Results from Game Design Challenge: Joy

By staff [11.16.10]

 In his latest Designer's Notebook column, longtime Gamastura columnist and design consultant Ernest Adams discusses the idea of creating games purely to bring joy to players.

Joy, he argues, is distinct from "fun", and all too often squashed out of games by complicated themes and boring, repetitive, or overly difficult gameplay

Adams writes:

But isn't joy just fun by another name? Not quite. Joy is unmixed pleasure. Fun is more complicated. It can include the dark and dangerous. People think it's fun to go to horror movies, but horror movies don't elicit joy. Entertainment is richer still; it doesn't have to be fun at all. Serious movies such as Schindler's List and serious books such as Lolita aren't fun, much less joyful, but they are entertaining. Video games seem to be stuck in the middle.

What kills joy? Almost anything, really; it's fragile. [...] Marching kills joy: Grinding. Frustration. Repetition. So does negativity: Ugliness. Cruelty. Fear. Death. These are qualities we associate with hardcore games and with games made for teenage boys, to whom joy is a distinctly uncool emotion.

Game Career Guide challenged its readers to design a game centered around bringing joy to players. What follows are the best and most original entries we received. Here are our top picks.

Best Entries

Dean Ray Johnson, Legend of the Mooks (see page 2)

Aaron Yip, Student at Georgia Institute of Technology, Our Song (see page 3)

Emily Greenquist, Student at Tribeca Flashpoint, My Palace (see page 4)

Ryan George (Design), Elise Motzny (Art), Tucker Williams (Design & Audio), Game Development Students at Columbia College Chicago, Illuminate (see page 5)

Honorable Mentions

Madeline Henderson, Game Design Major at Montgomery College, Seed (see page 6)
José Francisco Arias Pérez, Designer for Tlacuacho Estudio, Little dancer searches for the Moon (see page 7)
Kiera Whalen, Montclair High School Student, In the Park (see page 8)
Camila Carvalho, Student of S.a.g.a - School of Art, Game and Animation, The Way of Music (see page 9)

Dean Ray Johnson, Legend of the Mooks

I'd suggest that the most joy-ruining thing to happen to a person is a situation which constantly kills the player, causing frustration and stopping him or her from advancing to the rest of the game. I've also learned from card games like Balderdash and Apples to Apples that sometimes it's all right to do the wrong thing, as long as the other people playing the game with you agree that you're doing it correctly. For my joyous situation, I want to turn the annoyance of constant death into fun, and I want to utilize the joy of impressing the other players with humorous situations.

Legend of the Mooks resembles Left 4 Dead in its composition. At the beginning of a scene, four players begin to move from one end of a stage to the other. Each plays the role of an unnamed security guard, mercenary, or stormtrooper. The scene differs each time it's played as different challenges strike the players, but what differs is the fifth player - the taskmaster. The taskmaster plays the role that the "director" AI plays in Left 4 Dead, selecting what challenges to throw at the players, like superheroes, giant monsters, or robot armies. The scenes are somewhat shorter, about five minutes or so.

There's a bias toward not successfully completing a scene, as the taskmaster can simply throw challenges at the players until they die. However, when each player is dead or safe, the taskmaster gives one player an award for being Number One Mook of the scene. This player will become the taskmaster for the next scene, while the previous taskmaster takes his or her place as a guard.

When the taskmaster names a Number One Mook, a replay will show of that mook's death scene, with replays, freeze frames, and different camera angles of the taskmaster's choice. So the taskmaster wants to grant an award to the mook who dies in the most dramatic manner, so as to have a good video to watch. Thus, the game is no longer about a life and death struggle. The mooks could try to finish the level properly, but you feel more rewarded by being the player with the most dramatic death scene possible - getting punched through a wall by a superhero, knocked off a ledge and hitting obstacles on the way down, crunched by a monster in one shot when the mook was casually strolling over to pick a flower, something that leads your fellow players to cringe at how terribly you were owned. Game replays allow you to upload your greatest hits to YouTube later. There's also a scoreboard... which doesn't matter much.

Sure, you died, but it's not annoying as long as you die in a way that your fellow players enjoy, and then you get to set the scene for the next round. The odds are against you, but unlike other nameless mooks, at least you will be remembered for something.

Aaron Yip, Student at Georgia Institute of Technology, Our Song

Imagine a free-roaming and free-running with the city as your playground as your favorite adventuring playlist thumps in your ears. Your soulmate is holding your hand, as you two dance through the city. You can play tag across the rooftops to the backdrop of a sun set. You can spray graffiti under bridges, run from the police, and help each other scale skyscrapers. Or you can just sit on a grassy knoll and count cars. Viva la modern bohemian.

