Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Randomly Reinforced Lost Garden Prototyping Awards

What a whirlwind of a month it has been. GDC was crazy fun, the latest beta of Expression Design came out at MIX, and I decided to take a leap and start in a new position at work. In the meantime, some great games were created in the last prototyping challenge.

Let's reward awesome developers

You know what? I think it is time for an award ceremony. I've been meaning to do this for a while, but never got around to it with the previous prototyping challenges. Here are the awards and how they are handed out:
  • Bronze Medal: You built an interesting software toy. If you make an attempt at a design and it is interesting to futz about with, you get the Bronze Medal. Most people never get a Bronze medal due to the simple fact that they prefer to sit around and think rather than make something. Simply by doing (instead of not doing), you join an elite club.
  • Silver Medal: You found the fun. You've iterated on your design and have identified a few key elements that make the game enjoyable. There is at least 5 minutes of interesting play. It likely isn't polished and some of the higher order reward loops are broken, but the core is there. If past challenges are any indication, I'll give out only a handful of Silver Medals per challenge.
  • Gold Medal: You made the fun repeatable. The game that you've built is entertaining enough that I'm willing to play it for 15 to 20 minutes. This is a hard level to reach and it is only populated by the most elite cadre of weekend warriors. An entire production team could be seeded by your efforts. To reach this level, you've made some critical design steps beyond the initial concept and built unique and sustainable gameplay based off dozens of game play iterations.

You need to post a public, playable version in order to be eligible. I'll issue the rewards about one month after the initial challenge is posted. If something comes in after the original deadline has passed, I'll add it retroactively to the award post. If you win a Bronze or Silver, you can still come back later and make an attempt at the Gold. Anyone who gets a Gold medal is an automatic rock star in my book.

What do you get if you win? First off, you get the right to post a snazzy LostGarden medal on your website. Most importantly, you get that warm fuzzy feeling in your tippy-tip toes that stems from a job well done. This is a geeky challenge done for lurve of the game.

The Results
In my mind, the entire point of the Player with Your Peas exercise was to take a complex design with some potentially messy rat holes (user created levels, physics, path finding, oh my!) and see if you could quickly find the fun. Let's see how folks did:

Bronze Medals

All the prototypes were enjoyable for a couple of core reasons. First, building a world out of little blocks seems to be pleasant at a very simple level. Second, for those who implemented pathfinding, there is something inherently interesting about watching little creatures navigate your world on their own.

Silver Medals

Richard Sims' prototype came closest to capturing the fun. He focused on the falling peas portion of the design and managed to add in a solid pass at the combo scoring system. This moved his prototype beyond being merely an intriguing software toy to the point where one could imagine there being a real game. I played with it for more than five minutes.
Some lessons from Richard's prototype that are worth noting:
  • Focus on prototyping the important gameplay, not the tech: What was nice about Richard's prototype is that he skimped on much of the climbing and jumping portions of the design. Those weren't key to the 'fun' of the design so they could be done later. Knowing what to test first out of your usually exhaustive brainstorming session is a great skill to hone. Just because something is hard (like the pea pathfinding) doesn't mean it is the first thing to tackle.
  • Answer at least Three Why's: Richard's game links together several game atoms together in a sequence. Simple actions have meaning within the game. Most of the other prototypes only had isolated game atoms. There was very little reason for doing things. Here's a little description of the Three Why's that illustrate how they are used:
    • Action: First ask"What is your player's core action?" In this case, it is building blocks.
    • Why? Now ask "Why?" The answer is to give something for the peas to bounce against.
    • Why? Ask "Why?" again. The answer is because the peas generate combo points if they hits lots of blocks.
    • Why? Ask "Why should I care?" once more. Because combo points increase your main score and you need to get as big of a score as possible.
    • Good enough! At this point, the player who is clicking to add blocks probably has lost interest in asking why he should be building blocks. There are enough overlapping reasons that the justification circuitry in his brain is satiated. He'll keep building blocks until all the subsequent game atoms are exhausted.

Gold Medals

No one captured the Gold Medal on this challenge! Doh. This award remains wide open until someone submits an amazing prototype with 15 solid minutes of play. Hmm...I wonder who can make a Gold Medal version of Play with Your Peas...

There were several others folks that worked on the game, but I didn't have public links to all the playable versions. If you have some more, send them my way (danc [at] lostgarden [dot] com) and I'll add them to this post. Yes, Harold, I'm looking at you.

Woot! That was fun. Now I feel like Jon Stewart. Except less witty. Or famous.