Episode 47: One Chapter at a Time

A collection of colorful Harry Potter books resting on a shelf

Time is one of the most implacable risks that game development studios face. It takes time—sometimes quite a lot of it—to create a worthwhile game, and in traditional release models all of that time has to be financed up front before a game’s sales can even begin. In this context, the idea of being able to deliver game experiences incrementally—in episodes or chapters rather than massive releases—is surely an appealing proposition. Episodic content has the potential to reduce risk for studios and increases content frequency for audiences, so why hasn’t the format found wider adoption? On Episode 47 of Vertical Slice, we’re discussing the dream and the drawbacks of episodic game delivery, and brainstorming ways to help this underexplored approach blossom.

Show Notes

  • The 2018 BAFTA Games Awards took place last week, and What Remains of Edith Finch was honored with the Best Game prize. It’s a well deserved accolade for a truly innovative entry in the modern games canon.
  • After a long hiatus, Sony’s God of War franchise will make its debut on the PS4 this week. Kratos’ new quest is attended by monumental expectations, but early indications are that it may well live up to them.

Image credit: Sonia Belviso

Episode 46: Breaking Through

A green sprout emerges from a crack in the pavement

In a games market that is full to bursting with interesting titles, even compelling games can easily become lost in the shuffle. In order to cut through the noise and succeed, developers need to match their work to the right audience, finding the niches where their game’s particular experience can connect with just the right kind of player. How should designers approach this challenging exercise in precision product/market fit? On Episode 46 of Vertical Slice, we’re discussing the realities of designing for a crowded game ecosystem, and discovering the best practices for success in an unforgiving marketplace.

Show Notes

Image credit: Skeeze

Episode 45: All Ears

Satellite dishes from the Very Large Array in Socorro, New Mexico

The idea of incorporating player feedback into the game design process has strong intuitive appeal. Rather than just guessing what players want, why not ask them directly? In fact, while the theory may be simple, the practice of gathering authentic, balanced, and actionable feedback can be quite challenging. How do you test a game when its still rough and incomplete? How do you get play testers to tell you what they think, not what they think you want to hear? Most importantly: how do you stay true to your personal vision while still being open to external opinions? On Episode 45 of Vertical Slice we’re exploring these questions and more as we learn how to make player feedback a productive part of the design process.

Show Notes

Image credit: CGP Grey

Episode 44: The Thread and the Tapestry

Fabric is woven on a loom

Designing a single gameplay system is a meaningful challenge by itself, but it’s also only the first step in the design of modern games. Today’s games are built not around the single threads of individual systems, but rather around complex tapestries: multitudes of gameplay systems that overlap with and influence one other in a profusion of different ways. Economies, level progressions, social systems—even “simple” modern games involve surprisingly intricate inter-system connections. How does one approach designing these kinds of complex interdependencies? On Episode 44 of Vertical Slice we’re exploring the unique challenge of overlapping system design, and looking for the principles that can help steer the way to meaningful and fun system interactions.

Show Notes

  • Inspired by the Switch, Chris has been looking for deeper games on the iPad. Ports of slower-paced PC games like The Banner Saga and Civilization 6 are proving a good source of more meaningful iPad experiences.
  • While multi-system games are now the standard, well-crafted single-system games can still have a special appeal. Derek suggests Tiny Wings and Whale Trail as worthwhile exemplars of modern single-system design.
  • If you’re looking for games that test the limits of sprawling multi-system interaction, Paradox Interactive is the studio to study. Games like Stellaris and Europa Universalis define the far end of modern game complexity and command skilled, specialized audiences.

Image credit: raichovak

Episode 43: The Process Paradox

A pencil's reflection appears reversed

The game industry exists at the intersection of two very different worlds: the world of games as pure creative expression, and the world of games as products. Superimposing these perspectives is no easy feat; how does one reconcile the unpredictable nature of the creativity journey with inflexible business concerns like schedules and budgets? Is such reconciliation even possible? On Episode 43 of Vertical Slice, we’re debating this fundamental question, and looking for practical ways to operationalize the creative process without sapping creativity or bulldozing business plans.

Show Notes

  • For more discussion on the delicate relationship between the creative and business dimensions of game studios, we also recommend Episode 19: You Eat Last.

