Welcome to Design Oriented. We started in the summer of 2015 with a blog aimed to provide high quality game design analysis and criticism. We quickly realized that adding one more blog to the ocean that is games criticism wasn’t an effective way to improve the quality of conversation overall or help us connect to each other.
So we spent the last half year developing Design Oriented Search: A new way to explore games and the conversation about games. The search is now our home page.
On a full screen desktop, the default view features two columns. One is for the Catalog Critique, and the other is for the Game Breakdown database. On mobile only one column can be viewed at a time.
The Catalog Critique (CC) is a collection of articles, videos, podcasts, conference talks, etc. from around the Internet. If someone publically posts about video games, particularly about their design and their effectiveness as an art form, it belongs in the CC.
There are many different view points and voices out there when It comes to game criticism & conversation. Whatever your interest, the DO Search is designed with over 25 unique tags and labels to ensure you can search for exactly what you want. What’s more interesting is that we can simultaneously show you results for near to your interest. Results you would never have considered searching for directly.
Anytime you search you can tab over to the timeline. This is an important feature that we haven’t seen on any other search engine. Instead of thumbing through page after page of results, the timeline creates a map of the results. The vertical axis is word count and the horizontal axis is date published. Each dot is color coded by game topic. You can even mouse over or click on a dot to zip to that result page.
The Game Breakdown (GB) is a repository of game bits. No opinions. No analysis. Just the facts. As the GB grows you will be able to find handy information about a game’s design or jump endlessly between games by topic, genre, or keyword.
Have fun, and send us your feedback.
Thanks to Marcus T. Mike A., Chris S., Willy A., S. Johnathan, for building it with me.
Special thanks to Golem Greg for doing all the web magic.
Since July we have been hard at work on Design Oriented 2.0. It’s a re-launch for the site that aims to do something amazing for games criticism overall. We plan on launching in Q1 2016. If you’re reading this now, that means you’ve supported us up to this point. We want to say thanks.
If you’re curious about Design Oriented 2.0 (DO.2, D2.0, DO2, 2.DO?) feel free to reach out to us. We’d love to have a chat, show you a few things, and get feedback on the new site.
Filip Wiltgren says viable games have elements of mystery and suspense. “To paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock: mystery is when you don’t know if there’s a bomb under the table, suspense is when you lift the tablecloth and see it but can’t leave the table.” Mystery is about what the rules can do. Suspense is about if you can achieve a goal given the rules.
Marcus Says: Zelda’s curated semi-linear world is under fire from “fans” of the series who say that Zelda is no longer a mystery now that the game’s general structure is “known”. Yes, the general outline of the hero’s journey is mostly the same throughout the games, but whether or not the bomb is under the table is still a question that needs to be answered at the start of every game.
Mike says: Filip is right in pointing out that great gameplay generates suspense. That thrill of executing a plan is the pay-off for the uncertainty and feeling of being on edge as you play out a match in a competitive game.
Game designs need to do a good job of managing how uncertainty is generated and manipulated in and by the player. Not knowing the result of play is often what makes games worth playing. Filip distinguishes further between rules-related uncertainty caused by a lack of basic knowledge about what’s possible in a game, and execution-related uncertainty. I’m left somewhat unsatisfied by Filip establishing this dichotomy between becoming competent with a game’s rules and pulling off strategies–the two are certainly interdependent, but the dichotomy compares processes operating at different scales and this damages the comparison.
Richard says: Filip’s article is too jumbled to glean anything useful. His categories, definitions, and descriptions are all loosely defined “feelings” that he then loops back on. This is the kind of vague talk about games that occurs when concrete, identifiable game design categories aren’t used. When Filip says…
“strategy / tactics” he refers to Difficulty Design – Skill – knowledge
“viable in the long run” he refers to Design Space – Level Design
“mystery heavy games … end up … solvable” “the player’s limited ability to calculate and predict all possible variations” he refers to Systems / Rules – Level Design – Solvable Challenges
“the player’s limited ability to perceive and predict what heuristics the other players are using” refers to Feedback – metagame
“Knowing when to apply mystery and when to apply suspense makes a game viable in the long run.” All this statement says is having a balance in a game gives it more lastability. It doesn’t talk about what kind of balance or which game elements are in the balancing equation. Mystery doesn’t make a game solvable because “mystery” isn’t a game design element.
“The interesting part in a mystery heavy game is the puzzle, not the execution.” Translation: The interesting part about figuring out something is figuring it out.
