Continuing on with my theme of looking at the positive aspects of the Dundee game development scene, I wanted to highlight one of the more enjoyable events I have experienced recently: Dare ProtoPlay 2010. ProtoPlay is the showcase event for Dare to be Digital, a game development competition that originated at Abertay University in Dundee and consists of student teams from all over the world converging on Scotland to make games together over the course of ten weeks. This year's ProtoPlay event was held in Edinburgh, and it marked the eleventh year that the Dare competition has been running. This was my first time attending, and I was astounded at the sheer quality and diversity of output that was on display.
Diversity was evident in every aspect of ProtoPlay this year. First and foremost was geographical diversity, with the 15 participating student teams hailing from all over the globe including China, England, India, Ireland, Sweden, Scotland, the United States and Wales. Dare has been increasing in scope with each successive year, and the international flair lends ProtoPlay a worldly atmosphere, with the show floor taking on the character of a multicultural game development bazaar. This year's bazaar was teeming with riches, with games encompassing an impressive variety of platforms. I have never witnessed any competition, including the IGF, where the final selections spanned such a wide range of devices. Within my first hour of walking around, I saw games targeting Android, iPad, Windows 7 Phone, PSP Go, Xbox, PC, and Wii - and that's not including the exhibitors that weren't a part of the competition itself, as there were also playable demos on hand showcasing games for Bamboo tablets, XBLA, Kinect and more.
Of course, having a heterogeneous set of platforms represented doesn't mean much in itself, particularly if all you end up with is a slew of nearly identical puzzle platformers for each device; thankfully, the versatility displayed by the student teams also extended to their game designs. Upon entering the main hall of the show, I was greeted with the sight of a soccer game that utilized a Wii remote strapped to the player's foot. Directly opposite this game, another student team was showing off a turn-based, 3D dice challenge that pitted players against each other in a battle of wits, enticing them to flex their spatial reasoning skills on a large numerical game grid. Moving past these, I quickly encountered a four player co-op brawler, an RTS, an inventive stealth/racing hybrid, and (my personal favorite) a fast paced overhead fighting/strategy game that involved unicorns vomiting rainbows at each other. There were games where players navigated the environment by shapeshifting, painting, playing music, shooting grappling hooks, controlling the weather, switching dimensions, and even altering the emotions of their avatar. In all fairness, there was no shortage of the requisite puzzle platformers in the mix as well, but these generally acquitted themselves nicely through sheer ingenuity, attention to detail, and solid execution of their underlying concepts.
Apart from the eclectic approaches to genre and platform, the other aspect of ProtoPlay that struck me was how adept the students were at marketing their games during the show. Seemingly every team had a cornucopia of promotional items on hand to offer to players and passersby. This is becoming the norm at some of the more prominent competitions such as the IGF, but in my experience most student competitions tend to overlook marketing entirely. Not so at ProtoPlay. Honestly, the consistency of the students in evangelizing their games was superior to what I have seen even among indie developers at the IGF - I think some of those folks could actually take some lessons from these students with regard to self-promotion.
I was so baffled by this discrepancy between ProtoPlay and most other student competitions that I did some additional research, and it turns out that the Dare teams are judged based on how well they promote their games in addition to the overall quality of the finished product. Students are strongly incentivized to blog about their development process, and are even encouraged to assign a specific team member to handle interfacing with the game's target audience. This was a revelation to me, despite the fact that it couldn't be more obvious in hindsight. Students understandably tend to have a myopic fixation on the development process itself when entering these sorts of competitions, particularly when they are still unaccustomed to dealing with the logistics of implementing a complex game under strenuous time constraints. But why don't more of these events incorporate marketing into the criteria when evaluating the efforts of student teams? Purists may scoff at this notion, arguing that having to consider something so base as promotional appeal would stifle the creativity of the students, but the ProtoPlay entrants I saw this year stand in marked contrast to this objection.
