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Looking for a better design test

A test is very often included in the selection processes for game designers. For junior profiles, without many portfolios, I find this an interesting thing. For the more senior, it is a difficult filter to check. I don’t know if I’m against or for it, honestly.

There are things good and bad in tests

In my opinion, a plus point is that they can reveal the writing skills of a game designer. It’s a key point, especially in these times when work is at least partly remote. It’s important to know how designers express themselves and how much they can be engaging with their writing.

A test also shows the reasoning ability of the designer. The problem is that it is difficult to read the reasons behind certain thoughts with the written medium. Without offering the designers the opportunity to defend their work, we will probably tend to prefer someone who thinks like us.

One thing that has always annoyed me is that there is a lot of work before the test which very often is not considered. You send me a competitor’s game and tell me that I can propose a feature and that I have a week to do it. If I’ve never played this game, studying it well will take me about a week off if I have to work simultaneously. All unpaid work, will not be used by the company. Wasted time for everyone.

But then how to do it?

Avoiding the test completely seems to be a dream. Some companies are gradually replacing it with other practices, though. If it were up to me, I would do the following:

  • Congratulations, you working with us on this project! It’s been 3 years, write a letter to your manager explaining everything you have achieved. You need to imagine yourself in this position 3 years from now. Explain in detail the steps that led you to your dream result.
  • Play game X, try to break it down, and think about what could be improved and for which KPI. Tell us when you’re ready and come to the office to discuss it with your future manager.

Maybe I’m a dreamer and this is not a process for all types of companies. But I am convinced that:

  1. You can get higher-quality information this way
  2. The traditional way is really difficult to evaluate because it depends a lot on who reads the test.

Review of the book “The Secret Science of Games”

I finished reading the book “The Secret Science of Games” written by John Hopson. There are very few books written by people with extensive experience and for me, they are a real treasure. The book focuses on Games Research, a discipline that deals with connecting game designers with players.

the book is live here

What I liked

John has worked on hugely successful titles such as Destiny, Halo, Fable, etc. You can feel his experience in his thought which have a clear point of view. Reading the book you understand the importance of seeing real people play your games.

Particularly interesting reflections on the importance of being quick and frugal at times to be effective. It is not always necessary to wait for a complete report. Game research is perceived as something slow and precise, but John points out that it is not science. That game design still has a creative and artistic side that depends on personal sensibilities that go beyond numbers and hypotheses.

The length of the chapters is perfect. With a coffee, you can read yourself a complete chapter. This means that in breaks from work, I read everything. The length of the book, at around 200 pages, also makes it a booklet that you want to have on your desk.

Finally, the final section on case studies is very passionate and candid. We realize the challenges of our profession and how we must never underestimate that silent part of our players. Very often we refer to online reviews and opinions, but those who communicate there are usually a specific type of player who does not represent the entire community. All are very well specified in the book.

What I’ve missed

I am quite a visual person. People in such a demanding profession as John usually don’t have all the time in the world to write a book. The result is that the book is made up of many words and no images. I missed images and diagrams in certain passages, to better understand the decisions made following discoveries in the laboratory. I would have also liked to see organizational charts to understand how to structure a team.

Another thing I would have liked to see is tips on how to do game research when you’re not Bungie or Microsoft. When you’re part of a small, independent team. When you are trying to create something well done to attract investors. I’m sure game research can be done at that stage, and you must. Game research and quality assurance are very often sacrificed, and this affects the final quality of the product.

Three quotes that I loved

“Games research lives somewhere in between scientific rigor and creative disorder”

pag. 37

“If I can’t find a quote or a snippet of video to support a statistic, I’m probably looking at the wrong statistic.”

pag- 104

“A good tutorial or hint system is one that guides the player as completely as they need, while offering them the opportunity to turn away from the path”

pag- 187

Start from Personas

When you study game design, you usually focus on documents and prototypes for small games. The first steps that are taught in educational centers are purely technical.

Then you are in the market without the skills that make you a professional designer. Which are not the techniques, but are those oriented toward the video game business.

Normally a team reports to one or more managers who maintain a business vision. Our role as designers is to understand how to realize this business vision. We have to think more about endorsing the product than creating something directly. Players will receive the product packed and polished. Technical skills are important, but our ability to understand the business is critical.

Personas are one of the methods that allow this communication across the whole team. I share with you this workshop that aired last Saturday. The audio is bad, but the content is excellent.

If you want to work for companies as an employee or consultant, you need to come up with frameworks that solve concrete business problems. Thinking about who will really play and how to structure a product for them requires effort and is not intuitive.

