Foundations: Case Study - The Balloon Game

I expect this article to be a bit of a diversion. Hopefully a good one!

I’ve decided to recount one of the more interesting and revealing game design experiences I’ve had. I think it holds a number of interesting design lessons, as well as demonstrates some of the approaches I covered in my previous article.

The Balloon Game

The Balloon Game (I think it was actually called “Cheesy Balloon” ... but who cares) is a minigame included in the critically reviled GameBoy Advance game “Nickelodeon Barnyard” developed by Halfbrick way back in 2005. It was my first design gig. I share my shame so that you may learn.

Speaking of sharing; never make a minigame collection.

Below is a recreation of that game - or at least the elements I could be bothered recreating. Click on the game - use Up and Down to control your balloon.

The Balloon game was testing poorly with playtesters - they were fishtailing all over the place and finding it very difficult to control. We knew something needed to be done, but what?

We loved the gameplay - how it handled, the difficulty etc. - we felt it was solid. We had changed the level layout to be about collecting rather than a mix of collecting and avoiding game-ending hazards. This tweak was for the better, as it gave us a harder challenge to ramp players up to - but the easier challenge was still too difficult for testers.

It seemed like anyone who played the game for long enough "got it", but it wasn’t grabbing new players. They just weren't learning the game quickly enough or some information was missing in their understanding.

We decide the problem was that...

Players didn’t know where they were going

They couldn’t gauge how their input was affecting the balloon’s trajectory.

We decided to quickly add feedback that showed exactly where they were going; effectively saying “You’re heading this way.” We considered more complicated, elegant solutions, but decided to quickly test something ugly and obvious to prove we were on the right track.

We stuck a big arrow on the front! :)

How amazingly crap is that? The game felt completely different! It was a very good thing we didn’t try the elegant solutions we were considering - we failed quickly and we failed spectacularly!

We were astounded to learn that adding “more feedback” made the game less fun to play. It was interesting that the game now seemed to play like a top down driving game, or an unresponsive sidescrolling shooter... whatever the comparison, it felt awful with absolutely no change to the underlying physics. The change sapped the fun right out of the game.

We decided to revisit our understanding of the problem. We knew it took a long time to see the balloon change size as a result of input, so perhaps the problem was...

Players couldn’t easily see the result of their input

We decided to provide visual and aural feedback whenever the player was holding up or down. The intention was to reassure the player that “Yes, your input is being received”, even if the balloon wasn’t obviously changing size.

I felt this was significantly better. Hopefully you agree! Essentially, we'd managed to find and add the feedback required to support the design. It isn't the best game in the world - perhaps you even enjoyed the arrow version more? ... Well shh! That's not the point - it was the solution we were looking for.

We’d gone from a game that was fun but nearly impossible for playtesters to learn, to a game that playtesters learnt quickly and enjoyed - all thanks to a little carefully considered feedback!

Lessons Learnt from the Balloon Game

This experience taught me some very interesting things which I’ll briefly cover:
  • You can sabotage your design with the wrong feedback. When faced with a roadblock, it’s paramount that you clearly identify the problem. If you fix it and the design gets worse, you fixed the wrong problem - or something that wasn’t a problem in the first place.
  • Part of the fun of playing games is learning how systems work. There are skills to learn in this game - how inflation translates to trajectory, how much input is required to change direction etc. - just as there are skills to learn in any driving game. It’s fun to learn these systems. The wrong feedback can remove the need to explore and learn. Similar issues exist for visual assists in racing games and objective compass arrows in adventure games (often hardcore fans disabled these).
  • The sooner players can see the results of their input, the quicker they learn. Players can now visually gauge how long they’d held up or down and clearly see the affect on the balloon’s inflation and trajectory. This dramatically shortened the time it took to learn the game and allowed players to focus on getting better at the challenge itself.
I was surprised by these discoveries and just how much we learnt from the humble Balloon Game.


I hope this case study has highlighted the importance of being problem focused, playtesting, using placeholders and failing early. I always find I learn more from example than theory alone, but maybe that’s just me.

So, have you ever tried to fix a game mechanic and made it worse? Broken something and not known how? How about accidentally discovered magic gameplay? Let us know.

Next article will be the final for the feedback series. I’ve prepared a feedback checklist that summarises everything covered in this series and help you evaluate your future designs.



Matt Vogt said... 3 August 2011 at 14:18

Nice. Interesting that you find the arrow killed the fun; I find that the arrow didn't make a huge amount of difference because even though it showed the direction, it didn't display the momentum.

Try making a version that increases the length of the arrow to show show momentum and there should be no fun left at all!

Terry M. Jackson said... 12 December 2017 at 20:31

As for me, this game seems interesting. I like such games. Often I play games during my lunch break at work. It's relaxes me and distracts from the work process. I found an excellent Gameboy emulator I like to play games, which remind me about my childhood, it's very funny)

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