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Vertical Slice

Chris Cobb and Derek Lyons

What special magic makes great games come to life? Join Chris Cobb and Derek Lyons in a spirited pursuit of answers to this question, drawing on diverse perspectives including game design, engineering, player psychology, and business.



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May 29, 2018 Chris Cobb and Derek Lyons
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(Good to Great first aired as Episode 17 on February 20, 2017.) In games, as in any creative discipline, it’s relatively easy to find good creative products, but much harder to find truly great ones. What is it that separates great creative work—and the people who do it—from the rest? In Episode 17 of Vertical Slice, we’re delving into the differences in mindset, focus, and process that differentiate the most vividly inventive creators. Let’s see what we can learn from the best!
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May 15, 2018 Chris Cobb and Derek Lyons
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In game design as in life, it’s tough to reach an ideal outcome without taking risks. Thus, if the goal is to create games that will surprise, inspire, and entertain in new ways, accepting the risk of equal dislike by some proportion of players is an important prerequisite. This detachment may sound simple in the abstract, but in the context of real projects even steely creators can sometimes find it hard to stick with potentially polarizing design choices. How can we get better at this...
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May 1, 2018 Chris Cobb and Derek Lyons
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Mobile gaming has long been a commercial powerhouse, but it hasn’t typically exerted a strong pull on the so-called “core gaming” audience of PC and console enthusiasts. Mobile’s rap has been that it’s ideal for light entertainment, but not well suited to more complex experiences. Recently though, the new mobile incarnations of Fortnite and Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds have upended this conventional wisdom. What does it mean that two dominant core developers have turned to the...
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Apr 17, 2018 Chris Cobb and Derek Lyons
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Time is one of the most implacable risks that game development studios face. It takes time—sometimes quite a lot of it—to create a worthwhile game, and in traditional release models all of that time has to be financed up front before a game’s sales can even begin. In this context, the idea of being able to deliver game experiences incrementally—in episodes or chapters rather than massive releases—is surely an appealing proposition. Episodic content has the potential to reduce risk for...
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Apr 3, 2018 Chris Cobb and Derek Lyons
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In a games market that is full to bursting with interesting titles, even compelling games can easily become lost in the shuffle. In order to cut through the noise and succeed, developers need to match their work to the right audience, finding the niches where their game’s particular experience can connect with just the right kind of player. How should designers approach this challenging exercise in precision product/market fit? On Episode 46 of Vertical Slice, we're discussing the realities...
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Mar 20, 2018 Chris Cobb and Derek Lyons
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The idea of incorporating player feedback into the game design process has strong intuitive appeal. Rather than just guessing what players want, why not ask them directly? In fact, while the theory may be simple, the practice of gathering authentic, balanced, and actionable feedback can be quite challenging. How do you test a game when its still rough and incomplete? How do you get play testers to tell you what they think, not what they think you want to hear? Most importantly: how do you stay...
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Mar 6, 2018 Chris Cobb and Derek Lyons
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Designing a single gameplay system is a meaningful challenge by itself, but it’s also only the first step in the design of modern games. Today’s games are built not around the single threads of individual systems, but rather around complex tapestries: multitudes of gameplay systems that overlap with and influence one other in a profusion of different ways. Economies, level progressions, social systems—even “simple” modern games involve surprisingly intricate inter-system connections....
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Feb 19, 2018 Chris Cobb and Derek Lyons
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The game industry exists at the intersection of two very different worlds: the world of games as pure creative expression, and the world of games as products. Superimposing these perspectives is no easy feat; how does one reconcile the unpredictable nature of the creativity journey with inflexible business concerns like schedules and budgets? Is such reconciliation even possible? On Episode 43 of Vertical Slice, we’re debating this fundamental question, and looking for practical ways to...
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Feb 6, 2018 Chris Cobb and Derek Lyons
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The play pattern of “grinding”, or repeatedly playing the same content in order to level a character or earn rewards, is surely one of gaming’s most curious idiosyncrasies. How can playing the same content time and time again be fun? In fact, games dating back to the classic JRPGs of the 8-bit era have shown that well-designed grinds can be quite satisfying, affording players the opportunity to pursue and accomplish goals in a pleasant continuous loop. That kind of equilibrium doesn’t...
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Jan 23, 2018 Chris Cobb and Derek Lyons
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Open-world games promise the opportunity to immerse oneself in an entirely new reality, replete with characters to meet, adventures to undertake, and mysteries to solve. With a pitch like that, it’s not hard to understand why so much recent design effort has gone into applying open-world design concepts to so many different genres of games. Now that open worlds are big business though, there’s a very important question afoot: what’s next? How can the genre build on its past successes,...