Respect the art of game design

I met a prospective client the other day who needed simple service. Given a set of published games, derive a design document that specifies everything that should be included in the final game.

The goal of the document was for a programmer to take it and figure out exactly what to do to produce the final game.

I told him his dream is beautiful, but that remains so. Making a game is not an assembly line; the specification documents that other developers need to work with must be produced based on real development needs.

The best way to be successful in video games is to maintain a certain degree of realism and respect for this art that is so difficult to master.

Reviews are your best friend

Whenever you are starting a new game project or if you are working on LiveOps for an old one, you have a free asset that is very useful: reviews.

Only a small part of Players are willing to leave reviews for your games, especially in free-to-play. Videogames can ask directly in-game to leave a review, but not everyone does so. They do not represent in any case the dominant opinions, but they are useful to spot opportunities for your game.

  • If you read critical reviews and you notice something that repeats a lot, that something can be converted into a unique selling point for your game.
  • If you read positive reviews and you notice something that repeats a lot, that something should be a must-have for your game.

Use Steam or to filter out positive and negative reviews. Remember Pareto’s principle. Use always 80% of other games and innovate on the 20%.

  • 80% you should take can be read in positive reviews that repeat
  • 20% of novelty can be read in critical reviews that repeat

Analyze the reviews of the main game you are taking as a competitor, but also of its clones and competitors!

What? There are NO clones of that game? You are probably choosing the wrong competitor and you will hardly manage to have success in its field.

How to use Twine for Player Experience Narrative

Play Lilys Choices in your browser here.

Game writers use Twine to write stories. It’s a great tool and pretty easy to learn. I have learnt during my certification course at The Narrative Department. This week I am prototyping a new feature for Lily’s Garden, so that I decided to use this new tool to test its effectiveness also in terms of feature prototyping.

You can play the Twine prototype here: we have the feature, Lilys Choices.

Final thoughts

  • Twine is a great tool to create a proper Player experience narrative for a new feature.
  • The idea of having an extra resource to start extra Dramas is not new, but it is very important that the dramas end up with a surprise for the Players. Also in terms of concrete rewards!
  • It is important for this kind of games not giving to the Players choices that exclude specific branches. First of all, produce all this content has a cost. Second, some Player may feel frustrated and may want to try the other way around. This thing is not possible in those games.
  • The narrative should be focused on a true fan of the game. At this stage other profiles in the team will probably find risks and flaws to the designs, so be prepared! It is very important to push things forward boldly.


From the idea to the prototype

This week I am prototyping a new narrative system for a puzzle-renovation game like Lily’s Garden. I generated lots of ideas and then I selected the best ones. Now it’s time to translate those ideas to a prototype.

Goals and features

Before of starting sketching a flowchart for our Twine prototype, it’s important to understand why to prepare a prototype in first place. A prototype is not something ready to go out. It is not a product. A prototype is useful to:

  • Persuade the stakeholders that this step is necessary and invite them to think in its ROI
  • Align the vision of all the team members that will work on the feature
  • State all the assumptions, useful to prove with data and analytics the feature’s success
  • Inspire roadmap updates to fix the feature’s development in the pipeline.

I have very few time to do a proper prototype, I am doing this exercise for “ikigai” (= to do something I enjoy for the sake of it). I need to put some limitations, so that my prototype will feature:

  1. Only 1 event to show how the Player’s journey changes meaningfully thanks to the feature
  2. Player’s development across the journey
  3. Maximum 3 valuable binary choices, in order to avoid too many outcomes. In fact with 3 choices we will get 2^3=8 endings.
  4. The prototype should not be minimum. I am against minimum viable things. The prototype should show all that’s necessary to truly unleash potential, instead! That is why I will use the main idea and the two secondary ones described previously.

Prototype definition

Important for this kind of games is to keep things very linear and straight. Those are not RPG games full of options. The only options that the Player has at every moment is either to start a new task or play a new level.


  • Lilys: the new feature will be called Lilys. Lilys are a resource that the Player accumulates based on creating special tiles (combining 4+ tiles) and/or getting and using power-ups, which are special tiles at the end of the day.
  • Lily Branches: every Day has a set of choices. Some choice are cosmetic, those are already present in the game. Some other choice can be meaningful story branches. In order to take some of the options, the Player should use Lilys.
  • Choice Points: Every time the Player makes a choice gets Choice Points which are useful to unlock extra rewards at the end of the day.
  • Variable Rewards: every time the Player completes one Lilys branch, there is the chance of getting a power-up. Variable rewards are useful to foster engagement. The Players in this way will have reasons to make Lilys Choices.
  • The Player can choose to Play a level or start a Task
  • During the Level, the Player will get and use power-ups
  • At the end of the Level the power-ups and special tiles will be counted and converted in Lilys
  • During a task, the Player will have to make a meaningful choice
  • One of the branches will involve the use of Lilys
  • All the branches will give choice points, useful for the end of the Day to get extra rewards
  • if the Player uses Lilys, a random reward will pop-out: 30 minutes infinite lives. It is important that the Player feel that there is a random factor there.

