The development process at This Is Pop is both precise and improvisational, involving fluid collaboration between expert visual, technical and game designers. This sets us apart from many other companies, who treat visual design as a final production step and game design as a secondary task to be shared between other members of the team.
Our belief is that this collaboration is essential to the game development process. The differences between a competent but uninspiring game and a truly compelling one ultimately translate into more time spent playing, a better overall experience, repeat visits, and an expanded audience due to positive word-of-mouth. Even the simplest abstract puzzle game is capable of transfixing a player for hours on end, but only if it contains that elusive balance of appeal, ease-of-use, challenge, satisfaction, goals, decisions and rewards. Creating that balance is the focus of our game design process.
Our thinking about game development is grounded in years of creating games for various platforms and also in a thorough analysis of existing games – web games, console games, PC games, but also non-digital games both contemporary and historical. We also draw upon our backgrounds in designing other kinds of interactive experiences.
What are the elements that make a successful game? There is no magic formula, like any creative process game development combines intuition, inspiration, general “rules of thumb”, and trial and error. However, there are a handful of basic principles that we feel apply to every project:
Originality – The digital realm is cluttered with slightly revised versions of pre-existing games, arcade classics with new graphics and “public domain” puzzle-game mechanics recycled over and over again. At This Is Pop we feel every game needs to have some unique aspect that sets it apart from every other game. We often draw inspiration and ideas from successful games of the past, but always bring something genuinely new to the equation.
Easy but Deep – Attention is a highly valuable commodity. In order to break through the clutter a game must clearly communicate its basic idea quickly and make something cool happen right away. Creating a game design that achieves this is difficult enough, but it’s only the first hurdle. To provide the kind of experience that will draw a player in for hours and keep them coming back for more there must be longer-term gameplay elements that become apparent to players over time. These deeper features encourage players to experiment with new approaches and explore all the possibilities of the “game space”. Deep gameplay elements also provide an overarching sense of progress to the player’s experience of the game as their understanding and skill increase over multiple plays.
Emergent Complexity – One key to achieving easy-but-deep gameplay is the concept of emergent complexity. Rather than building a complex game system “from the top down” we grow the system up from a handful of basic, modular elements that can be recombined in a vast number of different ways. This approach allows us to keep the elements themselves simple and knowable while their interactions can lead to many unpredictable and surprising situations.
Playtesting – Because game design involves creating and fine-tuning a complex interactive system there is only one way to know whether your design decisions are working or not. Playtesting is the most important tool in the game designer’s palette. At This Is Pop we start with a playable prototype of the game and use this to test the basic game mechanics before finalizing the overall design. Whenever possible, we build time for substantial playtest-based revisions into the production schedule.