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Jan 9, 2018 Chris Cobb and Derek Lyons
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Think back on your most memorable gaming moments and there’s a good chance you’ll recognize the themes of exploration and discovery running through many fond memories. From The Legend of Zelda’s iconic secret passageways to the camouflaged nooks of today’s open worlds, hidden but discoverable content is something that savvy designers strive to create, both as a form of reward and as a mechanism for deepening engagement. Yet there is an important conundrum at the heart of this design...
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Dec 25, 2017 Chris Cobb and Derek Lyons
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The games industry, much like other creative businesses, depends on the principle of fair exchange between creators and audiences. It’s an exchange that can be enumerated in dollars and cents of course, but there is a second very important ingredient as well: respect. In a perfect world, players respect creators by offering fair financial rewards for the craft, while creators respect their audiences with honest and interesting designs. Unfortunately, changing business practices in the AAA...
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Dec 12, 2017 Chris Cobb and Derek Lyons
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From action to narrative to family-friendly adventure, 2017 delivered a bumper crop of truly superb games. In fact, with such an abundance of excellent titles on offer, the discerning fan’s biggest challenge is making sure no worthwhile experiences are missed! Fortunately, Episode 38 of Vertical Slice is here to help. We're pointing the way to some of the year’s hidden gems: under-appreciated games that we played and loved this year, and think you’ll love, too. Along the way we’re also...
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Nov 28, 2017 Chris Cobb and Derek Lyons
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Game design is a famously multifaceted pursuit, but what if you were asked to pick just one skill that most clearly distinguishes great game designers from their peers? What do you think this single powerful ability might be? On Episode 37 of Vertical Slice, we’re discussing a fascinating answer to this question brought to us by special guest Weszt Hart. Weszt is a Senior User Experience Designer at Riot Games, where he has helped to define the social systems behind League of Legends, among...
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Nov 14, 2017 Chris Cobb and Derek Lyons
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Loot boxes are a potent trend in modern game design, translating powerful mechanisms of motivation and operant conditioning into a startlingly effective form of micro-transaction. Indeed, loot boxes are so efficient at monetizing player attention that they are increasingly casting off their free-to-play roots and taking up residence in the largest AAA titles. Is the rising tide of loot boxes a net negative for consumers, or is it possible for designers to pull the trend in more player-friendly...
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Oct 31, 2017 Chris Cobb and Derek Lyons
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While we all have our own reasons for playing and loving games, fun generally features high on the list. Sometimes though, our desire to play games skillfully—to best our opponents or to achieve that elusive perfect play-through—can turn what is mean to be a source of enjoyment into a fount of frustration. Can game design help us to overcome this unfortunate human tendency? On Episode 35 of Vertical Slice, we’re exploring how designers can help their players to enjoy challenge while...
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Oct 17, 2017 Chris Cobb and Derek Lyons
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It wasn’t so long ago that the term “single-player game” was unnecessarily descriptive, the former being implied by the technical infancy of the latter. Today though, in our world of friend lists and ubiquitous network connections, single-player experiences have started to seem a rarer breed. Are dedicated single-player games an anachronism, or are there still emotional vistas that can only be beheld by individual players? Join us on Episode 34 of Vertical Slice as we search for the...
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Oct 3, 2017 Chris Cobb and Derek Lyons
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To play games is to make decisions. From tiny implicit choices to grand and thoughtful reflections, the act of choosing a course and observing its outcome is a core loop that unifies games of all stripes. Yet though all games offer choices, only some succeed in making them meaningful. How does one make the decisions in a game satisfying and impactful? On Episode 33 of Vertical Slice we’re exploring this fascinating question, and learning what it means to design for consequential decision...
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Sep 19, 2017 Chris Cobb and Derek Lyons
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Like a comet returning to our solar system after a long journey, this month marks the arrival of Destiny 2: the second installment in Bungie’s outsized shared-world shooter. While the first Destiny landed to mixed reviews, hopes are high that the sequel will deliver on many of the promises that its predecessor did not. Can Destiny 2 live up to weight of these mighty expectations? Can any game? In Episode 32 this week, Chris and Derek venture forth to begin answering these questions, offering...
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Sep 5, 2017 Chris Cobb and Derek Lyons
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Any meaningful challenge requires us to move between different levels of thought: big-picture strategy flows down to tactical detail, and in-the-moment observation flows back up to refine our overall plan. As games push into ever more ambitious territory, how might we bring a similar richness to game design? On Episode 31 of Vertical Slice, we’re exploring what it means to create games that support both strategic and tactical thought, and what kinds of engagement these richer designs can...
