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  • The Indie Process

    [07.30.09]
    - Michael Silverman
  • [In this article, IGF competitor and USC student Michael Silverman examines several different ways that different academic programs approach the process of prototyping games.]

    Many big publishers don't have a structure for empowering the process of developing a new game concept. That's not to say mainstream publishers don't want new IP. The problem is process. Indies are crafting techniques to design games akin to artists refining perspective drawing. These techniques, combined with the failing economy, the rise of the IGF, and the legitimacy provided by academic game design programs are causing a golden age of indie development.

    One of the earlier, more formal, indie process examinations was the CMU ETC's Experimental Gameplay Project. The experiment directly produced Tower of Goo, which after a few years spawned World of Goo. This experiment also demonstrated repeatability when Petri Purho followed its rules to create Crayon Physics. These successes cemented digital prototyping as being at the heart of the indie technique.

    Recently the culprits behind these successes, along with a few newcomers, have rekindled their experiment at http://experimentalgameplay.com/ and have already begun teasing out some intriguing new ideas. One of the most interesting aspects of restarting this experiment is the level of notoriety the experimenters have at this point. For this version of the experiment, they are starting with an audience that actually contains traditional mainstream consumers who already have preconceptions about the designers involved. It will be exciting to see how that angle plays out.

    Digital prototyping requires a high degree of proficiency with code, which some designers lack. USC's Game Innovation Lab took another approach -- paper prototyping -- which allows designers to make quick changes with less effort.   This technique was used to develop the core cloud movement mechanic of USC's award winning Cloud. Paper prototyping seems to be evolving into an "art prototyping" system.  At least that is how it appears from some of Cloud designer's public statements about the role of emotion in his games.

    Video prototyping is another way to move the creative process forward. This approach allows designers to see what players see and explore a range of mechanics. The videos show the designer the interplay between those mechanics and a wide range of aesthetics such as sound and art. These prototypes always have an interesting relationship to space. Notable examples are Katamari Damacy and USC's award-winning The Unfinished Swan. Ian Dallas, Swan's designer, was nice enough to leave some breadcrumbs behind on his public blog offering the following video prototype of Swan's mechanic before it was quite all there: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DEEKduRqyOQ

    In studying these new processes as they evolve, and watching which succeed and which fail, we need to find ways to combine the creative forces of these techniques to push the indie movement forward. All the schools of indie process use the one, preferred, prototype to design that "great game."  But really great games should be strong in all regards.

    Katamari evolved through video prototyping, though it was probably mostly a direct product of Keita Takahashi's genius. Even so, we can dissect the game to see what kind of prototyping could be used to inspire its various components. A strong digital prototype would examine the ball rolling and physics mechanics. A paper prototype version could model the growth economy and underlying path finding tasks. An art prototype could reveal the quirky sense of fun associated with the visual style.

    One important thing to note is that there has yet to be a significant form of audio prototyping. Games like IGF excellence in audio winner Brainpipe prove that audio is just as powerful as visuals in reaching players emotionally and being meaningfully important to the core mechanic. Of all areas of the indie technique, this one unfortunately is the least explored (except, perhaps, story prototyping, which is a matter for another day).

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