Hi everyone! This is going to be the first in what I hope to be an ongoing series of weekly posts analyzing games. These posts are meant to help game designers learn techniques they can use in their own designs. I will be spoiling elements of every game I discuss, so go play them first! That said, I’m trying to write these posts so that there will be useful lessons regardless.

This week I’ll be discussing Trick Shot, Jonathan Topf’s “minimalist physics puzzler” for iOS. I played the game on an iPad Mini, so I can’t speak for the quality of the experience on any other iOS platform. It’s only $2, and if you enjoy games like this, I recommend you try it out.

Trick Shot

I played through Trick Shot twice: once while testing a pre-release version of the game, and once as a customer playing after release. Because of this, I was able to observe the actual difference specific design changes made on the game, and I’ll talk a bit about those changes.

The core gameplay involves launching a bouncy ball in Angry Birds fashion into a goal box in a series of increasingly complex levels. When you win, your shot is celebrated as either OK or Perfect or, after beating all 90 levels, Amazing. Levels contain objects such as walls, fans, bottomless pits, buttons, and portals.

The part that grabs me about Trick Shot is the way it encourages you in subtle ways to break the rules and try unexpected things. The simplicity of the win condition leaves more to be desired. Perfection is obtained by getting the ball in the box without bouncing off the box first. Usually, this is just a matter of trying and repeating a level a few times. Other times it’s more complicated. Every level has a “designed solution,” the easiest path to the goal box, and it’s rarely difficult to see what the designed solution is. But players will quickly begin to ask themselves, “What if there’s another way?”

Player-designed challenge: thinking outside the box

Trick Shot’s levels suggest a number of alternate solutions, many of which appear to be entirely unintentional on Jonathan’s part. Walls extending vertically don’t continue forever: you can launch the ball up and over them, bypassing obstacles. You can bounce the ball off almost anything: fans which would otherwise propel your ball when activated; the corners of walls, radically altering the direction of your shot, the corner of a button, activating its function but also sending your ball in a different trajectory. The interactive versatility of the game’s many objects inspires the player to create all manner of optional challenges in their head. Can I bounce the ball off this thin corner and still get it in? How fast/high can I launch the ball and make a perfect shot? Can I beat this level without pressing any buttons? How many times can I bounce it through this passage? Is there a way to bypass the designed solution altogether?

My routine while playing went something like this:

  1. Start a new level
  2. Look for the obvious way
  3. Look for the most interesting way
  4. Try
  5. Fail
  6. Repeat steps 4 and 5, refining the shot a little bit each time, until succeeding.
  7. Rejoice.

And I would reflect on how the process felt so similar to my experience with creative endeavors in life. Step 3 is when the inspiration hits and you become carried away with energy and enthusiasm. Step 5 is when reality sets in. Step 6 is when things get tedious and frustrating, and you either push through, or give up. Sometimes you just have to give it a break and come back. Sometimes you cop out and take the easy shot, even if you just know the better shot is possible and you might have been this close. Step 7 is a cathartic release and a feeling of satisfaction unparalleled in daily life. You start to see the frustration, the failure and the hard work through rose-tinted glasses.

Here’s where the test version of the game comes in: When I was testing the early version, I didn’t feel any of that. It was much more tedious, for one pretty simple reason: the early vision didn’t give any visual indication of your shot’s trajectory before launching. This made the gameplay an altogether obnoxious sequence of trial and error in which you couldn’t really plan or experiment. In the early state of the game, I never even thought to try making unusual shots, because it simply didn’t occur to me. I was too distracted trying to shoot from random places and at random angles. It felt meaningless. After release, Trick Shot now traces the initial trajectory of your shot. This gives you just enough information to fill in the blanks and make an intuitive prediction about where your shot will go. In addition, the new Trick Shot shows a silhouette of your most recent shot, so you can attempt to slightly tweak its launch magnitude or angle. The addition of a visual shot forecast and last-shot onion skinning changed everything. Suddenly I was able to plan, predict outcomes reasonably well, and slowly refine my methods in constant pursuit of the most amazing shot I could find. It’s hard to overstate how much this simple feature improved the game.

Another feature Jonathan added after I tested the game was integration with Everyplay. After beating a level you can choose to share a video replay of your shot, with other players, your Facebook friends, Twitter followers, YouTube channel. This is a fantastic feature because it’s especially well suited for Trick Shot’s vibe. It only further incentivizes you to try difficult or unusual things, by allowing you to share them with others.

After you beat all 90 levels, you start from the beginning in a sort of New Game Plus mode wherein you can score Amazing shots in addition to Perfect shots. You score Amazing by scoring Perfect as well as launching your ball through a number of red bubbles in the level. The bubbles guide your shot through a generally more difficult path. Some of them actually ended up suggesting the very same trick shots I found in my original playthrough. But I actually think this mechanic undercuts the spirit of the game, rather than making it stronger. The joy I felt while playing Trick Shot, I felt when I was following my own whims and instincts, and creating my own trick shots. When I try to get an Amazing win, it feels tedious and restricting.

The best moments in Trick Shot, the moments of cathartic release, are the ones where you break the game. You do something that shouldn’t have been possible, and that you’re sure the designer didn’t intend you to do. These moments are the trick shots which earn the game its title. Consequently, the best levels in the game are the elastic ones, the ones with hidden possibilities: walls you can lob the ball over, buttons you don’t strictly need to press, objects you can exploit to bounce the ball in some crazy way. The least satisfying levels are the inelastic ones (which seem to increase in number towards the end): levels with a prescribed solution and seemingly no alternatives. The more interesting ways to solve your puzzle, the more entertained the player will be, especially if they feel like they’re pulling one over on the designer.

Design Takeaway

  • Play around with the concepts of elastic and inelastic design in your games. Games can evoke a feeling of organic playfulness it’s rare to find in any other medium. Take advantage of it by encouraging your players to break the rules, find alternate solutions, and just generally do their own thing.

Further Reading

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