In their session for the 2007 Future Play conference, Julian Spillane and Doug Gregory of indie developer Frozen North talked up the importance of prototyping and how it's helped the studio develop its upcoming Escher-inspired Live Arcade title Up & Dn
CEO Spillane started off by introduced his Waterloo, Ontario company, which currently has a staff of six ("soon to be seven"), which is currently developing the Live Arcade title, and has also been certified for Wii development.
He stressed the importance of design in the company's culture, calling it "the importance of consciously creating." What is design? “It’s the journey from idea to realized solution – and you need to realistically evolve the idea,” said Spillane.
“Use iteration, as the first time through you’re always wrong. Do it again and again until it’s right. Refinement is important. You want not to just make a product, but a good one at that," he instructed. “The market is approaching saturation, and often the initial idea won’t be enough on it’s own.”
The Frozen North Way
At Frozen North, Spillane said the company went through a number of stepped design methodologies, starting with 'ideation': “We lock ourselves in a room, preferably with iced tea and cookies, and we brainstorm. As many ideas as possible – minimum criticism inspires free association. And write them all down!”
Following that the developer goes through 'concept extraction,' asking "what's valuable and interesting, and what can be combined?"
“You want to approach these ideas from all dimensions," said Spillane. "Technical feasibility, market appeal, uniqueness. Make sure it’s balanced! If you allow your artists to get excited about building models with 12 million polygons, your programmers will spend all their time curled up in the corner in the fetal position, crying.”
At this point, lead designer Doug Gregory took over to give his introduction to prototyping. “Prototyping is used to build simple models of design elements," he said, "To test the visual style, user interface, pacing and feel. They’re rapid to produce and modify in response to feedback.”
And why prototype? “It allows you to test concepts & reduce risk. Simple paper models cost less than AAA game titles, and you can work out, is your idea even fun? It also provides opportunity for accidental discovery. Good games are emergent! You won’t know what happens until people play it.”
As far as specific strategies are concerned, "Start small," he said. “Plan to make more than one prototype – and use what’s available. Build models out of paper or Lego. ‘Role play’ sections of the game. Be imaginative and approach ideas from those kind of different angles.”
“Above all," said Gregory, "be prepared to throw away your work. Make the shittiest, fastest prototype you can. Don’t get married to it or expect to build on it to create the final product.”
After that, Spillane said the next step was developing a look and feel prototype, "to quickly determine if the idea can be visually well represented – and experiment... From a sales aspect, with a nice 'smoke and mirrors' prototype, you can get people interested in your game.”
Following that the company moves on to technical prototypes: “Is your core game mechanic feasible? How does it perform in different environments? What are the requirements? How does the mechanic scale?"
“For example," Spillane continued. "Portal
’s game mechanic is the ability to create two portals. But what if you could create 500 portals? Would that be a good idea? Concepts can works great on paper, but...”
Spillane showed off an earlier game Frozen North had worked on featuring space monkeys. The company , wanted to create a game in set in space, using gravity, but which the world wrapped around the edge of the screen, as with Asteroids
. The designers found it worked great with three bodies, but through these prototypes discovered that once it reached ten it started to break down.
Finally, Frozen North moves on to experience prototyping. "This in my opinion is one of the most important stages of prototyping," said Spillane. "It can be as pretty as you want. It can be as feasible as you want. But does the user enjoy it? Is it fun? The player has to be kept in your mind at all time.”
“If everyone gives you a negative response on a game mechanic, even if it works, don’t run with it!” he warned. “Focus groups are a kind of a bad word in indie game developer communities, after all, that’s what ‘the man’ does. But if you’re aiming your game at 14 year olds, you have to grab a 14 year old. Grab a 12 year old, a 17 year old, and a grandmother. You’ve got to test!”
“Playtest early and playtest often!" he continued. "Don’t just playtest to hammer out bugs. Make sure they’re testing to make sure it feels right – constructive opinions at every stage from the first stage. Even if you’ve only got one man walking around an empty landscape, get a tester and ask them – is the movement right?”
Protos In Practice
Spillane then moved on to the specifics of the studio's XBLA "baby", Up & Dn
. "In August 2007, Microsoft asked us to develop for X07 Canada – which was two weeks from that point!" said Spillane. "They asked us to develop it in XNA, and we’d never even touched .net. We said yes anyway and realised we’d have to come up with an idea first!"
"Thankfully, Doug had a bunch of prototypes which we were able to make a game for the X07 press event, but the history went on far longer than just two weeks of development,” he continued.
Said Gregory, "I wanted to base a game on Escher’s art – where up and down are a matter of perspective. The idea was that you would alter the whole world to change were up and down was so you could fall in the direction you needed to.”
“So I started prototyping – using graph paper, Lego bricks, pinning pieces of card together," he continued. "Something I found was you needed two different kinds of tiles to make these levels. So I built myself an editor to build level prototypes.”
Explained Spillane, "The basic story is you are an apprentice magician and you’ve been messing around with your master’s stuff and you’ve ended up in this very cubic, Escher kind of world. We let players mess around in it until the reached a level like this,” -- showing a level where the exit is on a wall a distance away from the nearest platform -- “where they’d have no idea where to move next – until we explained them how to rotate the world.”
“But how do you know which way is left and right compared to the world, where left and right can mean anything at any point? Through out prototype we learned that camera relative controls would be the best plan for rotating the world," he said.
Continued Gregory, "After a very low investment of two weeks of effort in XNA we received amazing feedback on a prototype – learning people would solve levels in ways we didn’t expect after only a few level of play, and realizing that once the main concept was learned people weren’t challenged any more, so we knew we were going to have to add enemies and power-ups.”
Added Spillane, “This was one of the most pedagogical experience we’ve ever had in developing games.And I really think XNA is a spectacular product for prototyping. It allowed me to put a 3D model on a screen in five minutes.”
On its look and feel prototyping, the recent revelation of similarly-themed PlayStation Network game, Spillane said, “In response to feedback that people saw the game as similar to Echochrome
, we moved away from bare tiles, to try and create a fully textured 3d world.”
Spillane concluded strongly, “Fuck time constraints – fuck milestones. Fuck the publisher, or anyone who’s putting pressure on you. Make your game the best it can be – design, prototype and test the game at every stage.”