Design notebook for the inception of a jam game: Dungeon Bounce

Yesterday I streamed three post-mortems in one crazy video (with some technical difficulties please be prepared), but while I had collaborators on with me for the HMDL issue 0 exhibition & for Yrkkey’s Paradise

Dungeon Bounce was a game I designed alone for the #ChainLetterJam. On-stream with sylvie & torcado, I got to hear them break down their understanding of the game in real time as they were figuring it out (which was so fun), but I didn’t really get into how the game was designed. So that’s what I’m writing this blog post for.

I’d just spent the better part of the week trudging through some scope-creeped work on a certain death-labyrinthy project, and getting nowhere fast. So I yote myself out of that funk by working on my pending #ChainLetterJam game.

And, as #ChainLetterJam law demands, I was to make a game inspired in some way by Arithmetic Bounce. Because of what I was escaping from, I was setting out to make something without inventing too many new mechanics. I wanted to work with the material of the existing game; that was my starting point.

I focused on just thinking and taking notes, and the stream of thought turned out particularly readable! No visuals, but here is a lot of the text, lightly edited, from that mental design session.

Design Notebook

I started with my goals:

How could I use the existing mechanics of Arithmetic Bounce to make something that feels different? I don’t want to always be chained to inventing new mechanics to implement, so my goal is: re-use the mechanics of Arithmetic Bounce.

[..] I think I’ve gotta break it down into individual components to even begin to think about this…

These notes are from my notebook, but putting bullet points in a quoteblock acts weird:

  • There is a background number
  • You are an arithmetic sign
  • You can move, double-jump, quick fall, and switch from + to –
  • Touching a number adds/subtracts it to the background number depending on your sign
  • Lots of numbers are available at any given moment
  • There is a bit of pressure to bump the right number
  • It’s trivial to stray from both goals and danger at the same time
Arithmetic Bounce! If you haven’t tried it, play it on and see if you would’ve picked out different elements as crucial or interesting.

For a while I pursued this line of thinking first–was there an emotional arc I could capture with regard to how ‘safe’ it is to just stray from your target numbers? You can go to 20, 50, 100, and the game doesn’t really apply any pressure at all to you for that. I thought it was interesting:

As a player you’re carefully managing resources in pursuit of victory. Why be so careful when you could simply survive? Is there a real-world situation in which you have to approach a particular value and not stumble into the wrong one?

I remember getting up and pacing a lot at this point. In Arithmetic Bounce, I found I did a lot of “holding the numbers” in my head, and I wanted to turn that into something a bit more feel-y, so I was thinking about how to recontextualize the mechanics into something more intuitive. And, holding on to the above line of thought, I was letting myself feel fine about a system that’s not always forcing you to progress.

Maybe rather than numbers I can do distance? What’s a tangible, relatable scenario where I’m constantly shifting around in position, and hitting the wrong spots will leave me dead? I guess something Necrodancer-like, exploring a dungeon. Take a few steps this way, take a few steps that way. I could have walls.

If I’m exploring a dungeon, what’s the time-pressure-number-picking metaphor? Drinking potions? Maybe I’m a wizard. Hmm.

Oh, of course, monsters! So I’m a rogue with a bow&arrow, and enemies are constantly spawning, then approaching me. The “movement” items I collect are also attacks. If I don’t attack every so often, a monster reaches me, and I die.

I felt great about this solution, but a little guilty I’d wound up designing something combat-fantasy-heavy. So I wandered down a few thematic alleyways that didn’t really pan out:

Consider a social situation… giving a speech, making jokes, etc. You want to get points for saying interesting things but not lose points for saying the wrong thing.

I’m still interested in the “social scenario” sort of situation, so maybe I can pull it back somehow. The timer there is… you’re constantly trying to leave the party? Edging towards the door, and if you don’t say anything, you leave.

The life-or-death dungeon-full-of-monsters-and-traps metaphor was too tempting, or too familiar, for me to get away from.

Okay, back to the super-simple dungeon metaphor.

At some point I recognized something I’d missed from my initial set of bullet points:

  • If you take too long to make a decision (in Arithmetic Bounce), the numbers that are available to you (due to the arc of gravity) dwindle until you’re forced to either grab whatever number is right below you, or miss grabbing a number entirely (and fall off the bottom of the screen) (and lose the game).

I added this feature to the monsters; as they approached, they would eat up the numbers that had been scattered around for you to click on along the way. Unlike in Arithmetic Bounce (where you have to touch the the numbers to collect them), the positioning of the numbers in Dungeon Bounce didn’t have a diegetic function yet. So now they had one.

The super-simple dungeon metaphor as it appears in the final game.

The dungeon is a straight line (maybe a narrow/long grid, like 3×20?). Monsters approach from the “ends” of the dungeon, and if they reach you, it’s game over. Movement commands appears on the tiles of the dungeon, and clicking one grabs it. The reason for this is to mirror the ‘dwindling options’ dynamic of Arithmetic Bounce: As the monsters reach the tiles, they eat them! Just to make sure you always have a reasonable number of tiles, monsters will approach from both sides but at different rates.

The bad numbers are trap tiles.

The good number is the stairs down to the next floor.

Let’s do this.

From this point I went on to make a bunch of stuff feel and look good! But that’s beyond the scope of this blog post and I think a lot of it is stuff you can experience yourself through playing the game.

These notes were surprisingly coherent, and I wanted to share them because I thought an example of this process might be valuable to someone out there. Thanks for reading. Leave a comment, let me know if I was right!

EDIT (Jan 13, 2022) – I think design is a lot more chaotic than I allow myself to believe! This worked out! But it’s not like this process is magic, and I’d do well to remind myself that sometimes you just stumble upon something great, and sometimes you don’t. It’s experimentation.