Episode 31: Strategic Terrain

A compass rests on a topographic map

Any meaningful challenge requires us to move between different levels of thought: big-picture strategy flows down to tactical detail, and in-the-moment observation flows back up to refine our overall plan. As games push into ever more ambitious territory, how might we bring a similar richness to game design? On Episode 31 of Vertical Slice, we’re exploring what it means to create games that support both strategic and tactical thought, and what kinds of engagement these richer designs can unlock.

Show Notes

Image credit: Derell Licht

Episode 30: The Happy Place

Slime Rancher's exuberant cast of characters

Art is capable of inspiring the full galaxy of human emotions, so why are games so often preoccupied with darker shades of feeling? Though many of us were introduced to gaming with vibrant and cheery titles like the Super Marios of yore, the games we play today focus disproportionately on grim conflict. Is there hope for a brighter trend? On Episode 30 of Vertical Slice, we’re returning to our happy place to rediscover the joy of positivity and whimsy in game design.

Show Notes

  • Monomi Park’s Slime Rancher is one of our favorite examples of making happiness and humor the pillars of inspired design. Studio co-founder Nick Popovich gave an exceptional talk at GDC this year describing his team’s approach to crafting this fantastic debut title. GDC Vault pass holders can watch a full video of Nick’s talk; the talk’s slides are freely available to all.

Image credit: Monomi Park

Episode 29: Design as Discovery

An origami box of origami cranes

It can be easy to talk about game design as a discrete phase of game development: an initial step in the process where you firmly set down what it is that you want to build. In fact, effective game design is something that occurs continuously through game creation, with iteration, revision, and experimentation being key drivers in finding the heart of a project. On Episode 29 of Vertical Slice we’re celebrating this process of design as discovery, and talking about the practical approaches that successful designers use to uncover their best work.

Show Notes

Image credit: Tyler Spaeth

Episode 28: In the Loop

Hula hoops resting in the grass

Gameplay loops are the repeatable circuits of motivation, action, and reward from which player experience arises. The best designers understand how to weave and layer these loops with great dexterity, crafting nested structures that suffuse every moment of gameplay with multiple layers of goals and challenges. What are the principles behind this kind of impressive design feat? In Episode 28 of Vertical Slice we’re circling up on this fascinating question, and tracing the clever interactive orbits that spin beneath the surface of the most vibrant games.

Show Notes

Image credit: Flare

Episode 27: Equilibrium

A small stack of rocks measures up against its big brother at Arches National Park

In the parlance of game design, balance refers to the equilibrium between a game’s component parts: that carefully tuned web of relationships between goals, systems, and challenges from which fun is intended to arise. Skillfully balanced games ride the lines between challenge and frustration, investment and grind, in ways that can appear effortless, but in fact require keen design intuition and dexterity. So how does the delicate dance of balancing a game work? On this, the one-year birthday episode of Vertical Slice, Chris and Derek are joined by veteran game designer Stone Librande to discuss the nuanced process of guiding a game towards a state of well-calibrated fun.

Show Notes

  • Stone’s archive of professional talks and personal game designs: Stonetronix Designs.
  • game < design (GDC 2015): Stone discusses the importance of the sometimes under-considered design half of game design
  • 19 Games in 19 Years (Guldbrikken 2014): Nineteen of Stone’s personal game projects, created to entertain his sons as they grew from the ages of 3 to 22
  • Simulating a City – One Page at at Time (GDC 2013): A view of Stone’s design process during the development of SimCity (2013)

Image credit: Greg Hewgill

Episode 26: E3 Reverie

The LA convention center bustles with activity at E3 2017

E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, is a marquee event on the game industry’s annual calendar, offering publishers and platform holders a lavish stage for unveiling their latest offerings. Amidst the elaborate sets, bombastic presentations, and resplendent swag it can be difficult to separate hype from reality. Which games will inspire and which will disappoint in the year ahead? On Episode 26 of Vertical Slice Chris and Derek distill the key highlights from this year’s show, and offer their predictions on which upcoming titles will have the substance to back up the sizzle.

