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  • Student Postmortem: Skyrates

    - Carnegie Mellon ETC students

  •  2. Build community. In Skyrates 2, we added an in-game chat and web forum. Both were largely intended for occasional questions and bug reports, but quickly turned into something more. Suddenly, we found ourselves building and managing a community instead of simply experimenting with gameplay. Fortunately, we embraced what was happening, and now the community of dedicated players is our most precious and powerful asset.

    Many games rely to some extent on a vocal community of players. One thing that distinguishes Skyrates is that we have encouraged them to take part in defining the world itself. Our players contribute to every aspect of the game: mythology and history, balance, and suggestions for new features. The ways in which they do so continue to amaze us. They've built tools to compare and contrast planes and upgrades; maps and distance charts of the world; imaginary sports and leagues complete with standings and results; in-game radio shows to disseminate news and rumors. They've even fleshed out the histories of major characters and events. Without the incredible passion and dedication of a community that was born accidentally, the game wouldn't be here today.

    Many of the community members have invested as much creative energy in the game as we developers have. We hope that by providing the community a sense of ownership, they will want the game to succeed as much as we do.

    3. Design, implement, and iterate, iterate, iterate! You'll find this message in nearly every video game postmortem you read, but iteration was a crucial factor in our success, so it bears repeating. One of the big risks that we took in our first semester was to have a working version of the game ready for the 2006 Game Developers Conference, which occurred exactly halfway through the semester. We didn't know whether it was possible to accomplish that in such a short schedule, but it also meant that we were able to spend half the semester refining a playable prototype.

    Getting a prototype working with bare bones versions of all the major features of the game allowed us a full eight weeks of play testing, feature development, and iterative design. This constant iteration was immensely helpful in allowing us to prove, refine, and focus our gameplay ideas. At the beginning of the project, we really had no idea whether sporadic play would be enjoyable at all. Getting something working early showed us that it was fun and helped us to create something stable enough to push out to the general public at the end of the semester.

    4. Refine the goals as you go. Our initial goal for Skyrates 1 was to focus on keyhole gameplay. Even with a complex world, and with the player having a complex understanding of that world, the interaction between the player and the world can be narrow. An example is the stock market: While it's shaped by a multitude of factors, the only interactions that a person has with the market are buying and selling, simple transactions that they can be done via almost any medium.

    Like the stock market, Skyrates 1 can be accessed in a variety of ways -- Flash client, mobile phone java app, SMS, and instant messaging. During the first semester, we continually surveyed the players about their experiences. Each time, more people asked us to focus on the Flash client. We eventually reprioritized, set the alternatives aside, and shifted our efforts.

    Whenever you're focused on a project, it's easy to lose your objectivity. To combat this, we made sure to solicit feedback from people outside the project. By listening to our early testers and taking the time to understand what they loved about the game, we realized the importance of sporadic play. By the end of Skyrates 1, that became the real heart of the game.

    5. Find the fun, then make the rest. One of the things that worked extremely well in our favor was the fact that Skyrates 1 was a research project. At the beginning, our goal was merely to prove that sporadic play could be fun. Having measured our success by the fun factor of the prototype and nothing more, we were freed from a myriad of other goals that most other game projects have to achieve. We weren't expecting to actually make any money. The infrastructure did not have to be stable. We didn't need to be able to scale the project, nor did we need more than a play test cycle's worth of content. This allowed us to concentrate on rapidly prototyping and testing gameplay ideas without the pressure of creating a shippable title at the end of the semester.


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