Jed Merrill, Producer/Game Designer

Week 16

Tuesday, December 10, 2013.

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 1.15.54 PMThis morning is our last in-class day working on our fourth prototypes before our final presentations Thursday. Everyone works hard and is happy with our progress.  I work on a final draft of our sell sheet and play test the game. Jen Jen decides to focus on displaying the game on Thursday instead of retelling the long story of how we got there, though I put together a presentation just in case.  When everyone else does an extended presentation, it is nice to at least have one to fall back on if everyone panics.

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 1.21.52 PMIn Amy’s class, we review our final assignment, which some have already turned in.  I opt to wait until 11:59 at night to make sure it is the best it can possibly be.  The assignment involves defining what our third prototypes, in my case Adriana Jones, will look like with additional investment and time, communicate that through a sell sheet and feature list, create a schedule for how many days and months it will take to complete the new vision that stems from the feature list, determine how many people we require to achieve the vision, and budget based on the people and inhuman resources required.

Amy’s objective?  For each Producer to understand and experience the relationship between all of these parts.  My objective:  Create a document I can use to arrange funding and get an A+++++ in her class.

Amy talks briefly about why she chose to leave EA to teach us.  The hours as a Producer were affecting her family relationships.  She regularly put in 60 to 80 hour weeks, some of them phone calls and emails at home and on anniversaries.  The two years she promised her husband it would take to establish herself went well beyond two years.  She also decided teaching might give her a chance to change the gaming world, not by making games but by empowering dozens of us to change what doesn’t work in the industry.  It doesn’t hurt that EAE MGS is pretty much the best game development program in the world, with rankings and students and instructors to prove it.

I asked if she has a list of what she wants changed.  Amy verbally gave us a list to think about. I’d like to see it formalized as Amy’s Manifesto.  She has some good ideas.

Wednesday.

Horse-racing-4

Casino U.  We learn today what our final involves, designing casino games as teams of four, play testing them, and pitting them against each other next Wednesday.  The team with the highest dollar amount at the end of the night gets a half grade bump, as does the individual who makes the most.

Remembering an iPhone app I came across about pari-mutual betting, the type of model used in horse racing tracks and the stock market, I suggest a game where the house always wins because it pits players against one another instead of the house.  The house charges for optional upgrades and/or wins in case of a tie.  This model more or less guarantees we finish in the top half of the class.  In addition, I suggest we solve the twin problems of 1) getting as many people as possible to play our game, and 2) keeping them playing as long as possible.  Our model allows for four different players to play two games side by side.  Using somewhat familiar rules is also a priority, since we don’t want to spend all night explaining complicated rules or driving people away because they don’t understand.  Will our team win?  I give us a 50% chance.  There are 40+ other intelligent game designers in the room with ten chances to beat us.

Thursday.

We start the day with presentations of the nine final Cohort 4 prototypes.  All nine prototypes are scheduled to be submitted for publishing in the Windows Store in the next week. The final names?

Monkey Heart Hippo (my team’s game)

Black Lotus

Tesla’s Touch (my personal favorite this round)

Protocol: Transcendence

Lazy Bug

You May Fire When Ready

Snow Place Like Home

A Rumble in Rome

Armadillo Smash N’ Roll

All creative, and I am blown away by the improvement since our first projects.  Instructors take note as well.

Roger praises the one sheet I designed for Monkey Heart Hippo, comparing it to box art.

A major theme in the morning’s criticism is making sure the promise of our sell sheets and presentations finds a place in our end products. Without a reasonable (if not strong) relationship between promise and fulfillment, investors, publishers, customers, retailers, and profits are likely to be disappointed.

Postmortem.

After nine presentations and speeches by Roger and Bob, we gather as teams for postmortems. My big takeaway?  If you want a say in the final game or even the game concept, you have to sell your ideas!

With Team 8 – Prototype 4 one producer broader than before, the process of getting any of our ideas used was automatically more competitive.  The edge goes to those who communicate and inspire people with their vision.  Lack this skill, and one’s proposal dies early.  Some try to sneak a feature in, something engineers are most likely to get away with, but everyone is happiest if a feature goes in the front door.

monky heart hippoBy email last night, Jen Jen called for a last minute vote on the title for our fourth prototype. Of the five names submitted, the winner was Mark Jarman’s suggestion, Monkey Heart Hippo. I believe this was in part because he went to the effort of creating an impressive logo to sell the name, and we agreed to it. The new name emphasizes the relationship between monkey and hippo rather than what they eat or do.

Producers influence primarily with words, sometimes relationships. Artists have the advantage of pictures to sell their ideas. Engineers control code, and in many ways, the final product.  It’s a giant game of rock paper scissors with abstractions.

Adding an extra Producer is not a big change, but in practice means with Producer type responsibilities and decisions, one is likely to lose out in compromises two out of every three times instead of roughly every other time.  (More or less if an organization has senior producers.)  The imbalance of losing more than one wins is painful for everyone, which may be why many in the industry become jaded.

