Getting Into Prototyping Mode…

After reading Noel’s post on prototyping I realized I was drifting away from that mind set and getting into dangerous territory of just “thinking up a game and running with it.” Tilt to Live itself spawned into a full game from being discovered in a rough prototype. Since then we’ve just had rough documents and ideas that we wished to pursue after TTL. The past few weeks we’ve been gearing up more heavily for our next game and I’ve been getting back into the habit of whipping out fast prototypes.  I finished one prototype for an arcade/action shooter and another one over the past weekend for  a turn-based strategy game. My methods for prototyping each were very different. Ultimately, as I experiment with different tech and methods I’m trying to optimize the time from “concept” to “on the screen and working” so that we can fail quickly or move forward with the idea.

Action Shooter

With this one I had a series of prototypes I wanted to explore before we would deem it ‘good enough’. The first one was trying to see if our tilt mechanic would work. We had an idea that was a slight evolution of Tilt to Live’s controls but allowed for shooting while still avoiding annoying ‘floating D-Pads’ issue. It took about 15 minutes to do the mechanic prototype. After getting it implemented and in the hands of some friends, they actually liked the feel of the controls, which made us pretty excited about it. My next question was whether a scrolling view worked with a tilt mechanic. It made perfect sense to me in my head, but for some reason I felt that not being able to view the whole field while tilting to move (somewhat losing that 1-to-1 feel) would ruin the experience. 40 minutes later I had a camera system and some basic map trinkets scrolling by and it still felt good.

The next several hours became more of an educational exercise by implementing bluetooth multiplayer in it, and admittedly it was wasted hours in the prototype sense but very useful in a general sense. So I did go off track here a bit, but corrected myself soon after indulging in that little fun :). The tech used was the iPhone itself and objective-c as it’s hard to test very device-specific controls on anything other than the device. The next prototype in this series would be player/enemy interactions and seeing if simple enemies would suffice or would we need varied, sophisticated enemy behaviors to make it compelling (a difficult road to go down, as disposable content is not something I’m a fan of), so this’ll be a rather telling iteration.

Turn-Based Game

This was an interesting prototype to make. The game consists of a hexagonal grid where two players have bases, spawn points, and a set of different character classes. The game’s core idea was to make a very simple-to-play turn-based game but introduce interesting twists to the character classes that didn’t require some extra knowledge or rigorous ‘book keeping’ of different types of stats for each pawn to use effectively. So while the action of ‘moving’ a pawn was simple, the outcome would be varied and hopefully pose interesting choices to the players that are playing.

About Friday mid-afternoon I decided I wanted to see this turn-based game idea Adam had in an more automated form so we could give it more play time and start getting feedback from more people. The first prototype of this game was done by Adam in Adobe Illustrator. He did it in Illustrator because he was most comfortable with manipulating graphics in that program, and also (being the artist he is) had some pretty mock ups to play on top of. It was a series of duplicating object-groups to move objects, editing text boxes to adjust hit point values, deleting and adding layers and all sorts of madness. It was slow, tedious, but the game was still pretty compelling. It also goes to show that you can prototype a game with just about anything.

Having only about 3-4 hours before leaving to the beach for the weekend I had to decide what was the quickest way for me to get a more complete version of this game’s rules running on a screen. Ideally I wanted an iPad prototype, but I had almost zero framework to work with (barring using something like cocos2D) and the tediousness of C++/Objective-C slows things down. I opted for writing a prototype in Blitzmax. I ran the simple Blitzmax IDE on my mac (Blitzmax works on mac/pc/linux) and started coding away. No header files, no include dependencies, lots of high level modules to load graphics, draw graphics, draw text, load text, load data, handle mouse/key events. I feel I eliminated like about an hour of working on ‘boilerplate’ code to get a prototype up and running on a laptop.

Not having done a hexagonal-grid based game before, it was time to hit the books and just quickly skim over the basics of how to manipulate objects in that space. This was more of the ‘technical education’ part of the prototype. And this is usually the part that takes the most time in any of my prototypes. Transforming between hex and mouse coordinates, moving and calculating distances took up the rest of the time to develop.

Oh no, so I had no prototype before the weekend! Luckily, trusty Adam was driving so I spent about 1.5 hours just putting together a state-machine type framework trying to get the ruleset and player interaction working. This is one of those dangerous situations as well, as Noel and others mention, that many can get caught up in the “technical beauty” and try to create an all encompassing FSM framework of some sort. Putting a 3 hour constraint on this really helped mitigate that urge.

Then the battery died. Oh well, instead of spending some untold number of hours cooped up in a condo instead of enjoying the weekend with friends at the beach I limited myself to 30 minutes a night right before going to bed to work on it. The awesome part was knowing how little time I had to work on it allowed me to make coding decisions much more quickly. Of course the downside is the amount of ‘shortcuts’ I took code-wise to get the prototype up and running. But the thing for me to remember is it’s a prototype, not  final code. Further practice and experience will yield better code and solutions for quicker turn-arounds in prototypes. I finished that prototype after 2 30-minute sessions, and 2 players can play it on a laptop on mac or windows.

Not having it on an ipad kind of sucked as it does have a certain novel feel to it, but that “feeling” is probably more like sugar on top than having a solid design that works on any screen.

Faster, Faster, Faster!

Indeed, getting something up and running and being able to play with it holds more answers than any time spent thinking about it in your head. Things like the Experimental Gameplay project really shows what volume of ideas can be realized with very focused, short efforts. I had been doing these prototypes all the while working on finishing up TTL HD. With this newly rediscovered “do it as quickly as possible” mentality I may be able to incorporate a weekly prototype into my schedule to break up the week of working (happily, mind you) on whatever our current long term project is. Strangely, both prototypes show promise, but it may come down to how “well” we can make whatever fun prototype we choose in a short development period since we are aiming to release at least 1 more title in 2010.

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