Saturday, December 20, 2008

Fishing Girl Prototype results

Here is a story about a fellow named Andre, who created a Lostgarden game prototype, sold it for $4000 and started down the path to a new career in game development.

Andre lives down in a rural section of Australia. Due to the limited infrastructure in the region, he makes due with a gimpy modem that sputters along, randomly disconnecting at the worst possible moment. There aren’t very many tech jobs in the area, but he is unable to move due to family obligations.

Early on in life he dabbled with art, graphics programming and games, but there isn’t much call for such things locally. To make ends meet, he grinds away, year after year, developing website after website.

Andre is the sort of smart, industrious fellow that has immense potential. He dreams of creating amazing and wonderful games. Every email I receive from him is bursting with ideas and
snippets of working games that he jotted down in his spare time. Yet the ‘traditional’ path into games is closed to him.

When opportunities are limited, people often settle for limited opportunities. I grew up in a rural area and I’ve seen many bright wonderful people end up in dead end jobs due to the emptiness of their environment. It can be hard for people raised in areas of plenty to understand, but if no one else ever talks about what is possible or open a door to new ideas, you can go through life bound by invisible cultural blinders.

Prototyping challenges are opportunities
I created the prototyping challenges on as an onramp for new game developers. There are no excuses. The art is free. The design, though never perfect, is enough to get you moving in the right direction. There are dozens of free game engines for you to use. All this, combined with the internet (even accessed on a gimpy modem) opens all sorts of doors. All you need to do is make a game.

Over the past month or so, Andre built a version of Fishing Girl in Flash. He quickly built out the original design and then iterated upon it until he had something playable. A bit of data:
The best bit of news is that Andre was able to sell the Fishing Girl game for $4000 + a performance bonus. Yes, you can sell Lostgarden prototyping challenges for cold cash. I highly encourage it since A) people should be paid for their hard work and B) the lessons you learn by finishing a game for the public are invaluable.

Now Andre has a little bit of income and a lot of validation to feed the development of his next game. These days when I talk to Andre, he has big plans for a whole career doing what he loves. That is pretty darned cool.

Gold medal (1st ever)

Andre gets my first gold prototyping award. He earned a score of 77% (103 out of 134 points). Here is what he did to earn it:
  • 15 minutes of fun: The rule of thumb for a gold medal game is that you need to make about 15 minutes of fun. Most prototypes barely get to the 5 minute mark. Many people are playing through Andre’s FishingGirl twice and spending upwards of an hour on a single play through.
  • Found and extended the fun in the design: In order to build 15 minutes of fun, he iterated on the basic design and added his own touches like lure-seeking fish and wonderfully animated endings.He realized that a game design is not a blue print. It is a starting point for practicing the iterative process of design.
  • Made a complete experience: There is a strong narrative arc throughout Andre’s Fishing Girl. You fish, you advance, you discover something surprising and you save the little boy. It is a game you can start and then feel good about finishing. The vast majority of people who say they want to make games start building them but never finish them. The act of making a polished game that players can finish teaches you more about game design than any number of incomplete engines or piles of features.
Silver medals
Folks have been working away like busy bees on this design. I expected to give out mostly bronze medals, but there were three prototypes that were recently updated, each of which kept me interested for five minutes.

There is still opportunity for each of these to reach for a gold medal. I’d love to see some more variations on the Fishing Girl game. If Andre’s Fishing Girl is the equivalent of Asteroids, who is going to make Galaga?

  • Eric (65%): A great last minute entry that has delightful Fish AI and an innovative combo system for catching fish.
  • Ben (46%): Ben has a simple game here that still managed to get me to try to fish up all the little fishies. The mechanics are lacking a bit of juiciness, but basics are there.
  • Shade (41%): Shade has some interesting line physics here. To riff a bit , with this type of system and line collision, you could do some wonderful things with obstacles in the sea. Players would need to drape the line perfectly over different objects to get to a particular spot in the ocean to catch a rare fish. This protoype has the ‘juiciest’ of the game mechanics, but it needs a bit of tuning so that it doesn’t feel quite so loose.
Bronze medals
There were also a couple of solid technology experiments.

