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  • Tight Conditions: The Development Constraints of an Indie Project

    [09.25.07]
    - Mitch Lagran and Devon Detbrenner
  •  Small development teams such as newly established independent studios and student or mod teams must design and develop their games with different conditions in mind than those of larger studios. It's important to establish these conditions and to determine the overall goal of the project before production starts in order to efficiently design a creative and attention-grabbing game.

    Generally speaking, small teams are far more restricted in their development. But one counterpoint is that they often have more creative freedom, as they are not under the thumb of a large publisher or investors whose first order of business is ... well, business. Creativity is in many cases essential for these small projects to succeed. It gives them a fighting chance to compete for attention beneath the shadow of those large-scale, big-budget games.

    Introspect, which is an FPPA, or first-person painting adventure (we made that up) was created by a student team. It was designed under the impression that we had the ability to move outside the pre-established perceptions of game design to create something different. You can download the game directly from our team web site, Digital Candy.

    Whether we succeeded is for you to decide; however we feel that we have. This article focuses primarily on how we conceptualized, designed and produced the painting functionality in the game, the main gameplay feature. Our goal is to share with other student game-makers and independents what we learned as well as the principles we used to create Introspect.

    Pre-pre-Production: Conceptualization

    Before beginning to design a game, it's important to establish the conditions of its development. These conditions include available resources, time, skill or technical ability, publisher constraints, and the goals of the project. Once you define these conditions you can outline your design requirements, which can then be used to create the overall concept for the game.

    Introspect was conceptualized from the ground up with the mindset that we needed to really push its creative bounds due to the constraints we faced as students. We also designed it in a manner that would allow all the student developers to showcase their work, whether it was code, art, design, or production. After all, we were students hoping to break into the industry, and one of our primary concerns in making this game was to garner industry notice.

     We decided that a non-violent game had more potential to gain notice than a violent one, seeing as the market was (and still is) flooded with violent games. Using paints in a first-person perspective to affect a 3D environment was the primary mechanic that arose from this. It worked well with our design goals because it's not only non-violent, but also unique.

    Additionally, we realized we needed to attract our viewer's attention by making a strong first impression visually. To accomplish this, the game's style had to be different from the majority of other products. Again, we knew we did not stand a chance at competing with other products based on graphics alone due to our limited technology, time, and skill; we would have to be creative in some other way.

    We settled on using a unique setting: the inside of a mad man's mind. We felt that the works of Salvador Dali and MC Escher represented the surreal and twisted reality we wanted to depict. They became the primary inspiration for our art and level design. (See "Artistic Influence" at the end of this article for more.)

    Once we established the general design direction, we factored in the development restraints and restrictions we imagined we would face. For Introspect, there were no preconceived notions of the team size nor their skill levels and we expected the development period to be short.

    We decided to design the game in modules to allow for greater flexibility in content and features, an approach that benefited us greatly. For example, we were graced with a larger programming team than we had initially expected. Because of this we were able to scale up the painting functionality without severely affecting the already completed design and art assets. We were also able to easily reduce parts of the game when we needed to. For instance, we cut an entire level (which hurt because it was a neat one) due to some technical issues and a tight timeline.

    We are personally in favor of using an agile or modular design in general, as it is very forgiving to the project when scaling down becomes necessary. Even when a team produces a very detailed production plan and schedule and strictly adheres to it, independent developers must ensure that the scope is flexible enough to allow for instability of the working environment.

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