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  • Postmortem: Magnet Ball

    [08.12.14]
    - Livio De La Cruz

  • PART TWO: The Senses Project

    A Broken Pre-Production Phase

    The purpose of the pre-production phase is to determine what kind of game we were going to make and to resolve major design problems early before we started creating a lot of content for it. Because we had less than a month to work on the game together before splitting up for the summer, there was pressure to decide on a game idea before summer break started. It didn't help that the creative process that we were following was completely broken. The biggest and most amateur mistake that we made was our failure to include any form of prototyping in our brainstorming process. We would spend hours in group brainstorming sessions, writing ideas down on whiteboards, but we never created a single prototype of any of those ideas.

      

    At the time, we definitely knew of the importance of prototyping, but we had yet to fully master this skill. The mistake that we were making was that we were spending way too much thinking about each individual idea, perhaps in an attempt to figure out whether the idea was "good enough" or not. However, the only way to accurately assess the quality of an idea is to actually try it out, which means building a quick prototype of the idea and seeing how it plays. We could have saved ourselves a lot of time and a lot of headaches if we were simply willing to make prototypes of at least a few different ideas. I think we were simply afraid of wasting time working on the "wrong" idea-but that thought alone was simply indicative of just how little we understood about prototyping at the time.

    The First Prototype

    The idea that we eventually settled on was codenamed "the Senses Project," because its basic premise was to make the player feel as though they were gaining new senses beyond the five basic senses. It took us an unusually long time to make our first prototype of this idea, partly because of our issues with overhead, communication, and availability, but also because we weren't entirely sure how to approach the prototyping process itself. I also knew very early on that this idea wasn't going to be very fun, because it was essentially a glorified visor system. But rather than throwing the idea away and switching to something else, we pushed forward and made our first prototype:

      
    Download this prototype at: http://bit.ly/SensesPrototype1 (Windows Only)

    The biggest problem with this prototype was that it just didn't teach us anything about our game idea. It wasn't built to answer any specific design questions, and it wasn't even fully playable. It was just a crude version of the central mechanic, and it had all of the design flaws that we were anticipating. If this prototype achieved anything, it simply made it all the more clear that there just wasn't enough gameplay here for this idea to be the central mechanic of the game. I feared that the entire experience would be filled with variations of the same "look for the invisible object" puzzle.

    We should have given up on the idea at this point-or we should have at least found a new central mechanic. Unfortunately, we pushed forward anyway, mainly because we had already done a lot of work on other sides of the project. With our writer Valerie, we were creating a very fascinating science-fiction world for this game to take place in, and our artists Amy and Pooria were creating some really compelling pieces of concept art that really brought this vision to life. Our sound designers Scott and Logan, were also making some really cool experiments with dynamic, multi-layered background music in order to help bring the player into this world.

         

    Eventually it started to feel like we had gotten too much work done to be able to turn back. Since the biggest pre-production problems were in the game mechanics side of the game, I blamed my own chronic unavailability for these problems, and it just didn't feel right to abandon everyone else's amazing work just because of my own failures. So instead of changing course, we just kept pushing forward, while being optimistic that we would eventually figure out the gameplay issues along the way.

    The Second Prototype

    Fortunately, we were at least able to learn from the mistakes of our first prototype, and so our next prototype was focused on answering specific design questions. We decided to make one fully playable level of the game so that we could get a clearer idea for what the final gameplay experience might be like.

      
    Download this prototype at: http://bit.ly/SensesPrototypeTwo (Windows Only)

    This prototype introduced several smaller mechanics, such as the ability to grab blocks, climb vines, and shoot infrared and ultraviolet beams. It turns out that the game wasn't as bad as I feared, since the other mechanics helped the whole experience feel more like a game and less like a cheap tech demo. Furthermore, the completion of this prototype definitely helped to increase the team's moral and interest in the project.

    And yet, I still wasn't entirely satisfied with this game idea. We managed to make it not-bad, but it also just wasn't that good, either. At this rate, I couldn't foresee this game growing into something that would make it to the IGF-and that was assuming that we would be able to finish it on time.

    Our team's problems with unavailability and communication had made our summer break so unproductive that we were all waiting for the semester to start again in order to get a chance to really push the project forward. Unfortunately, it wasn't looking like we were going to even come close to finishing this game by the deadline. The scope of the project was just way too big and we were moving at an intolerably slow pace. It was clear that our goal of making it to the IGF was going to fail, unless we did something drastic.

    Turning the Project Around

    On the surface, rebooting the project seemed like an extremely crazy idea. We had only a little over two months left, out of the original six months that we hoped to have. And summer break-which was supposed to be some of our most productive months-had just ended. Also, since I was the one who was proposing the reboot idea, I was afraid that my own unavailability during the summer would make people feel like I was out of touch with the project, to the point where they might not take my plan seriously.

    My reasoning was actually very simple: our goal was to make it into the IGF, and since we definitely weren't going to achieve this goal with the current game, then there would be no harm in throwing it all away and trying again from scratch. I was expecting a lot of resistance to this idea, so to convince everyone, I wrote a three-page document called The Nega Doc, in which I dissected the project's various problems before arriving at the reboot idea as a solution. I later wrote another three-page, follow-up document called The Better Doc, which outlined more clearly what exactly we needed to do differently in order to make the reboot idea work.

    As if abandoning the Senses Project wasn't painful enough, I was also proposing that we shrink the team size so that we could fix the overhead problem. This was an almost blasphemous suggestion especially after we had gone so far to create such a strong and unified team. In hindsight, I'm really glad that we decided not to force people off the team because that might have destroyed the entire team's morale. However, we did have two members who voluntarily left the team at the time of the reboot: our writer Valerie, and our third programmer Teresa.

    We were surprised to see how little resistance there was to the reboot idea. We were all just frustrated by the problems that had been plaguing the project so far, and there simply weren't many alternatives that would have fixed those problems as effectively as starting from scratch. The fact that we survived the reboot definitely says a lot about the integrity of our team.

    Nearly everyone on the team felt that we still could have turned the senses project into something amazing, but only if we had more time. We could have simply decided to aim for the next year's IGF submission deadline, but we decided not to do that for a couple of reasons. First, when we were recruiting for the project, we asked everyone to make a six-month time commitment, and so if we suddenly went back on our word and asked them to double that time, it would've felt like a rude request to make. Second, we ultimately decided that fulfilling the original goal of the project was a higher priority than pursuing an idea that may or may not have worked out all that well.

    In hindsight, I personally feel very conflicted about the reboot idea. On one hand, I'm really proud of us for having had the courage to make such a painful decision which ultimately saved the project. On the other hand, I'm ashamed of myself for failing to give my teammates the kind of team experience that we had promised them. There were a million little things that I wish I could have done to help everyone be more productive and coordinated, but unfortunately, that would've been like putting tape over a leak.

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