  • Dale and Greg: The good folks over at Sharendipity put together the basic fishing mechanics and it is running on their new Flash client. (Woot!) They initially implemented casting and fish swimming as two separate apps. As a side note, this prototyping path can be tricky to gain useful feedback from since the most exciting gameplay opportunities often come from the interaction of the combined systems. It is often better to integrate early, but keep each system simple so that you don’t need to deal with undue complexity. You can always add complexity to a system if you identify enjoyable skills that are worth investing further in.
  • Pete: Our first prototype in Silverlight. Sweetness. He has a tight casting mechanism.
Areas of improvement
Every time you build a game, you learn lessons that let you build it better the next time. If anyone wants to create a better version of Fishing Girl, here are a couple things you might be able to improve. These comments uses Andre’s game as a starting point.

Problems: The following are problems that kept users from enjoying the game fully.
  • The floating shops are a pain: You constantly end up hitting them with your lure. Having a single floating store that is inside the distance of your longest cast may help. The position prevents you from hitting it unless you try. Instead of selling one item, the store would have a rotating list of things that you can buy. Once you hit the store, it reappears elsewhere. The alternative is to let the player go to the store at any point, but this removes some of the fun of trying to cast at a specific distance.
  • It is hard to aim exactly with the rod: Slowing down the rod might be one way of improving accuracy. Speeding up the ‘boring’ parts of the swing the beginning and end might be another way of giving the casting a better feel.
  • Less repetitive music: People get bored of the music rather quickly.
  • The later portions of the game become boring: Try having fish reproduce at a certain rate if they get below a certain population threshold or make the larger fish more interesting to catch. I’d still like to keep the possibility of ‘fishing out’ the area so that an extinction ending is possible.

Opportunities: The following are glimmers of fun that could be accentuated in a future version.

  • There should be more things in the ocean: There is immense opportunity for bonus objects to be hidden in the ocean. For example: Treasure chests, Glowing orbs that spawn rare fish or deadly fish, Temporary lure or rod power ups that only last a certain amount of time
  • A fish collection: Imagine that every time you collected a new fish, you got a stamp for that fish in a collection album. It is a like butterfly collecting, except with fish. Some people would need to “catch ‘em all’ which would extend gameplay. With a bit of color cycling or special effects, you could easily create dozens of different fish with different costs and rarities.
  • More fish movement: The fish have generally simplistic movement. Fish that dart at a lure or that move very quickly or very slowly might add some interesting texture. It is worthwhile to see if the catching of a single large fish can be made more interesting.
  • More lure types: The types of lure could be expanded up on. For example: Lures that only work on fish of particular colors, Lures that are more or less bite resistant, Lures that attract some fish and repel others. , Lures that upgrade some fish into more valuable fish, Lures that allow you to capture multiple fish or a set of fish in a row.
  • More levels: There is a single level. It could be interesting to have the girl jump on a boat and travel to a new island with more fish. An alternative progression is for the sea to evolve over time. Once you collect certain fish or reach a certain amount of money, kelp can slide aside or a cave entrance can be blown up that introduces new fish and new treasure.
  • Fog of war: One of the exciting bits of fun that emerged from the prototyping was a sense of discovery as you are able to fish out further and further. A feature that should add even more mystery to game is fog of war system similar to those found in RTS games. The area around the lure could show you the fish nearby. Areas that you hadn’t explored would be opaque. Areas that you had explored would show markers or partially transparent versions of fish you had seen. Combined with ‘rare’ fish that could only be found in certain areas, this would give players a much stronger sense of ‘exploring’ the ocean.
  • Add a serious ending: One of the key endings in the original design is the ability to cause all the fish to become extinct. It adds an interesting twist to what would otherwise be a mindless game. The system is built so that users slowly fish out the small fish and eventually gain new technology that allows them to fish out the larger deeper fish. This systems-based narrative parallels the pattern of fishing in the real world and seeks to teach a small lesson. The dynamics could be augmented by systems that catch large numbers of fish at once so that it becomes quite easy to overfish. The addition of a ‘save’ system that lets you come back later to harvest fish (and score) for long periods of time would encourage manageable fishing tactics.
I hope everyone enjoyed this prototyping challenge. These challenges are evergreen, so just because I’ve given out the first round of awards doesn’t mean you should stop developing! Keep going. I would like nothing better than to give out another gold medal. If you update your project and want me to take a look, just drop me an email at danc[at] I can be a bit slow at responding, but I will write eventually.