A large team without an authoritative game designer is the perfect opportunity to get better at articulating what one envisions and why others should buy into that vision. If you can’t articulate why your narrative, art style, game name, game idea or platform is better than the status quo, is there any reason the team should change it?

Designing games is not about getting one’s way, but selling one’s ideas in a marketplace of ideas, especially in the somewhat democratic system we enjoy and deal with in the EAE program.

I notice some who are not good at selling their ideas through conversations and group discussions are more likely to use politics to get what they want, seeking to borrow a teacher’s authority or a higher executive’s to supplement their lack of influence.  They may even claim a team is on their side when maybe they are not. No names to mention here, but we all fall back on what has worked in the past to get our way, and can be frustrated or blame those who stand in our way if what worked before doesn’t work now.

Another lesson to ponder is the proper balance between sacrificing for the game vs sacrificing for the team? If an element is very important to the end experience of the player, but including it offends the stated preference of one person on the team, does one 1) sacrifice the short term good will of the team player to make the game better for the long run or 2) sacrifice the game feature to preserve harmony and momentum in that quarter of the team?

Ideally, good communication resolves this conundrum without dividing spoils, but when communication fails, how does one balance the interests of team and game? Should team egos matter at all in light of the higher needs of the end player?

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 1.43.24 PMAnd what if the feature is for the benefit of the Player? Does feature trump team?

A mature team puts the player first. As Producers, we have a particular responsibility to represent the interests of future players.

Party!

At 1:00, we head for Master Games Studio North for sandwich wraps and sodas while the EAE staff reorganizes Master Games Studio South for this afternoon’s Open House, to be held from 4 to 7.

The food and conversation do us good, and I get to meet Cohort 3’s two primary artists, Damean Lyon and Alice Owens.  Alice shows off the latest updates to Vinyl, which looks fantastic!

Roger invites us to attend Capstone project presentations for the university’s nationally top ranked undergraduate program that corresponds closely to our Masters program.

Their Capstone games are all made for the Vita, my favorite being Origami Kami. It is a great game that deserves a lot more levels before paid release. I play through the first twenty (every existing level) in less than five minutes at the Open House.  I’m sure I could play a thousand more.  [Update:  Origami cranes are apparently popular of late.  I just came across a UK made, web based game called The Flight of a Thousand Cranes, also fun, but 2D and no touch.  Play them both!]

I would really like to take a level design course, or at least dedicate a few class periods to the subject. If there is any great weakness in our games as a class, it is too few levels. Tesla’s Touch would be even more fun with a boatload of levels. After a scene or two, Black Lotus runs out of time to implement new ideas and more narrative, but has everyone laughing.  You May Fire When Ready probably has less than a dozen levels so far, but looks colorful and well designed.

Are we really ready to release?

On the bright side, we’ve each found our in-game toys and perhaps the basic rules that make toys games.

As a team, we make plans to continue development of Monkey Heart Hippo.  Mark will take over as lead designer, since the idea was his baby in the first place, but invites suggestions.  I send him two pages of ideas over the weekend.

Open House.

1501836_10151811314020233_1706588860_nThe Open House goes smoothly. The highlight for me, besides the games and people, is the Minecraft themed cake, served by Corrinne. I score a fingertip of frosting, but no cake. I hear last year Salt Cake City baked a cake modeled after Nolan Bushnell’s Pong arcade machine!  (Nolan is on EAE’s board.)

Vinyl looks impressive on our 80 inch screen, and Magnetic by Nature and Last March of the Dodos are also on display. Magnetic has been in development for a year, and looks very polished. Dodos was accepted to Desura this week!

I get to repay the favor past EAE students gifted me by introducing others to the program.

1496113_10153660491550595_958713192_oI also get to watch a proud mother in her sixties play several of our games, from If Button Pressed to Tesla’s Touch.  My family is mostly in Europe this month, so I adopt other people’s parents, siblings, and kids for the night.

A screen shot from the third prototype I worked on, Adriana Jones and the Incan Escape, is featured on an easel near the entrance to the room.

I learn about the GameCraft club on campus, which allows us to continue to make monthly prototypes if we attend meetings every other Wednesday afternoon around 4:00, starting in January.

After guests leave at seven, we stay late to clean up and restore the studio to development mode from presentation mode. Everyone is in a great mood. Our feet are tired from standing, our voices raw from speaking, but our game designing souls are validated by lots of feedback, mostly positive.

Corrinne says go home. Roger says go home.

I go home.

Gone Home.

En route home, I catch up on Nintendo 3DS Street Pass and converse with an avid EVE Online player.

I check the mail and Puppeteer has completed its week long USPS journey from eBay.  (Take a plane next time!)  I play the first third of the first Act. Very inventive, and I love the scissor mechanics and voice acting, especially the floating cat.  Ah, the life of a game designer.

Life is all work and all play.  At least today.

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