[Game Design Club] #1 - Slime Rancher

edited in General
Hi everyone,

Alongside prototyping, I’m interested in doing exercises that will help me be a better game designer. With that in mind, I want to propose a book club of sorts, but for games. The idea is that every two weeks or so, we take a game that has proven successful and spend some time talking about it.

While playing the game, try to think about what you are experiencing and jot down some ideas before seeing what everyone else says. Here are some questions to ask yourself if you feel a bit lost:

- What I like/dislike about this game?
- What would I change?
- What is the designer trying to make me do or feel (whether by the use of music, level design, or mechanics)?
- Which interactions or mechanics are fun?
- Does this game fit in a specific genre? If not, why not?
- What is the hook of the game? What makes it stand out from other similar games.

The important thing is to practice doing this kind of analysis yourself, as we’ll learn through the process of formulating our own opinions. By sharing our opinions on the forum, we’ll also get to see how others experiences and think about games, which is super useful.

I’m excited to apply the lessons that I learn through this process to games that I’m experimenting with at the moment.

This discussion is open to everyone and as such, let’s be civil about it! We are here to learn and become better game designers. If you disagree with someone's thoughts/opinions, then try to be clear about where you think your disagreement lies, definitely don’t bash them or their opinions!

To keep it relevant and applicable to our local community, the idea is to focus on indie games made by small teams that didn't have huge budgets. It will be a bonus if the game is freely available on Itch.io or on discount on Steam. I will pick the first few games to make things simpler, but as we go on I am happy to take suggestions.

This is my first attempt at starting something like this, so please let me know if you have ideas for making it better or more inclusive.

Now onto this week's assignment: Slime Rancher!

You can find a free to play demo available on the steam page.

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Game Information:
Platforms: PC, PS4, XBox
Studio: Monomi Park

Description: Slime Rancher is the tale of Beatrix LeBeau, a plucky, young rancher who sets out for a life a thousand light years away from Earth on the ‘Far, Far Range’ where she tries her hand at making a living wrangling slimes.

Steam Tags: Cute, Exploration, Adventure, Singleplayer, FPS

Release Date: 1 Aug, 2017

Steam Sales Estimate: 1,244,500
This calculation is done using the Box Leider Method:
Steam Reviews * A factor of roughly 50 = Sales to date

MetaCritic: 81

Nick Popovich, Founder and CEO of Momoni Park, has given some excellent GDC talks in the past but I would suggest watching them after you have played and done some analysis.

A Thousand Tiny Tales: Emergent Storytelling in Slime Rancher [GDC2017]
Slime Rancher: A Preemptive Postmortem [GDC2018]
Making Games That Stand Out and Survive [GDC2019]

The things that intrigue me about this game and its development:

- It is non-violent
- The pacing and how it keeps the player engaged
- It is ‘easily’ expandable, considering the small team and how many updates and DLC’s there have been

I hope everyone can see the value that this game club could potentially bring and I really look forward to everyone's thoughts and insights into the game!

Let's get ranchin’!
slimerancher.jpg
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Comments

  • edited
    I want to open up this discussion. I haven't played Slime Rancher recently, I played it a year or so back. But I played through all of the story content that was available at the time.

    I presume the game is a bit bigger now, and I see recently they added an "Automation Update".

    My biggest complaint had been that there was too much repetitive labour, having to manually collect food and put it in the feeders. And it seems like they may have fixed that! Which speaks to @BlackSheepZA's point about the extensibility of the game design.

    One thing I loved about Slime Rancher but wished it could have been a bit better was the exploration. Jumping over the rocks and finding secret passages felt really good some of the time. But some times I'd get to some far off and hard to reach place and there would be nothing there, the designers had not anticipated me trying to climb that mountain. And other times the path was a bit maze-like and I got a bit lost (like in that ruined temple). So I felt like the game could have curated it's player traversible area a little better, but for the most part I felt Slime Rancher was really excellent at this.

    Like @BlackSheepZA mentioned, Slime Rancher really stands out for its aesthetic. It's so completely pleasant and nice all of the time. It's pretty non-violent, yet it does have combat threats. It does cute incredibly well, and marries this to collecting and farming, which really works (much like the cute world of Ooblets suits Pokemon gameplay).

    From a development perspective the slimes are a brilliant hack. They're simple to animate and easy to create, which let the team use it's resources very cleverly.

    A thing I thought was a stroke of genius in Slime Rancher was the emergent combat situations when the tars formed and the way the musical palette shifted when tars were around. Without that the collecting adventures would have had no tension... and at the same time, I don't think I was ever hurt much by a tar. The tars didn't really make the game difficult, but gave a dark counterpoint to the otherwise uplifting world (which is important, because you need contrast to emphasize something, the pleasantness would have been invisible without the ghoulishness).

    Also, because the tars would form through emergent interactions, the tars could form in your home base if your slimes escaped, and so planning your base was given more importance.

