The Indie Process

By Michael Silverman [07.30.09]

[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 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:

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).

In the end, what you put in is what you get out. If you focus on one aspect of prototyping, your game will have a certain kind of end result. All the techniques do not target the same kind of games. As the indie movement continues, we need to balance the various kinds of prototypes into a unified creative vision. One method to ensure this is to work alone and take care to examine all the elements of design. Erek Svedang's IGF winning Blueberry Garden is a notable example.

Blueberry Garden

Another way is to direct a team to a unified vision. Rather than dictating a creative will, the task is to balance the various aspects of design into a beautiful gem of a finished work. Thus, an indie team should have a designer/artist who can create art prototypes that are sensitive to and capable of shaping the game mechanics instead of an artist for hire who is trained to explicitly fit into a rigid structure. The same applies to code, sound, and even writing.

Another part of the indie process involves actually getting the work out there. Many professional indies stand on their own, funding their projects internally and relying on self-publishing. Others get picked up and become part of the bigger corporate structures. The economy is a dual edged sword in this regard. On the one hand, funding is scarcer and it seems, according to articles floating around in the trades, some big studios are actually throwing weight around to knock indies out of the picture. On the other hand, a small indie team can make a hit game over the course of a year or two -- "peanuts" in high finance terms.  The problem is that many major companies have yet to embrace the indie process as part of their corporate structure.

For now, particularly for student teams trying to make the leap from "a team full of creative kids" to professional funded studio, it can be awkward. It's somewhat like going through puberty. You aren't exactly sure what to do to get publishers in bed with you and you wish you were just generally cooler, more attractive, and popular. Also, when you get right down to it, it seems this is a road you have to travel yourself. At least, this seems to be the case as it stands now.

One of the big structures in place to make the indie dream a reality is the IGF. It has given exposure to a great deal of published indie works and spawned several other festivals that have done the same. The comparison to Sundance is easy to make and accurate. Because the judges of the festivals are prominent industry leaders, new games start gaining a reputation even during the festival judging process. Submitting a game to the festival is akin to asking the heart of the game industry to take a look at your work and getting a simple "yeah sure, why not?" for an answer.

Academic programs such as USC's Interactive Media Division and several others have added a degree of legitimacy to the idea of entering the indie movement. In general, it's a lot easier to sell the idea of moving to Los Angeles to make games to your parents if there is a design program that gives MFAs as part of one of the world's best film schools! Really though when you get right down to it, it is up to the students to make these kinds of programs work.

There will always be indies and that spirit of trying to change the industry will never die. As long as there is an elite few deciding which games will make the cut, there will always be a group of kids or ex-professional developers who are willing to team up and prove their vision. This movement is about freedom and right now, big publishers are fighting the last war.

Considering the successes of indies so far, the corporate model of putting all their resources on big, expensive pieces of IP must start to give way to models that incorporate smaller, less risky, but more creative indie style approaches. As indies formalize and establish the process by which we can nail a fresh new piece of IP on the head every time, and as large companies are forced to find ways to give more creative freedom to their employees, games will be significantly closer to becoming a mature medium.

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