Indie Week Day Three: Excellence In Design

by Matt Miller on Feb 26, 2011 at 07:00 AM

[Welcome to Indie Week at gameinformer.com. We’ve got a full seven days of indie game coverage leading up to the 2011 Independent Games Festival Awards. Check back daily for coverage of the top independent games of the year.]

Behind the evocative graphics, stirring music, and technical programming that make a game feel complete, there must be a blueprint that holds it all together -- a design concept that establishes the game and holds all the other pieces together. The IGF Excellence in Design award seeks to highlight those titles with exceptional and innovative design ideas -- especially those that take risks to explore new and different ideas not currently found in mainstream games. Previous winners include 2D Boy's World of Goo and Pocketwatch Games' unique heist game, Monaco.

This year's Excellence in Design award will be judged by a number of experienced game industry creators. Dylan Cuthbert is a co-founder of Q-Games, creators of the PixelJunk series. George Fan concocted the wildly popular Plants Vs. Zombies. Kyle Gray designed Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure. Robin Hunicke helped create MySims and Boom Blox, and is now working on thatgamecompany's Journey. Gary Penn worked on titles like Grand Theft Auto and Crackdown, and more recently helped found Denki. Kris Piotrowski is a co-founder of Capy, best known for games like Critter Crunch and Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes. Andy Schatz was the creator of previous design winner, Monaco. Mare Sheppard is one of the co-founders of Metanet Software, the team behind the fantastic N. The panel also includes Petri Purho (Crayon Physics Deluxe), Margaret Robinson of Hide & Seek, and Semi Secret Software's Adam Saltsman. Rounding out the judges panel is Randy Smith, co-owner and designer at Tiger Style, and former designer on Thief.

A WORD FROM THE IGF JUDGES: "Design jurists agreed that the category would reward games that demonstrated not only 'originality' and 'elegance' in their underlying design, but things 'mainstream developers are UNWILLING to do' - something 'risky, personal, arty, unconventional, niche, or dangerous.'

"QCF's 'perfectly compressed' Desktop Dungeons was just one of those games, by offering 'an entirely new design idea: literally everything in the game is a commodity to be managed,' and for 'keeping the exterior or interface simple (weapon power, level, health, and magic are your only stats - the only control is mouse clicks) but having enormously complicated and interesting choices to make,' while Steph Thirion's Faraway, a game praised for being 'lovely, deep, and elegant,' within its 'severely limiting' underlying one-button play.

"Messhof's 'riotously fun' Nidhogg here, too, was selected for its 'clean, simple controls, and new concept,' and for 'capturing a vibe of high action and adventure, and reproducing some real swordfighting dynamics,' while Vlambeer's retro-styled Super Crate Box was described as 'reductive hardcore action shooting platforming brilliance' for its juggling act of three core goals 'stay alive, get crates, prevent enemies from reaching bottom.'

"Finally, Mojang's Minecraft here was praised for aspects of its design including an appeal 'the creative side of people,' and a first-person 'living Lego' sense of imagination, and also more minute specifics, such as its crafting system that inspires deduction by requiring the player to create recipes 'spatially and logically.' Said one jurist: 'I truly don't know what I'm going to find: this is an untouched world that is mine to live and die in...[other, more traditional open-world games] feel like an authored world created by repeating the same cookie cutter pieces.'"

Other Nominations:  Seumas McNally Grand Prize
Developer:  QCF Design
Platform: Windows, Mac
Release Date:  Available Now
Price: Free

Note: This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of Game Informer (#215), authored by Meagan Marie

Desktop Dungeons takes the heart of the RPG subgenre roguelike and distills it into a short and sweet coffee break excursion. The finely-tuned balance of superficial fun and surprising depth makes each 5-10-minute play through unexpectedly fulfilling.

Every adventure starts the player as a level one character that must explore vast dungeons, best foes, gain experience, scavenge loot, purchase equipment, maintain piety from the gods, and ultimately prepare to take on a level ten boss.

Unexplored territory within a dungeon is valuable, as uncovering new ground via adjacent tiles renews both the player’s health and mana reserves. In this regard, exploration is an art form. One must navigate about uncovered territory to attack monsters within their skill range, level up, heal through uncovering more tiles, and then begin the process of boosting their XP once again. The result feels almost like a puzzle at times, training you to explore and take on enemies in a formulaic order. Formulaic, but undoubtedly fun.

