I discovered so-called “incremental games” like CandyBox recently and was amazed by the amount of intrigue and interest such a simple mechanic could inspire. I wanted to explore the stripped-down style of those incremental games while tackling a simulation game. I wanted to answer the question – what does it take to make a text-heavy point-and-click simulation-style game fun? I think the answer I found was – more than I have here. I realized that half-way through but at that point it was too late to turn back.
Simulation games always make me think of Sid Meier’s description of games as “a series of interesting choices” – interesting being the key word. Every choice should matter. As I was trying to balance the game, I found that if I gave players too much money to start with, their choice of buying a cage or table wasn’t high-stakes enough to matter. Seems obvious in retrospect, of course, but this simple fact really sank in for me during the making of this game. A player’s choices must matter. And any choices that don’t matter should be removed.
I kept referring back to Oregon Trail, the 1990 PC game about trying to survive on the trail. I spent hours of my childhood totally immersed in Oregon Trail, and it was just a series of text choices and simple animation clips. The difference, though, is that it told a compelling story – you and your friends or family try to complete an arduous journey across a dangerous, rugged country, with many of your crew dying along the way. I think it was the built-in drama of such a story that kept us all hooked and clicking despite its simple graphics and gameplay.
I also re-learned how much the “little” things like sound effects and subtle animations bring a game to life. At this moment, MonsterLab is more like a playing a spreadsheet than playing a “real” game.
So, what would I do differently in MonsterLab 2? First, don’t release it with bugs. 😉 Second, add sound and animations. Third, tune the existing mechanic – make all choices matter, and figure out how to balance the cost and timing of everything. And fourth, focus more on the storytelling and increase the volume of content available (different types of monsters, different experiments to run) and maybe a new mechanic where you have to actually chase or hunt the monster instead of just purchasing it. If only the weekend could have lasted forever, I might have ended up with a decent game. There’s always the next Ludum Dare, though.