Simplicity

So now that Four//Four has been (kind of) officially out for a week or so, I’m going to start talking about a couple of the design philosophies behind it and how they changed over the course of development! Let’s get to it —

Four//Four is a game about rhythm and tapping to it. Levels are composed of whole songs, which are divided into loops that either repeat or progress to the next loop, depending on whether the user has made enough cubes disappear to warrant the progression. The user can do this by tapping the side of the screen that a cube appears on — if the user taps the screen while the cube is present, the color will change and the cube will disappear, leaving a silhouette. The game isn’t about score, nor is it about “doing well” at the game. I tried to design the game such that hearing more of the song and seeing the new patterns was reward enough.

There were a bunch of underlying systems governing the progression of the songs and the appearance of the cubes, but as far as the player is concerned, they wouldn’t have seen any of it. The main mechanic requiring player interaction was the tapping of the side, and this was divided into two parts: the tap itself (changing the sides’ color) and checking to see whether a cube was made to disappear.

This post is going to deal mainly with this interaction. The original design of Four//Four was pretty similar to how the final design ended up, with the big exception of the cube interactions (and by extension, the cubes themselves). These cubes were originally supposed to do a great deal more than they ended up doing in the final release — they could be held, they could only be “killed” when tapping on a specific eighth note, they had “health”. Early in development, before I had any idea how programming each song was going to go, I created a prototype where all of these things were possible with these cubes.

The problems occurred when it came time to actually work on levels in a serious way. I had one song (“Pyramid” by Jaytech, if anyone was wondering) that incorporated all of these little cube variants, and I found out that it was just too much for the player to keep track with. Having all of these little tricks to play with was great from a designer’s point of view, but from the player’s, it ended up being a lot of busy work with little payoff.

I always wanted Four//Four to aim for a more laid back, flow-like experience that required a little less than rigorous memorization of every facet of a song. It was always fun to tap along to a song I was listening to, and to do it in an engaged way without requiring too much commitment was a big aim with the game. I realized that with all of these little variations of cubes, I had pretty much ended up creating the game I was trying to get away from.

These games (Dance Dance Revolution, Guitar Hero, et. al) punish the player for being “wrong” and require previous knowledge of the song or note patterns to fully succeed. They’re fine games, for what they are, and I’m sure that those who spend a lot of time becoming skilled in these games are amply rewarded, but I’ve always been a proponent of rhythm being its own reward — being in the flow of rhythm is inherently rewarding.

So I took that principle, and DRASTICALLY scaled back what the cubes could do. The final design for cubes ended up being: “killed” if the side was switched once. This made the design process significantly easier, as I only had to deal with when and where to place the cubes, as opposed to when, where, which cube, and for how long. It’s a classic case of choosing to keep it simple rather than overcomplicate things, and I always thought I was intelligent enough to avoid the complication 😦

On a related note: it’s totally fine to start with an ambitious prototype as long as you’re prepared to get rid of the mechanics that don’t work. Again, I had heard it many times and thought I could avoid it, but the overly ambitious prototype actually helped me narrow down my design. The problem was deciding to get rid of the mechanics — I had spent so much time working on them that I didn’t want to let go! But letting go refined the design of Four//Four by a lot.

More talk about this in the future! This post was just so I could get started on blogging — hopefully it marks a proper return 🙂

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Space Town is: http://space-town.org
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