I’m trying to get through Jesse Schell’s book “The Art of Game Design”1. One of the points he’s making is that if you have a good basis for your game, a solid fundamental mechanic, you will also have a good game.

This is (shockingly!) true.

When I worked on Habbo Islands, a game created by Sulake in collaboration with Nokia, I came on to the project once the prototype had already been created. The game was based on Habbo Hotel, pixellated tween hangout. The game was mostly about digging and building, but mostly about digging. Digging, however, was fun!

I don’t know if you’ve ever played Populous, adding and removing land mass, but Habbo Islands is very similar to Populous in that aspect, although on a slightly smaller scale.

As a designer, my job was really simple. Take what the team had given me and build on it and make a game out of it. The task I had was to “introduce an autonomous dynamic environment which enable interesting non-linear challenges and give sthe players exciting adventure opportunities”. I know, it’s a mouthful.

We created tools, building blocks, creatures and plants, but the basis – digging – was what made the game fun. What I brought to the prototype was a game framework, a motivation and a narrative.

The premise for Habbo Islands was preservation. Restore 20 different islands to their basic state. Doing that included making sure certain species survived and removing invasive plants and animals. It means nursing dwindling animal populations back to health and making sure others didn’t grow out of hand. There was no killing, only digging, planting and building.

Because digging, planting and building was so much fun, so was the game. (As a quirky you also planted animals).

Having a solid foundation to build on made game design easy. All you really have to do is use what’s there. Habbo Islands was a simple game. That did not mean that it was trivial. Through the the theme we added an environmentally conscious message, but the game was not just about environmental preservation. The backstory was also anti-colonial. The intent was to restore the islands to what they were before people who didn’t belong there came and messed things up.

For me, Habbo Islands was one of those projects where the work was easy and pretty much everything went on rails.

I also did all of the design work that went into the game. That meant coming up with creatures and plants and all objects in the game. For me, this was super fun, but it also put a lot of work on me.

The biggest disappointment was of course that I wasn’t able to bring any of it to an audience. The game was cancelled, even though it was finished.

My point with this post is that if you have a solid loop the rest of it is much easier to create. Obviously the situation was slightly different because I was the only designer on the project. Because of that, it was a lot simpler to make decisions and move in one direction. Having only one designer and a creative director that was mostly hands off made it easy to stick to a unified vision. Games with several designers increase the difficulty in keeping things unified.

  1. This may not seem like a chore, but for me, reading all these books on game design and being designated “other” every step of the way (the player is always a default white man) is kind of exhausting. Having to read about the not very logical brains of women is also kind of annoying, especially when men are described as rational and systematic and women are described as illogical and irrational. If anything, the discourse on Twitter and other social media should point to the fallacy of that assumption.