Ludum Dare 38 is coming up this weekend and I thought I'd give a quick overview of the themes you can vote for and my opinion on whether they make good themes or not (spoiler: most of them don't). I haven't decided whether I'm going to participate yet (mainly because of concerns for the quality of the theme).
It's kinda hard to pin down what makes a good theme. The best way I can describe it is that a good theme points you in a certain direction but doesn't tell you where to go. Vague themes like "Boats" aren't really enough to get your imagination going, because there's just too many different ways it can be interpreted and none of them are particularly meaningful. Simply adding another word to the theme (eg: "exploding boats", "upside-down boats", "space boats", etc.) can make your brain start coming up with all sorts of crazy ideas. But if you get too specific (eg: "upside-down exploding space-boats") then you've just told yourself where to go and there's no room for your imagination to push boundaries.
Lots of the "themes" submitted to Ludum Dare aren't even themes at all. They're just random rules or limitations or mechanics that you add to your game, and then continue developing without any consideration for them. Sometimes it works out okay, but when it happens every LD it gets boring pretty fast.
Finally, there are things that aren't technically themes, but for all practical purposes you can treat them like one. These are usually rules or limitations that are so vague you can incorporate them into your game in a theme-like way (one example from the theme voting is "Four Elements"). I'm not entirely sure how to probably describe these. I just pull them out into a different category as I notice them. It's quite subjective so you should make up your own mind on whether they're worthy of being a theme or not.
Anyway, on to the themes:
- Save yourself, not the world
- A World in the Skies
- Playing with Fire
These aren't neccessarily themes that I like, but they're worthy themes, and I'd prefer these to most themes from the last few LDs. It's a bit disappointing that there's so few of them, but there are lots of themes under other categories that are still good (but have small drawbacks).
Themes that might be good despite being a bit vague
- Inconvenient Superpowers
- Limited Energy
- Space Travel
- Parallel Dimensions
- Death is only the beginning
- Creation and Destruction
Despite being vague, adding more detail to these themes won't really improve them. Some are already good, some aren't.
Themes that could be better with more detail
- Explore the Unknown (This is a bit of a tautology. You can't explore what you already know)
- Connections (between what?)
- Strange World
- Magnetism (To add more detail change this to 'magnetic')
Some of these are still okay even without more detail.
Themes that are so vague they don't mean anything
- Strength in Numbers
- Nothing is Permanent
- Very Important Object
Can be Themes or Mechanics/Limitations depending on interpretation
- A Small World
- Time Manipulation
- Keep it Alive
Not themes (rules, limitations, mechanics, etc.)
- Start with nothing
- One tool, Many uses
- Pausing has consequences
- You control the game, not the player
- One Time Use
- One Enemy
- 30 Seconds (Just resubmit your entry for 10 seconds but change the numbers and hope nobody realises that they've already played it before)
- Everything has a Cost
- You are the Bad Guy
- Two Colors
- Control Several Characters
- You are Alone (This would be fine if it was just "Alone". It's the "you are" part that ruins it)
- Time is Power
- Limited Button Presses
Not themes that act like themes
- Four Elements
Not themes that could be interpreted as themes
- Unexpected Mechanics (Hint: interpret 'mechanics' as the occupation)
Possible ways to improve theme quality
It'd be a waste of time if I just made this post to voice my subjective opinion on the available themes and complain about the low quality. I do in fact have a few ideas on how the theme voting process could be improved to achieve better results:
Strict curation of themes
Have a small number of people that remove non-themes even if the community seems to support them. When there are too many competing ideas at work, the end result is usually one that makes nobody happy. A mediocre theme is almost always going to be better than any rules/limitations that might be "popular".
So instead make it so the community can only choose from the actual themes.
Let the organisers pick the theme
Kinda the opposite of the previous solution. Instead of the organisers/curators picking themes for participants to vote on, the participants put forward themes for the organisers(/curators) to pick from. This isn't that great of a solution because the people responsible for choosing the theme might have biases towards certain subjects, but once again, a mediocre theme is better than a random rule or limitation.
Separate categories for themes and rules/limitations
Participants vote for a theme and a limitation and make a game based on the winning theme that adheres to the winning limitation. This kills two birds with one stone by providing extra detail for vague themes, and allowing actual themes to win the vote. Here's some examples using themes and limitations from the voting rounds:
- Limited Energy and 30 Seconds
- Playing with Fire and One Tool, Many Uses
- Inconvenient Superpowers and One Time Use
- Hivemind and Control Several Characters
- Dark/Light and Two Colors
- Strength in Numbers and You Are Alone
- On/Off and Limited Button Presses
Of course, the chances of the limitation synergizing with the theme is pretty low so you'll probably see things like this:
- Limited Energy and You Are Alone
- Playing with Fire and One Enemy
- Inconvenient Superpowers and Pausing has consequences
- Dark/Light and You control the game, not the player
And these are still awesome ideas to get you started on your game.
Screw the winning theme. I'm picking the one I want
Who cares if your theme score is low? Just make a game based on a theme that inspires you. If your game is fun enough you should do well in the rest of the categories anyway.
The theme voting process in Ludum Dare is broken because people pick easy-to-develop mechanics over inspiring themes. By changing the voting process it should be possible to bring back actual themes, but there's nothing stopping you from picking your own theme until that happens. The important part of Ludum Dare is to make a game from scratch (more-or-less) in 48 hours.