What’s at stake?

Ludum Dare #22 (December, 2011) is long gone, but I’m still feeling the repercussions. Alongside seven hundred and sixteen other people, I spent a weekend building a computer game from start to finish all on my own. This was the seventh Ludum Dare competition running that I’ve accomplished, and the learning experience never lets up.

Entering the Ludum Dare competition takes on different meanings depending on your experience level. At the beginning, LD was a reason to finish a game. Personally, I had never completed a single game project I had started until I joined the competition. This was the reason to participate, and finishing the game was the reward.

While finishing a game is extremely satisfying (and a worthwhile skill to have!), this eventually must cease being the only reason to compete. There are newer challenges that must be addressed — and all the while, retaining this ability to finish the games you start (ie. wisely choosing content, infrastructures, and keeping scope within range….).

One of the challenges is building a game worth experiencing. But if the player doesn’t actually have to “go through the experience” on their own, how personal could it possibly be?

In games, “going through” the experience translates to a difficulty that needs to be overcome. There must be a challenge, a wall against which the player must struggle. It’s more than that, of course: in order to feel connected at any level, there must be something at stake. If we return to games of yore, limited lives means something very real at stake. If you can’t make it through this level, you might lose the game and have to start over (or be forced to part with another quarter!).

To speak from my own experience, the games I have typically built for Ludum Dare are the kind that hold your hand throughout. It’s not entirely clear to me if this hand-holding was the product of an informed design decision, or if I just wanted to make sure anyone who cared to judge the game could see it through to the end. When judged, the best case end result would invariably be “nice”.

I think this changed during the last Ludum Dare, with my entry “Ghost town“. It may not have achieved much in the way of critical review, but one quote has stayed with me:

This is the first game of yours that I get to play where I feel in danger.

-Wolfgang

This game suddenly had an element of risk to it. Something was at stake. And it seemed to me that life was imitating art, because my attitude towards the Ludum Dare competition was different this time. Usually, I try to get my friends to join me on the Ludum Dare challenge. This time I took it a bit further, as I tried to dig a bit deeper into the Israeli LD scene. This was my first foray into the GameIS forum on Facebook, and I was quite nervous. From the responses, I understood that very few people even knew that the Dare existed, despite the community being involved in similar events (like the Global Game Jam).

And so it became a personal mission. I was to give this competition my all, and follow up by presenting the results the next weekend at the Games Unconference. This was risky! If I simply “made a game”, I wouldn’t really have much to show. But if I made something special, something I believed in that contained a piece of myself, I would be able to present it proudly and maybe convince a few others to join in next time.

I think the game shows this improvement. While it may be a standard platformer game (and certainly not as good as I imagined it becoming), I believe it has something “at stake” in it, something slightly special that elevates it beyond a game that I “was able to finish in 48 hours”.

The follow-up talk also went well, and I think we’ll have more Israelis joining in next time (This April is the 10 year anniversary of Ludum Dare! Come make games with us!).

Having no risk is the safest way to do nothing. Obviously too much risk won’t help at all, but there is a balance to be found. When there is something at stake — maybe something special or important, but not necessarily crucial — an interesting thing happens, and the whole experience becomes more personal.

As in life, as in games.

Posted on March 24, 2012 at 5:48 pm by eli · Permalink
In: Uncategorized