Communicating with Prototypes

For the last month, as I've detailed on this blog, I've been working on a project with the artist brontosaurus.

Both of us are very new at this whole indie game development thing, and we have made plenty of mistakes. And we will make plenty more. But we are learning.

I thought I'd share some of our latest mistakes, and what we've learned from them.

First of all, we've switched game ideas almost every week for the past several weeks. This in itself is not the problem. We change direction because we find problems with our old ideas that prompt us to start anew.

Here's a quick overview of the journey our ideas have taken:

We started with a game based on this picture.

Then we switched over to procedural aliens.

But we couldn't turn it into a game.
We tried to find a game here.

Then we decided to simplify.
We thought climbing would be easier.

But we couldn't make it fun.
So we switched over to suburbia.

And now, we're still in suburbia, but reconsidering.

Why have we had to switch ideas so frequently? What mistakes made it so difficult for us to just stick to one idea and finish it?

It has been a progression of mistakes. We started off trying to randomly doodle a game into a existence. Then we realized that we need to start with actions and gameplay before we start doodling interesting worlds and characters.

Now I'm beginning to see that our process for coming up with gameplay has been flawed.

My specialty is in game design, and programming. I choose to work with brontosaurus because his skills complement mine - his specialty is in world design, and art.

The way it usually works is that someone like me comes up with an idea for a game, and then finds an artist who is interested in making the art for that game idea. But we did it differently. Since I didn't have a particular idea in mind, and I like talking with brontosaurus about game design, we thought we'd just come up with an idea together.

This was not our mistake. The problem started because we were both communicating our ideas in words.

When I try to explain a game idea to brontosaurus, he has trouble understanding how it would look or feel. But the ideas I come up with usually have interesting game mechanics that I could prototype.

When brontosaurus explains a game idea to me, it's always very evocative and visually interesting, and he's ready to create all sorts of cool concept art for it. But I have no idea how to start prototyping it, since the mechanics are too vague.

Because I've been impatient to agree on an idea and get going, I always go with the ideas that brontosaurus comes up with, even though I don't know what the gameplay will look like. But sooner or later the vagueness of the design catches up to us, and we reluctantly decide to come up with a new, more feasible game idea. This is how the cycle continues.

Brainstorming may be fine in text. But when it comes to choosing ideas to work on, it's not really fair to evaluate our ideas until we have experienced them in either a visual or procedural form. I will express my ideas through prototypes, and brontosaurus will express his ideas through concept art.

If my prototypes inspire brontosaurus to come up with a world and an art style, then we can make them into full games. If brontosaurus' concept art inspires me to invent mechanics and gameplay, then we can turn those into games, too. But our starting point must be tangible. Words are not enough.

Let the game designers come up with gameplay, in the form of prototypes. Let the world designers come up with worlds, in the form of concept art. Don't force one to do the other's job.

It may take longer at first, but it's the only way we'll make something that we're both satisfied with.

Let's hope it will work in time for the contest. ;)

In other words, Less Talk More Rock.


Krystian Majewski said...

This is some excellent concept art. I was wondering: how do you communicate. Do you meet each other in person or via internet?

axcho said...

We communicate through email and chat. Less travel time, especially considering that we live on opposite sides of the planet. ;)

Just to clarify, the excellent art featured in the post is our inspiration art, found on deviantART and elsewhere, and not brontosaurus' concept art. If you click on the images, you can check out the originals and see who made them. :)

Bo Jangles said...

Actions are worth more than words, certainly. Things also don't have to be perfect, you need to compromise with each other. Even though you may not see what gameplay can be created with a given design, if you think hard enough something will definitely come out. That's one of the most important things I learned from the game capstone: Things can't always go your way. It's actually true about almost every group project.

axcho said...

Our process is certainly very collaborative, though what I suspect is that it is partly because we are so accommodating of each other that we have gotten into this confusion of roles in the first place.

Because that's what it's about - roles, and keeping to our strengths. It's not about "things going your way" or someone else's way. We have enough respect and admiration for each other's creativity that we are not concerned with whose ideas triumph, or anything like that. We are making a game together.

It's not a matter of thinking harder until we force an idea to yield some interesting gameplay. We try, until it becomes obvious that our time would be better spent investigating a more promising idea. When one of us feels frustrated, we move on.

What has become clear to me is that instead of trying hard to find the gameplay in an otherwise cool idea, it is better to start with the gameplay, prototype it, and begin the discussion there.

We've spent a month trying it the other way around. And what do we have to show for it? Some cool ideas, but no game. We want a game. So we continue to refine our process.

Krystian Majewski said...

I found that when dealing with fuzzy concepts, it is dramatically more efficient to strive for the most immediate form of commucation avalible. So voice communication is better than written. Even better is using a webcam. But nothing beats actually meeting each other in person. In fact, I have the same difficulties you described when working with artists on projects. My consequence is to never involve anyone in the design process unless I can communicate with them in person on a regular basis. Just siting down on an evening with a beer or a cup of tea and a napkin for doodles can save you weeks or months of tedious and relationship-straining on-line conversation. And the results will be better anyway.

Working with artists on-line can work but I find that the best mode of doing so is by simple outsourcing: getting them on-board when you can tell precisely what you want. It's unfortunate because they won't be able to bring in their own ideas into the project but otherwise, it's a mess...

But of course, it all depends on how well you can work with said person...

axcho said...

Hmm, that may be the case. I don't have enough experience to know.

All that said, my personality is such that I tend to be considerably more articulate in text than in speech, so who knows - maybe it balances out. :p

Since in-person communication isn't really an option for me, I guess the alternative I'm looking at is communicating through prototypes and artwork rather than text. I'll let you know how it goes.

Jordan Magnuson said...

Very interesting post, axcho. It's always great to get insight into process.