Image credit: Rodger Evans

Episode 42: Grist for the Grind

A grist mill's wheel in repose

The play pattern of “grinding”, or repeatedly playing the same content in order to level a character or earn rewards, is surely one of gaming’s most curious idiosyncrasies. How can playing the same content time and time again be fun? In fact, games dating back to the classic JRPGs of the 8-bit era have shown that well-designed grinds can be quite satisfying, affording players the opportunity to pursue and accomplish goals in a pleasant continuous loop. That kind of equilibrium doesn’t happen without effort though, and uninspired or careless designs can easily tip grind-based gameplay in much more tedious directions. So: what makes for the perfect grind? On Episode 42 of Vertical Slice we’re taking a careful measure of this unique gameplay motif, and looking for the delicate mechanisms that keep player-friendly grinds in balance.

Show Notes

  • Monster Hunter: World has arrived to great acclaim, enchanting veteran hunters and series newcomers alike with its deep gameplay and charming personality. If you’re curious what all the fuss is about, Gaijin Hunter offers an excellent review authored from the standpoint of a long-time Monster Hunter fan.

Image credit: Roger H. Goun

Episode 41: Open Worlds, Open Questions

The Lone Wanderer and Dogmeat take in a wasteland sunset

Open-world games promise the opportunity to immerse oneself in an entirely new reality, replete with characters to meet, adventures to undertake, and mysteries to solve. With a pitch like that, it’s not hard to understand why so much recent design effort has gone into applying open-world design concepts to so many different genres of games. Now that open worlds are big business though, there’s a very important question afoot: what’s next? How can the genre build on its past successes, while still remaining fresh and relevant in the next era of game design? On Episode 41 of Vertical Slice, we’re stepping into the wild terrain of open-world design to see what answers we can uncover. Join us!

Show Notes

Image credit: Bethesda Game Studios

Episode 40: The Explorer’s Journey

Link discovers the Master Sword in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

Think back on your most memorable gaming moments and there’s a good chance you’ll recognize the themes of exploration and discovery running through many fond memories. From The Legend of Zelda’s iconic secret passageways to the camouflaged nooks of today’s open worlds, hidden but discoverable content is something that savvy designers strive to create, both as a form of reward and as a mechanism for deepening engagement. Yet there is an important conundrum at the heart of this design motif: how do you create meaningful exploration and genuine discovery for some of your players without frustrating others? On Episode 40 of Vertical Slice we’re tinkering with this fascinating puzzle, and offering our principles for guiding players towards fruitful exploration and the thrill of the unexpected.

Show Notes

Image credit: Nintendo

Episode 39: Respecting the Player

An origami heart folded from a Canadian banknote

The games industry, much like other creative businesses, depends on the principle of fair exchange between creators and audiences. It’s an exchange that can be enumerated in dollars and cents of course, but there is a second very important ingredient as well: respect. In a perfect world, players respect creators by offering fair financial rewards for the craft, while creators respect their audiences with honest and interesting designs. Unfortunately, changing business practices in the AAA space are starting to strain this equilibrium, with influential developers and publishers pulling the industry towards increasingly player-hostile business practices. What can be done to steer away from this unhealthy trajectory? On Episode 39 of Vertical Slice we’re grappling with this critically important issue, and offering our thoughts on how developers and publishers can do more to respect their players’ time, money, and intelligence.

Show Notes

Image credit: Nayuki

Episode 37: Solving the Right Problems

Blue puzzle pieces in a jar

Game design is a famously multifaceted pursuit, but what if you were asked to pick just one skill that most clearly distinguishes great game designers from their peers? What do you think this single powerful ability might be? On Episode 37 of Vertical Slice, we’re discussing a fascinating answer to this question brought to us by special guest Weszt Hart. Weszt is a Senior User Experience Designer at Riot Games, where he has helped to define the social systems behind League of Legends, among many other contributions. For Weszt, great designers are those who can cut to the root of creative problems by focusing on one simple question: what is the real problem that this game or system is solving? Join us as we learn how this problem-solving approach to design can unlock stronger, leaner, and braver products, in games and beyond.

Show Notes

Image credit: Olga Berrios