Directory of All Essays

Monday, August 15, 2005

Secret Life of Aliens: First Prototypes

Harold whipped together some sweet prototypes of SLOA this weekend. He agreed to let me post them as an educational example of how prototyping works. Think of this exercise as speed dating mixed with the post mortems that you find in the back of Game Developer magazine.

Update: I added the latest prototype. You can download it here

Version 1
The first version of SLOA sported the core game mechanic, a simple conversation system. There were two token, the drab and asexual Suburbanites and the dapper green Spies. There really isn't any game here, just a technical demonstration of a basic gameplay system.

What went right:

  • Primitive graphics: I'm very proud of Harold's graphics composed entirely of cones and spheres. It took him substantially less than an hour to put these together and that is as it should be. Time spent on creating pretty graphics during the prototyping stage is time misspent.
  • No UFO: Prototyping is as much about what to leave out as it is about what you build. In the design, the UFO, the main character of the entire fricking game, is really just a mouse pointer when you come right down to it. The system mouse pointer is good enough.
  • Smallest possible step to feedback: Even though there is no game here, there was still enough to make some comments that dramatically improved the next version.
What went wrong:

  • Getting hung up on graphics: There was in fact a prototype-0 of SLOA. Harold spent a good hour trying to get the antennae to smoothly animate out of the head of the spy. But there was a bug someplace and a few minutes turned into an hour of frustration. He was focusing on making it pretty instead of making it work.
  • Colors: The green of the spies was too light and they blended into background. Even at this early stage it was possible to get feedback on the game's information design.
  • Complexity: The conversation behavior was too simple. With so few characters there wasn't much interesting happening.
Version 2
Version 2 fixed a couple of problems with version 1. The colors were brighter on the spies and there were a lot more spies on the screen at once. Everything was peachy keen. Except for one little detail...
What went wrong:

  • Conflict: There was a desperate need for some sort of conflict and challenge. It turns out that conversation alone is boring. This is a wonderful discovery since it shows us that we can't use the conversation mechanic as our core game mechanic. It is best to discover these things early on in a game design. :-)
Version 3
Version 3 sought to augment the basic mechanics with some classic conflict. Harold went all out and added in Agents and the detection score. The agents had sun glasses and black suits. MIB of the most classic sort, baby. They also had health meters so you couldn't just rapidly click-massacre a dozen agents in a millisecond.
What went right:
  • The game was born: There was actually a challenging little game evident in this prototype. The conflict escalated, agents wandered about, your score increased. After a decent 5 minute playing session, the frantic clicking all came crashing down and the game ended. People were comparing high scores and improving their scores with each play. When people play your dismal prototype more than once, you know you are onto something.
  • A recognizable setting: People grokked the alien-themed setting. The agents added the necessary burst of context that helped initial players feel like they were doing more than just clicking on random icons.
What went wrong:
  • Weak connection between action and reward: The score in the game would go up and you'd kill agents, but there wasn't a clear connection between what you are doing and the rewards. A good game should be like an instrument. You swing the stick, hit the drum and it makes an enjoyable sound. Swing, boom. Simple enough. Version 3 didn't that rhythmic clearly delineated musical response. It was more like one of those little rain sticks that you turn upside down and you get a long tinkling noise. Pleasant, but not addictive.
  • No focal point: Another problem was that little guys were wandering all over the place and you had literally 20 different things to worry about all at once. Successful games with lots of moving objects on the screen tend to have one or two focal points that the player can watch. In most shooters and action games, there is a central location that must be protected and then the player zones out and lets their peripheral vision take in all the various threats. Version 3 lacked this focus and the result was a game that felt more stressful than fun.
  • Killing agents wasn't fun: To continue with the music analogy, when you hit a drum, there is a satisfying physicality to the action. Most decent interfaces, be they simple buttons or complex game mechanics, have this tactile element. The interface for killing agents involved a slow and steady draining of their life force. It made sense when you described it on paper, but holding down a mouse button didn't feel exciting. Combine this with bad collision detection and killing agents was another frustrating experience.
Version 4
In version 4 we finally had a robust enough system to start playing with the game balance. We added several mechanics that improved the feeling of direct control in the hopes of reducing the risk / reward cycle time.

