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How Game Design Works / Doesn't Work: A Lesson From the 'What Would Molydeux?' Gamejam


"Actually ... I don't know where I'm going with this."

At a 48-hour game jam, where time is more precious than money, a brief lack of direction isn't the disaster it would be at an Activision or an EA. It might even be a good thing, allowing just enough room and respite for that one idea that makes a fragmented game come together.

The participants of "What Would Molydeux?", a multi-city design event that derives game concepts from the whimsical, semi-sincere mind of Peter Molyneux's Twitter-bound doppelgänger, have the weekend to turn an inherently silly premise into something innovative and playable. And, you know, to figure out where they're going with this.

Team leader Jason Lee gets back on track after the brief hiatus, and turns to the whiteboard that his small group -- a flash programmer, two designers and an artist -- have spontaneously commandeered at the San Francisco venue. "Do we think this has a good core?" he asks. "Sell it to me in a sentence."

Thankfully, the ideas are from Twitter, so they're all simple sentences. Lee and his team initially dub their game "The Love Tweet Suite," as it's a blend of several romantic game ideas from Molydeux, including this one: "Romantic parkour game in which you and the love of your life must hold hands and jump around a city evading death and injury."

Designer and audio conjurer Chelsea Howe, who regularly participates in game jams with Michael Molinari, the game's artist, juggles a few suggestions. What if gas clouds were physical, floating representations of emotions like joy and anger? Scribbles on the whiteboard propose a two-dimensional, two-player co-operative game, with players running in the same direction but on separate, parallel planes. There must be a reason for them running, Howe wonders aloud. Is speed a metaphor for love? Can you collect every cloud and, if not, is that a sneaky Molydeux sermon on self-moderation in a relationship?

Molinari looks up from his phone. "Can you explain this to me? I was tweeting."

The spirit of collaboration, of everyone being in on the same joke, charges the room and almost nullifies the need for explanation. The game concepts -- like the one where you play as a scarecrow in a world with only one bird -- are inherently funny, but there's an earnest goal creeping out of them. In mocking veteran designer Peter Molyneux's infamous inability to fully grasp his grandest ideas, Peter Molydeux has embedded a viral enthusiasm for innovation. It's creativity with a splash of self-deprecation.

The opening hour of the San Francisco game jam feels more like a marketplace than a pizza-fueled conglomeration of over 100 eager indies. It takes about an hour for obvious groups to form, for artists to find their designers, for musicians to find their venues, and for games to find their voices. "Hey, do you guys need any 2D art?" someone yells. "We need a Flash developer here," comes another voice. There are even a few exuberant placards offering aid: "Sound Design!!! FREE!"

It isn't long before participants find their niche and begin the collaborative, industry-curative process of making games out of Molydeux's daft directives. Here's one: "Game where your arms are controlled by a psychopath who keeps firing guns at innocent people. You must turn away from them and run."

Ideas flourish fast and soar in some groups, and with others it's like watching bad-idea skeet shooting. "How do you justify the exploding people?" argues one contributor (seriously). "Who says you have to?" comes the reply. Debates veer between thoughtful and flippant, and would likely be indecipherable to the uninformed outsider. "We have to figure out the story," says one designer earnestly. "How about the closer you are, the more stabby he gets?" suggests another. And somewhere, someone says, "Death magenta is transparent." Okay.

Molydeux isn't alone in providing inspiration, as several classic games come up in this formative stage. You can hear developers cite guiding examples like Lemmings, Mirror's Edge, and Mario 64. Another group considers what they can draw from Peter Molyneux's own Populous. Far Cry 2 comes up in one corner of the room, instantly confirming the presence of Chris Remo.

Meanwhile, Jason Lee and his collaborators are getting closer to meeting their game for the first time. It's bigger now, with the two players tasked with collecting matching emotions on their separate paths. Once they've collected enough, the plan is to have their paths converge and represent ... what, exactly? Chelsea Howe glances over the whiteboard and -- aha -- there it is. "Long distance relationship."

"Oh my god, we've got a game," Lee says. "At this point we don't touch it." (Spoiler: They totally touch it.)

By Sunday evening, with 48 hours expired, the game is presented as "Run Love Run." One player steers their runner with the keyboard's W, A and D keys, while another uses the arrow keys. There are no clouds of angst or love, only a bubble connecting the two runners who must keep up with each other as they leap over obstacles. Staying within the shared bubble causes emotion to grow inside of it, and falling out of sync makes those feelings "die, crack and break," according to Lee. Once the vibrantly colored emotions congeal and grow fully in the bubble, both runners (lovers?) are transported into bliss. It's a superb encapsulation of what Molydeux represents: a thoughtful concept that might be a tad too literal, but can still be accepted within the framework of a mechanical, goal-oriented game.

On Friday, I wonder whether these ideas would transform into fun games by virtue of their inspiration, the pressured development process, or by accident. I speak to a team working on a game in which you play as a bear who can only absorb oxygen by hugging people, an act which also happens to crush them into a bloody pulp. I ask: "And this is fun, because ... ?"

"Uh, we're not at that stage yet," says one of the collaborators, laughing. "That's not how game design works."

You can download and play many of the Molyjam entries right now! Some standouts from the San Francisco event include:
  • Nebulous Hero, a platformer in which a weird, elongated creature stomps on enemies and collects coins. The tutorial unlocks once you complete the game, and shows you that the game is not meant to be played in the way you thought.
  • Unbearable (Or: How They Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bear), a game that uses first-, second- and third-person camera views to depict a bear on the hunt for life-giving hugs. Maintaining fine control over your arm velocity is the difference between a warm squeeze and a bloody pulverization.
  • I, Crow-Bot, in which you shake a physics-driven scarecrow to keep the world's only crow away from crops. Kill the bird by accident (expressly forbidden by the laws of crow-botics), and spend days pondering the actions that undermine your very reason for existence.
  • Recidivism, where the animations of those you kill remain on screen, even when you transition to a different level. Your body count gradually obscures your view and makes it harder to jump over deadly obstacles.
  • Breaktris, which is based on Molydeux's suggestion that a missile fired in Battlefield 3 should be able to hit your friend's car in Burnout: Paradise. The screen is split vertically between games of Breakout and Tetris. If the ball escapes the Breakout screen through the top, it can smash Tetris shapes -- but completing a line in Tetris adds those blocks back to the Breakout screen.

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