Depth of play is integrated through ailments and status changes, potions and spells, equipment and upgrades, and so on. Additionally, Desktop Dungeons derives longevity from the comprehensive race and class systems, all of which boast unique skills and unlockable challenges to further encourage replaying. If you’re like me, little encouragement will be needed to dedicate hours upon hours to Desktop Dungeons.

Check out QFC's Desktop Dungeons Survival Guide below.

[Next up: Fly through space to create constellations in Faraway]

Other Nominations: N/A
Developer: Steph Thirion
Release Date: TBA
Price: TBA

Sometimes simple game concepts can be incredibly fascinating. Steph Thirion has crafted an entertaining title that has players racing against the clock in a vast and completely random universe of stars.

Players control what looks to be a comet flying through the blackness of space. The game uses only a single button, which can be pressed to connect to the gravity well of stars that the comet passes. By doing so, you begin to fly in a wide arc around the star, letting you release to fly off in a new direction.

As a time clock steadily ticks down, players encounter areas where constellations can be formed by circling the stars inside. By creating larger and more complex constellations, the game time is extended.

Faraway succeeds at that rare feat of offering compelling and interesting gameplay that is completely accessible and understandable to any gamer who tries it. With the simplest of controls, the game still feels vast and compelling, and the random generation of stars assures a unique play experience every time.

See Faraway in action with the video below.

[Next up: The cult phenomenon that is Minecraft]

Other Nominations: Technical Excellence, Seumas McNally Grand Prize
Developer: Mojang Specifications
Platform: Browser, Windows, Mac, Linux
Release: Beta Available Now
Price: $19.99

Minecraft is good. So good, in fact, it was nominated in three unique categories. Read our original IGF preview here, or check out a couple of our favorite Minecraft user videos below.

[Next up: Find the layers of strategy and tactics in the fencing game Nidhogg]

Other Nominations:  Nuovo Award, Seumas McNally Grand Prize
Developer:  Messhof
Platform: PC
Release Date:  TBA
Price: TBA

Note: This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of Game Informer (#215), authored by Meagan Marie

Nidhogg appears to be a simple pick-up-and-play game, but boasts a surprising amount of strategy. Described as a fencing game with light platforming elements, two individuals challenge each other locally as they vie to gain ground on their side of the screen. A quick jab to the torso will render your enemy a pile of pixels, and in the few moments between respawns ground is yours to gain. The ultimate goal is to make it to the furthest reaches of your side of the screen, where a cheering crowd celebrates your victory.

There is an inherent chaos to play, as combinations of moving, ducking, running, jabbing, sliding, and even throwing your weapon results in a constant ebb and flow of battle. You may have the advantage at one moment, but be desperately on the defensive the next. A short match could last a mere minute, but when pitted against a valiant opponent could last an eternity.

According to developer Messhof, single player and networked multiplayer are currently in development, in addition to more diverse levels. With intentionally simple graphics, sometimes eye jarring color combinations, and trance-inducing music, Nidhogg is a fast, frantic, and ultimately quirky title worth keeping an eye on.

See for yourself below.

[Next up: A return to classic arcade action with Super Crate Box]

Other Nominations: N/A
Developer: Vlambeer
Platform: PC
Release Date: TBA
Price: TBA

If you ever spent any time in an old-school 80s arcade, you probably played the games that inspired Super Crate Box. But you may have never played a game quite as frantic and fast-paced as Super Crate Box. A single static level has your character jumping up and down on a number of platforms. As the game's name implies, it's all about collecting crates. Collect enough and you'll unlock new stages, weapons, and characters.

With each crate you pick up, you change weapons and move your score total forward. At the same time, an increasingly hefty supply of bad guys are dropping from the ceiling and making their way to the bottom level. If they reach that bottom level before you take them out, a faster more dangerous version of the same monster will respawn at the top of the screen. Gameplay revolves around balancing the need to collect more crates with the optional ability to take out enemies as they rush past at breakneck speed.

Numerous weapons, different stage layouts, and an absolutely frenetic pace set  Super Crate Box apart from many other games. Its colorful style and explosive action make it fun.

Check out video of the game in action below.


Excellence in Design Honorable Mentions: Helsing's Fire (Ratloop), Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale (Carpe Fulgur), Flotilla (Blendo Games), Bo (Mahdi Bahrami), Brutally Unfair Tactics Totally OK Now [B.U.T.T.O.N.] (Copenhagen Game Collective)