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Tapping the Theme

Let theme carry your game beyond the standard fare. Make me feel like a pirate, a struggling housewife, a squirrel.

Randy OConnor, Blogger

November 13, 2010

4 Min Read

So you decided to make a game. And you decided that it is going to have a sheep in it. Why? I have no idea. But I hope you have an idea, because I have seen too many games about sheep that are nothing about sheep.  Theme and gameplay are integrally tied together. For the sake of creativity, your theme is the best possible fountain of innovation!

I make iPhone games. I spend almost all of my time thinking about apps, finding ones I've heard about, researching, and playing apps, just because I want to know why and what people are trying to accomplish. Sometimes I have an idea for a game, and then I search for similar ideas on the app store. 100k apps, I will find forty apps for any keyword I search.

Recently I was thinking about sheep-herding. Plop your finger down, and the sheep are repelled. Corral them into their pen, add some obstacles, done. Finger-swiping good. I then searched for sheep on the app-store. Oh, there we go, several sheep-herding games, a couple of which were solid. Done, next idea. No point in being derivative.

But what about the other fifty sheep-related games I found?  Half of them were physics platformers and sheep-launching games! What the heck? Free the sheep from its dangerous surroundings. Tap the sheep to make it go higher and higher. Not bad games. But why the heck am I freeing sheep from a physicsy tangle of boxes and ropes? Or why am I sending a ram flying through some otherworldly space-portal?

I am being harsh. Worms is an excellent game, and worms have no relation to the gameplay of scorched earth. Angry Birds: totally ludicrous concept, top of the charts for months now.

But I implore you to please consider why you chose your theme. Why did you choose your gameplay? I know a lot of us are making iPhone games these days with the low overhead and strike-it-rich potential. Well, you need to stand out when making a game. I want to play your game, but unless it is top 25 or a unique concept/mechanic, I will ignore it.

Theme can help in your design struggles. For the sake of creativity and doing something different, you should consider how your theme can inform your game. If you are making a game about squirrels, ask yourself what makes a squirrel fascinating or funny or a squirrel. If it is the humor of eating nuts and acorns, perhaps you have an eating mechanic, a ridiculous challenge of keeping your squirrel's cheeks full of acorns.

Or you are in outer space, running out of oxygen. Oxygen in space, that is a pretty easy time mechanic. Or an FBI agent who has to balance breaking the rules with making progress in his fight on crime.  Please don't give me another shooting gallery.

When you build a game, even if you just tacked on a theme because you don't want a game of abstract shapes, spend some time working out how the theme can help your game. And if you decide the game is not appropriate for the theme, perhaps you should change your game.

At TIGJam, I really appreciated Scott Anderson's talk on the plethora of indie platformers. It is easy to make a platformer, but who cares? Is that all that excites you? Do you have a goal in your platformer? You want to make a moody depressing game exploring isolation and fear. I would love a game about that where I do not even have an avatar. Maybe the game itself is this ethereal dark space that shifts in and out of being and perhaps my whole goal is trying to bring the screen into focused, pure white, piece by piece. I have no idea how that might work, but maybe you do.

My point is that you have the gamut of interactivity available to you. Why is your game of knocking over boxes any more enthralling than the last? Make me games about specific themes. I would love to be a pirate, a struggling housewife, a squirrel. But not in another platformer. Make your gameplay about pirating, raising a family and dealing with a husband, living as a squirrel. There are so many games we have not yet made because we cannot look beyond our conventions.


Randy is working on several games, all of which he hopes are new and interesting ideas.  Follow his tweets at twitter.com/randyzero.

His website is RandyO.net.

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