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Design Lesson 101: Boom Blox

In his latest regular 'Design Lesson 101' column, Raven designer Manveer Heir examines EA's recent Wii exclusive puzzler Boom Blox, saying that while much of its fun comes from playful destruction, its success is also in a basic rule of design --

Manveer Heir, Blogger

May 20, 2008

5 Min Read

['Design Lesson 101' is a regular column by Raven game designer Manveer Heir. The challenge is to play a game from start to completion - and learn something about game design in the process. This week, we take a look at Steven Spielberg's first foray at an original game for the Wii: Boom Blox.] The name Steven Spielberg is synonymous with big Hollywood movies, such as Jaws, Jurassic Park, and Minority Report. When it was revealed that he signed an exclusive contract with EA to produce three games for the next-gen consoles, it was assumed by most that all three games would be like his films: huge blockbusters. So, like many others, I was very surprised to find out that his first title would be a simple physics-based puzzle game on the Wii. Don't let appearances fool you. Even though the production values aren't epic, Spielberg's Boom Blox manages to produce a very entertaining set of puzzles that can appeal to gamers of all ages. Part of the reason is the fun, kinetic style of play that does a great job of utilizing the Wiimote's motion features. Additionally, Boom Blox does an excellent job of setting regular, small goals for the player, which is the focus of this design lesson. Design Lesson: Give regular micro-goals during gameplay, so that the player knows what is expected of him and exactly what to do at all times. This is a fairly basic rule of design, and complements the design lesson from Sam & Max Season Two, where I talked about the player needing to feel constant progress. Playing Boom Blox re-emphasized this point, so I felt the need to expand on the original lesson. Boom Blox has a number of types of puzzles within it. Some of the puzzles require the player to topple down structures in the fewest amount of throws. Others require the player to remove blocks Jenga-style for point. There are even some shooting gallery puzzles, that focus on quick reflexes in small amounts of time. No matter what the puzzle, a couple of things are always true. First, the player is always told exactly what conditions must be met to get a bronze, silver, or gold medal for the puzzle. Second, the puzzles usually last under five minutes. In fact, most of the puzzles take about a minute to complete. The effect of having such short puzzles, with specific goals, is that the player is constantly aware of exactly what to do at all times. If some of the puzzles took fifteen minutes, you may get frustrated at your inability to make progress or even forget exactly what is needed for a gold medal. If you weren't told what was necessary for a gold medal, only that it exists, you may have an even harder time reaching that goal. Think about action games for a moment. How many times have you progressed through a level in a shooter, not knowing exactly what you are trying to do, only because forward is the only way to go? Eventually, you get to the boss or the level objective, at which point you are reminded of why you were running through this particular graveyard on this particular night shooting these particular zombies. Boom Blox is a completely different type of game, but to me the lesson is still valid. Let the player know, at all times, exactly what to do for the next few minutes of gameplay. String that together enough times, and you are at engaging the player by giving him constant feedback as to his progress. Boom Blox's positive feedback results in the unlocking of more puzzles. Completing the first set of puzzles opens the second set, and so-on. One of the more frustrating parts of the game was when I had unlocked all of the single player puzzles, except for one set (“Master Challenges”). The game didn't tell me what I needed to do to unlock this set of puzzles, so I had to guess. In other words, I was unsure of my micro-goals that needed to be completed in order to reach my macro-goal of unlocking the “master challenges”. The game told me what I needed to do for all the other unlockable puzzles, tools, and characters, so I didn't run into this problem until after playing the game for a long time. When it occurred, I got frustrated and looked up what I needed on the internet. It made me realize what a great job the rest of the game had done at setting small, manageable goals for the player. Spielberg and EA may not have brought us a blockbuster game, in terms of budget, but they have built it from very sound design fundamentals. Boom Blox does an excellent job of setting player expectations up front, with respect to its goals. If its puzzles were longer or the requirements for getting a gold medal unspecified (I'm looking at you Guitar Hero and your inability to tell me what score I need to get 5-stars on a song), the game would have been less enjoyable. Luckily, the majority of the game focuses the player on small, obtainable goals for completing puzzles and unlocking new puzzles. This makes sure the player is always aware of exactly what to do next, but not necessarily how to do it. This allows the player to make constant progress, which is important to keep a player engaged, and part of why Boom Blox is so much fun. Bonus Lesson: Destroying things is fun! This is the other big (and more important) reason Boom Blox is so much fun. There's not much more to be said about this. Knocking down towers of blocks is just, at its core, enjoyable. It reminds me of being a kid and playing with Lego. More games where I can knock down towers of blocks please! [Manveer Heir is currently a game designer at Raven Software. He updates his design blog, Design Rampage, regularly. He is interested in thoughtful critique and commentary on the gaming industry.]

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