“Mystery is based on a lack of knowledge, suspense is based in unpredictability” “ You still need some mystery – if everyone figures out the optimal heuristic you’ll end up with tic-tack-toe.” Wasn’t “suspense” supposed to be the element of unpredictability? And we still don’t know what game design elements actually create suspense or mystery.
I was at work listening to one of @The_Rami’s spontaneous interviews when I first heard about the indie game Vesper.5 by Michael Borough. It’s a game where players explore what looks like a pixelated alien planet by examining the local flora and fauna and squirly pixel things. Rami loved the game:
“I think one of the most powerful statements when it comes to movement has been Vesper 5 by Michael Borough. One of the most impactful games in terms of movement as action that I’ve ever seen. “ ~ Rami
There isn’t much to Vesper.5 aside from its twist on movement, which Joseph Elliott describes this way:
“VESPER.5 is a game by Michael Brough about rituals. The player is tasked with undertaking a pilgrimage through a strange, cavernous labyrinth by taking one, and only one step every day. … Each time you start the game, you’re shown a retracing of every step you’ve made; after taking your turn, your avatar defiantly sits in place until the next calendar day when you’re allowed another step.”
Here’s what the creator had to say about the game:
Make a ritual out of it. How will you incorporate it into your daily schedule? Will you tie it to an existing activity? Will you treat it as a ritual or merely a routine? Will you add to the ritual, embellishing it in your own way, making it yours? Meditate, say a prayer, think back over what has happened while you have been playing? Will you approach it alone or share it with another?
It’s a pilgrimage. It’s very simple, but it does have choice in it; even the smallest decisions have their consequences amplified when you can only move daily.
My pilgrimage through Vesper.5 started on 8/8/14 after I downloaded the game on my work computer. I figured why not take my daily, in-game step at the office. So from the outset, instead of progressing 7 steps a week, I progressed 5 steps a week. In the beginning the replay of my past steps was very short. So I made a habit of booting the game while I took off my coat and rearranged my seat. A few weeks later, the length of the unskippable replay became too long and too conspicuous to run full screen as lawyers and department heads frequently walked past my desk. So my routine moved from morning, to my lunch break, and finally to the end of the day.
When I gave my two weeks notice, I looked at how far I had made it through the labyrinth of Vesper.5 and came to the conclusion that I needed to head straight for the finish to complete my journey in time. Before this point, I had freely explored every plant and odd looking artifact I came across despite it literally taking days to satisfy every curiosity. I figured I had unlimited time to explore the world of Vesper.5, a zen-like attitude I developed after 3.5 years of relentless deskwork where the only thing consistent in my work day was an inbox full of problems.
105 steps after starting, I had completed everything I set out to do in the alien world of Vesper.5 and the corporate world of an international law firm. I started my pilgrimage on 8/8/14 and I finally reached the end on 3/27/15, mere days before I left my job entirely to launch Design Oriented.
Vesper.5 is an interesting idea, but the novelty of its gimmick quickly wore thin on me. The much-vaunted ritual theme isn’t quite in the game. Though the step by step progress reflects a pilgrimage and the time that passes between steps encourages the player to make a habit of checking in with the game daily, the lack of narrative context or background information about the monk player character left me guessing at every turn rather than wondering about the context, history, and possible connections. Repetition, and forced repetition at that, is not enough to make a task into a meaningful ritual.
In terms of gameplay, there isn’t much to engage with. There’s a lot of walking and sightseeing but no real threat and no challenge. Without some kind of challenge to it, the experience lacked a powerful way to engage me. But gameplay challenges aren’t the whole of engagement and are certainly not necessary to make a great interactive experience. Simply exploring a world and piecing together details can be effective.
I went out of my way to examine a mini colony of pink, pixelated, sea monkeys hanging out on a foreign plant on my pilgrimage. What did my choice mean? What did I gain? Well, I saw some slightly different graphics that cost me a few extra days to reach and return. That’s it. The game provides nothing else to consider. Every step of the way in Vesper.5 is like this; a quiet, reflective, almost nothingness. In reflection, this near-nothingness is near-laughable: I spent months browsing a handful of seemingly unrelated pixelated images.
If you want to take your time and explore everything, do so. The only real pressure comes from whether you’re the kind of person who will quit before seeing the end of the pilgrimage. Without a more engaging complex system to build rituals around, Vesper.5 was merely a test of my patience.
“Brough has created a game that invites existential and poetic musing, which is a daily ritual I gladly accepted into my life.” ~Joseph Elliot
Vesper.5 does no more to invite musings than any other game, or even the events you may meet with in your daily life. There are no fragments of text or bits of poems scattered across your journey to invite you into self-examination. Though every step costs a day of movement, the experience didn’t add up to anything. If being forced to make progress in small increments is what invites existential musings, then games like Animal Crossing, Giga Pets, or the Nintendo 3DS Street Pass games should receive similar praise for philosophical depth.
