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.


  1. Thank you for the bronze medal. My first idea was to fully implement the design of your game, but unluckily after the creation of the "editor" I had very little time to complete it. The editor was easy to develop, but all the other required code (pathfinding etc.) takes a lot of time. I hope to find the time to finish the game one day or other (because the graphics deserve it)... or I'll try to spend more efforts in your next design contest.
    Thank you again for your graphics and ideas!

  2. Very cool. I'll have to check out the games. Just need to finish three projects first. :) Always the projects.

    So, any chance of doing that for your other challenges? :)

  3. Thanks for the award! :D

    I've uploaded a much improved version to my web site - it has way too many changes to list them all, but the important ones:
    - High scores
    - 30 levels split across 3 episodes
    - Limited pea count (changes across episodes)
    - Bug fixes everywhere.

  4. Wow, thanks. I've got to share my credit with Kamal who helped heaps and the other two guys who provided moral support and may eventually implement their features.

    This one's going straight to the pool room! After basking in the awards glow for a while I'll have another crack at the game (probably get jumping going because the pathfinding movement looks really challenging to me in my prototype at the moment)

    If anyone wants feel free to yoink any part of my code to accelerate your project, I'm always online with google talk ( the dot trav at gmail dot com ) maybe we can get a few of us to hook up on a future prototyping comp and try to shoot for a gold

  5. Travis: I added Kamal to the entry.
    Richard: Sounds like some great improvements. For some reason though I'm having difficulty running it. Currently the exe crashes on launch. Install crashes at the very end, but I'm assuming that it is also launching the .exe. I uninstalled and tried fresh, but with no luck.

  6. Just wanted to give a quick "I'm still alive" ping. The peas are coming along fine, although slowly since my weekends of late have been full with other stuff.

    I have pathfinding and physics working. So the main components are there. I still need scoring and lot s of polish on the rough bits (transition from physics to AI, determing which direction to jump off once you've climbed a hill, planting of the flags, etc).

    Also, I have decided not to release the game before I find some sound samples to use. I have experimented a bit with sound and find it to be quite important for an immersive experience. Does anyone have any I could use?

    I'm at work currently, so I cannot check out the other games - but congrats to the medal owners! ;-)



  7. I like the idea of slathering a meta-game onto the prototyping challenges. I appreciate the (dis?)honorable mention, these challenges raise important questions about my deplorable lack of follow-through. Maybe we can answer them, someday. :)


  8. Sorry about that Dan -- it turns out that one of the features I added depends on a feature of XNA that is known to have "issues" on machines without the full XNA SDK installed. :(

    I've removed the feature (it wasn't important) and uploaded a new version:

  9. Re: Comments on play with your peas.

    First off, it is much improved! The high score list and the levels make it much easier to get into the zone. You are reaching a point in your prototype where you can really start to laser focus on uncovering the fun.

    Pea placement: The ability to put peas anywhere hurts the fun of the game. First off, people don’t know how to add peas. Secondly, it is common for the first time user to kill off his peas by clicking up high.

    A solution: Start off with a single pea at the bottom of the screen. This simplifies the initial game play.

    Early levels are too easy: I was spending a few second at most on each of the initial levels. This makes the high score list for these levels less exciting. The structure of the game is that it is okay for players to experiment and dabble around getting to 100,000 points.

    A solution: Start your initial goals a bit higher. If you change the scoring system, you’ll have to play with the exact score, but having the user dabble for 40 to 120 seconds in the first area is pretty reasonable.

    Timer: The timer on the right hand side of the screen should count up, not down. This makes it seem that the levels are time limited.

    Improve combo scoring: The way that the combo score is calculated is not obvious. Plus the collision seems a bit glitchy on ramps so that simple actions will result in surprisingly large scores.

    A solution: Record each time that a pea hits a unique block,
    • Display a X1 above the pea’s head for the first hit and make the block flash. For the next unique block, display X2 and make it flash. The final score is Number of unique hits * 100. (The complexity of the score can be extended later)
    • Once a block as been hit, it cannot be hit again by that same pea until the pea exits the “Falling” state and enters the “Walking” state.
    • This should give the player important feedback on how scoring works. As an added bonus, it should also let them know that creating infinite loops is not a useful strategy. If the pea hits five blocks, they only get 500 points even if they do it 50 times. The result would be more complex level designs.

    Levels are all pretty similar: There is nothing that forces the player to adapt their tactics on later levels.

    Some ideas:
    • Include some simple level design. Have a handful of blocks already on the screen when the player starts.
    • Have a handful of peas on the screen already when the level starts. By varying the position in relationship to the initial blocks, you can set up all sorts of interesting situations.
    • Limit the number of blocks of each type that you can have on the screen. For example, how fast can the player increase their score if they only have access to 2 springs? Deleting or overwriting a block would return the block to the inventory.

    take care

  10. Hi Danc,
    I've just come across your blog and made a huge discovery i guess...

    About the drawing of the maneki-neko located in , I wanted to know if that's your drawing (if originally you drew that or not).


  11. Yep, the Manekineko picture is mine. You can see some of my small online gallery over at

    take care

  12. still alive...



  13. @Sören

    Looks good! Let me know when you have something playable you'd like me to look at! :-)


  14. Danc,

    If I finish my attempt on the Cute God, I can receive an award, too? :)


  15. Absolutely Eduardo! Send me an email to remind me at when you get something.

  16. Danc,

    Now it is official! I finished my first attempt on CuteGod! You can check it out on:

    I will post this on CuteGod page, too... :)