Every job has that “This is why I do this.” moment. That spark when a musician first hears their track played back to them with a band in full flight. The first rendering of an architect’s drawing. The aroma of two ingredients frying in pan that just work together.
In game design, that moment is often when you show the first prototype of your game to a friend and get them to play it. Stay silent. Watch their faces, see how they react. When the game ends and they press PLAY AGAIN, that’s the moment for me. You can tell very quickly if someone actually likes your game or they’re just being polite – it’s whether they ask more questions about it, or begin suggesting features. “Wouldn’t it be cool if…”, “Oh you have to add this feature…” . That, for me, is the most encouraging feeling in what is often a profession filled with self-doubt and searching.
Game designers, I like to think, are in many ways the equivalent of an entire studio. Especially in the indie scene – you are the producer, the director, the cameraman, you create the actors and write their scripts, you are the entire marketing department. Sometimes you can luck upon a great team like I have – I have an amazing artist and a great musician who I know will help deliver my vision. You invest a lot of yourself in every game, and it’s so important to get the gameplay right at an early stage so you don’t set yourself up for disappointment later.
Prototyping in game development terms, is basically knocking up a very quick, no frills version of your game and asking that deep philosophical question “Is it fun.” – the game design equivalent of “How long is a piece of string?” . There’s a great book I read early in my career, Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun in which he goes into great detail about what exactly fun is. One of the quotes that stuck with me is this:
“That’s what games are, in the end. Teachers. Fun is just another word for learning.”
And it’s true – we as designers create the world, set the rules and the boundaries and ask players to follow them ( and to break them often!). If the rules of this world don’t make sense, if they contradict each other, the magic is lost and the player will not have fun. That’s why prototyping is so important.
So, after all that sermonising, what exactly did I do Friday? I showed the early prototype of the game to friends and got exactly the reactions I wanted. Laughter, suggestions, “One more turn!”. If I didn’t code a single line that day ( besides being very lazy ) it would have been a successful day.
I tend to break the rules of game design sometimes – I add in artwork earlier than I perhaps should, for example. Seeing a proper tugboat in there, with icebergs behind and cool Arctic water lapping beneath, inspires and encourages me. I don’t work that well with just pure shapes – many game designers don’t add the art until much later in the process, but this is my approach and it works for me.
What we have now, is in fact, an entire working prototype. Blocks stack, the boat rocks, timers count down and sensors detect if ice has fallen in the water and the game is over. There’s 5 levels in the game already and the capability to generate many more – today is all about fleshing out this prototype and adding a little depth.
The game, meanwhile, remains nameless – I’ve a shortlist but as is so often lamented ( in an entirely different scene and after copious amounts of tears and alcohol ) “All the best ones are taken!”
Cheers, thanks for following the journey thus far.