Mike says: Twin Souls is a game about flitting from shadow to shadow and massacring guards who stand (literally–few patrolling guards were in evidence) in your way.
Sound effects of the player’s snake-and-dragon-themed special abilities are low-pitched and loud, which confuses me because why would a stealthy guy use such noisy ways of dispatching his opponents? Seems like it would alert everyone nearby.
The abilities themselves seem visually distinct, but serve the same purpose: kill a guard and prevent him from running away in the process while the player is in the safety of the shadows.
It appears the player can make shadows at will by pointing at the ground nearby and pressing a button. This seems like it compromises the dynamic nature of the leaping-between-shadows mechanic by letting the player start their leap from just about anywhere. The shadow-paint also seems to conceal the player from enemies–that’s a pretty cheap way of bypassing having to use space and a limited but powerful movement ability intelligently to dodge around enemies and maintain stealth.
Marcus says: That was an interesting collection of mechanics. Delivered as elevator pitch Twin Souls is “Metal Gear Solid meets Splatoon where you paint shadows to sneak through,” sounds like the basis for an interesting game. Stealth, however, is a tricky genre that is defined more by entropy being constant instead of a rise and fall in action found in a typical game. Play a perfect run through a stealth game and it almost looks like that guards arent even doing their jobs. When you’re trying to sell the viewer a game about being inconspicuous, the tension from the threat of being found out must always communicated. In this video, Twin Souls failed to show any sign that the guards could catch, notice, or perceive our Ninja protagonist. What played out felt closer to a god mode playthrough than a stealth mission.
Richard says: I agree with you, Mike. It seems that being able to shoot shadows anywhere at any time works against the level design balance between enemies, environment, and the natural shadows. But, this video is very early. So I wouldn’t say that there really is any level design yet. It’s a little disappointing that the “from stealth” takedowns are cutscene animations that freeze the rest of the game world. I would like to see more dynamics involved in the core mechanics.
Aboard The Lookinglass
Built from scratch for #3DJam
Created by Henry Hoffman
Voiceover by Matthew Wade
Source sound effects and music from Audio Jungle
Richard Says: This video was pretty captivating. I own a leap motion. Now where did I put my Oculus Rift? *Holds up right hand* oh yeah, it’s in the future. When I first watched this video (without sound) I couldn’t tell that the two hands manipulated time. I thought they were merely revealing different spatial dimensions. Though the game seems set in a sterile environment, the classic “potted plant” object would be great to show off the 3 different time zones (past/present/future – sapling/healthy/withered). Great idea to show the view of the planet from space so players can get a glimpse at what happened through time by using their hand-time mechanics. The panel puzzle looks very familiar. Now where did I put my copy of The Witness? *Smacks head with right hand* Oh that’s right, it’s in the future too.
Chris Says: The video was captivating… but I’m not sure how this game is improved by the use of virtual reality. Wouldn’t controlling the game by Kinect or Wii-mote achieve the same sense of player control over the game’s environment? Oh, who am I kidding? I want to experience this game!
Mike Says: This game has a strong “feel,” which surprised me because the actual environment appeared sterile and was representing largely unconcealed, inorganic puzzle design. The good sound design is the probable cause. I think that the hands-through-time concept was exploited for no particularly striking purpose in the simple introductory sequence–I wonder what clever level designs they can come up with to exploit being able to manipulate three interconnected and related levels.
Richard Says: What a neat looking experience. Try not to blink too much or you’ll miss the best part. I wonder if the devs of this game have listened to this episode of Radiolab titled “Blink.” I wonder if there are moments in the game when you want to keep those eyes open for as long as possible, like trying to stay up late as a kid to catch the midnight anime on Cartoon Network. It looks like the Oculus Rift would be a great fit for this game, if the devs can figure out how to detect player blinking through the headset. Reminds me of one of my favorite Looney Toons jokes where Sylvester was in the hospital and he couldn’t keep his eyes open. He got whacked in that scene. Close Your will just hit you in the feels.
Over at the A.V. Club, Alex McCown calls attention to the new World Video Game Hall of Fame and the 15 videogames nominated for inaugural inclusion. According to the hall of fame’s website, to be considered for nomination a video game must meet the following four criteria:
Icon-status: the game is widely recognized and remembered.
Longevity: the game is more than a passing fad and has enjoyed popularity over time.
Geographical reach: the game meets the above criteria across international boundaries.