As the years go past and my hairline continues to recede, I find that I have a debt that I am obligated to pay back. Very few of the current generation of game developers started from scratch. We’ve all looked at tutorials or snagged bits of free code. We’ve built upon tools like Flash or engines like Quake or Source. We’ve been inspired by existing designs or read books that have opened our eyes. Once upon a time, I too was in Andre’s shoes and it was only due to the opening of an unexpected opportunity that I’ve arrived at where I’m at today. If these prototype challenges ease another eager game developer’s path in even a small way then my time on this blog is well spent.

Happy holidays. Go make some great games!

References and notes

Friday, December 5, 2008

Post-it note design docs

I happen to fall into the artist-designer skill set, so I often find myself trying to prototype ideas on teams rich with programmers. As such, I'm always looking for better game development techniques that work well for this particular team mix.

Here is a very lightweight prototyping process using Post-it notes that I quite enjoy.

  1. Initial idea: I sit down with an available programmer (and artist/UI designer depending on the system) and we chat about how to test out a new bit of gameplay. Usually this is an idea that has been bubbling about since the night or week before.
  2. Post-it note design: I jot down a quick bulleted list summarizing our discussion on a single post-it note. We go over it one last time so there everything is clear. The list isn't very detailed. Mostly it serves as something to jog our memories if we forget what we were talking about.
  3. Build it: The programmer and artist go off and build the items on the list. It might take 2 hours or two days. They are encouraged to solve problems creatively and they can always just give me a shout if something doesn't make sense.
  4. Play test: When most of the items on the Post-it note are playable, I get called over and we play test it the experiment together. If the results are comprehensible by mere humans, we pull in some play testers for 3-4 minutes to observe some real players interacting with the mechanic for the first time.
  5. Review: Afterwards, we discuss our observations and write up another Post-it note worth of improvements.
  6. Repeat or Stop?: The process repeats until we run out of time or give up. Sometimes we give ourselves a day per experiment, sometimes two days. In the land of Scrum, we treat the experiment like a time boxed task.
  7. Rate: At the end, the gameplay experiment is rated according the scale below.
  8. Save: The code is saved off, a few choice notes are recorded in a doc containing our 'list of experiments' and we move on. Bits of code, even from failed prototypes, are often reused in future gameplay experiments.
Rating system
The rating system is delightfully crude. The goal is to triage experiments quickly.
  1. "A": These experiments were obviously fun. Players laughed, smiled and generally exhibited the emotions we were looking for. If in doubt, ask "Was this fun? How so?"
  2. "B": These experiments showed a hint of fun if you knew what you were looking for. However, it is going to take more effort to expose the fun in a manner that is visible to the players.
  3. "C": There wasn't any fun. The experiment fails.
A portfolio of fun
One of my favorite aspects of this method is that you end up with a mini-portfolio of game design ideas. Instead of putting all the design risk in a project on one or two unproven mechanic, the team now has a half dozen or more proven bits of fun to build upon. If some don't fit into the game or get abandoned for other reasons, that's alright. You can afford to lose a few and the end product will still be fun. Think of it as designing from a position of plenty.

Contrast this with a prescriptive 'design doc' approach where you are forced to pick, without much evidence, a main mechanics for production. Even for the most experienced designer, 50% to 80% of your 'educated' selections are going to be complete dogs. Every unproven mechanic you polish ends up being a massive drain on your budget and your reputation as a designer. You might hear gentle comments like, "We spent 3 months of dev time on this lump of an idea and it isn't fun?"

It doesn't take very many expensive failures for the project's perceived 'design risk' to blossom to the point where conservative minds seek to kill the project. I think of this as designing from a position of sudden death.

