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Level Two: Panning for the Core
Everything depends on the strength of your game idea that you created in the first level and decided to follow through with. To realistically assess that strength, your idea will need some panning—think gold panning—to separate its core element, or nugget, from surrounding sediment. As mentioned in Level One: Spawning Ideas, ideas usually come as packages. Thus, your sketch will almost certainly contain elements from all four Ludotronics dimensions. But if you look very closely, many of these elements are in truth unwanted decorations. They attached themselves to your idea without the necessary baggage checks of critical design thinking. Getting rid of them is what this level is about.
Beat 1. Priming
Even if your idea is original, interesting, and relevant, or precisely because of it, it operates like an industrial-strength magnet for a multitude of familiar elements. These elements all reside in your brain, and they pad and scaffold your nascent idea and endow it with a number of presentable features. There is no reason to assume that these elements are the most worthy ones for your idea, or the best you can muster. Instead, it’s often standard formulas, tropes, and even outright clichés that attach themselves, and you’re probably not aware of it because you’re focused on what’s fresh and new about your idea. If you let that happen, your good idea will become a poor game, your great idea a mediocre one, and your killer idea a good game that will be favorably received. That is not what you want.
Before you commence panning to get rid of all these unwanted elements, you should prime your attention toward what you’re looking for. Which element or elements truly define your idea? You have to find the core of that idea, what makes it truly new and interesting, and then find the dimension to which that core belongs. This could be:
All the elements just listed, from game loop to interaction to plot point and beyond, will later be examined in detail during the Process phase. At this point, a rough sense of direction and what to look for in principle will suffice for a productive panning session. Let’s look at four examples, one for each dimension, and let’s proceed in an order that leads us from the most to the least intuitive.
Beat 2. Panning Down to a Narratological Core
A narratological core can be a story concept, a plot point, a setting, a character, a character set, or a piece of dialogue that is exceptionally meaningful. Later, in the Process phase in Level Five: Architectonics, we will explore and specify all these terms. For our purposes at this point, general knowledge will do.
Let’s imagine our unrefined game idea revolves around a player character who takes a tidy sum from a crime syndicate for a certain job, has second thoughts, and owes that syndicate now either the money or the service. The character then tries to eliminate that debt by finding or fabricating evidence that syndicate members are acting against their own rules, to play them off against each other. The goal is that they terminate each other in classic Mission: Impossible fashion (the television series, not the movies) instead of suspecting and terminating the player character.
Now we have to find this idea’s core and then ask ourselves if that game idea is the best game we can build around that core. We conclude that it works quite well with a game-mechanical core, but a narratological core seems to have more potential, and you really want to tell a gripping story.
Looking at it more closely, the core seems to revolve around “elimination” and “termination.” It’s about eliminating debt and about eliminating or terminating syndicate members in sneaky ways to achieve that. Panning down from there, we get this:
Unmistakably, this narratological core is based on the “pact with the devil” narrative. To create the best possible game that this core permits, you need to brainstorm long and hard and come up with something that is both truly exceptional and suitable for a game. What if the player character were a sentient third-party code sequence in a military computer framework? What if the player character were a mighty mob boss in their own right in ancient Rome? What if the loan were the ability to feel emotions, and the payback were the player character’s experiences stored in their synthetic brain? Keep going! What you should aim at is the most emotionally interesting story you can build around your core. To see a truly terrific example of this principle in action, you should read Bob Shaw’s How to Write Science Fiction and learn how his classic short story “Light of Other Days” evolved from a fairly interesting sf mystery story sketch into one of the most touching and powerful sf stories of all time.
Beat 3. Panning Down to a Cinematological Core
Next, let’s assume we have a game idea that, again, revolves around an “elimination” element, but rather elimination through assimilation instead of termination. Let’s say our game idea is about a neon-colored bouncing ball that races through a grim world where every object is either white, black, or gray, and these objects drain the ball’s color in specific ways when it touches them too long, until the ball is assimilated. Apparently, its strongest element is not related to story but to aesthetics, and we’re pretty sure its core element falls into the cinematological dimension. Panned down, we arrive at this:
And off you go, to brainstorm a wide range of possible games based on this cinematological core. The player’s in-game representation could be a molecule, a stranded astronaut, an alien assembly-line worker, or a hapless eudaimon who fell among cacodemons, each with fitting game world environments and memorable adversaries. And so on. The best game that can be built around this core will be a game that delivers the most spectacular aesthetic experience to the player.