    This also meant that when going out on an adventure you had to be sure to come back soon, otherwise, in some situations, your home base economy would collapse. This gave you a reason not to go too far (besides your limited storage capacity).

    There's a lot else I could write about Slime Rancher. It's shopping list of overlapping goals is brilliant. Collecting slimes is brilliant. Farming the slimes is brilliant. The way your home base opens up as you progressed is brilliant.

    I made a lot of use of the mining equipment... but the traps didn't seem worth it to me.

    Did anyone use the traps? Have they been reworked by the designers to have a purpose that moves the player's progress forward?
  • Thanks for your input @EvanGreenwood!

    Though I haven't played a huge amount yet, I agree, there is a lot of busy work but at the same time that is the core of the game. I imagine that is it quite satisfying to move through the different stages in your ranch, from doing everything yourself, upgrading things to make your life easier and eventually getting to the point that the ranch mostly runs itself.
    One thing I loved about Slime Rancher but wished it could have been a bit better was the exploration.
    I have also been disappointed a few times when I find a hidden nook but there is nothing for me to find there
    Did anyone use the traps? Have they been reworked by the designers to have a purpose that moves the player's progress forward?
    I haven't gotten this far so I can't quite comment on it.


    It took me longer than I would like to admit to get to this task and start writing down my thoughts. I still feel like I am really new to game design and so it is quite daunting to try to pick apart a game and then voice those thoughts. Here are some observations/thoughts from my first hour of gameplay.

    Design Pillar - System Interactions
    This game has a variety of systems interacting and the most interesting gameplay comes out of the interplay of these systems. I can see that they made a lot of design decisions around maximising the potential for these systems to interact which keeps the player engaged and can potentially spiral into chaos!

    Mostly mono-modal - Simple/Accessible Controls
    In the game you have basic movement and then the ability to suck up/shoot objects with the VAC. Occasionally you need to access a menu but most of the time your interactions are in the game world. This is all you need to learn to actually play the game which is really beneficial when you are trying to reach a large audience.
    A thing to stress is that while the controls are simple, your interactions are not which means you get a lot of variety from that small control set. The VAC can do all of these actions just with sucking up and shooting:
    - Collect slimes
    - Transport single large slimes (Largos)
    - Gather resources such as food and plorts
    - Pick up/Shoot/Break hidden objects
    - Withdraw and deposit objects into the machines
    - Sell plorts

    Dynamic Market Prices - Create variety in gameplay
    As you gather plorts and exchange them for currency, you will find that the value of the plorts will have decreased the following day. This is really smart because it makes sure that it is harder for the player to min-max, it pushes the player to explore to find new slimes and upgrade their ranch to balance multiple resources. By forcing the player to adjust their play style, they are less likely to fall into a rhythm of grinding and will constantly need to adjust their ranch layout in order to try to get the most bang for their buck!
    By pushing the player to cater to various slimes, they have to juggle their resources and if the player isn't careful, this will ultimately lead to slimes interacting with each other. This can easily spiral into slimes consuming resources they weren’t supposed to and worst case, cause a tarr slime outbreak.

    They also tempt you with the risk-reward of keeping Largos on your ranch. Largos are created when a slime eats a plort of another slime. They effectively become a large combination of both of the slimes. They produce one of each plort type and their diet is combined which makes it easier to maintain. But if a Largo eats a plort of a slime it is not the combination of, then it turns into a Tarr Slime which consumes your other slimes and multiplies. A Tarr outbreak can quickly and easily lead to your whole ranch being turned into chaos

    Never waiting around - Overlapping timers and systems
    This is really important for games like this. If the player had nothing to do or had to wait around for something, they could easily become bored and play something else.
    Slime Rancher has a whole bunch of hidden timers that keep the player moving and checking on different things. A really important note is that these timers are hidden from the player, if they were visible then it is more likely to cause stress for the player. I would consider Slime Rancher draws a lot from the “cosy” game genre (https://www.projecthorseshoe.com/reports/featured/ph17r3.htm) and so it is really important to keep stress low. If the player misses one of these timers, then it is not detrimental to their progress, they don’t lose anything, they just miss out on gaining something.

    In terms of activities there is always a lot for the player to be doing. I do want to dig into these loops and the pacing of them because it is done really well. At any time the player can Exploring, Feeding, Plorting, Expanding, Harvesting, Trading, Upgrading or Storing. At no point is it very clear which is the most effective task to be doing, and often one task will distract you from the other which keeps you very busy. The tasks are often interwoven and lead to something like this happening :


    Another smart design decision was limiting the players VAC storage to 4 slots. It creates a tight loop between exploring/gathering and maintaining your ranch. There is a lot of variety of things to gather throughout the world but also right on your doorstep. It is really easy to fill your slots quickly which has you returning back to your ranch. And once you are back at your ranch some of those hidden timers may have elapsed which means maybe some plorts have been produced or your vegetables need to be harvested, and then it is time to feed your slimes and harvest the plort. So it may be some time before you go explore again. These loops keep the player interested and stops them falling into a rut of doing the same actions again and again.