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Aug 22, 2017 Chris Cobb and Derek Lyons
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Art is capable of inspiring the full galaxy of human emotions, so why are games so often preoccupied with darker shades of feeling? Though many of us were introduced to gaming with vibrant and cheery titles like the Super Marios of yore, the games we play today focus disproportionately on grim conflict. Is there hope for a brighter trend? On Episode 30 of Vertical Slice, we’re returning to our happy place to rediscover the joy of positivity and whimsy in game design.
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Aug 8, 2017 Chris Cobb and Derek Lyons
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It can be easy to talk about game design as a discrete phase of game development: an initial step in the process where you firmly set down what it is that you want to build. In fact, effective game design is something that occurs continuously through game creation, with iteration, revision, and experimentation being key drivers in finding the heart of a project. On Episode 29 of Vertical Slice we’re celebrating this process of design as discovery, and talking about the practical approaches...
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Jul 25, 2017 Chris Cobb and Derek Lyons
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Gameplay loops are the repeatable circuits of motivation, action, and reward from which player experience arises. The best designers understand how to weave and layer these loops with great dexterity, crafting nested structures that suffuse every moment of gameplay with multiple layers of goals and challenges. What are the principles behind this kind of impressive design feat? In Episode 28 of Vertical Slice we’re circling up on this fascinating question, and tracing the clever interactive...
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Jul 11, 2017 Chris Cobb and Derek Lyons
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In the parlance of game design, balance refers to the equilibrium between a game’s component parts: that carefully tuned web of relationships between goals, systems, and challenges from which fun is intended to arise. Skillfully balanced games ride the lines between challenge and frustration, investment and grind, in ways that can appear effortless, but in fact require keen design intuition and dexterity. So how does the delicate dance of balancing a game work? On this, the one-year birthday...
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Jun 27, 2017 Chris Cobb and Derek Lyons
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E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, is a marquee event on the game industry’s annual calendar, offering publishers and platform holders a lavish stage for unveiling their latest offerings. Amidst the elaborate sets, bombastic presentations, and resplendent swag it can be difficult to separate hype from reality. Which games will inspire and which will disappoint in the year ahead? On Episode 26 of Vertical Slice Chris and Derek distill the key highlights from this year’s show, and offer...
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Jun 12, 2017 Chris Cobb and Derek Lyons
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Great games come in many forms, from incremental riffs on familiar genres to radical explorations of untouched design spaces. The creative tension between the poles of iteration and innovation animates much of game design, and the ability to negotiate these currents is a feature that can elevate truly inspired concepts above others. On Episode 25 of Vertical Slice we're discussing the subtle art of blending new design elements with the familiar, and discovering how worthwhile breakthroughs can...
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May 30, 2017 Chris Cobb and Derek Lyons
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Every new game comes with a learning curve: a new set of systems and mechanics that players must understand to get the most out of their play. Naturally then, the question of how to craft compelling tutorials and on-boarding experiences is an ever-present challenge in game design. On Episode 24 of Vertical Slice, we’re setting out to understand what separates the best tutorials—those rare first-hour experiences that pull players deeply into a game’s systems and challenges—from their...
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May 16, 2017 Chris Cobb and Derek Lyons
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The enjoyment of collecting things we value is a feeling many of us can relate to. Modern game design has found much inspiration in this simple pleasure, and collection mechanics are now a frequent feature in games of all genres. Collectibles can be used to create lightweight metagames that widen a game’s objectives; to reveal elements of a narrative in unique and interactive ways; or even to underpin a game’s core metaphors and mechanics, as in collectible card games. On Episode 23 of...
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May 2, 2017 Chris Cobb and Derek Lyons
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Randomness in game design is a powerful double-edged sword. On the one hand, variation and surprise are cornerstone elements of fun, and carefully calibrated randomness can cultivate both of those experiences. Contrastingly, too much randomness can make a game’s underlying design feel chaotic, and alienate players through “unfair” or unforeseeable outcomes. So: how much random is the right amount? On Episode 22 of Vertical Slice we’re grabbing our dice and rolling into this fascinating...
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Apr 18, 2017 Chris Cobb and Derek Lyons
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Generations of gamers have grown up with the Legend of Zelda, bonding over the decades with iconic titles like A Link to the Past, The Ocarina of Time, The Wind Waker, and Twilight Princess. Now a new Zelda adventure is afoot: one whose critical and commercial success has been extraordinary even by the franchise’s outsized standards. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has garnered nearly universal acclaim since its March release, with many critics unhesitatingly nominating it as one of...