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Making a Case for Short Games

Using his own Strange Adventures in Infinite Space as a test case, Digital Eel's Rich Carlson highlights the benefits in both making and playing short games.

Rich Carlson, Blogger

May 2, 2005

19 Min Read

Which would you rather play, a computer game that takes forty hours to complete or one that lasts just a few minutes? Don't be too quick to answer. The former asks for a serious time commitment. The latter says come and go as you please. One is a ball and chain. The other is a "Get Out of Jail Free" card. Well, it's not exactly that bad but considering all of the things you have to do today, which type of game do you really have time for?

Also, isn't it peculiar that when you complete a complex or lengthy game you rarely want to replay it, yet short games are often endlessly replayable? After you finish a long RPG or story game, the box goes back on the shelf to gather dust and remain unremembered until the next garage sale. A short game, if it's good, usually doesn't suffer that fate. It stays on your hard drive for years.

Is one form better than the other one? No. What's better? The former gives you satisfaction over time and provides a definite and, hopefully, memorable conclusion. The latter gives you a tasty sip or two from a well that never runs dry. It's a great choice to have.

Problem is, from a designer's point of view, these choices may seem mutually exclusive. Conventional wisdom says that genres that are appropriate for long games are not appropriate for short games. I disagree. I believe that this is a narrow view because I know short games, or any game for that matter, can be about any darn thing we want them to be about.

Designers who create short games shouldn't be limited to having to design so-called casual games in a handful of mass market categories. If this is strictly by publisher decree, I think we should try to work with them to change that. There's always more than one way to turn a buck. Meanwhile, I'm going to make a case for short games anyway and, not coincidentally, I'll be using Strange Adventures in Infinite Space (SAIS), a computer game we released a couple of years ago, as a kind of test case.


First, let's go back a ways. One of my strangest adventures began in 2000 when Iikka Keranen and I formed Digital Eel. It might be formally described as an independent non-funded microteam but we're not very formal. To us, it's like being in a garage band. Our goals were, and still are, to make games as a labor of love, unfettered by commercial constraints, as professionally as we can yet as cheaply as possible. In fact, our games have no real budgets, and we work at home, mostly during our spare time.

In 2001 we met Seattle area artist, Phosphorous, who completed the cabal and brought his own kind of unbridled creativity to the team. Unlike many artists in the game industry who might emulate Giger or adopt the stylistic influences of anime, Phosphorous was influenced by counterculture comic book artists of the late '60s and '70s, like Robert Williams, and album cover artists like Roger Dean. His game art doesn't look like anyone else's and his free roaming imagination and surreal vision immediately defined the art style of Digital Eel.

We're still together, five games done, and one in the oven. A couple of our games, Dr. Blob's Organism and Strange Adventures In Infinite Space, have received a fair amount of attention and that has been gratifying and encouraging. Now we're on to other things, namely, a sequel to SAIS called Weird Worlds: Return To Infinite Space, and who knows what else will happen this year.

When Iikka and I first decided to make computer games together, we began by doing what a lot of people do. We decided to create a Magnum Opus: a gigantic 2D strategy game overstuffed with all of our saved-up ideas. It would be called "Infinite Space" (because Iikka always wanted to make a game with that name since he was a kid) and it would be the absolute coolest 4X space game ever seen, at least by human gamers.

So, we did the woodshedding thing, immersing ourselves during our off work time in all of the little details necessary to make such a grand project happen. After a few months we actually finished about a third of the game, and a lot of great stuff was happening on our screens.

Then reality intruded just in time to distract us. We both accepted new jobs at a game company with a very stressful environment. We were already burning the candle at both ends, and we were burning ourselves out; something had to go. Unfortunately, that something was our pet project. Not that this was a conscious decision, but somehow in the midst of a frustrating period of months, "Infinite Space" was left behind. It remains unfinished to this day.

Around that time we started playing boardgames again, and we played a lot of NetHack and Crawl (Linley's Dungeon Crawl). This period was significant. Strange Adventures In Infinite Space might have never existed had we not gone through a phase when we played other games outside of the realm of what is popular. If we hadn't gone back to school for a while, we might not have begun to reshape our thinking about what short computer games can be. So, here ends the Digital Eel family history. What follows is an accounting of what that brainstorming period was all about.

There are two categories of games that you need to be familiar with to best understand where Strange Adventures in Infinite Space came from; rogue-like games and beer & pretzel boardgames.

Rogue-likes (Rogue was one of the first games of this type) like NetHack, are built around commonly known roleplaying game combat mechanics. Like most RPGs, they typically take dozens of hours to complete, however, you can't save during a play session. You can only "save and quit." Consequently, when your character dies during a session, there is no save file to reload so the game is over, period. Yikes!

Another common feature is that the contents of a rogue-like game (level layouts, adversary placement, items and treasures, traps and unique areas and other encounters) are cleverly randomized each time a new character is created. Every game is different while at the same time being tailored somewhat to the player's initial character creation choices.

Except for the length of these games, we like features like this because they provide for variety and replayability, and the lack of a save feature means that more is at stake. Life and death decisions are made, so choices are taken more seriously. In other words, it's dramatic and you have to think before you leap.

