Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Building Treehouse

In this article, game designer Erin Robinson describes her adventure in prototyping a new game called Treehouse.

This game started where all good things start: at an IGDA meeting. At the customary pre-drinking raffle, I happened to win a copy of Brenda Brathwaite and Ian Schreiber’s excellent book: Challenges for Game Designers. It was a book full of exercises on how to prototype games using pen and paper, to allow for rapid game development without the hassle of programming.

I eagerly dove in, excited for both the arts and crafts aspect, and the fact that it would let me procrastinate on other, more important projects. An exercise in chapter two asked the player to make a game based on exploration. It suggested, “the location could be anywhere, from a treehouse village to downtown Chicago.” Immediately, my mind connected the two, and the concept of “Treehouse” was born.

Although because I’m a video game designer, I went with a post-apocalyptic city.

Anyway, I decided to make the game tile-based, so that the player could “explore” the environment by turning over tiles. After sketching a few tile ideas, I narrowed it down to seven types, which I’ve illustrated here. I printed eight of each, to be arranged face down, randomly, in a 7 x 8 grid. You would play as one of four female adventurers (yes, “Doctor President” is female), scrambling to build the most treehouses before the game was over.

In order to build a treehouse, you had to gather wood. This formed the “collection” aspect of the game. Players, upon discovering a “Building” tile, could roll a die to see how much wood they found. A building could only be searched once, so a big part of the gameplay became hunting down these particular tiles.

I arbitrarily set the price of a treehouse at five wood. I also introduced the concept of “movement points” to moderate the player’s actions. Each player started their turn with three movement points. It cost one point to flip over a tile and move there, two points to search a building, and three points to build a treehouse. Although you could retread over tiles you had flipped over, the restriction on movement points put a large value on exploration.

For kicks, I also created “Tree Building” tiles, whose trees were only accessible if there happened to be an adjacent “Ruins” tile. The idea was that the adventurer could climb up the ruined shell of a building to reach the roof. Originally, all treehouses were worth the same amount (that is, one “victory point”), but climbing to the top of a building was such a hassle that my playtesters demanded an extra reward for doing so.

Most importantly, the game ended up being pretty fun. There was a healthy amount of competition that came from fighting over scarce resources, and a metagame dynamic of “trash talking” emerged spontaneously. The only real shortfall of the game was at the very end, when some players had run out of wood, there was no real point to them continuing to play. There was also no way they could screw over anyone lucky enough to still be building treehouses.

My quick fix for this, although it wasn’t perfect, was to call the game over as soon as the last tile was overturned. Thus, if your opponent looked like they were going to keep building, you could quickly explore the last tiles and end the game.

All in all it was a fun first effort, and I’m eager to test out other game principles in this lo-fi manner. Ironically, one of my playtesters complained that the paper tiles were hard to flip over, and suggested I just program the damn thing so we could play it on the computer.

Back to the drawing board.

Erin Robinson is an independent game developer currently working on a title for Wadjet Eye Games. Her previous freeware games "Nanobots" and "Spooks" and are available on her website.

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