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