Show Notes

  • At long last: Metroid: Samus Returns is bringing the 2D heart of the franchise back to the 3DS.
  • Metroid Prime 4 is confirmed in development for the Nintendo Switch. The announcement trailer is as minimal as they come, but the return of that iconic, squidgy Metroid sound alone is enough to gladden the hearts of franchise fans everywhere.
  • The Super Mario Odyssey official gameplay trailer is a pastiche of the familiar and the new, with motifs ranging from classic Mario to photorealistic dinosaurs.
  • Against all odds, the Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle’s announcement trailer actually looks somewhat intriguing. However, Derek remains skeptical that the Rabbids franchise has anything meaningful to offer to the Mario universe.
  • Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is coming to the PS4 this fall, bringing the beloved Level 5/Studio Ghibli collaboration to a much broader audience of gamers.
  • Moss, for PlayStation VR, has the kind of evocative announcement trailer that really gets us excited. The game looks to blend gameplay and thematic elements from sources including Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Redwall, and Ori and the Blind Forest, and we think it has great potential.
  • The vaunted classic Shadow of the Colossus is coming to the PS4, much to the delight of gamers of all stripes. We still wish we could make friends with the Colossi, however.
  • BioWare’s Destiny competitor Anthem received a lot of attention with its flashy announcement trailer, but haven’t we seen this story before? The trailer bears more than a passing similarity to The Division’s now infamous “gameplay” reveal, and calls to mind all the same hazards of over-promising a lush open world experience.
  • The makers of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons are bringing their innovative gameplay sensibility to a more mature game: A Way Out, published by EA Originals. The idea of a mandatory co-op game is intriguing, but seems as though it could be very challenging to execute.

Image credit: Entertainment Software Association (ESA)

Episode 25: Small Steps and Giant Leaps

An unexpected vision from Everything, by David OReilly

Great games come in many forms, from incremental riffs on familiar genres to radical explorations of untouched design spaces. The creative tension between the poles of iteration and innovation animates much of game design, and the ability to negotiate these currents is a feature that can elevate truly inspired concepts above others. On Episode 25 of Vertical Slice we’re discussing the subtle art of blending new design elements with the familiar, and discovering how worthwhile breakthroughs can actually come from many points on the iteration/innovation continuum.

Show Notes

  • Chris has been exploring educational games and finding that great titles are surprisingly hard to find. Bobo Explores Light is one old but venerable title that demonstrates true educational innovation.
  • Everything, by David OReilly, is a great recent example of a game that (successfully) tosses out familiar design conventions in favor of something altogether different.

Image credit: David OReilly

Episode 24: Beginner’s Mind

Kids concentrate on mastering a karate lesson

Every new game comes with a learning curve: a new set of systems and mechanics that players must understand to get the most out of their play. Naturally then, the question of how to craft compelling tutorials and on-boarding experiences is an ever-present challenge in game design. On Episode 24 of Vertical Slice, we’re setting out to understand what separates the best tutorials—those rare first-hour experiences that pull players deeply into a game’s systems and challenges—from their less inspired counterparts. Let’s see what we can learn!

Show Notes

  • Chris is loving the challenge and pacing of Steam’s latest multiplayer hit: PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds.
  • Derek is excited about Gwent, CD Project Red’s new Witcher-based collectible card game, now in open beta on PC, PS4, and Xbox One.
  • George Fan’s seminal GDC talk, How I Got My Mom to Play Through Plants vs Zombies, is a superb starting point for learning how to design effective new player experiences.
  • Axis & Allies is a great example of how board games can use compelling physical design to draw players into the learning process.
  • Dwarf Fortress is perhaps the ultimate example of ignoring player instruction altogether. Sometimes there’s something to be said for letting players figure it out the hard way!

Image credit: Örlygur Hnefill

Episode 23: Collected Works

Pokémon cards, ready for battle

The enjoyment of collecting things we value is a feeling many of us can relate to. Modern game design has found much inspiration in this simple pleasure, and collection mechanics are now a frequent feature in games of all genres. Collectibles can be used to create lightweight metagames that widen a game’s objectives; to reveal elements of a narrative in unique and interactive ways; or even to underpin a game’s core metaphors and mechanics, as in collectible card games. On Episode 23 of Vertical Slice we’re packing all these possibilities and more into a comprehensive tour of collectibles in game design. Let’s bust open some packs and sort through the common, rare, and legendary features of this fascinating design space.

Show Notes

Image credit: Minh Hoang

Episode 22: Fandom of Random

A D20 die

Randomness in game design is a powerful double-edged sword. On the one hand, variation and surprise are cornerstone elements of fun, and carefully calibrated randomness can cultivate both of those experiences. Contrastingly, too much randomness can make a game’s underlying design feel chaotic, and alienate players through “unfair” or unforeseeable outcomes. So: how much random is the right amount? On Episode 22 of Vertical Slice we’re grabbing our dice and rolling into this fascinating design territory, examining the psychology of randomness in both analog and digital games.

Show Notes

Image credit: Fox Wu