Intertwined Controls:
Our Song is cooperatively controlled through a single keyboard, and keys are mapped to intertwine the players. This bonding is to integrate the playing experience with the gaming experience -- extending the players' relationship into the virtual world.

Musical Metagame:
Our Song takes in a playlist of 4 songs (roughly 15-25 minutes) from the players' music library, and each session is a playthrough of this playlist while adventuring through the city. When the playlist ends, the player characters return home to rest.

What's interesting is that the players, through making their playlist, will be facilitating the mood/pacing/gameplay. If it's a great day to vent, then put on some raging songs and play accordingly. If the day is meant to chill, tune in some mellow music. Then they can use the music to feature their playing goals or even guide their actions.

Liberty City:
Without rampant murders and superhuman abilities, the urban playground of Our Song remains faithfully reminiscent of the real world (perhaps, though, from dreamy teenage lens). While "superhero" games emphasize the excitement of exaggerated feats, those powers undermine enjoying little things (rule #32); what happened to swings or twinkies? What did we do before the gangster apocalypse down a road of achievement checkpoints?

This game encourages a rediscovering of worldly magic and creating fun from ordinary scenarios. Our Song is an expression of play. It's offering a playground with a city backdrop -- with two-player puzzles, platforming, and minigames. It's dancing in the rain. It's platforming out of the city to spend the last two minutes watching the sunset. It's just, simply, having fun.

Emily Greenquist, Student at Tribeca Flashpoint, My Palace

"My Palace" is a casual puzzle game with the purpose of unpacking stress and creating joy. It is a tactile iPad experience with a female slanted audience.

The player is first shown an urban apartment that has clearly been robbed. The camera (the player) urgently pans the scene of strewn paper and toppled furniture, but then slowly zooms to an undamaged dollhouse, nestled in the debris and upright on the floor. Instead of immediately cleaning the apartment, the player is directed to play with the dollhouse. The dollhouse is a diversion (a coping mechanism), and the forthcoming game within is a soothing, cathartic, and smile-inducing experience.

Gameplay begins in one empty room of the dollhouse - shadows indicate where furniture used to be and the floor is littered with wads of balled up paper. Currently, the only intractable objects are the pieces of paper. Once pressed, a piece of paper begins to open, and requires the player to continue this unwrapping by using their finger to smooth it out (this sets the slow and deliberate pace of the game, simulates a tactile experience, and is likened to the unwrapping of a handmade present).

Each page contains the pencil drawn image of either: a piece of furniture, a decoration, or the top or bottom half of a caricatured figure. Each item helps the player reassemble this empty room piece by piece:

Furniture - Using shadows on the walls (and/or the page), the player drags the furniture page (chair, harp, chandelier, etc) to its speculated location. If correct, the drawn image remains in place.*

Decoration - Decorations (deck of cards, Faberge egg, candles etc) must be placed on top of furniture. If the corresponding piece of furniture is not in place, then the decoration cannot yet be placed.*

Figures: top or bottom - Inspired by the tradition of exquisite corpses, sections are taped together to create surreal figures that interact within the room. Their function: when drawings of objects are accurately placed, figures change these into realistic renders (see the provided image).*

*If an object is not accurately placed, cannot be placed, or if a piece of a figure does not have a corresponding half available, the piece of paper with the drawn image floats to the ground. The player may press it again to access the page at any time during the game.

(The fully "realized" room is a photograph of the Palace of Versailles, courtesy of Tatiana' Tea Room. The doll house itself is inspired by the ornate richness of this palace of treasures).

A typical scene in the middle of gameplay includes a mix of pencil drawn and realistic images of furniture and decorations, along with odd figures walking about the room (peering out a window, using a wall to stretch, rearranging a vase of flowers, etc.) The player may interact with any "realized" objects by tapping on it - the rug changes its design, a Faberge egg opens to reveal pastries, the fireplace ignites a wood burning fire that can be stoked, etc. To further contain the player within this room, a "realized" mirror links to the computer's camera and reflects the image of the player examining the space. Once the final piece of furniture or decoration is "realized," a figure unlocks and opens a door to the next empty dollhouse room to be unpacked and realized.

The goal of "My Palace" is to fully realize the entire dollhouse. At the end of this, the camera pans back to the apartment, where the silhouette of a human form begins to clean up the robbed apartment. There are no points, timers, or consequences during this game, only the unpacking of decadent surprises (a deliberate process to better deal with the real world).