Now I can proceed in developing the proper prototype!

How to map and select ideas

This week I decided to prototype a new narrative system for Lily’s Garden using Twine. After deciding the right problem statement, which is:

How can we engage more the Players more interested in the story, rewarding every effort they make to reach better outcomes during the puzzle part?

I passed to generate a lot of ideas on my notebook. Then I filtered out the best of them.

Ideas classification

Now it’s time to map the ideas in a proper chart. The X axis will represent the engagement, the metric to improve. Engagement is measured with session length and average sessions per day. Those are the KPIs.

On the Y axis consider the motivation to stay longer and open the game more during the day. This article by The Games Refinery will help us.

The two main motivational drivers for this genre are Mastery and Expression. So that we have two possible charts to map out the outcome of our brainstorming.

I classify the ideas in both those maps and see if we spot something in common. Usually this process is a team process and takes time and discussion. Again, in my case is just a quick exercise.

Against mastery we can see that we have 3 possible ideas to build:

  1. Choose your Story: creating and using special tiles/power-ups during the puzzle match, you get points to invest in story branches.
  2. Day Perks: Once a Day ends according to what you used you can get extra rewards (boosters, power-ups, infinite lives, ingots)
  3. Rewards Missions: playing the game and performing positive actions such as buy lives, get extra movements, return every day, you unlock a special currency which can be converted in boosters and power-ups.

Mapping ideas with expression in mind, a single idea is in the hot spot.

We have then selected our main idea: Choose your Story. Secondary ideas: Day Perks and Rewards Missions. On this base we can build our prototype!

New narrative system ideas

This week just for the sake of ikigai I am prototyping a new narrative system for Lily’s Garden. Today I focused my efforts to the idea generation. I wrote down hundreds of ideas and preselected just some of them, which will be shown here.

The narrative of Lily’s Garden

The story is divided into large day arcs with subplots. Each day involves renovating a specific location. In order to do that, the Player has to beat puzzle levels earning Stars. Stars are useful to start tasks.

In the course of the game’s renovations, Lily collects items like keys and photographs, builds her relationships with other characters, and discovers more about the estate and her family history.

We will use those terms in this post:

  • Day: set of specific tasks that complete a story arc. We can consider a day like a sequence of an episode in TV series.
  • Positive action: use power-up/boosters, lives refill, use extra movement, complete a goal also if not beating the level, and so on.
  • Perks: boosters, power-ups, infinite lives, stars, ingots.

Reviews analysis

In order to better select the ideas, I’ve spent 1 hour reading reviews. allows you to filter favorable and critical reviews.

The game let’s you decide the style of your house and decorations. It is fun and easy to play. The perfect experience for when you just want to relax. Engaging and full of power-ups to beat hard levels that you can create on the board or get by using ingots and completing tasks. The main character Lily reacts to everything and completes tasks.

The new system should be built on those strengths. Maybe it is better to have something more specific towards power-ups and tasks completion.

Many levels are hard to beat and some Player feels stuck. The day’s storylines have not always the same quality, probably because of different kind of writers involved in the project. Players lose what they got at the end of some event. Some Player may feel that the game is too greedy in monetizing the puzzle part (extra movements and boosters).

Our system should be able to mitigate the puzzle limitations. The Player should not feel stuck and if they are doing all the efforts to beat a specific level, that should be rewarded somehow.


I took some notes on things used in other games with a narrative component. I didn’t looked at top competitors, I just took notes on type of games that I already worked on in the past. This because one of the requirements of this task is agility.

Episode: Choose your Story: Premium choices for premium paths. Great for re-playability, usually something that is not considered in puzzle-renovation games because the days cannot be replayed.

It is interesting to be able to unlock an extra path during a Day, also if some Player may want to get to other outcomes. Branches should always connect again before of the end, to avoid this effect.

Tales: Choose your own Story: Trials and paths according to stats accumulated during the Story like in a roleplaying game. It would be great to connect the puzzle and the story somehow. Maybe associating each character to every level and let them accumulate statistics according to the power-up used and more in general to the positive actions done.

From the other side, this can complicate too much the system and it may become hard to balance and monitor the Player’s progression on the long term.

Fallout Shelter: There are characters to whom the Player can assign specific tasks to get more points and currency. What if during a specific day you can put your characters performing extra tasks to get extra perks?