What went right:
  • Control over individual spies: We had talked about being able to drag a spy in a direction in order to reorient them. This would let the player be more tactical in their position of the spies and hopefully result in their feeling more control over the board. The implementation was a qualified success. The game immediately became more interesting and a wide variety of strategies came into existence. The 'wild spy' was born. This was a spy that ran about the screen like a lunatic at high speed, talking to every suburbanite in existence. He was hard to keep from whacking into agents, but he gathered a lot of points. Also, the 'slow spy' was born as well. This was a spy that basically was stopped in his tracks. He didn't get a lot of points, but he was much easier to defend.
  • Collecting Agent bodies: When you kill lots of agents, their bodies pile up. We thought we could include a 'coin collecting' activity by letting the player click on bodies and gain points. This worked slightly, but wasn't a great addition.
  • One spy at a time: This isn't either good or bad, but when players started learning to beat the game they began adopting the tactic of only having one active spy at a time. The game was too confusing to play well, so players reduced the complexity of the game until it was manageable. This demonstrated clearly the important of building focal points into the game.
What went wrong:
  • Physics for the sake of physics: In the initial implementation of dragging spies in a direction, your motion took into account the spy's current momentum. On paper this was a great idea that sought to add that 'tactile' element to the verb. In practice, the dragging felt sluggish. Spies were harder to control than necessary. One possible solution was to remove the momentum factor and see if it improved the feel of the dragging action.
  • No short term penalty for failure: If a spy was caught, the abstract evidence meter went up but that didn't really affect things much. Also, a spy could blast through several agents in a second making agent encounters rather hectic.
  • Coin collecting had no risk element: You could leave the agent bodies on the ground forever and collect them when you got a spare moment. A better solution would be to have them fade out after a period of time so that there is some risk of not getting the points.
Version 5
With version 5, we finally are at a game where players can demonstrate mastery. It is horribly unbalanced and still need some major additional systems. However, I can sit down and happily play for 5 minutes without feeling frustrated.

What went right:
  • Removing unnecessary physics improved the tactile feel of dragging: One variable tweak later, the control of the spies became much more responsive.
  • New strategies that improved the focus of the game appeared: The surprising side effect of improved dragging was that the 'slow spy' technique became the dominant way to own the game. By clicking on a spy twice, you could stop it dead in its tracks. Gather enough little spies up in the corner of the screen and you had a highly defensible position against the wandering agents. Also, you ended up being able to farm major info points by clustering so many spies and suburbanites in close proximity. Finally, we were starting to get away from a series of random events towards a player created environment that had interesting strategic implications.
  • Agents convert spies: When an agent runs into a spy, the spy is converted back into a suburbanite. This makes the player feel that they 'lost' a spy. We can augment this in the future by given the player a limited number of spies. The first benefit here is that there is now a more immediate result associated with the player letting a spy and an agent interact. This tightens the risk / reward cycle. The second benefit is that focus is improved. A spy that gets in trouble is lost and the player can move onto a new activity. This clearer definition of the beginning of an activity and the end of an activity helps clarify the game play.
What went wrong:
With vesion 5, the gameplay is starting to open up and we have easily a dozen different paths that we could go down to actually make the game fun. This is typical of a prototype. We add and add and add until the game becomes quite interesting. At a certain point, we need to ask 'What elements are the most fun?' and trim back the various gameplay experiments to focus on those items. A prototype should naturally grow and shrink in complexity as you try a bunch of things and then boil the gameplay down to the essentials.
  • Long term level structure is non-existent: Levels never end. We need to add in some meta game mechanics that govern longer term risk / reward sequences. We can set up goals for each level and start sequencing challenges. This will give the player a feeling of progression.
  • The evidence meter is bogus: Though it was in the original design, the evidence meter doesn't seem to add to the game play. Each evidence level should effect the map in some way and the player should be able to manage the evidence level.
  • Obvious player tactics need to be countered: If the clustering of slow spies is a fun technique, we should make it challenging. What if agents targeted your 'base' with more intelligence?
  • Support for focused gameplay: The base is a fun concept that really focuses the gameplay. However, it is one that emerges from the core mechanics. Should we build this concept into the game so that it is supported and more obvious to new players?
  • The tactile feeling of the game could be improved: Dragging still doesn't feel perfect. This could be improved with some better dragging code. Also, we can't forget to improve the Agent killing mechanic.
Iterative design in action
SLOA is by no means fun quite yet, but we are getting there. Every iteration (some of which take no more than 5 minutes to create) demonstrates the same basic methodology.
  • We create a theoretically enjoyable prototype.
  • We play the game
  • We record what works and has potential
  • We record what doesn't work
  • We propose some changes and implement a new prototype. Wash, rinse, repeat.

