Humble Bundle 2 Design Tour

Uploaded by WolfireGames on 19.12.2010

I'm David from Wolfire, and I thought now would be a good time to do a brief design
tour of the five games in the Humble Indie Bundle 2. These games include Braid, Cortex
Command, Machinarium, Osmos, and Revenge of the Titans.
In Braid, I was most impressed by the way it introduces complex mechanics. It's a design
cliche that it's better to show than to tell, but Braid goes a step further. It makes situations
in which you show yourself. For example, there's never any text explaining how to use the time
travel, or showing you how. Instead, the first time you die, the game simply displays an
icon suggesting that you press 'shift'. When you press 'shift' you can quickly get an idea
of how the time travel works. This teaching method helps make complicated ideas more intuitive.
For instance, it would be difficult to explain how the green objects work in words, but this
simple level here makes it obvious. The only thing you can here is jump down and take the
key, and then rewind because there's nothing else to do. Once you rewind, you see that
the green key comes with you, and understand how green objects move with you through time.
This approach of giving the player control of their own pacing is reflected in the whole
structure of the game. The goal of each world is to collect the puzzle pieces in order to
complete the jigsaw puzzles, but you don't have to collect them in any particular order.
You can walk from one end of a world to the other without collecting a single puzzle piece,
and you'll still unlock the next world. This also allows puzzles to be much harder, because
if you get stuck, you can just do some other puzzles and come back later instead of quitting
in frustration. So, the aspect I found most important in Braid was the way it would teach
very complex mechanics while allowing the player to maintain control of the experience.
The next game is Cortex Command. This game doesn't have a smooth learning curve like
Braid, instead, like Minecraft, the beginning is the hardest part. There's a tutorial level
that teaches you the controls, and then tells you to destroy some nearby robots. However,
those robots are much stronger than you, and will almost certainly kill you and demolish
your whole base. The only way I could find to beat them is to order some supplies, and
then commandeer the supply ship and use it as a missile to explode the enemy robots.
The fact that it's even possible to do this is what makes this game stand out for me,
it has a very detailed simulation and provides few limits on what you can do with it.
I find that even with such a rough learning curve, the richness of the rule set makes
every mission into an interesting story.
You can also make your own bases using the in-game editor -- here I'm making a base for
a scrappy soldier who will just be armed with a rifle and a molotov cocktail -- oops. You
should make sure to spawn molotov cocktails ON the ground and not above it. Anyway, Cortex
Command is interesting to me because its complex simulation very effectively conveys the feeling
of battlefield chaos, and even though it's very hard to succeed, the complexity ensures
that you fail in an interesting way.
Osmos is the polar opposite of Cortex Command, in that it's all about elegance and simplicity.
It has just two rules really: spheres move in accordance with newton's laws of motion,
and bigger spheres absorb smaller ones. What makes the game challenging is how these rules
interact at a large scale, causing complex behavior to emerge.
The music and visuals both reinforce a calm, contemplative feel, and the controls support
this theme by encouraging careful and deliberate movement. You can only move by ejecting a
piece of yourself in the opposite direction, so you are encouraged to choose your moves
wisely,. Because the focus required to manage this emergent complexity is enough to completely
occupy your brain, and the game makes sure you play in a calm and deliberate manner,
Osmos is quite effective at helping you relax if you allow it to.
Machinarium adheres more closely to genre traditions than the other games in the bundle,
but it still innovates in a few key ways. Like Osmos, it goes out of its way to encourage
deliberate action. Machinarium does this by making it so you can only click on objects
that are within reach of your character. This prevents you from just clicking all over the
screen, and encourages you to actually form a plan.
Another interesting decision in Machinarium is how the characters communicate through
animated thought bubbles. These allow for very efficient communication of visual ideas,
and make the game globally accessible without having to translate lots of text. The thought
bubbles are also used effectively for flashbacks and daydreams.
The last innovation that I enjoyed is the in-game walkthrough. If you get stuck (like
I did a few times) you can click the walkthrough button and play a brief minigame to access
an illustrated solution. I like the minigame idea because it helps you feel like you still
earned the solution, and discourages using the walkthrough unless you really need it.
Aside from those innovations, this game is more focused on the craft of making a good
adventure game, with its novel setting, appealing characters, and tricky but logical puzzles.
Revenge of the Titans is remarkable partly because it addresses a common problem in tower
defense games -- what do you do after creating an unstoppable defense?
This game addresses that in two ways. First, your resources persist throughout the entire
game -- if you spend too much on one level, or use too many powerups, you might not have
enough for the next one. This encourages the player to spend as little as possible, and
create the minimum possible defenses to fend off the titans. This makes the player sort
of self-balance the difficulty so it always stays interesting, for example more skilled
players will play the same level using fewer resources, and still be challenged. Second,
there are time management mechanics that require whatever attention the plyer has left after
building the defenses. For example, you have to manually choose when to reload each turret
-- the turret can't fire while it's reloading, so it's important to choose the right time
to reload. You also have to manually empty the refineries when they're full, adding extra
time management pressure.
The visual presentation of the game also deserves special mention. The developer, Puppy Games,
has a unique post-retro aesthetic that combines traditional pixel art with smooth diagonals,
gradients, and glows. It also has a dominant red and green color scheme, which is an underused
complementary color pair, especially compared to the now-dominant teal and orange. Even
the menu screens show a lot of care in their colors and composition, including the mission
select screen, briefing room, and tech trees. It's all just very polished and pleasant to
look at, but in a way that we haven't seen before.
So those are the points I found most interesting about each game: the self-teaching level design
in Braid, the detailed mechanics in Cortex Commmand, the elegant calm of Osmos, the genre
innovations in Machinarium, and the self-balancing mechanics and post-retro look of Revenge of
the Titans.
If you'd like to see my other design tour videos you can look at the wolfire design
tours playlist at