As we get to the end of the year, I’m forced to come to terms with my game-playing habits. You are what you eat, as it were. I have to ask myself, do the games I played have an influence on me as a designer?
Definitely. But which one do I think had the biggest impact on me? Read on to find out!
The Big Names
(245.2 Steam Hours Total)
The Mount & Blade franchise is a baffling experience. The structure of the game is a strategy game, filled with all sorts of little detailed systems that are buried from everyone but the most dedicated players. It’s incredible that on top of the strategy system, there is an intricate and fulfilling action combat system. It’s so rare that a game matches two systems so perfectly in such an addictive experience. This is type of “Open World” effect that most designers dream of making, but which causes them to collapse under the pressure of making sure all the systems meld together in a cohesive experience
Sure, there is the new Mount and Blade game to play. But If you haven’t played the original, then start here. It’s the experience of Mount and Blade without any of the bizarre bugs that plagued the early access release of Mount & Blade II. It has a layer of polish after all these years that’s missing from the newer game.
(218.9 Steam Hours)
This game has been in development forever, and it seems like it was the actual nightmare development process that I would have thought the original Mount and Blade would have buckled under. The major update to the game has come in the form of more precise kingdom management mechanics. In the previous M&B games, you could set up your kingdom, but you didn’t have a lot of control over what happened inside it.
The version I played, at least, came with a fair share of bugs (including one which destroyed my entire save file), and the opening of the game takes a bit longer to get going than the older games. This is why I recommend the previous versions of the game to new players, otherwise it can just get too overwhelming for new players. I even found myself putting myself into corners when it came to the game because I didn’t understand systems that would come back to bite me later.
Over the summer, I helped put together a game design curriculum for a summer camp for students in middle and high school. As part of the curriculum, I put together an RPG game design project where I showed students how to put together the basics of an RPG. When talking about putting together an RPG, I often used Skyrim as my design reference to think about the different systems of an RPG. This caused me to play Skyrim again after around 5 years, now that I had a PC that wouldn’t crash constantly while trying to play it.
It holds up. Skyrim is a rare case of a modern game where you can tell it’s going to be a classic of the genre, infinitely remade and repackaged for future generations. Sure, there are weird holes and patches in places, but the sum is greater than the individual parts.
When my parents got my brother and me a PS2, they also bought a bunch of yard-sale PS1 games for us to try out. One of those games was “X-COM: UFO Defense.” Because we got it from a yard sale, it did not come with a manual.
The first few times I played the game, I had no idea what was happening. What were these aliens? How to I defeat anything? What are my different ships? How does any of this work?
But when I got into my first on-the-ground mission, I was hooked. My brother and I played old-school strategy games like Panzer General together, but this game was a new type of strategy where the environment truly mattered. You had a…line of sight! You could…destroy walls by firing at them! It was a degree of freedom that my previous strategy game experiences couldn’t match.
I played XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and XCOM 2 on consoles, but with a new XCOM game coming out I had to try this out.
Personally, I loved it. It wasn’t well-received by the XCOM community though because of the way the experience was a lot less open than the other mainline XCOM games. I also loved the world building they performed in the game, while many people who played it criticized the writing quite harshly.
If someone asks me if they should play XCOM, I think I would tell them to play this game first. It’s a simplified XCOM experience without permadeath that is very newcomer-friendly, even if it doesn’t really show the full XCOM package.
(179.4 Steam Hours)
Many of these hours were accomplished in prior years, but it still deserves a spot on this list. I haven’t purchased any of the expansions for this game, but I still return to it from time to time. There’s just something exciting about plopping down on a new map and trying to conquer the world.
They’re not a big name studio, But DANG do they deserve a spot on the big games list for the impact they had this year. I knew the magic of this game the first time I was an impostor, and I actually won the game. I always played as “Username”, because I liked the anonymity it provided me, though people kept asking if they could link up with me afterwards.
My brother and I were MechWarrior mega-fans back in the day (he has a shelf full of novels to prove it). So it was high time they released another iteration. I had hoped for something along the scale of Mount and Blade, considering they were going for a massive open-world, travel anywhere type of experience. However, the random battles just felt too random, and the amount of grinding necessary to work your way up the ranks caused me to lose interest a bit.
The Smaller Names
These games are from smaller studios and are likely less widely played, but they were still fun.
(73.8 Steam hours)
I started playing this game because I had a friend who worked for the company that was making it. I hear it’s a “Clash Royale” style of game, though I haven’t ever played Clash Royale myself. It’s easy for me to get addicted to card-building and deck-building mechanics, even though Free-to-Play games aren’t usually my cup of tea, but I had a lot of fun with this game and even put some money into it out of respect that it occupied 40+ hours of my time.
(22.5 Steam Hours)
Oh hello, it’s another tactical deck-building style game, this time a Rogue-like. I’m not sure how I found this, but I’m glad I did. It is brutal; the permadeath hits you in the heart as you realize you’re about to lose your entire party from a bad matchup against your opponents, and there’s nothing you can do about it. But because each run only lasts around 3 hours, it’s easy to get back into it after losing.
Every time I do a new run of the game, I think that I found THE mechanic that is perfect and unbeatable. But the next run I do, I make a completely different type of build. There’s so much depth to this game, and the random deck-building means you adapt to the hand that you’re dealt, creating a completely new game for yourself every time. Talk about well-designed.
My pursuit of anthropomorphic rogue-like games also evidently led me to the path of trying this game, the only FPS I played this year. The game has a very satisfying loop, with finding new items forcing you to reconsider the choices of developing your build. The online multiplayer element also means that communicating with your teammates about what they’re trying to build and swapping items is a huge part of the game’s strategy. I have played to the max level they currently offer, but they are releasing new content for it regularly, so I come back to it from time to time. My favorite part is joining a team with newer players and shepherding them through to the end of a run safely.