    These are quite high-level observations, so for my next attempt, I want to start trying to figure out how to measure these systems, the timings and try to map them out a bit to get a better idea of how they fit together and overlap with each other.

    Also just a quick note on a really smart piece of gameplay juice:
    When depositing plort, they use the same trick as that used in Peggle, each deposit sound increases in pitch which is really satisfying when you deposit a whole bunch in a row. They could have just had a “sell all” button or another menu to do this. Doing it this way reinforces the main loop of the game.

    I would love to hear other peoples thoughts or takes on this game! Also sorry for the big wall of text!
    Thanked by 1ashashza
  • I haven't played it at all, so can't really comment on it first hand, but I totally love the way it turned tropes on its head - traditionally slimes are "monsters", though the Japanese culture have always had a less polarising culture around cute monsters (pokemon for example), it's good to see ideas like this.

    My own influences are from the Japanese side from my younger age so this never struck me as all that different, but looking at it from a more western centric point of view, it indeed is quite a departure from the mainstream.
  • edited
    Hey, thanks for your insight @Tusim! I am definitely guilty of only considering things from a western-centric viewpoint and need to take steps to try not to have blind spots in that regard.

    Just a reminder to everyone that there is a free demo of Slime Rancher available on the steam page!
  • Hey all, I've had Slime Rancher in the 'ol library for a while and this was a great reason to play it a and collect some thoughts.

    For context, I played 3 hours, which was enough to build out my ranch, get good at growing & feeding and unlock new areas. I played the full version, since that's what I had but I'm curious to learn how the demo was different? Mostly I'd be interested to know what they felt was important to give players a taste of so they could decide to make a purchase.

    Here are the things I loved about Sime Rancher:
    - Brief tutorial. I felt like I got to jump in and start exploring right away. The tutorial didn't need to cover everything and I got a chance to learn through play, which I liked.
    - There's something magical about farming "live" things. Started to feel a connection to the little critters almost immediately. I found myself saying to them "why did YOU jump over here?" instead of "why did IT jump?"
    - Exploration. The feeling of having a new world to explore is exciting to me and Slime Rancher definitely evoked that. Especially in the beginning when venturing outside the ranch, it felt like there's so much to discover with all the nooks and crannies.
    - Another part of the exploration was the farming systems. Learning what types of things I could build back home and seeing how they worked after purchasing gave me that same discovery goodness.
    - There’s also exploration in upgrading your character and vac gun. Getting the jet packUnlocks opportunities that made me look at the world exploration differently. Very Metroidvania-esque.
    - I wish the farming could be even more automated. I've already got food growing, feeders and plort collectors but there's still too much busy work for me checking up on food and moving it to feeders.

    The biggest thing I didn't enjoy was that farming loop became boring. I found myself returning to the same spots mechanically to "grab just 3 more" of something. The mechanics like limited vac slots and the plort market disincentivise this grinding… but it felt like switching to farm a new plort type would take longer. Back at the ranch I was spending more time monitoring food and feeders than taking in the glory of my slimes and their antics. Unlocking new areas added freshness but there wasn't enough new content in the areas to compel me to open more.

    There are enough mysteries to make me return: "What are the treasure spheres?" "How do I unlock those key gates?" "What happens in the science lab?" ... But I'm reluctant to go back to grinding / farming.

    The main feelings I had while playing where: Safety (even when tars are around). Charmed (By slimes, visuals, story). No rush (There’s no time pressure to achieve anything. Even if you miss out on the timing for a spawn, there’s no loss). I also feel the game did a good job of feeling like it's aimed at a younger demographic but not alienating me too much as an older player. I think the charm is particularly important because capturing and caging Slimes could be really guilt provoking but their expressions, sounds and antics almost completely dissolve the guilt.

    Mechnically I'd say slime rancher is a base building and resource management game. The biggest hook is that some of the resources you manage are "alive". The combination of slime behaviours and the physics create a bunch of emergence. Returning home to stray Largos turned into Tarrs is equal parts chaotic, sad and comical. Something that’s not unique to Slime Rancher but rare is using the first person perspective for a base builder. These goals are usually at odds because FP gives you focus on details and players in a base builder typically want to see big picture layout. I think SR solves this by having a set layout for the ranch, so players know where to look for what and ensure there is enough space between build areas.

    Other notes I jotted down:
    - Slime Rancher is using the default unity checkbox and sliders! Poorly scaled sliders!! For me this is a real lesson in focusing on the right things. You don’t need to get *everything* polished and perfect. Just the right things.
    - The fast sprint initially felt out of place in the world. Eventually became clearer to me when it allows you to escape danger situations quickly.
    - The slimes really do feel alive. Shows power of simple systems rules interacting to creating a bigger dynamic.
    - Love the sound when selling plorts. It even stacks when you switch to selling a new types do keeps pitching up.
    - This game is about collecting poop. Shit collection simulator 3000. And it’s fun!


    @blacksheepZA this is an awesome idea. Looking forward to more of these.
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