The Right Theme

Posted by
April 21st, 2010 6:29 pm

The final round of theme voting is approaching, and I’ve been thinking. Considering how big Ludum Dare is getting, and how influential the theme is to the quality of the compo, I want to make sure we pick the right one. We don’t want to repeat LD#11’s mistake of choosing Minimalist and losing entrants just because they couldn’t come up with anything, or get a boring theme and be left with over 100 identical games. Plus, this time around we had so many theme suggestions (over 400) that they had to be trimmed down based on informal criteria, some themes that people would’ve liked to see were left out. I want to discuss what actually makes a good theme, so that we can get everyone on the same page and come up with a better way to select and vote for themes.


To know what makes a good theme, first we need to know who it’s supposed to be good for. What kind of people participate in LD? Why do they participate? Here’s the reasons I came up with:

  • It’s a fun, low-barrier-to-entry test of one’s abilities.
  • It’s an excuse to work on something and get a feeling of accomplishment.
  • It’s a social community event.
  • It’s a chance to achieve fame and fortune, if you make a good game.
  • Competing to win is a test of one’s mastery of design, coding, and art skills.

Now, participants are very varied people. We have different development styles, different skill levels of designing/coding/art, and different preferences with regards to game genre and style. A good theme should be able to accomodate as many of these as possible, while unifying the entries with a common inspiration. With the goals of LD participants in mind, here are my proposed criteria for a good theme:

  1. Can be interpreted in a number of ways such that it is a key part of the game.
  2. Sufficiently restricts freedom of choice, to stimulate creativity.
  3. Can be implemented in different game genres, using different mechanics.


Note: these criteria are somewhat subjective, and I will list examples below that may have interpretations I didn’t think of, or that you disagree with. These are merely my own subjective opinion, and most of them would normally be voted on by everyone, to give them a fair chance.

1. Can be interpreted in a number of ways such that it is a key part of the game.

By “key part” I mean that if the theme was replaced, the game would be fundamentally different. In a game about collecting peppers, peppers are not a key part of the game unless the mechanics involve something specific to peppers (perhaps the goal of the game is to make the ultimate vegan pizza, for which they are a critical ingredient). If it can be easily replaced with apples or coins without changing the essence of the game, then it’s not a key part of the game.

This means that a theme like Kittens would have to be able to be intrepreted in ways involving the essential nature of the animal. For example, games about chasing mice, balancing on fences, ripping furniture. An interpretation involving merely collecting kittens does not qualify, even though it is a valid way to do an entry. Examples for a theme like Isolation could be: searching for civilization after finding yourself alone in the wild, trying to keep a crowd of people out of your house, performing chemistry experiments to isolate a certain molecule. Notice that there is much more variety in the kinds of games you could make with Isolation as a central theme. The Tower might be a theme that does not meet this criteria well.

This criteria also suggests a definition for the entry voting category called Theme: “On a scale of 1 to 5, how important is [theme] to the nature of the game?”

2. Sufficiently restricts freedom of choice, to stimulate creativity.

On the opposite end, a theme that has too many interpretations is not interesting. Abstract, Direction, and Evil are generic enough to apply to most games. There is little that can be done in the way of innovation with them. You might as well submit a game you already made. Minimalist and Exploration may be poor themes in light of this criteria.

3. Can be implemented in different game genres, using different mechanics.

People prefer different kinds of games, and they don’t want to play the same game 100 times. One Button, Cellular Automata, Bullet Hell, and Board Games all place restrictions on the game mechanics. This could arguably be a good creative design challenge, especially for playing-to-win types, but such themes could stifle participation from less hardcore participants.

Such themes also do poorly at criteria #1 in that they are not open to varied interpretation. I think a technical challenge theme is more appropriate for a MiniLD.

Types of Themes

The theme suggestions are generally one or more of:

  • object
  • idea
  • action
  • setting
  • game mechanic

There are specific objects without special properties like Bacon, Diabetes, Dentist, which fare poorly at criteria #1, and in my opinion should never be themes. There are also useful objects like Missiles, Paper, Robots, Advancing Wall of Doom, which may have enough leeway in interpretation to be good themes.

The majority of theme suggestions are ideas, which include the far too vague (Absolute, Evil, Infinity), too specific (Fractal), and moods (Boredom, Confusion, Intrigue), none of which would make a good theme. Suitable idea themes that I believe meet the criteria are: Age, Escape, Greed.

Actions (Fishing, Wrestling, Travel, Falling) are quite specific and difficult to interpret in creative ways. They generally make poor themes. Although, Conversation is an action that can be interpreted as “Communication”, an idea, and could make a good theme.

Settings (Caverns, Islands, Space, Forest) may result in good games, but also many similar-looking games. I do not believe settings are the ideal theme for a very large compo.

Game Mechanics (Strange Controls, Turn Based Eating, Bullet Hell, Board Games) dictate the actual design of the game, violating criteria #3, and resulting in too many similar games. In my opinion, these should never be themes. Note that Advancing Wall of Doom is not a game mechanic because it does not specify how it advances or what kind of doom it involves, therefore leaving room for interpretation.

Many themes fit into more than one category. They can be analyzed based on all of their obvious meanings.


Taking into account the number of participants and their motivations, the ideal Ludum Dare compo theme is an object or idea that performs well at the three criteria described above. Themes that obviously fail one of the criteria can be removed from voting in order to minimize the number of options to choose from. The rest can be voted on with us judging for ourselves how appropriate they are, keeping in mind that many different individuals want to participate, and that the theme that I want to do isn’t the same as the theme that I want everybody to do.

Of course, this is just what I think, and I don’t want to push my opinions. If you disagree, voice your reasons in the comments. On the other hand, if you think these criteria should be an official part of LD, please voice your support. Either way, thanks for reading!

Tags: ,

4 Responses to “The Right Theme”

  1. pekuja says:

    I’m not sure about all the specific cases you went into, but I really think the three criteria for a good theme you’ve proposed here are sound. I don’t think it would be a bad idea to use these criteria to narrow down the theme list before voting takes place.

  2. Codexus says:

    It’s a question of balance, too generic and we might as well not have a theme. Too specific and it prevents people from doing what they want.

  3. Jonny D says:

    Ah man, I was hoping for a bibliography mention…

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

[cache: storing page]