Late in December, I started on a journey to complete a small visual novel project for a game jam with an artist. We haven’t finished the game as of my writing this, but the process of setting up the visual novel system inside of Unity made me think about the mechanics of games more. So, I went looking for interesting visual novel games, and found this one. It’s a game where there is a world of sentient dragons! I thought the setting was cool, so I bought it on sale and started playing it.
I spent 12+ hours inside this game the first two days I bought it. It’s really hard to talk about what’s great about this game without spoiling the major conceit of the game, since the writing and mechanics end up so wrapped up with each other. There are places where it feels exposition-heavy, sure. But because of the visual novel structure that lets you skip ahead things you’ve already seen, it makes for an addictive experience to play it to get all the endings. It has a neat little swirl of darkness and sweetness that keeps it engaging at a lot of emotional levels.
If you want a dragon dating sim, will probably be a good game for you. But if you are a game designer wondering how replayability as a concept can function inside of visual novel games, this game shows how to make that concept work.
Some of these are oldies, some of these are micro-indies. But I don’t feel like they go inside the other categories, so here they are.
I remember playing the demo for this game on my computer for so long that eventually my parents got me the full game. I was thinking about AI development for games and immediately this game came to my mind. I would have thought that AI development for this game would be difficult, because it requires the AI to determine not only research paths and tradeoffs of unit/base building and researching new techs, but they have to actually assemble the units that are going to be built.
I looked online for where I could get the game to try it out, and learned, lo and behold, it’s now available for free. As an RTS, it can be slow and clunky at times, but the diversity of strategies makes the game interesting if that’s what you want from your RTS experience.
I went looking around for games during Itch.io’s winter game sale and found this tiny little gem. You play as a skulk of foxes taking down prey and bringing it back to your den. This is a really well-crafted tiny indie game, and really shows the designer’s shining ability to make each stage progressively more challenging for the player. The mechanics are simple, but with each level you’re put to the test in a combination puzzle-action experience to try to set up scenarios where you take down your prey even if you aren’t the biggest thing in the forest.
A very fun, short, simple play. I can’t wait for someone to play co-op with me.
An adorable building simulator that kept me occupied for a while. There’s not too much strategy once you learn the optimal building path, but if you like numbers going up and seeing cute bees at work, it’s a fun game. I haven’t played the more recent updates to the game, but it looks like they’ve added some interesting features since I first played it.
I teach a class in online and mobile game development, and as part of the curriculum for the course I was considering what it might look like to put a “clicker” game in the course curriculum. I thought it would be a great way to teach UI development, since clicker games are nearly entirely about UI design.
In one of my classes, a classmate presented on this game as a serious game teaching about evolution, so I decided to give it a try to see if it would give me some design ideas for a clicker game. I ended up playing it a bit too much, but that’s what happens when I get sucked into level progression systems. Sure, I also did some reading of the flavor text to learn about evolution, but I’m not sure I can recall what I really learned from this game. There’s just something about watching those numbers go up that is so enticing as a game format.
I am working with a small team developing a VR game, so I decided to spend more time than usual playing VR games to help me understand the design mechanics behind those games.
In my hunt for variety VR games with lots of different types of functionality, this game stood out. It’s animal crossing in VR, but a much more linear experience. There’s lots of things to see and do, though it had a bit more grinding for materials than I was expecting. This game is a great example of usable VR UI, and would recommend it as an example for any designer looking to research that.
I played Elite Dangerous purely in VR with a gamepad controller, and it was a walloping to try to figure out the systems while having a VR headset on. If there was any game that should have given me motion sickness, it was this one, but I still didn’t experience any of it.
Once I got to the vast, open-world environment, I wasn’t really sure what I should have been doing. I think that if I had people to play with, I might have found it a little more engaging.
On a completely different bent, this game is a combination turn-based strategy and deck building tactics game, but in VR. It’s one of those games where you have to ask, did it really benefit from being in VR? Strategy games in VR are a bit of a hard sell for me, but this game checks off all the boxes and does everything right. A lot of the UI and menus aren’t based on shining a laser pointer, but are instead things like pulling levers, which are more intuitive for VR UI.
I didn’t play through it on the hardest difficulty, but I still had to try levels multiple times to win. Maybe I just wasn’t very good at it.
And the award for biggest design influence on me this year goes to…
Biggest Design Influence Award: “MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries”
Playing this game was a real turning point for me from a design perspective, honestly. Prior to playing it, I had thought that procedural generation was what I really wanted to do as a designer for all my experiences. You can see it in my early jam games like “Who is a Good Boy” and “WaveRunner” that I leaned heavily on procedurally generated content.
But playing this game left me with a sour taste in my mouth when it came to randomness. While it can be easy to implement procedural generation, it can be hard to design for, because you have no idea what the player is ultimately going to experience. Because of that, you can’t actually test your game effectively when it is put in front of someone.
MechWarrior features lots of space, but none of it was interesting after a while. After playing missions that were more or less the same ten or more times, I got bored and had no interest in progressing.
I think that as a designer I now have a much better appreciation for well-crafted linear content. That’s not to say procedural content is bad, just look at many of the rouge-like games on this list. I LOVE playing games with procedurally-generated content, but unless you have a really talented designer on your team who is explicitly thinking about the challenges that procedurally-generated content poses, I think I would prefer to steer clear of the potential pitfalls of that approach.
On to the next year!