Ryan George (Design), Elise Motzny (Art), Tucker Williams (Design & Audio), Game Development Students at Columbia College Chicago, Illuminate

Illuminate is a 2D expressive game where the player is a glowing firefly in a dimly light park. Throughout this world are other unlit fireflies and it is the player's goal to illuminate them. To do this, the player uses the faint trail of light that follows them to encircle other fireflies, which lights them.

These newly lit fireflies will then continue to navigate the park and illuminate fireflies in their proximity. After an extended period of time fireflies will cease to be lit, so the player must be proactively seeking out fireflies if they hope to illuminate them all.

The art style will contrast the player character against the environment, with the player being an abstraction of a firefly and the environment being lush and detailed.

When the player first starts out in Illuminate the music is so quiet the only discernible sound is quiet ambience. As the player continues to light up the remaining fireflies in the level the music builds steadily. When the player has succeeded in lighting up every firefly the music will reach its apex. The music will be sweeping while remaining unobtrusive, similar to the work of Nobuo Uematsu, and Gustav Holst (specifically Holst's Neptune and Jupiter movements). This would create a peaceful but empty feeling atmosphere that would motivate the player to fill it with sound and light.

In Illuminate joy is created through a combination of atmosphere and gameplay events. Upon illuminating an unlit firefly the game camera briefly zooms out to give the player full view of the park, seeing the positive result of their actions.

As the player continues through the game they will quickly come to realize how big of an impact they make with every interaction. The gameplay also allows the player to move at whatever pace they deem necessary. If the player simply wants to fly around and make interesting shapes with the light trail the game doesn't penalize them.

Once every firefly is lit the player is victorious. The credits begin to appear in a corner of the screen, overlaid on to the play space however the player can continue to fly around for as long as they see fit.

Madeline Henderson, Game Design Major at Montgomery College, Seed

A single seed falls into the crack of a sidewalk in a very boring, small city. This is Seed, a small game designed to bring joy.

The player is in control immediately after the introduction. The goal is to turn a flat, colorless city into a flourishing forest. There is no destruction of buildings or plants, only the growing of plants over buildings and over each other. How quickly the city is covered does not matter, nor does how much the city is covered when the player decides he/she is finished creating. The lack of time restrictions and specific requirements allows the player to truly relax and enjoy the game.

The game is played by selecting options from a visual interface and then drawing lines. The player chooses the type of plant and the color of the flowers (or chooses not to have flowers) and draws a path for the plant to grow.The drawing can be on the sidewalks, streets, or up the sides of buildings. The player can draw many plants with different settings to create mixed variety or to strategically customize his/her forest. The player can also draw/place rivers to add a nice touch to the forest.

The line will gradually start to grow out into a larger plant. The rain button at the top right corner can be clicked if the player wants to temporarily speed up the growth of the plants. The rain button can be pressed at any time and as many times as the player desires. The player can travel to other players' cities to watch their forests grow in real-time. The player can also gain the ability to grow new kinds of plants by visiting other players around the world. However, in order to avoid negative feedback, players cannot converse with each other.

An example of the interface. Plant types are trees, vines, grass, and flowers. The game can be saved at any time.

The game is always growing and changing so the player will likely not need to start a new game but the option to do so is available on the game's start menu. Seed has no time limit and no losing condition. If the player creates a plant that is undesired, another plant can simply be drawn on top of it. The game also features pleasant background music and allows the player to import his/her own music at the start of the game. Seed offers the joy of creation and the joy of freedom and is simple enough to use easily but has enough options and randomization to ensure that every creation is unique.

José Francisco Arias Pérez, Designer for Tlacuacho Estudio, Little dancer searches for the Moon

This little girl has an incredible ability:

She is the best Dream-Dancer.

Every night, while asleep, she dances nonstop shaping her Dreams.

That's why one night a big Dream-Ship full of Dream-Sailors docks on her bedroom and takes her on a quest to find the Moon.

"It's true. I haven't seen the Moon lately" she says and boards the Dream-Ship.

The player takes control of the little girl and sails through Dream-World in search of the Moon. Every time they get to some place the inhabitants will ask them for help with some specific problem and the little girl will be able to Dream-Dance changing everything around her.

The controls simple: a pad moves the little girl on every direction while other four buttons function as dance steps. The player has the freedom to dance whoever she wants while the music will automatically try to match up with the tempo and "style" the player is going for. While the dance unfolds, the environment will start to change to reflect the dance and the problems may or may not be solved. There is no "right" way to dance and no matter what the player decides to do, something will be changing on the Dream-World.

