New directions for Borges

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It’s been several months since we’ve put up a posting here, but believe it or not, we have continued to develop our game. (New working title is simply “Borges” – in reference to Luis Borges, who wrote The Library of Babel story that inspired the game.)

After pursuing our previous version of the game with mixed success, we decided this spring to rethink everything and start again from scratch. Part of what moved us to take this radical step was a talk by designer Dan Cook at the Game Developers Conference in March. Dan spoke about the process of developing games with experimental game mechanics, and knowing when to walk away from a game that is simply not working.

According to Dan, game developers often stay with a project because of previous time investment, stubbornly clinging to it even though it may not have the potential to become a fun or successful game. Dan advised that you should only keep working on games that have momentum – a feeling that the design is growing organically in directions, even solving its own problems and extending into lots of potential directions that feel interesting. If a game has momentum, the potential to evolve into something really compelling, the team will be playing it in their spare time and dreaming up new ways to change and improve it as well. That doesn’t mean that you won’t encounter challenges and roadblocks in the development process, but if a game project doesn’t seem to have any momentum in the early stages of prototyping, then – according to Dan – the team should consider setting the project aside and starting a new one.

As a group, we realized that our game suffered from a serious lack of momentum. Despite more than a year of part-time work, and a playable prototype with lots of complex features, the game was confusing, awkward, and not enjoyable to play. As we’ve written here, it was interesting, but not fun. It was time for a serious re-evaluation.

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We returned to our original inspirations – the Borges story, the idea of a game about language and meaning, a design with the procedural recombinability of a roguelike – and each of us pitched the group on an idea or two. The pitches turned into a paper prototype – which was incredibly enjoyable – and the direction we decided to take ended up combining a few of the pitched ideas.

The good news is that a few months later, we have a working prototype that does have momentum – we are moving forward more swiftly, the design is unfolding with a kind of natural flow, and we are actually enjoying playing the game.

What is the new design? We’ll go into more details in future blog posts, but in some ways we have moved further towards a classic roguelike model. The game is turn-based and takes place on a grid as the player explores the infinite library. You navigate through rooms filled with nonsense, looking for words that actually mean something, while avoiding agitated words wandering about. The game feels more contained, and smaller in scope – but also quite fun and intriguing.

The new direction definitely stands on the shoulders of the previous version of the game, but it also represents something quite new. Here’s hoping we can keep the momentum going!

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