Influence: The game has exerted significant influence on the design and development of other games, on other forms of entertainment, or on popular culture and society in general. A game may be inducted on the basis of this criterion without necessarily having met all of the others.
Chris Says: The existence of a Video Game Hall of Fame is sure to set off the usual debates surrounding canonization in any medium – “Who gets to decide what’s included?” and “What criteria are appropriate for determining what belongs in the canon?” I’m not terribly impressed myself with the criteria the World Video Game Hall of Fame is using, but what do you guys think?
Marcus says: I think the criteria is fine. The World Video Game Hall of Fame is basically looking to immortalize games that have already outlived their respective technological eras by engraining the games in cultures around the world. Its not a big list of games to choose from.. Selecting the games on a gut sense would probably yield a similar list. What irks me is that Pokemon is the only game listed that isn’t a game. There is no game called Pokemon. If you want to nitpick, their criteria has no clear indication if the selections are games or game series, from what I can tell.
Mike says: I’m surprised at the exclusion of StarCraft. There’s not a single strategy game on the list as it appears now. I’d think the original Civilization would be in the running as well, based on the influence criterion. I don’t find the criteria surprising at all, considering halls of fame are usually about the most popular and successful big names. The criteria all echo that concept.
Richard says: I love StarCraft. But I have yet to see a Zergling toy in the grocery store. As great of games StarCraft and Civilization are, their icon status outside of gaming circles is nonexistent. I see Mario, Zelda, Pokemon, Tetris, and Pac-Man in the list. Looks good to me. “Influence” is the only category that considers a game’s design. I’m more curious about who will be on the panel of “journalists, scholars, and other video game experts.”
Susan Schaller believes that the best idea she ever had in her life had to do with an isolated young man she met one day at a community college. He was 27-years-old at the time, and though he had been born deaf, no one had ever taught him to sign. He had lived his entire life without language–until Susan found a way to reach out to him. ~source
I think all of us with the ability to see and hear can imagine and even experience what it’s like not to have such abilities. By using a blindfold or earplugs we can temporarily shut off our senses. Even with our senses temporarily blocked we have memories of what it’s like to see or hear, so the experience can’t compare to someone who is born deaf or blind.
Though not commonly thought of in this way, having access to language — the ability to form and recognize words as symbols for actions, objects, and ideas — is a powerful and fundamental ability like the rest of our senses. You’re reading this now, so you’ll have to imagine what it would be like to live in a world without words. So, take the time to listen to the first 10 minutes of this Radiolab episode: Words.
“Out of the corner of her eye, she sees him shift his body… He looked like something was about to happen… Then he slaps his hands on the table, ‘oh! everything has a name’” 7m30s
“And he points at the door and I sign door. And he points to me and I sign ‘Susan” and then… he started crying.” 8m15s
Again, we have a person who is overcome with emotion and erupts in tears upon gaining access to a whole new world of expression and sensation. This time, though, it’s purely through words. The 27-year-old wordless man in the story was an adult. Other than being deaf, he was perfectly normal, capable, and intelligent. Yet without words, he was on an island to himself, standing to the side in a world where people interacted with sound to share ideas, and having no idea what to make of it. He thought that others were “stupid” according to Susan Schaller. And the moment he realized that everything in our world of sound has a word, many of the questions, doubts, and unsettled feelings he had lived with all his life finally made sense.
Susan Schaller’s story is a strong case for why language is so powerful and why understanding through language is just as powerfully linked to our feelings and emotions as our other senses. It’s profound that first perceiving the world and then understanding our perceptions is a necessary combination for relating to other people and ideas.
“What is it that happens in human beings when we get symbols and we start trading symbols. It changes our thinking. It changes our ideas. It’s no longer the thing – a table – that we eat on, but there’s something about the symbol ‘table’ that makes the table look different.”
Earlier in this article I mentioned that you, the reader, could only imagine what it’s like to live in a world without words and language. Maybe that isn’t entirely true. Every culture, every subculture, every work environment, every artistic work, and every game is a world unto itself complete with its own language and lexicon. Word symbols are constantly being invented as people encounter new experiences and latch on to the words that makes those experiences and concepts stand out distinctly in their minds.
Better-understanding and better-enjoying video games requires engaging their design. Considering design is how we grasp the intentionality of the designers and compare it to our experiences. The best way to do this is through language. If you don’t have the language for breaking down a game into smaller parts, you won’t be able to untangle their silent interconnections. Consider that you might be like the 27-year-old in the story, perceptive, intelligent, but ultimately isolated from the world of expression happening all around you.