Overall, ProtoPlay was an absolute blast and I am really looking forward to next year. I thought I'd close by sharing a few tidbits of advice for students entering ProtoPlay, or similar competitions, in the future. These are not ironclad rules, merely suggestions based on my own observations of what works and doesn't work in an environment where teams are creating a game in a condensed period of time, with the intention of demonstrating it publicly upon completion:
Focus on a single core mechanic or concept rather than attempting to cram in every interesting idea the team generates. It's easy to delude yourself into believing that the kitchen sink approach will work, but a ten week timeframe really doesn't lend itself to a large set of features. More likely, you'll end up with a buggy, unpolished tangle of loosely integrated concepts that require a lot of apologizing and explanation. Players still expect a cohesive experience regardless of how short the development period was, and if you don't provide one they will be justifiably frustrated.
Related to the point above, prioritize polish over content. Having a strong central idea doesn't mean your game needs to be simplistic, but it will help to prevent your game from becoming unmoored as new features are added. With each new element you add, ask yourself how it relates to the central concept and whether it enhances or detracts from the core of the game. Try to get a working proof of concept running as quickly as possible, then continue to buff that initial prototype until it shines. The reality is that many players are only going to check out your game briefly anyway, but you increase the odds of this exponentially if your key mechanic is not engaging. It's pointless to begin adding adornments like additional levels or bosses before ensuring that the overarching framework itself is fun.
Frontload your best content. If you do end up with multiple levels, make sure that you evaluate the quality of each one and arrange them accordingly. Be brutal and unsparing, and try to be as objective as possible during this process. One game in particular that I sampled at ProtoPlay had an incredible amount of content, but the first few levels were a complete slog, to the extent that I had to be persuaded to continue playing based on the assurance that the last level was by far the best one. As promised, it was vastly superior to the preceding levels in every way - but under ordinary circumstances I couldn't imagine many players persisting for long enough to discover this fact on their own.
Accessibility is crucial. It is imperative that you consider the context and audience when designing your interface. This was another aspect where the ProtoPlay games generally impressed, as intuitive presentation was clearly another criteria upon which the teams were being ranked. Playing a game on a loud, crowded show floor is an entirely different experience from playing it in a more relaxed, comfortable home setting. I have seen people at the IGF essentially give up on trying to demo their work, frustrated by the failure of their otherwise compelling game to transfer to that particular environment. These pitfalls can be avoided if you design your game with context in mind. Does your game have a tutorial? If not, be prepared to stay glued to your station explaining the unintuitive aspects to new players over and over again until your bladder explodes.
Be ready to help people, but don't hover. Again, this advice is easier to follow if your explanations are already integrated into the game. You can learn a lot from watching your players, but resist the urge to be a backseat driver. If you aren't allowing players any opportunity for trial and error before swooping in, you will make them nervous. There are exceptions, of course, but it will behoove you to trust your players to ask questions when they get stuck rather than breathing down their neck. Of course, if players are frequently walking away without comment, it doesn't hurt to engage them and attempt to gain some insight into where the recurring snags are located. Use your discretion here; if a player is getting visibly frustrated while playing your game, it's simple etiquette to at least offer some assistance - but be sure to at least obtain their consent before blurting out the solution to a puzzle.
Playtest your game early and often, lest you go astray. I once judged a game jam where all the teams demonstrated their games to the entire room prior to allowing the judges to play them. One of the projects was a puzzle game that received harsh criticism when it was initially demonstrated to the room - however, by the time the judges got around to actually playing the game, the creators had already incorporated all the feedback and improved the game immensely. The result was that the game ended up winning the entire competition; the moral being, never underestimate the value of playtesting. If your first time obtaining feedback from players is on the show floor, be prepared to develop thick skin quickly. Trolls exist in real life, too, as anyone who has demonstrated a game publicly can likely attest.
Finally, and most importantly, have candy on hand. Stated more generally, don't be ashamed to attract players to your game in any way you can. You don't need to be like Acclaim, but you shouldn't be shy either. Be a hustler, a busker, a carnival barker. If you made something great, the show floor is no place to be reticent about it!