This adds an idle/farming layer which may be not suitable to the core audience of this kind of games.

Project Makeover: Customize the aesthetics of avatars in order to make them successful for the end of the episode (day). Maybe the characters of a specific day set can strive to arrive perfect to the end of the arc, in order to the ending be more satisfying.

The risk is to fall in the trap of misogynic and racist narratives, thou. While makeover is great, it should be carefully designed to not offend anyone. Especially when something works out and translates to UA creatives it enters in a dangerous territory. Is that what we want as designers? I don’t think so. Complete missions and get an extra currency, useful to be exchanged with other resources during a season. It’s a pretty common practice among casual games and gives lots of agency to the Players.

The problem comes when the event end because Players may accumulate a resource and then they lose it or it’s automatically converted in something not valuable to them.

Selected ideas

I wrote down hundreds of ideas and, since I am doing this alone, preselected some of them. The format I use is: title, wireframe and short description. It is the best way of taking them the day after and decide what to do.

Remember the problem statement decided in the previous article.

How can we engage more the Players more interested in the story, rewarding every effort they make to reach better outcomes during the puzzle part?

Accumulate perks during a day and collect them based on the positive actions done at the end of the day. Each day has a limited numbers of perks that can be achieved and unlocked at the end.

Everytime you create and use a power-up (selecting it in level intro or creating it during the match), you accumulate points useful to take specific paths. If you want to take a specific path, then, you should create use more boosters in the puzzle game.

Start specific tasks by performing positive actions and get extra perks on completion. If the day ends, all the tasks are immediately completed.

Achievement system for positive actions with special resource to collect and use for special choices during the story.

Obtain extra personalization options if you manage to perform a certain number of positive actions.

At the end of an event, recount all the positive actions done and give extra perks according to the milestone. Giving the premium currency can be extremely valuable for the Players, but it may influence the monetization.

If the Player uses X boosters/power-ups/extra movements to beat a level and still loses, he is allowed to postpone that level for a while.


In a real context with a real team, all this process would be a workshop. Also, the study of top competitors is very important. This exercise is good to keep my mind fresh and to quickly play with narrative techniques I learnt in past weeks.

New narrative system for Puzzle-Renovation games

Puzzle games with renovation mechanic are on top of the charts. They success is tremendous and they are clearly a red ocean market. Many companies try to swim that ocean, so that this week I have decided to make an experiment to celebrate that I got a certification from The Narrative Department.

hooray! I did it! 🙂

The narrative system of Puzzle-Renovation games

The experiment consists of a design iteration to improve the narrative of puzzle-renovation games. I will consider this experiment completed once I have a playable prototype made in Twine featuring the result of this process.

One of the reasons why the Players churn is that they get stuck at some point. The progression curve of levels always goes up, so that with the time the puzzle part gets harder and it’s more difficult to progress through the story.

The issue comes because those games consider a positive outcome the fact of beating a level, but they do not consider all the efforts the Players make at all.

  • At the start of the level, the Player may decide to use a power-up to get help for the level. The first time, the Player will not know how is the layout. Which is why new games warns when there is a hard level.
  • The Player needs lives to start a level. In case they have no lives they should wait or get a lives refill. In order to mitigate this friction, most modern games use lives as an engagement tool. Give the Players infinite lives for X minutes and you will get longer sessions.
  • Puzzle levels are based on a limited number of moves. When they end, the Player can get 2-5 extra moves to beat the level. There is strategy here, in fact the Players study the status of their goals and decide. When the Player is near to the win condition is generally more willing to get extra movements. In order to reach the sweet spot, the number of moves is data driven.
  • During the level the Players may decide to use boosters which are like power-ups but “live”, because they can be got and used on the fly. The Players know the status of the board when they decide to get and use a booster. Boosters add deepness and strategy, they a great driver for monetization.

The Lens of Problem Statement

When the Player completes all the goals, the story continues and the house can be renovated. If we study this flowchart, thou, we can see that the Players can do a lot of things that can be considered positive toward that goal.

They can use a power-up at level start. Get a lives refill. They can get extra moves if they are near the win condition. They can use boosters. All those things are hardly rewarded by the renovation narrative of those games. This is the problem statement for this week:

How can we engage more the Players more interested in the story, rewarding every effort they make to reach better outcomes during the puzzle part?

  • Target: puzzle renovation Players more interested in the story
  • KPI engagement: average session number/day and average duration / session
  • What: create new rewards that help the Players get interesting story outcomes based on puzzle efforts

The game I will use for the exercise is Lily’s Garden, by Tactile Games.