May 27, 2020
5 min read
I'm not sure where I first learned about the concept of design pillars as a game design strategy, but it's definitely been floating around for years. Different sources define design pillars in different ways, so here's the definition I use.
Design pillars are the 3-5 core ordered ideas, concepts, or emotions that our game should embody.
The main utility these pillars have is in communicating with yourself and collaborators about how your game should function. Whenever there is a decision anyone on the team needs to make, they should revisit these pillars. Choose the solution to the problem at hand that best supports the most pillars possible.
Sometimes solutions may contradict one of the pillars and benefit another. To move forward in this situation it can also be helpful to order your design pillars from most to least important. A small sacrifice to your most important pillar may not be worth a large gain in your least important.
I've attempted to create more full fledged design documents while working on small team projects. These documents tend to fall out of date remarkably quickly and never manage to account for every future decision. Having a strong set of design pillars has been a much more successful strategy for delivering the intended game, especially over the long term.
Wildfire Swap has three main design pillars (listed in order of importance): discovery, simplicity, and friendly. We've been leaning on these pillars as we work to put the finishing touches on the game.
The core emotion that Wildfire Swap tries to get its players to experience is the joy of discovery. That feeling after you conquer a particularly tricky puzzle and feel like the smartest person on the planet. Or the time where you see two mechanics interact for the first time and you think "It can do THAT???". And of course, the fabled "ooooh" and "ahah!" moments.
Some of the ways that we try to deliver on this core pillar are fairly typical of most games. We have a series of worlds and levels. Each world brings new mechanics and each level explores a particularly interesting scenario for a mechanic. We introduce new visual and audio themes as you progress deeper into the game. Rather than have the game explain to how a new mechanic works, we construct a scenario that forces you to learn how it functions first hand.
We care more about players experiencing cool things than being challenged. We've cut harder levels that impeded players' progression through the game. Sometimes we'll have two similar levels and remove one because it's not novel rather than pad more content.
The next most important pillar of design in Wildfire Swap is simplicity. This is partially a pillar of necessity. We're not a large dev team and we're not working anywhere near full time on this project. If we want to ship it any time soon, we need to ruthlessly prioritize everything that gets into the game.
We just shouldn't spend our time working on anything that's not in service of helping our players to discover cool new things. You can see this in the art style for the game. There is no budget for anything beautiful or detailed. Instead, we aimed for a consistent, simple aesthetic that conveys information to the player as clearly as possible and then gets out of the way.
Additionally, the only thing you ever do to interact with Wildfire Swap is click. You don't need to learn hot keys (though we do want to add undo and reset hotkeys so you can experiment faster) or work your way through dialog trees.
Our final pillar is one that's a little harder for me to give a snappy single word title. I've settled on "friendly" for the purposes of this post, but the word has bounced around from related words like "fun" and "whimsy" in the past. I'm sure it will bounce on to something new in the future too.
Puzzle games can be stressful and demanding. They require you to change the way you think about a set of rules. Your initial perception of how they work is usually wrong or lacking. When players fail to solve a puzzle during play-testing they tell us something like "I'm just too dumb for this game". That's the last thing we want to hear! You're not dumb, player. We are! We failed to give you the joy of discovery.
This final pillar is here to try and undercut that common player reaction. Wherever we can, we want to make it clear to our players that struggle and failure is just part of the process. You can undo any move or reset any puzzle whenever you want. If a house burns down, click a button and everything is safe again. Calming audio tracks, fluffy clouds, and meandering paths all try to make a comfortable space for our players to discover new things.
The closer we get to shipping Wildfire Swap, the harder it has been to keep creating a streamlined experience. It's a bigger commitment from play-testers to try new content and it takes more work to implement final features. Keeping these pillars in mind has helped reign us in and move us closer to the finish line.
Lately, these pillars have started to crystallize a lot for me. Do they shine through when you look at Wildfire Swap? I'd love to hear from you about where you think they might fall short or what else we could do to make them stronger.