David Cole

posts tagged “menagerie”:


Getting back into the swing of things with Menagerie.


Working on new, less stilted art for the playable characters.


Implementing Lessons Learned from Paper Playtests

The first playtest was scary. I knew that I would find a world-shattering bug that would throw the whole game out of whack. Sure enough, during the very first session of Menagerie we couldn’t even get past a single turn. I had spent hours and hours working this out in my head, even running playtests by myself, controlling all the characters. I had a clear picture of the player behavior I was hoping for and I’d designed a system just for it. What went wrong?

My biggest mistake was forgetting that people don’t stop to consider all the elements of a system before beginning. They just jump right in and do anything they can to win, regardless of whether it betrays the fiction of the game. I should’ve been prepared for this, interaction design teaches you that users will do whatever it takes to get to their goal, even if it’s not the intended solution. We even have a fancy made up word for it: satisficing.

Fortunately my playtesters were all smarties so we quickly hashed out some potential solutions. In under an hour we had solved all the game-breaking problems. Next time we met to play? Finished a whole game without any major incidents. That was a huge milestone for me.

The second lesson I learned from testing is to come with your rules written down, like in complete sentences and shit. I had it all in my head or as fragments in a notebook. Inherent flaws became immediately obvious as soon as I said them out loud. I definitely could’ve done that process by myself.

Another reason to have written rules is that you have something to work against when coming up with revisions. Being able to look at the whole system makes a big difference when you’re wondering about the effects of a potential change.

Now that I’ve ironed out the major game-breaking flaws, my attention has turned to balance. I’m making sure the game still adheres to my design goals and constraints, or revising my goals/constraints in the case of conflict. After the second playtest I created a short list of the biggest problems in the game, based on my own observations and player feedback:

  • No compelling reason to break from the group
  • Breaking from the group seems too hard to try
  • Wrangler has a weak competitive advantage/ability
  • Combat is too complex and mathy
  • Turn order gives advantage to last player to go

It’s important to acknowledge that these issues may be due to non-mechanical problems. I could’ve explained the rules poorly, or perhaps the outcome of a single session was exceptional. I’m not putting too much stock into these until I can confirm that they’re reproducible.

That said, I did sketch out a few solutions for each of these issues that I can bring out during the next session. This loop of identifying imbalance and testing solutions will be my main activity for a while.

There’s no way to know when I’m done, but eventually I’ll be focusing on issues so granular that they’re only appearing in a small number of games. That I’m designing this to be an iPhone game, not a board game, gives me a huge advantage. iPhone games can be constantly evolving through patches, while board games need to be done by the time they’re shipped. On the other hand, I don’t yet have a plan for getting the resources to code this, so the paper prototype might just be the only implementation that ever exists. We’ll find out!


Removing the Limitations on Agency from Cooperative Games 

Cooperative games are the best. Stop lying to yourself, it’s true: Left 4 Dead, Contra, Diablo, Double Dragon, Raiden, The Simpsons arcade game, Halo, the Lord of the Rings board game, Ikaruga, Castle Crashers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Lego Star Wars, Pandemic, New Super Mario Bros., Smash TV, okay I’m starting to hyperventilate.

Cooperation is by far my favorite game mechanic. When I started designing a game I couldn’t imagine doing anything that didn’t have cooperation at its core. As something of a connoisseur of cooperation, I really wanted to do something novel (to me) with the concept:

Make a game where cooperation and team spirit come voluntarily, not by rule

This is a fundamental problem I have with cooperative games: why cooperate to begin with? Well, typically because you have no choice. It’s thrust upon you by the mechanics of the game. But forcing behavior isn’t what games do best. Irrational’s Steve Gaynor argues this premise in his great post Being There:

So, the game designer’s role is to provide the player with an intriguing place to be, and then give them tools to perform interactions they’d logically be able to as a person in that place— to fully express their agency within the gameworld that’s been provided. In pursuit of these values, the game designer’s highest ideal should be verisimilitude of potential experience. The “potential” here is key. Game design is a hands-off kind of shared authorship, and one that requires a lack of ego and a trust in your audience.

The deep, wonderful beauty of cooperation in real life is that it typically comes at a cost, namely the cost of looking out for oneself. So what sort of “verisimilitude of potential experience” is offered if players don’t have the opportunity to be selfish? That opportunity, and the choice between cooperation and competition, is the crux of my game.

How does this choice manifest? To take one example, every character has a special ability: the Cook gets extra food, the Wrangler can prevent maulings, the Veterinarian can heal the injured, and the Tour Guide can discover what lays hidden ahead. The critical component of designing these abilities is that they provide both a cooperative and a competitive advantage. Furthermore, using them cooperatively is a risk for the player. So, the Wrangler can prevent another player from getting mauled but there’s a small chance of getting mauled himself. The Guide can share what’s on the other tiles, but at the risk of giving up information he could use to his own advantage.

By making cooperative abilities come at a cost, the other players have to earn that cooperation by reciprocating with their own abilities (and through other actions in the game). My hope is that when the game is balanced, it will be necessary to cooperate to get most of the way through the game. But as the players progress, the mounting pressures of starvation and animal attacks will cross a threshold and being selfish will become the safer bet. 

