Timberman, a mobile game

There’s little downside to downloading Timberman. It’s free and take under 30 seconds to figure out what’s going on. If nothing else, it’ll teach you a little more about mobile games.

I totally unlocked Mr. Tree.

I totally unlocked Mr. Tree.

I want to talk about Timberman because it’s an incredibly simple game. Tap the left or right side of the screen to chop the tree and avoid branches. Get as far as possible while the time pressure increases. That’s it. Within the first few seconds the player has experienced the entirety of the gameplay.

This is the whole game.

This is the whole game.

I’m jealous of Timberman, because it’s the kind of game I’ve been wanting to make for years. It’s a tight polished package with a very small scope. I would love to be making a game like this every month. With that model, the goal is to rapidly deliver small games with decent quality, then see what sticks. Hopefully this cycle provides quick learnings that can be applied to the next game. A rapid feedback loop is incredibly difficult to find in the game industry, but it’s exactly what I’m looking for to improve as a game designer.

Now I imagine myself having released Timberman, and it seems to have stuck. So what now? I think the next goal is to up it from the Flappy Bird level of complexity to something more like Jetpack Joyride or Ridiculous Fishing. (Two games I love.) Even then, I think Timberman wants to remain an incredibly simple open-and-go game. I think that’s a key part of what makes Timberman work, so I wouldn’t want to lose that.

There are a lot of things I could talk about to improve this game, but I’m going to focus on one aspect: how losing feels. Right now, it feels bad. Usually the player hits a branch after making some dumb mistake, then it immediately and unceremoniously brings up the “Game Over” screen, with their best score and current score.

That's my high score. 500 even.

That’s my own high score.

Here are a few ideas on how to improve the Game Over moment.

Add a sense of progress. Make the player feel like every game moved them forward. There’s already a count of the total wood chopped that can unlock characters. At a minimum, that total could be shown on the the Game Over screen, along with how much the player just added to that total. Maybe this is a bar that represents the distance to the next content unlock, though that system would need to change to support this. The League of Legends end screen does this well.

LoL End

 

Make a big deal of a new high score. I’m surprised at how unceremonious this is. It should be, like, crazy sparkly with all kinds of fireworks. This animation should actually stop the player from hitting the play again button for a few seconds. The high score number could animate up from the old score to the new score, to emphasize how much progress was made. This is also a good time to add a sparkle to that share button.

Make a big deal out of new content unlocks. There’s not a lot of content in the game to unlock, but there are a few cool skins. As-is, the player unlocks new skins, but they’re not really called out. Similar to the new high score animation, new content should be messaged on the Game Over screen, with an animation that stops the player from hitting play immediately.

Take a breath. Right now, it jumps RIGHT NOW to the Game Over screen as soon as the player hits a branch. The animations I talked about above would help, but I think adding just one second of animation to the character death could go a long way. That said, it’s still important to make sure this game remains a quick and easy experience. I wouldn’t want to put too much time in between a game ending and the next game starting, but I think there’s room for a little.

Give the player a sense of their place in the world. I hesitate to suggest backend work when I’m not sure what Timberman has access to through the app store, but here we go. I think a leaderboard type stat would be great on this screen. I wouldn’t say “#12345 out of 99999!” More like “Top 20%!” Or “Better than # of your friends!” This can be done for both the total number, and the best number. Heck, even a daily standing could go a long way. There are a lot of options here, and they don’t all need to be done, but I think one would go a long way.

Shop

So there you go. It’ll be interesting to see if Timberman ever expands. Even at its current small size, it still has design lessons to teach.

Thanks for reading,

-Jon

Monument Valley, a mobile game

If you’ve got an hour and $2 to spare, you should play Monument Valley from Ustow.

Monument Valley

It’s a puzzle game, but I didn’t find it particularly hard. The small scope of the game keeps you focused, so it’s easy to know where you should be looking for answers to the puzzles. This is a pleasing, low-stress experience with a focus on rewarding discovery, instead of difficulty. This isn’t a puzzle game where content can be created infinitely. It’s clear that each level was carefully hand-crafted, and you can get through all the content in a satisfying hour or two.

What most fascinated me as a designer was how well the game pulled you through its mechanics with barely a word of explanation. It’s really important to communicate to players which parts of the game can be interacted with, especially in a puzzle game, and especially on a touch screen. Monument Valley is a great example of clarity and simplicity in UI.

Monument Valley has a satisfying amount of story. Just enough to pique curiosity, but not enough to get in the way. It’s a good example of story more as a way to set the tone than to actually convey a plot. Story in games is one of my personal weaknesses, so I appreciated the lesson.

I also want to call attention to the awesome level-select screen that is superbly introduced. After beating the first level, you’re transitioned to a screen with a floating four-sided building in the middle. You’re staring at one of the sides with a gray roman numeral “X” symbol on it. Then the building starts to rotate, and you see a side with “IX”. Then “VIII,” and “VII.” It’s counting down in roman numerals. Then, as you think it’s going to rotate back to the “X” side, instead it’s a “VI.” This continues until it hits “I”, which starts to colorfully animate. Then it rotates back to “II”, which appears to activate.

This moment is awesome for a few reasons. Most importantly, it wordlessly emphasizes the primary mechanic of the game: impossible geometry. It also gives the player a sense of scope and location in the game – there are ten levels, you just completed level one, and now you’re on level two. Lastly, it teaches the player how to navigate the level selection screen by showing rotation in one direction, then in the other. This also subtly reinforces one of the major ways the player interacts with the game – rotating objects in 3D space.

It’s so great to see this level of care and subtle design applied to the level select screen. It’s such an easy screen to “level one” design and just stick in a grid of levels with padlock symbols on the locked ones. Granted, sometimes the typical level-select screen is the way to go. It’s typical for a reason – it’s cheap, and sometimes resources are better spent elsewhere. In the case of Monument Valley, taking the title screen to the next level really reinforces the goals and messaging of the game. This game is meant to be artistic, and it was made with care.

Overall, I love when a game know its scope so perfectly. This isn’t a puzzle game like Cut the Rope that can pump out forgettable content. (Don’t get me wrong, I like Cut the Rope.) They made ten levels, and they made them beautifully. They picked their mechanics, integrated them into the experience seamlessly, and didn’t stretch them too thin. The story serves the tone of the game instead of its own ends. Monument Valley just wants an hour or two and a few dollars in exchange for an artful experience, and it’s clear that the game was crafted with that goal in mind.

Design Thoughts – Introduction

One of my favorite things about being a game designer is that I feel like every creative experience I have makes me a better designer. Every piece of entertainment I consume contributes to my creative knowledge base, be it a game, movie, tv show, book, podcast, stand up comedian, music video, whatever. I love learning new things from all kinds of mediums. Heck, even mundane activities, like going to the dentist, can teach you things about entertainment if you’re looking hard enough, but creative pursuits tend to be more interesting.

I’ve also found that I absorb lessons better if I’m looking at something through that lens. If I’m thinking about learning while I’m consuming, I tend to learn more. Knowing this, I’m going to try writing the things I’ve learned down, here, on this blog. When I consume something new, especially a new game, I’m going to try to write about what I learned, even if it’s small.

It’s not my goal to completely dissect what I’m talking about. If I’m talking about a game, I’m not going to rate gameplay, sound, graphics, controls, multiplayer, blah blah blah. My goal is to stay brief, and just talk about the bits I found most interesting.

I hate making a big deal about starting something new when I don’t know if it’s actually going to stick, but here we are. Time to go write the first post.