Every stage has a predetermined set of instruments whose rhythm will be set by the player input. The rhythm can be changed anytime by the player, but since the music is "created" on real time it will sound better if the tempo is consistent. Still, the player can go "nuts" and just enjoy himself. It is also possible to link the dance steps to create a "certain" dance. Every dance step has some kind of "ability": "hand gestures" tend to make the people around her to join the dance, "arm movements" transform objects around her (like plants or chairs), "turns" change the colors of the stage and "jumps" make everything ‘BLOOM!'. Also, moving around the Stage will affect those things that are closer. The location in stage and the dance steps will also determine how the music plays.

The player won't have to make "exact" inputs in the game. So, for example, having an "approximate tempo" will do the trick just fine. It's all about enjoying the dance

Every scenario has lots of triggers that will contribute to the player's dance. If they are in a desert and they want to make "rain", our little girl will be able to make a soft calm rain with low tempo and arm movements, or create a storm with fast tempo and lots of jumps. Of course it will also be possible to have a slow prelude and then make the storm break in full force.

When the player decides to quit, she will have to make everyone fall asleep with a sloooooow tempo dance so she can return home. And once there:

"They're finally asleep, now I can go out!" will say the Moon as she shines over the little sleeping girl.

Kiera Whalen, Montclair High School Student, In the Park

In the Park is a game that lets the Player travel to a carefree time so they experience simple childlike joy. It mainly takes place in an idyllic park populated by kids. The game is a small vignette, which allows all the corners to be polished for a truly immersive experience. There is no music; the background noise is the sound of children chatting and various sounds of nature. All conversations are fully realized, with no repeating, and a joy in itself to listen to.

In the Park begins when Ron (the Player Character) is woken up by his slightly older eight-year-old brother Calvin (who follows him throughout the game). It is a fall weekend with the sun shining after a night of rain. Calvin talks to Ron with excitement about all the fun they are going to have.

The game then skips forward to Calvin and Ron on their bikes, riding down a small paved road covered with puddles. They are riding to the Park, and the Player can splash the puddles in the road along the way. Neighbors in their lawns greet the boys as they pass.

Once the two reach the park, there are a variety of experiences the player can choose in whatever order and time they want.

If the Player goes to the open field, a game of tag between the boys and neighborhood children is initiated.

The side of the lake activates a mini-game where the player collects pieces of sticks that have broken off of trees during the previous storm to create a makeshift raft, which quickly sinks when the boys push it into the pond.

The lake also activates two other mini-games: One where the boys skip stones (the Player must search through a pile of stones to find one suitable to throw) and another where they pretend to fish with twigs (for this game, Ron's imagination transforms the twig into a fishing rod and the lifeless lake into one teeming with fish).

The Player can also climb a large oak to the top. Once at the top of the oak, the boys can cloud-gaze through the thinning canopy of leaves. For this mini-game, whenever Calvin says something such as, "I see a puppy!" the Player must select the cloud they think most resembles a dog.

Other mini-games include playing the card game "Spit" at the picnic table with other kids, jumping in piles of fallen leaves, and catching tadpoles in a small creek.

As the Player is enjoying the mini-games, the sun rises and then sinks down. The in-game day is around one hour real life. As the sun sets, the boys' mother will call for them, and the park slowly fades out. The next scene is in the bedroom where the game started off; both the boys are in their separate beds, and Calvin is happily telling their mom what they did that day as the boy's eyes begin to close.

Camila Carvalho, Student of S.a.g.a - School of Art, Game and Animation, The Way of Music

A girl is listening her favorite songs on the radio. She loves them so much she thinks she could play them just with her fingers. She starts to tap on her iPhone at the same rhythmic and imagines themes and moves like a movie clip. The music is playing with her imagination!

The Game:

At the iPhone, you control the sceneries of a song. You tap on the screen as you were just listening without paying much attention, but when you look at it, there are images showing up depending on the type of music and where you're touching. You don't have to run to big scores, as your reward is just to see different mixes for a same music, for example.

There aren't any visible buttons to push.

The sensation must be that the person is listening to the music and seeing her environment change as her character dances.

The main character is searching for her lost feelings that were locked deep in her heart because of bad things she passed through her life. There are ways (chapters) with six different types of positive emotions, although you don't need to get through all of them to finish the game. They are:

Each one provides you with songs and environments to make her listen, dance and master again these feelings.

How to play:

As it was said before, while you're listening to the music, you must tap on your iPhone according with the rhythm of the music. Where you touch doesn't matter how (just be sure is on the screen). When you stay on the rhythm you can see the character dancing and winning beautiful views that match with the theme (goods things like birds in the Way of Freedom or hearts in the Way of Love), but if you miss too much the rhythm it seems as she is making strange moves and the view start to gets fuzzy and bad images appears like monsters (but still well designed).

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