Beat 4. Panning Down to a Ludological Core
Let’s once more assume that we have an idea about an “elimination” game. The player’s hat is stolen by a group of bouncing rodents and can only be retrieved by catching all of them, one at a time, through replicating their jumps and jolts and swings and switches. This time we feel strongly that the core element is a player/game interaction that falls into the ludological dimension. Panned down, the core element looks like this:
Again, this core element can accommodate a substantial number of different games. Parse it for as many as you can. On the input side, elimination through imitation can mean a lot of things, primarily constrained by controller types. The adversary elements could be geometrical figures or opera stars or fighter pilots or something else altogether. And for what it is that the player must imitate with respect to these adversary elements, there will be no shortage of entertaining options. Whatever the original game idea was before you panned it down to its core, that idea has now become one option among many.
Beat 5. Panning Down to a Game-Mechanical Core
One last time, let’s assume we have an idea about an “elimination” game, and this time it’s pretty obvious that its core element resides in the game-mechanical dimension. The core element in such a case could be the compact description of a rule, a rule set, a game mechanic, or a game loop. Again, we will gain a deeper understanding of these elements during the Process phase, and general knowledge will do at this point. Panned down, even without specifying any values or how the rules are instantiated during gameplay, such a description would be quite abstract as a matter of necessity. It could look like this:
That’s how rule descriptions in the game-mechanical dimension can sound. Which might not be pretty, but opportunities won’t show themselves without abstraction. Once again, brainstorming comes next. Imagine the many different directions this core element can lead you to! The “parts” can become levels, matches, stages, missions, or something else altogether. The playing field can become a map, a level, an arena, a board, or, again, something else entirely. The pieces can eventually evolve into anything from game pieces or playing cards to purry cats or giant mecha. The repository where the joker pieces wait for their next assignment can become a dugout or a bench or a cryochamber or a special operations base. The game itself can become a mobile puzzle game, a multiplayer strategy game, maybe even an arithmetical brawler, if there is such a thing. (If not, invent it!) Whatever it will become, now that you have your idea’s game-mechanical core element to play with, you can find the best possible game for that core to tease out its full potential.
Beat 6. Parsing
In the four preceding beats, we illustrated the process of extracting and brainstorming core elements from game ideas to explore the most exciting game concepts these ideas can yield. We will meet all four examples again in the Procedure phase, where we will revisit and refine them in the context of themes and motifs.
What’s left to show is how to get the most mileage out of your brainstorming sessions. It’s fairly easy. Set aside one hour per day to spawn possible game concepts by teasing, nagging, persuading, bribing, or forcing your imagination into overdrive. Take your core element and apply it to different settings, different genres, different stories, different atmospheres, different rule sets, different interactions, different platforms, and so on, each parameter individually or in combinations. It helps if you do nothing else during that one hour and firmly enforce this rule, an ancient writer’s trick that leaves you with the choice of being bored or starting to create.
When you have accumulated a decent collection, weed out everything that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Do this as often as necessary until you have a game concept that fits your core element in the most interesting, most promising, and most exciting ways. If you have several concepts and can’t decide which ones to discard, that’s no problem at all—by the end of the Preparation phase, after Level Six: Capture the USP, you will be more than prepared to resolve that question. But before you get there, you have to beat the following three levels, in the order of your own choosing: Level Three: Tough Investigations, Level Four: An Army of Avatars, and Level Five: Enter the Value Matrix. In these levels, you will learn how to identify the relevant market parameters for your game concept, its potential players, and its potential advantages against competitors.
One final word on game type, commonly called genre, and its implications for your workflow. You might have a burning passion for a specific game type to begin with, for first-person shooters, roguelikes, or tower defense games. Or you are working with a developer or publisher who focuses on that game type. Or both! Then you have to go about solving this level in a slightly different manner. You can still pan your original game idea to find its core element and then brainstorm game concepts based on that core. But any idea that turns out to be more interesting and promising and exciting for a different game type than the one you’re passionately into, that is an idea you can dismiss. Focus on ideas that work best with your favorite game type—or, ideally, only with your favorite game type! Because the latter would be a powerful indicator for being right on track to create a killer concept.
You’ve successfully finished this level when you have your core element and one or more game concepts based on that core that you’re excited about. Store everything in your Ludotronics inventory. Then proceed to Level Three, Four, or Five in any order you like.
This phase’s reading order is fixed for the Introduction, Level One, Level Two, and Level Six.
Level Three through Five are non-linear: you can tackle them in any order you like.