On the other side of the game shelf, beer & pretzel games are social games, boardgames generally, with easy rules. The term is also used to refer to genre games (fantasy, science fiction, espionage, etc.), certain strategy games, tactical games, and card games of easy to moderate complexity played by hobbyist gamers.

There is a particular category of beer & pretzel games, called microgames, which I'll be referring to. Microgames were "little big games" - beer & pretzel games with big game themes packaged in cardboard boxes, or plastic bags, the size of paperbacks. Initially, they appeared in the '80s as a "lite" and inexpensive alternative to larger and more complex war games and RPGs. Within a decade, microgames would flourish and cover practically every game genre imaginable.

A Shorter, More Manageable Game

So, we were thinking about these games and playing them, and then we had a mild revelation. "Infinite Space", the 4X game we had abandoned, might be able to be saved, sort of, if we scaled the whole thing down to something comparable in size to a microgame; something that was easy to play like a beer & pretzel game and based on certain rogue-like game mechanics. This would be very practical to do since we had lots of assets left over from the abandoned 4X game that we could reuse. Also, this seemed more like a game project three people could finish!

The principles behind rogue-likes such as NetHack became a kind of foundation for us. NetHack generates random dungeons in intelligent ways. We would randomize the star map terrain, alien encounters, creatures and artifacts similarly. Randomization of this sort means that, if you provide enough items and encounters to keep things fresh, the game should be highly replayable. One way we used this was to simply categorize encounters as common, uncommon and rare. For example, the rarest events might manifest in one out of twenty games.

We also let science do some of this work for us. Star types occur with frequencies that are known by astronomers, and their characteristics suggest that specific planet types might be present. Planet types, in turn, imply certain environments, whether a world is life bearing or not, and whether it is a desirable planet for colonization given an alien race's traits and indigenous habitat. Humans would prefer a world like Earth, but other kinds of aliens might prefer planets with radically different environments. Given this information you can create tables that generate a wide variety of results that actually make sense, at least for the needs of science fiction.

Back to rogue-likes, As I mentioned, NetHack disallows saving games during a play session. We liked that, so we would incorporate that restriction as well. Allowing no saves until you quit a session ups the intensity considerably. The problem for most people is that rogue-likes are so large that when you die permanently, it seems like so much time has been wasted. But we were already covered on that one. We knew we wanted our new game to play easily and briskly to its conclusion, and player death would be no more disconcerting than starting a new hand of Solitaire.

We were also thinking about particular microgames that used random generation systems of one kind or another while having a limited set of components. This was important because it got us thinking about variety vs. paring our list of items and encounters down to only those things that have the most gameplay value. This served as a good model, yet we wondered how small we could make a game while still providing enough content to evoke the feeling of participating in a star-spanning saga.

Two beer & pretzel games, and one microgame in particular, helped us further crystallize the game which would eventually be called Strange Adventures in Infinite Space, both in terms of gameplay and presentation. West End Games' Tales of the Arabian Nights, designed by Eric Goldberg, and Star Trek: The Adventure Game, designed by Greg Costikyan (both out of print I'm sorry to say), inspired us to make our new game operate like a boardgame.

The star map view is essentially a gameboard, right? Each space on the board, each star on the star map, is an encounter location that evokes an event, like drawing a Chance card in Monopoly. Events pop up on the screen like "random event cards" drawn from a deck. In fact, we still call the pop up information windows "cards." When a takeable item is present it appears on the screen in your "cargo hold," like drawing an item card and placing it on the table. Anyhow, if you play SAIS, you can easily see that the boardgame influences are still there.

SPI's Voyage of the B.S.M. Pandora (out of print), designed by John Butterfield, a microgame included free in an issue of SPI's Ares gaming magazine, provided a kind of framework for the new game and a lot of inspiration as well.

When I first played Pandora in 1981, it was the first boardgame that made me say to myself, "If I ever make a computer game, I want to make one like this." Pandora was a solo adventure game of deep space exploration similar to computer games which came much later, like EA's Starflight series or Accolade's Star Control 2 but on a much smaller scale.

Pandora provided the player with a Star Trek-like mission - hand pick and customize a starship crew, explore a few star systems, discover and explore planets, acquire strange artifacts, capture unusual lifeforms (the primary goal), and return to Earth within a limited amount of time. It's like the "five year mission" of the starship Enterprise from TV's original Star Trek series.

In 1981, this seemed to me to be a perfect concept for a computer game, even at a time when graphics were primitive. And I was amazed that the whole game fit between the pages of a magazine yet it DID evoke the feeling of playing a couple of seasons of Star Trek in about an hour. Talk about retroactive proof of concept!

By the way, Voyage of the B.S.M. Pandora was inspired by A. E. Van Vogt's novel, Voyage of the Space Beagle, which was in turn inspired by accounts of Charles Darwin's voyages on his ship, the Beagle. And so it goes.

I should add that we liked the idea of a time limit, and the "five year mission" restriction (we chose ten for SAIS) was the perfect justification for it. We reinforced that by making the player's voyage a privately-funded clandestine mission so we could penalize the player if he or she returned the ship too late.

