Engaging Thematics

Hey there everyone and welcome back to Anatomy of a Pug’s Life, my blog all about what I’ve done to create the card game, Pug Life. Today we’re going to be talking about one of the most integral things to create a pleasing experience for gamers – thematics.

One of the first things I learned at Riot was how important thematics are. To really sell a player on something, the theme of the champion has to be prevalent across the entire board – from the look of the champion, to the names of the abilities, to the mechanics, to things as tiny as how often and in what order you press buttons on the keyboard. Thematics sell players on games because they can feel truly engaged in the material and take on the fantasy of being that character – similar in concept to the importance of decision making.

So let’s talk a bit about creating good thematics, how it can help create a game, and what allows someone to truly know they’ve hit the nailed it.

1) Characters. In almost every instance, players are more likely to identify with a character than a story. The stories we experience in our lives are fantastic and can be great, but it’s much easier to compare traits or characteristics of fictional characters over the things they experience. The Last of Us is a great example of this (a game released by Naughty Dog for the PS3, and one of my all time favorite games), where the story is exceptional, but the fantastic interactions between Joel and Ellie really sell the game and engage with players. We engage with the heartbreak Joel experiences, like the moment his daughter dies and the decisions he goes through on his adventure with Ellie. The story ties all these things together, but it’s the moments of empathy that attract us to Joel and Ellie.

2) Specificity over Generalist. Throughout creating Pug Life, I debated whether I should convert to dogs in general over just pugs. This was a tough decision for me, but in the end I settled on just pugs for a few reasons. When the theme is focused around pugs and not dogs, you can tailor the moments in the game to specific pug traits. This means tying to things like love of pizza or head/chin rests or teasing them about irritable bowels. Additionally, since pugs are fairly polarizing, the people who love pugs really, really love pugs. By creating an experience just about pugs, pug owners can truly engage with the medium. None of this means that others can’t engage with the material, as anyone can still see aspects of their dogs in this sense, but having a fan base that will fight for a game is a huge part of making a game successful.

3) Mechanics. During one of my discussions with a mentor at Riot, he had me come up with a new dragon (beyond the 4 elementals). I spent most of my time focused on mechanics, trying to come up with something that would be unused and wouldn’t overlap the current concepts. As I struggled with this, he, rightfully, pointed out that sometimes we don’t want to start with mechanics. Mechanics can be great and engaging, but sometimes finding the right theme allows us to find something that’s more cohesive and fits together. That concept is primarily how I ended up creating each of the pugs. While I initially created a list of fantastic mechanics that I thought fit well with the game, as I finished off the first few I began to approach with the theme. What would a curious pug want to do? What about a garbage pug? Starting with those base themes allowed me to design something that was unique and different because the themes were diverse and led to very different play styles for every single pug.

There are of course a number of things that thematics can do, but all of it has one end goal in mind, removing the player from reality. A great book or movie engages the person so well that they don’t even realize time is passing or things are happening around them. I, at times in college, would get so involved in video games that my roommate could walk in and I’d have no idea he was even there. Thematics contribute heavily to this, as seeing and experiencing what you expect to see allows you to fully engage with it. The better the thematics, the better a game can perform.

That’s all for today! Tell me about something you’ve thoroughly enjoyed due to the creation of a perfect world – a great book (like Harry Potter), a great show (like Game of Thrones), or a great game (like The Last of Us).

Thanks for reading!

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