We are still only a few iterations into prototyping SLOA. We could put in a dozen more before the gameplay gels enough to start building out content. Even then, the game won't be polished until close to release. Game development is a fundamentally iterative process where the game design is just the beginning.

I'd like thank Harold for all his hard work. I like to say that a game design is like a movie script. It only shines in the hand of a great director. For SLOA, Harold is acting as the director of the game development and the real genius of the final product will be the result of his inspired implementation decisions. It is a wonderful process to observe.

take care

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Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The Secret Life of Aliens: A Redesign

How to make the stupidest game possible
Several years ago I designed a casual game called The Secret Life of Aliens (SLOA). The player starred as an alien UFO whose job it was to explore earth and return with news about the natives. You could implant various alien probes and turn happy suburban dads into alien spies. Evil trench coat wearing Agents (modeled after Scully from the X-Files) were constantly snooping about trying to gather evidence of a diabolical alien conspiracy.

The longer you went undetected, the more delightful information you could gather about the natives. This made your overlords back at the university on Sigma Prime very happy. On the other hand, if the Agents gathered enough evidence of your existence, they nuked the entire town from orbit in order to 'cleanse' the alien invasion. Think of this as having a high Grand Theft Auto alert level except the cops are armed with nuclear armaments.

SLOA was intended to be casual action RTS set on a single screen. I drew some test graphics and a friend of mine (Phil Carlisle of Worms fame) took the design and made a prototype.

And it sucked. Here is why.

What went wrong
I was playing with fire in the original SLOA design. The core mechanic of the game was a highly experimental gossip simulation system. The little AI characters wandered merrily about and stopped to chat with anyone who wandered by. They would exchange information about various topics and then go and chat about their freshly collected news with the next person that wandered by. Agents collected evidence by talking to people who had talked to someone who had seen an alien.

It was all quite elegant and very original. I had come across the idea talking to a professor from MIT and was convinced that it was dying to be made into a game design. After all, if a game managed to model a fully working social ecosystem, it must be fun. Sometimes I imagine that a similar thought process led to such glorious experiments as Sim Earth.

Here are some reasons why it wasn't fun:
  • The cause and effect mechanics were not transparent to the user: The little people talked, but you never really knew the internal state of their minds. They might have two or three topics in their heads and as the player, you had no idea. You did something and then something random happened. This is distinctly not fun.
  • The core risk reward schedule was too long: In many games you click a button for 2 or 3 seconds and you get a cool result. In the original version of SLOA, you clicked on something and 20 seconds later some number would change. There was no steady drip of candy treats to hook the player.

The lesson I got from all this is that being original and intellectually satisfying does not guarantee that you will create an enjoyable game. A worthy thought, but one that I'm sure to ignore in the future.

Another attempt: The Stupidest Game Possible
Most failed game designs are worth tossing at this point and I did indeed shelf SLOA for quite some time. However, I love the setting and am convinced that there is a fun game lurking someplace in my original design. Other than the recent "Destroy all Humans" there is a remarkable dearth of casual alien probing games on the market.

I have a bag of tricks that I pull out in cases such as this. One of my favorites is an exercise called the"Stupidest Game Possible." Inevitably a game designers will be presented at some point in their career with a sketch of a monstrously complex game design. My eyes tend to glaze over and images of slogging away on the same game for decades fill my brain.

"Wait!" I cry, "What is the stupidest game possible that captures the essence of your idea? Reduce this superbly detailed MMORPG with excellent public housing algorithms to something can be completed by an average programmer in a day or two."

Done correctly, this is a great exercise that really helps boil a concept down to its essentials. The goal is to identify the 10 seconds of enjoyable gameplay that serves as the core of your title. Admittedly, I've seen two distinct responses. The first is absolute disgust in my obviously simple minded dismissal of the wonderfully detailed work of art that has been laid before me. The second response is a gleeful smile that comes from the realization that they can complete their dream game in a mere 2 days. :-)

The real win here is that in a month of creating stupid games, you'll kill 9 prototypes that suck and find 1 worth pursuing. This is far better than spending a year or more on 1 prototype that has a 90% chance of sucking. I performed this magical shrinking exercise on SLOA with some very interesting results.