Some basic observations
Here's a quick list of things I've observed when prototyping.
  • Failed experiments happen a lot. Don't be surprised if C-rated experiments occur 50% to 80% of the time. Everyone on the team has to be aware that not every experiment is going to be a success, but the learning process is still worthwhile.
  • Designing on your feet is a critical skill: Each consultation and analysis might last only 10 to 20 minutes and you need to leave folks with that all important sticky note filled with impactful, yet inexpensive changes. It pays to have lots of ideas and a deep understanding of game mechanics so you can quickly pull together a list of incisive comments. If you can't, you likely are not suited to be performing the designer role.
  • Listening matters. The designer doesn't need to come up with all the solutions. Everyone on the team is bright and has great ideas. As a designer, your role is to herd all ideas (yours and others) into something that serves the next step in the prototype.
  • You need programmers: If there aren't programmers dedicated to prototyping, the prototyping isn't going to happen. You can drop down to paper prototyping, but it usually doesn't prove out many types of mechanics (especially ones involving timing and interfaces.)
Advanced observations
These are some notes that are a bit geekier, but can save you large amounts of pain.
  • Meta game mechanics are harder to prototype: The systems that link together the various gameplay experiments are harder to playtest. They operate on longer time spans (hours instead of minutes) and often require that the core gameplay is already fun.
  • Build a meta-game architecture that allows for loose coupling of gameplay experiments: Most successful games have an architecture that allows the team to plug in new bits of fun as they are found. The linear 'level-story-level' pattern used by most FPS is one example. The 'hub with many sub levels" used by Mario 64 is another. Any of these allow you to plug in a new experiment independently of the other gameplay experiments. If you don't have a modular architecture, you run into situations where a fun new system breaks many of the other bits of fun you've already discovered.
  • Integrating tightly coupled gameplay experiments is a pain: If I independently find a fun new type of weapon and an interesting enemy AI, the combination of the two is often a non-trivial issue. The new weapon many work with an old AI, but be completely useless with the new one. Integration yields a whole new set of experiments. Plan for time to rediscover the fun all over again.
There are some interesting benefits to the Post-it note design method:
  • Scales nicely to large prototyping efforts: One designer can serve multiple programmers. This works nicely on teams where there are more programmers than designers and you need to get a lot of prototyping done quickly.
  • Failing quickly is fun and educational. You learn a lot with each failure and can move onto the next experiment with a much better idea of what doesn't work.
  • Provides a quick death for bad pet ideas. It is much harder to resurrect pet ideas when you have concrete, playable proof that it won't work. Finding out early which one of my favorite ideas is idiotic saves me a lot of political pain.
  • Fun prototypes are quite convincing: A fun, playable crazy idea works a lot better for winning over other team members than any amount of hand waving or documentation.
  • An easier team to assemble: Finding a competent game designer and a competent programmer can often be easier than finding a competent programmer-designer. Well developed hybrid skill sets are very valuable, but can be quite rare. A side benefit of having a team is that you end up cross training your designers and programmers. You create designers who can speak to programmers and programmers who can riff on some of the design.
The value of dime-a-dozen designs (A brief aside)
One often hears the negative comment that game designs are a dime-a-dozen. And in a waterfall design process, an incessant stream of ideas is indeed a problem. If you attempt to squeeze all those ideas into a typical waterfall development process, you end up with an immense amount of waste. Each designs need documentation, concepting, implementation, testing and bug fixes. In response, project owners will often ask for just one good idea.

There is another path. A lightweight prototyping method takes your flurry of crazy ideas and converts them at moderate cost into a well sorted portfolio of working designs. All those ideas are not, in fact, worthless or wasteful; they are the essential fuel that feeds a good prototyping process. Each idea either teaches you something or provides you with a success.

The way to make the process work without getting gunked up is to make prototyping incredibly lightweight. Other than our focused conversations, I spend my time on a total of two design docs: The first is the brief list of rated prototypes and the second is a set of discardable, temporary Post-it notes. Design waste in the form of unnecessary artifacts is minimal. Most of the 'programming waste' is better classified as low cost learning.

Those wild flocks of churning, swirling ideas end up not being worthless at all. They simply need to be funneled into the project with the right process for their value to be realized.

The "Post-it note design process" has likely been reinvented in one form or another hundreds of times across the history of game development. It is so basic that it feels odd to even write it up in any sort of formal fashion.

If you have a designer and a programmer, give it a shot. It is certainly a good functional alternative to the popular process of sticking a lone programmer-designer in a room and asking them to 'find the fun'. Both can produce great games. Pick the one that works best for your current team composition.

This process does have an cost since you need to devote at least two people to finding the fun instead of putting all decisions on the head of the designer. However, the end result is well worth it. After all, it is far smarter to spend team time uncovering a portfolio of the right mechanics than it is to 'save your programmers' so they can be off running really fast in the wrong direction.

In the end it really isn't about programmers, designers, design documents or features. It is about the team working together to make the right product. Everything else is just ego and waste. And for some reason, it is quite difficult to invest much ego or waste in a little disposable Post-it note.

take care
Post-it note fanboy