‘space’ (it’s a RTS involving battling space platforms). It’s that common mistake of mixing up a theme with a setting. Like Nicholas describes in the article, the themes are normally more emotive things that relate to the user’s experience. In the end I came up with ‘autonomy’ as one of my themes or ‘three little words’ as you put it. This evolving from a game mechanic where you build static units (turrets etc.) which fire without additional prodding – part of the fun is setting up all your units and letting them autonomously attack the enemy.

    That’s just one little word though, any ideas for the other two?