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CGC 2011: Paper To PlayStation 3 - The Evolution Of Hoard

At last week's Gamasutra-attended Canadian Games Conference, Big Sandwich design director Tyler Sigman explained the long process of bringing Hoard to PSN, and how designers can find room to iterate in some unexpected places.
At last week's Gamasutra-attended Canadian Games Conference 2011, Tyler Sigman, design director at Big Sandwich Games described the evolution of the studio's 2010 “stratacade” (strategy arcade) title Hoard, which took the game from paper prototypes to PlayStation 3 in eight years. "2002 was the first time I tried to make a dragon game," Sigman said, calling it, "Hoard version one." The game included many aspects that would be recognized by players of the final version of Hoard, such as a game board featuring towns, hoard locations, maidens and knights. Sigman admitted that first version "wasn’t the funnest game." It was "too much just 'pick an action, move around,'" he said. Being so influenced by German board games, he decided to go "heavy abstract" with Hoard version two, a hex-based board game. "You wanted to create the most 'dragon points,' and this could be done in a lot of different ways, such as holding territory or capturing maidens, incentivizing the player to different paths of victory," he said. "I was proud of this one, but there was one big problem with it," Sigman explained. "The problem with the first version was that it wasn’t fun enough. The problem with the second was that it wasn’t 'dragon' enough. It could have been a game about prospectors, or really anything... stamp collecting." It wouldn't be until 2009 that Sigman would be able to revisit his idea of a game where you could "be the dragon," after the failure of a project led to some downtime during which he began to prototype a video game version of Hoard using Game Maker. With a live demonstration of the prototype, Sigman explained, "you collect money, you bring it back to your hoard, as it grows you can level up your dragon, there are thieves and princesses... It's Hoard, but it was made in the space of a few weeks." At the time, Sigman continued, Sony was looking for new exclusive content for PSN, and with the prototype in hand, Big Sandwich Games pitched the company. "The prototype was hugely important for us when we pitched to them, but I have to warn you that if you are going to show your prototype to people, make sure it's the right people and that they are looking at the right things. I can't give the evaluators for PSN enough props; they didn’t look at our placeholder art and think, 'Hmm, I’m not sure they have the chops for HD art.'" Able to develop Hoard for PS3, Sigman revealed that the game's level design was done within Microsoft Excel. "It’s a tool that I’ve used a few times before, and we used it basically because we didn't have a game editor; didn’t have time to put one together. Excel formed an important part of our pipeline, it’s not always the best, certainly if you have coders who can create a level editor, but it has saved my ass more than once." He also revealed an unusual quirk in the development for the PS3: early mock-ups had the game play occurring on a board on a table with visible legs and carpet, but "the PlayStation 3 could not handle us drawing a table and carpet as well as the board. It's no fault of the PS3, it was a fill rate issue. As soon as we took the table out it was great, but I always think... 'why couldn’t we have a table...'" Pleased with the reviews Hoard received on launch in late 2010, Sigman summarized the philosophies that he felt had got them there. He said that the more iterations that you can complete, "the better your game will be," offering tips to maximize iterations, such as paper or lo-fi prototyping (though he admitted that this "won’t work for every game") and ensuring that your technology is efficient. He recalled a situation in a previous game he had worked on that included an art asset pipeline that required 20 steps to get one asset into the game. However, he admitted the "best way to get iteration is to find a way to do it. ... If you are a game designer, the onus is on you to make it happen."

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