Designing Platform-First (Revised)

For my Frontier of Freedom assignment, I worked on a digital game with another student. Our game Climate Change is targeted specifically at the iPhone 6S, as it makes extensive use of 3D Touch (pressure sensitivity). This definitely limits the potential audience for our game—a clear negative, so I thought I'd write today's blog post about some of the benefits of choosing a unique platform. I'll then examine some of the drawbacks and provide some closing thoughts about tailoring your game to a platform.

Gameplay in Unity Editor (slider simulates touch pressure)

Gameplay on iPhone 6S (no sound)

I. Benefits of Platform-First Design

For a task with total freedom—as was the case with the aforementioned assignment—I find it's important to constrain yourself in some dimension as soon as possible. True freedom can be paralyzing, especially for those with perfectionist tendencies. Personally, I feel pressure to live up to some Platonic ideal of game design—to make the best game I could possibly make—if I don't have constraints. In selecting constraints, I have a few go-to strategies. Two that I frequently return to are emotional target and platform. I've used the former for long time, as it's what I tend to focus on. However, BVW brought the latter to my attention as a particularly effective tool for focusing projects with tight deadlines.

So one benefit of choosing a unique platform is that by constraining you, it frees you from the burden of total freedom. Now, what are some other benefits? I can think of several.

1. Unique input methods create an initial sense of delight for the player. I've found that a novel input method can all but guarantee an initial degree of interest from the player. This is especially true for platforms with input that feels more natural than a controller or a keyboard and mouse (VR, motion control, and so on). While this won't fix a game that isn't fun long-term, it can provide a hook that's ever more useful in an era of decreasing attention spans. And in a public setting, seeing someone else performing interesting interactions might make me want to try the experience as well.

2. Unique input methods lead you to unique game mechanics. Different control schemes are better suited to different genres of games. It's no wonder that the mouse and keyboard brought us the FPS or that the smartphone brought us the endless runner. If you focus your brainstorming around your unique platform and try to come up with ideas that flow naturally from its capabilities, you're more likely to come up with something that's both new and good than if you stick to well-worn territory, where many of the still unexplored areas are unexplored for a reason.

3. Building a toy becomes straightforward and fruitful. To facilitate brainstorming while exploring 3D Touch, I built a toy—a simple app that draws a colored circle under each finger of the player, with a radius that grows based on the finger's pressure. This proved quite fun to play around with and was a useful tool to come back to over the course of our brainstorming process. When using a novel input method, the most basic and natural implementation of that method is often compelling enough to serve as a toy; it's still new and exciting. This contrasts something like keyboard and mouse, where the most natural implementation—maybe a word processor?—would not be particularly fun or useful as a basis for game design.

Toy app used as the basis for Climate Change

 

These are just a few benefits of choosing a novel platform. For our game in the context of this assignment, our platform-first strategy was successful. But I also envision a number of negatives when taking a platform-first approach, which we'll now examine.

 

II. Drawbacks of Platform-First Design

1. Novelty can mask your game design. As mentioned above, the player often experiences an initial sense of delight upon encountering a novel input method. This can work in your favor as far as attracting an audience is concerned. But it has downsides as well. For example, it makes playtesting more difficult. A player might be thoroughly engaged with your game due to its novelty and not hone in on issues with your game design as readily as they would if it were using a more traditional interface. While testing our game for this assignment, many players were hooked by the pressure mechanic and mostly discussed its novelty before we prompted them to give feedback on design details.

2. A unique platform could lead to shoehorned features. When designing for a platform, it's imperative not to lose sight of where its design strengths lie—of where it provides opportunities for creating compelling mechanics that contribute to a cohesive product. Otherwise, you run the risk of just trying to cram every feature of the platform into a Frankenstein's monster-esque arrangement of functionality. When the Nintendo DS came out, one gimmick of the console was that it featured a microphone. Many developers shoehorned rather uninteresting blow-controlled mechanics into their games simply to use this feature of the console. It's important to design a cohesive game concept tailored to a platform rather than treat the platform features as a checklist to be satisfied by disparate game components.

Blow control in Crash of the Titans

 

3. A novel platform can limit your audience. As much as we don't like to think about it, financial realities can make a game targeting a niche platform unsustainable in the marketplace. For this assignment, targeting just the iPhone 6S was a fine approach, but doing so in the market means locking out not just most smart phone owners (who use Android) but most iPhone owners (who do not own a 6S). When possible, a solution to this problem might be providing alternative input methods (for instance, using touch radius instead of pressure on non-6S iPhones). But sometimes a great idea is simply incompatible with the harsh realities of the present market.

 

III. Closing Thoughts

So coming from a place of total freedom, designing platform-first can work well—provided you make every effort to design your game around the platform and don't rely on the platform's novelty to hide a half-baked game design. It's a great solution to the problem of paralytic freedom. However, in the real world, how often are we actually free?

It's rare that you'll be told to just make "a game." Rather, you'll often be given some specification. And even the most vague restrictions ("Make a game about raindrops") provide some guidelines that should be taken into consideration before choosing your platform. Furthermore, the market will render many platform choices unfeasible. And often you'll even be given platforms as part of your specification ("make this for PS4 and Xbox One"), in which case you'll have to create an experience tailored to platforms you did not choose. And hopefully, those platforms are suited to the game you're tasked with making or you're in for a struggle*.

So in many ways the burden of total freedom is more an ETC-centric luxury than an actual problem. Nevertheless, observations made earlier about platform-first design should still prove useful when designing a game for a platform. Because every game has a platform, whether you choose it yourself early in development, choose it later on, or have it thrust upon you by an uncaring universe.

*Though technically, you can still do whatever you want (source: existentialcomics.com)