The Secret Life of Aliens: The Stupid Version
I reduced the game design to my three components: tokens, rules, and verbs. First I defined a minimal number of tokens (3 tokens and 2 resources):

  • Suburbanite: The standard person. Usually there's 10 to 20 of these folks wandering on the screen.
  • Agent: The classic MIB character. These pop onto the screen at a steady rate.
  • Spy: The player can convert Suburbanites into Spys.
  • UFO: This is really just a mouse cursor.
  • Evidence meter: This tracks how much evidence the Agents have collected against you.
  • Info Score: This tracks how much information you have collected.
The next thing that went was the original gossip system. It wasn't enjoyable and needed to be dramatically simplified. In the new version, people bounce around the map slowly like billiard balls and only talk when they get within range of one another. There is no complex AI or meme-based conversations. Instead, you have the following clearly defined cause and effects rules:
  • If a Normal Person gets near a Normal Person, nothing happens.
  • If an Alien Spy gets near a Normal Person, your Info score goes up.
  • If an Agent gets near a Normal Person, nother happens
  • If an Agent gets near an Alien Spy, the evidence alert level goes up.

Verbs: Adding short term risk rewards sequences
You can convert a normal person into a spy by click on them with your UFO beam. They stay converted for 20 seconds and then change back into a normal person.
  • Action: Click on a Suburbanite and they turn into a Spy
  • Reward: Spys talk to Suburbanites and increase your Info score.
  • Risk: If you turn too many Suburbanites into Spies, you won't have enough Suburbanites to talk to and your score will increase only slowly. If you don't convert enough, you also won't increase your score fast enough. The player needs to constantly manage the correct ratio of Spies to Suburbanites to get the highest score.
The next verb I added was a more direct method of interacting with the world Clicking on an Agent for a second or two burns them into ash. Probes are nice and all, but everyone knows that Death Rays are where it is at.
  • Action: Click on an Agent to burn them into ash.
  • Reward: Frying agents lets you collect information with less hassle.
  • Risk: As evidence mounts, more agents start spewing out of predefined emitter locations. You need to make a simple guns and butter choice. Should you kill the rapidly approaching agents or should you build more spys to boost your score?

I'm rather happy with how basic this game design has become. The original design was 13 pages long. This is a little over a page. It still captures the spirit of the original gameplay and might solve some of the basic problems that plagued the last prototype.

Another less obvious benefit is that with fewer moving parts, it is less likely that the design will be unsalvagable. If the first prototype fails to be fun, we can make dramatic changes with relatively little effort. Once the infrastructure is in place with a prototype, a simple design can go through a half dozen major changes in an afternoon. Simple game designs can be rapidly evolved at a much lower cost than complex game designs. Again, the benefit is that you are far more likely to end up with an enjoyable set of core mechanics.

Next Steps
I've been chatting with a charming and talented fellow (Harold Hausman of Whack-a-Ninja fame) who it going to attempt to create the entire SLOA prototype in a weekend using Anark Studio. The graphics will be simple primitives, but the core gameplay should all be there. If the end result is enjoyable, then steps can be taken to add additional layers of game mechanics in order to hone the addictive experiance even further. If it isn't enjoyable, c'est la vie. :-) Very little time was lost and many lessons will no doubt be learned.

There is a freedom in creating small prototypes that is quite joyful. Most games still rely on a perfected core that spans a mere 10 seconds of gameplay. Get the right core game mechanics and you've captured 80% of the magic that makes a classic game. Once you've captured that magic in a prototype, you have the freedom to make the next great epic or the next elegant haiku. Doom, Splintercell, Mario 64, Civilization, etc all started out as small test beds, where judged as successes, and only then were evolved into the great games we know and love. Their originality and core gameplay were baked in while they were barely more than an implementation of the 1-page design you are reading today. I firmly believe that a successful prototyping process holds the key to original engaging gameplay.

With this in mind, may we all go forth and make the stupidest games possible. ;-)

take care

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