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  • Student Postmortem: USC's The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom

    - Matt Korba

  •  Our team dynamic revolved around setting concrete roles. Although everyone was given a chance to weigh in on the design, we all stuck to our roles once production started.

    Paul Bellezza (who has since become my business partner) was a rare find in a design program because he actually wants to produce. He fills in my weaknesses and we balance each other out. I was lucky to be able to partner with him on earlier projects and learn how we work together best.

    One piece of advice I have for game design students who are trying to get a project off the ground is this: Team up early on with someone who can fill a producer role. On past projects where the roles were blurred, the vision suffered.

    Along those lines we also came up with a team mantra: "Design individually, decision by committee." We had tried designing levels as a group, but found it more effective and coherent when designers create levels on their own. Every week the team would give feedback on levels that worked or didn't work, and we would vote for the levels that we would continue with.

    2. Rapid paper and digital prototyping. One of the first things students learn in USC's Interactive Media program is to prototype early and prototype often. This includes paper prototyping, which was key in quickly laying out level designs and puzzles. 

    Later, we were able to create a level design editor in Flash that let the students rapidly implement their paper levels to test the usability and fun factor. The level editor was especially useful in fueling creativity and letting designers  implement their ideas. More than 120 prototypes were created in Flash during the pre-production of Winterbottom.

    Rapid digital prototyping was especially helpful because we were playing with an untested game mechanic. The idea of recording the game character/player, looping his actions, and creating a paradox made all of our brains hurt at the start of the project. Prototyping helped to ease the pain as well as to discover new twists on the mechanic.

    One problem we discovered through early prototyping and play testing changed the entire game. There is an inherent problem with any recorded-based play that requires the player to replay his actions. There's a harsh lose case where the player has to replay not only his current self, but also all past selves. Say you need to jump on the head of a clone and you miss the timing. With six or more layers of recorded play, the game can become extremely punishing. I discovered this early and made Winterbottom's actions loop so you never lose by missing the timing. The team decided to minimize all lose cases so the player could just have fun within the system. Overall as a mechanic, looping enabled some interesting puzzles.

    3. Sticking to the core. Once the original mechanics were set, we designed around what we had. Oftentimes in student game development projects, features and ideas spiral out of control. We aimed to get to the core of the game quickly and put that core at the forefront.

    I created a mock-up instruction manual that served as a design guide for everyone to follow. This was easier to reference than a lengthy design document and it made it clear to everyone that we were not making Winterbottom the First-Person Shooter. The team knew we were playing with enough innovative material and that we did not have to reinvent any wheels to get our ideas across. Side-scrollers are well understood at this point in video game history and we used their established language to convey our ideas.

    Another way we kept the design from spiraling out of control was to hold a "blue sky week," when any idea could fly.  We prototyped most of the offbeat ideas and discovered some intriguing gameplay, which didn't always fit the game. One of my favorites was a paint level, where actions were trailed, tinted, and stamped onto the background to create art. Another blue-sky prototype had the player control 50 Winterbottoms at once. Blue sky week kept the team fresh. A few concepts in the final game actually did result from those open-idea weeks, such as creating a bridge made of Winterbottoms.

    4. Advisors. We had an amazing opportunity to work with some great people both inside and outside USC. It was important to make sure my thesis faculty advisors, Chris Swain and Tracy Fullerton, and I were in constant communication. If your school has faculty who are willing to devote time to student projects, I highly recommend embracing them.

    USC also gave us the opportunity to have industry veterans Jonathan Blow, Doug Church, Dan Arrey, and Carl Schnurr aboard as advisors. These people bring real experience to the table and steered us into the right direction many times over.

    Even though these industry advisors are extremely busy, a little of their time can go a long way. A one-hour meeting and an email chain helped immensely on focusing the project ideas and getting to the core. One particular batch of feedback from Doug Church yielded crucial thinking about creating a mixture of sandbox play with scripted puzzle events.

    5. Submitting to the Independent Games Festival. Submitting Winterbottom to the IGF isn't something that went right solely because the game was accepted. Submitting forced us to set a stake in the ground and set hard deadlines.

    Two weeks before the submission deadline, we had some bare-bones prototypes that showcased core features of the game. We did a team gut check and decided to press forward, lock off new features, make huge cuts, and pull the team together to submit. Even if we hadn't made it into the IGF, this crunch was absolutely critical for pushing the project forward.


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