For our second prototype, our instructors decided to throw us a curveball – more like a knuckleball to be honest. At first, I wasn’t sure if it they were being masochists enjoying the suffering of their pupils. However, after explaining their rationale and after I took time to reflect on their decision, I am beginning to understand what they are ultimately trying to teach us this time around.
Our instructors noticed in our first prototype that many of us aimed at creating full games. As a result, they determined that we did not understand the fundamentals of rapid prototyping. In order to evolve our grasp of this concept, they decided to require the class to pick an early arcade game from the late ‘70s to the early ‘80s. This wasn’t because they were feeling a hint of nostalgia (well maybe). They implemented the requirement to have us use the chosen game’s core rule set as a foundation for our prototype. Our job was to add a new mechanic to the core rule set and consequently determine how we could manipulate the original design to produce new strategies for the player. In the end, they hoped we would make the primary rules more enjoyable and unique. And we had to choose a game, create a prototype with the game’s rule set, and add another mechanic to the design all in only one week. This forced me to rethink how I approach video game design and organizing our team.
Before moving on to demonstrate how this new process has evolved my thinking, I would like to clarify why they have chosen this prerequisite for our prototype. Our professors argued that in our last prototype we were creating “vertical slices” rather than performing rapid prototyping. Vertical slices are a form of prototyping that emphasizes showing off a portion of the game in way that represents the finished form. This takes more work to complete, but can be very persuasive when presenting the prototype to industry professionals.
However, this approach rarely provides the opportunity to show how the idea is enjoyable and doesn’t allow the team to experiment with game mechanics. As our professors noted, utilizing a vertical slice for a pitch the audience may not view what makes the game fun. This is dissimilar to a whitebox for the reason that it enables game developers to experiment with ideas and see what works. Furthermore, the team doesn’t have an opportunity to experiment with game mechanics and features because the team is focused on designing a game close to the finished product. Hence, rapid prototyping allows the team to focus on the core rules and determine if they work in reality. As Chandler noted in her book on game production, “It is better to spend a day or two (or even a week) prototyping key features of the game, than spend several weeks implementing a feature that ends up not working as expected in the game” (p. 147). Thus, rapid prototyping enables developers to focus on the “fun” (as Dr. Altizer would argue) and consequently gives developers a chance to test important features of the game.
This idea caused me to have to rethink how I view game design and production. In the past, I begin by taking a deductive approach to game design. In other words, I begin crafting a game by conceptualizing an overarching theme, and I use this theme to build the game. For example, for our first prototype I used a narrative theme as the foundation for the game. This allowed me to visualize how it would work as an entire game. I felt that by starting with a theme I could answer questions regarding motivation as well as argue for immersion for the player. I thus forgo beginning with gameplay mechanics and instead use thematic elements to design the game.
Therefore, this inductive approach to creating a game has forced me to focus on game mechanics, rule sets, and at the end of the day what makes a game fun. This method enables me concentrate on producing a rapid prototype in which we can ultimately experiment with gameplay mechanics that can make the game enjoyable for the player rather than solely focusing on making a unique game. Now I see the benefits of starting with the gameplay and mechanics, so much so that I am using what we are learning in the class as a means to formulate my other projects (which I will briefly detail a bit later).
The requirement for this prototype also has helped me to alter how I manage being a producer. What I have found challenging is keeping the team focus on designing a new mechanic to our chosen game’s core rule set rather than on our natural inclination to begin with a new game. It is very easy to get lost in designing an entirely new game that we forget the conditions of the assignment. At times, we become sidetracked by centering on a theme and a backstory for the prototype, especially because we need to occupy the artist’s time through assigning ideas for conceptual art. Therefore, we did conceptualize a theme for the game, but at the same time, we are attempting to keep focused on a new dynamic that will generate additional strategies and tactics for the player while making it fun. I hope that I will be able to assist our team in maintaining our focus on game mechanics to build an enjoyable original flash game for the next three weeks.
This approach has been difficult for some of us, but I know that the assignment will eventually help me learn to concentrate on what makes games fun. As noted before, I already have begun implementing these ideas in a nonacademic side project I am working on. Our team is now focused more on making a viable and enjoyable prototype than on concentrating our work on its theme and backstory. For this reason, I am already witnessing the value of this assignment and maybe I’ll be able to hit this knuckleball right out of the park.