We also liked the "leaving, adventuring, and returning" idea a lot. It's the Odyssey, Jason and the Argonauts, the holy grail stories, and all of that. It reminded us of Joseph Campbell's "hero's journey" concept. To emphasize this, we provided one special scenario that occurs as a very rare event. (About once in twenty games, as I mentioned.)

An undocumented alien race, demonstrably insane and possessing a starship that is invulnerable to the weapons the player initially has access to, begins to destroy one star system after another until the player's homeworld is threatened. Two special items (one of them always shows up when this event occurs) will actually eliminate the alien threat and "save the world." (Occasionally with dire repercussions on a galactic scale.) The player must be willing to search for these items, confront the unstoppable adversary and sacrifice much to succeed in winning this scenario, and that is a heroic act.

Additionally, we planned out a roleplaying system with crew members and skills, and we were very keen on the idea, but we dropped this feature because the game was already playing at a nice quick pace and we felt that these elements would slow it down to its detriment.

We also decided to hide numbers and statistics from the player. This was controversial. Our feeling at the time was that stats and spread sheet screens seem dry and kind of geeky to many gamers, and for some, they probably make a game look hard to play.

We wanted gamers to get into SAIS quickly without having to refer to anything remotely technical, and play by intuition and observation, not dissect the game on the operating table. Given a brief description of an item, weapon or alien artifact, players would deduce the rest through the results of their choices and actions, and specific sounds and visual effects. Instead of telling a player what an item does with numbers, we wanted them to discover these things themselves through experimentation.

Lastly, I should mention how we dealt with background story, artifacts and lucre. There are hints of a grand story throughout the game. Certain items and events imply parts of this story, and some, particularly artifacts, include bits of legend about an era in galactic history that came before. That was enough for SAIS; color and texture mostly. We knew that the player's journey, the story he or she creates and imagines while playing the game, was the most important thing.

Alien artifacts should be useable. Their effects should be surprising and unique. One way to look at it is that they each might break one basic game rule. As we worked on SAIS we thought of more and more of them. The ideas for these effects come as primitives; a summoner; a ship eater; a transposer; a cloaker; a wish granter; etc. Then all you have to do is decide what to call them and add a fun description. Of course, some aritifacts are simply treasure, which brings up the subject of money.

Money, at least in dollars and cents, was something we wanted to avoid. Pricing one item low versus pricing another item high would be a dead giveaway that would take much of the fun of experimentation and discovery away. So, we made a radical and what I would call boardgamey decision.

Items would have scoring values hidden to the player (exotic item names and hints in text descriptions would give players a general idea of an item's value) but a trader would be provided who would trade any item from his emporium with any item the player possesses. A "one for one" trade, mind you, with no regard for an item's attributes or worth. This keeps things devilishly simple and it turned out to be a fun system, even if it only makes sense when you learn that the "exalted Klakar" are "ritual traders" interested only in making sure all races of the galaxy have access to the same technology. I know. I don't buy it either but it works and the silly rationale is cute.

Now, as I write all of this down, two things come to mind. I may be giving the impression that there is a timeline here. That's not really the way it was. Many of these events and ideas were overlapping, and other small projects happened along the way, like our first official game release, Plasmaworm, that was a more typical approach to creating a short computer game.

Also, I suspect that this seems like a lot of meandering just to boil it all down to a short game. Perhaps it is, but this is the process we had to go through to find and create SAIS. You may or may not have to go through a similar process but we all, Phosphorous, Iikka and myself, feel strongly that if you follow your muse and trust your intuition, and if you do the homework and do the time, curiosity and experimentation will reveal good things to you.

Explore the galaxy.In 20 minutes or less!

Finally, here's what our short game, Strange Adventures in Infinite Space, turned out to be. SAIS is non-linear and (almost) infinitely replayable. It has turn-based movement and real time starship combat. It has disgusting aliens, black holes, weird artifacts and all of the starship adventure gadgets you would ever want to tinker with. It plays to completion in less than twenty minutes. It costs only fifteen bucks AND users can create custom mods for the game to share with other SAIS players.

So, I ask you again, would you rather play that big $50 space game, night after night, just so you can watch the ending FMV and then put it away forever? Or would you rather play Strange Adventures in Infinite Space, pay a lot less and generate two or three space operas during your lunch hour? Hopefully I'm not putting you on the spot this time.

Lately, I'm seeing similar approaches being taken with other indie games, so I'm optimistic that a kind of renaissance will occur within the next couple of years. A "short game" renaissance? It may be already happening. One example is Mind Control's remarkable strategy game, Oasis, which is like a miniature version of Sid Meier's Civilization set in a mythical ancient Egypt. It is a microgame, there it is, and as I play it, I know that there are going to be even more amazing short games to come.


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About the Author(s)

Rich Carlson


Rich Carlson has worked on megabudget computer games for Looking Glass Studios, Ion Storm and a few other high profile computer game companies. He currently creates his own modestly-priced computer games (along with Iikka Keranen and Bill "Phosphorous" Sears, under the name Digital Eel).

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