Exactly when that line is crossed, or if it’s crossed at all, is the range of potential experience that defines Menagerie. This is my flame.

In order to make this work, being selfish can’t be a valid strategy from the beginning of the game. The animal fights are so intense and unpredictable that staying in a pack is by far the safest bet. Because of the linear nature of the board, the risk of an animal fight will go down as you approach the exit and the locations of dangers are more known. This will allow the group to stop relying on each other to survive large attacks.

Game designers, like all product designers, benefit from solving a design problem nobody has ever tackled before. Further, I think a designer’s hardest problem should produce the product’s most unique offering. For example, if the game isn’t about platforming, it just happens to contain it, you don’t need to reinvent the way jumping works — just do what people know. Sometimes I feel the impulse to reinvent every piece of a product but in practice that’s unrealistic and wasteful. Balancing cooperation and competition is the hardest problem I’m facing with Menagerie, which is fantastic because it’s the heart of the game. 


Identifying and Preserving a Flame

One tricky thing for me when beginning the game design process is discovering the essence of the game, or knowing what to preserve at all costs. Typically in my work there’s a technology solution or business model that informs everything I do. Even when I’m making high level product decisions, there’s a theoretical audience and use case that I’m designing for. With Menagerie, I’m not exactly aiming for financial success, I just want to see the game design process from beginning to end.

But the idea of just designing right out of the gate was… scary. I find the best creative environment is one where I have clear points of inspiration and clear points of constraint, but not a clear path to the end. An astronaut needs fuel in the tank, and a route that doesn’t lead into the sun, but a too-tight course means they’ll never discover unknown, exotic planets with alien babes. This is how space travel works, right? Right.

As I said, I had a lot of ideas competing for my attention. I wrote down a bunch of design goals that I was interested in pursuing:

  • Make a game that produces content by virtue of playing it
  • Make a cooperative game that allows for a broad variety of play styles
  • Make a game about divergent motivations based on the same goal
  • Make a game where people enjoy recounting their play sessions
  • Make a game about secret alliances and backstabbing
  • Make a game where cooperation and team spirit come voluntarily, not by rule
  • Make a game that is situationally funny, not gag funny

I also have media reference points that I’m channeling:

  • Primarily: the combative, reluctant teamwork of True Grit
  • The self-identification and humor of Oregon Trail
  • The freedom of self-expression through game choices of Far Cry 2
  • The doom-inspired cooperation of Pandemic
  • The thriller trope of friends turning on each other of films like A Simple Plan and others
  • The escalating narrative and loose linearity of Talisman

These are fairly grand ambitions, and if I’m being honest with myself I typically don’t finish what I start when I aim this high. I had to lay down some constraints to help focus me:

  • The game has to work on an iPhone, with asynchronous play
  • The game must be no more complex than a game of Monopoly
  • The game should appeal to a broad audience in theme and gameplay
  • Sessions should take less than an hour, ideally closer to 30 minutes
  • The gameplay should be familiar enough that most people have played something similar

When a conflict between goals and constraints arises, I choose to cut one or the other, leaning towards cutting goals. For example, I’ve already cut “make a game about divergent motivations based on the same goal”. I had initially planned on giving each player a secret motivation that modified the pure, shared goal of survival. In practice, the intricacies of having two levels of victory (survive or survive while fulfilling your motivation) proved confusing to explain and difficult to implement, violating the “no more complex than Monopoly” rule. I might revisit this idea in the context of an expansion or DLC, but for now it’s cut and the game is much better for it.


Do you guys go back and forth between long periods of consumption and long periods of creation? I’m usually only in the mood to do one or the other for something like 8 week phases. Since moving from San Francisco, the only categories of activity I’ve intentionally pursued are Video Game, Board Game, Comic Book, and Adventure Time. This is why my blog has been pretty silent these last months.

Inevitably when the tide comes in and my lust for creation returns, my work is heavily filtered through what I’ve consumed. In this case, a diet of Pandemic, Red Dead Redemption, A Theory of Fun by Koster, Story by McKee, B.P.R.D., Cartoon Network, and True Grit has inspired a flurry of ideas for a game, or several games. 

One current expression of those ideas is a game I’m currently calling Menagerie. It’s about a zoo where all the animals have escaped… somehow. Naturally they begin killing everyone. You and three other zoo employees/friends have to find the key to the gate and escape. To help work through the design problems I’m going to start writing about the process on this blog.

When I turned 24 last year I set four goals for myself: make a movie, design a game, start a business, and read Infinite Jest a second time. Well, I got half way through Infinite Jest and I started and sold a business. That’s about as much as I should have hoped for, really. My birthday is coming up and my goal for this next year is to read the second half of the book, and put out a game in the App Store. I’m doing pretty well so far, and I’m hoping writing about the process will keep fuel in the fire.

If you’re in New York and want to join a playtest, let me know. I’ve done two so far, so this is like a real friggin’ thing! So excited.