When I started development on Retrobooster, the main design goal was to make it feel like a big toy you can play with. Later on I read Jesse Schell‘s wonderful The Art of Game Design and learned that he had already named this idea The Lens of the Toy.
The best way I have found to make Retrobooster toy-like is to make each level a unique toy. Testers have been letting me know which levels keep their attention the best, and I have a chart in my notes that lists what new concepts I introduce on each level. Testers pretty clearly start to lose interest on the levels where I have neglected to introduce something new and fun.
Lately, I have been working on a level that is an homage to Asteroids, which is a good example of a toy level. It’s hard to imagine making this game and not throwing in some asteroids. After all, it already has a thrust ship and some decent physics for bouncing things like asteroid off of one another. Of course, I had to add Retrobooster’s sense of fun by making alien critters attack you while walking around on the asteroids.
There are other, more subtle ways that make this game like a big toy. Once you unlock a level, you can start a new game on that level anytime you want. This is more like something you would see in a racing game instead of a linear action game, but it supports the toy concept really well.
I suspect the biggest deficiency right now is that the weapons don’t feel enough like toys. Testers spend most of the time using the primary weapon and often forget about the secondary weapons. Part of this is probably because the primary weapon is too powerful right now, but part may be because the weapons just aren’t enough fun to use. I’ll have to keep working on this and tune the weapons a lot better.