What makes a great game?
If I told you that NES and SNES games Metroid and Mario were inspirations for how I’m making One Lonely Outpost, that’d seem strange, right? But they none the less are. It’s not the exact mechanics they used, or the styles, or even the themes. It’s the experience, and how they accomplished it.
Take Metroid. Especially on the NES, game devs had barely two bits to rub together to make their games. That meant every pixel, bleep, and press of a button really, REALLY mattered. For Metroid, this was hugely important - mixing together the visuals was masterfully done so that despite each tileset having maybe 4 tiles, they still made it look organic and not too repetitive. The music perfectly sets the tones with Brinstar’s heroic overture, Norfair’s bobbing slog of a tune, the elevator’s short, simple but ominous notes, and Kraid/Ridley’s lairs having a sense of imminent danger to them. The way the jumps work, the way the world is laid out and designed, it’s all so masterful and purposeful. That’s what inspires me about Metroid as a game designer for One Lonely Outpost. It’s the depth of thought and the degree of polish that went into it which I want to put into our game.
Then there’s Mario. Mario likewise makes everything matter just like Metroid, but it’s designed to have a more linear learning curve, where every step of the way gets just a bit harder, whereas Metroid starts out easy, but quickly gets more challenging after that. But what strikes me about Mario is the premise. It’s an Italian plumber in a mushroom kingdom trying to save a princess by stepping on things and eating flowers. It’s a completely absurd premise that you would expect to play up the humor of just how absurd it is, but instead it just delivers masterfully on gameplay. It’s the greatest proof that a great game designer can take ANY concept or setting and make it work.
Most would agree that the SNES variations on these titles were superior games, and I would agree. But they built on the perfected and honed mechanics and designs from the NES titles from which they descended. You can really attribute their greatness to the amount of ‘pre production’ work and experience the designers had with the NES titles. This is the power of working off of something that already works, as well as just going the extra mile with polishing the parts that are really important. The way the characters move, jump, and shoot are so critically important, yet most people won’t even notice it consciously. That’s where I want to go with One Lonely Outpost. Once the game is roughed out, I want us to spend a lot of time really polishing it to deliver the perfect player experience.
And that’s where I think a lot of new games go wrong. They get too focused on adding ‘stuff’ to the games, being different for the sake of being different. Or add complex mechanics because they think it’ll be more fun. But Nintendo’s amazing classics have always been the opposite - they use simple mechanics in clever and creative, intuitive ways. With OLO I’m striving to always rethink ‘is this mechanic simple enough? Is it intuitive enough? Is it FUN?’ And more than any other design concept, I think that is the most important element to any game meant for a broad audience. Niche games are spectacular fun - some of my favorite games are Factorio and Oxygen Not Included - two very complicated games. But those games aren’t for everyone - they have more specific audiences who like complexity. They’re niche. There’s nothing wrong with that - it’s great! But it’s not for everyone. Or even most people. One Lonely Outpost is meant to be fun for most people, so it is absolutely critical that it be intuitive and fun. I’ll never add something to OLO that is too complex or different just to be different. It MUST make the game as a whole more enjoyable.
A lot of this seems pretty straight forward and obvious, but when designing a game, it’s easy to forget. It’s easy to fall into the trap of ‘but adding this extra step to growing crops will be cool and realistic’ or ‘why not add a mechanic here…’ when every time you do that, it means compounding things to polish. It means the game gets more complicated, and to the new player, it becomes that much more to learn before you can even use the game. I believe that good design can overcome much of this, but I also believe that sometimes less is more.
Obviously the game has plenty of more direct inspirations: Harvest Moon, Stardew Valley, Rune Factory, Starbound, and more. But at its core, what made good Harvest Moon style games vs the not-so-good ones was great design that knew how and where to add, or subtract, game mechanics. I doubt our game will achieve the perfection of games like Mario or Metroid, but that’s never a good reason not to try - so try we will!