As part of our Road to the IGF series, Gamasutra is speaking to each of the student finalists in the 2013 Independent Games Festival to find out the story behind the games.
Today, we speak to Carnegie Mellon student Michael Lee about his team's project, mindful xp, a collection of rapidly prototyped games with meaningful mechanics. Lee discusses the challenges of working in such a tight window and summarizes the types of experiments that were and were not well suited to such rapid prototyping.
What development tools did you use?
Flashpunk, Flixel, Unity3D were our main game engines. For content editing/creation/etc, we used Photoshop, Gimp, sfxr, Audacity, FlashDevelop, OpenMPT, Irfanview, Flan, OGMO Editor, 3ds Max, Maya, and sounds from freesound.org
Our project is a bit unusual since it's an arcade collection rather than a single game release. Our "volume" consisted of 10 prototypes (with 9 fully realized). The development time with each prototype ranged from about a day to over 3 weeks depending on the game. All our games were aimed for PC/browsers.
How did you come up with the concept?
The concept for mindful xp was to rapidly develop games based around meaningful mechanics for a semester. Each game was focused around evoking a particular theme or personal experience, with much of our thinking centered around the development process we were going through to convey meaning.
What did you gain from such rapid prototyping?
Frankly, we gained the ability to really just try for ideas and fail at them. We wanted to try a lot of different approaches to express meaning and we knew there would be a fair amount of trial and error getting those ideas out. We were inspired by the Experimental Gameplay Project (also a previous ETC project) and knew that the time constraints of the project would really motivate us to create new games week after week. While in the end we ended up falling a bit behind our own internal schedule, we still managed to complete 9 full games, 1 incomplete game, and many other half-finished prototypes.
What games were well suited for rapid prototyping, and how so?
The games best-suited for our project were the ones where we started out with a clearly defined experience/meaning. Having a concrete and specific message meant we could focus on the core game mechanic that would express it and then build the game (and the narrative, graphics, and audio) around this core.
What we found is that the most clearly defined messages in our project came out of games that evoked personal experiences. These personal experiences were by nature narrower and more intimate in scope. These attributes really suited rapid prototyping well since we could focus on just translating that personal moment.
What games/experiments seemed poorly suited to rapid prototyping, and what is needed to make them better suited to such a process?
There were two kinds of games that we were really poor at making: games where the meaning came from complex interactions between a lot of systems and games where the meaning came from a lot of content. The best example of the first kind of game was The Path Taken (an incomplete game we developed as part of our project, but not included in the mindful xp volume), our only true "failure" in the sense we never properly finished the game. Trying to balance a bunch of different gameplay systems that weakly expressed meaning was probably the most trying experience for us as a development team.
The second type was attempted with our game Scott Told Himself and it was a struggle creating all the content necessary to convey some of the ideas we wanted - the end result of Scott Told Himself was a much scoped down version of our original idea.
Having better development tools would have helped a little bit in terms of getting more content into the game and more refinement of the systems, but in the end these sorts of experiences generally tend not to be well-suited for rapid prototyping. Our breakneck development also worked against us because sometimes we'd feel like we were we at the boundary of something meaningful or powerful, but knew it would take a lot of time to polish and get just right - in which case we would just have to call the game "finished" in order to move on to the next game.
How do users choose from the games? Is there anything in between each game experience?
We made a simple launcher program that gives a small description of each game and allows the player to pick and run any of them. There isn't any real "thread" connecting the games together, since our goal was actually closer to making sure that each game was so different that players wouldn't know what to expect (even varying up the art style), so as to avoid planting any thoughts or opinions before they started playing them. Our development cycle and momentum to keep pushing onward didn't hurt either.
How random was your testing sample, and what did those players feel were effective in "evoking a particular theme or personal experience"?
Our testing sample for our games was mostly ourselves and fellow friends and students as well as random comments and the TIGsource forums. Our development environment was basically always crunching and we found ourselves not having the time to do as many playtests as we would have liked. We relied more so on opinions and feedback after we released a game and used those going forward for future games.
That being said we were pleasantly surprised at the reactions we would get from people. People sent us comments, emails, and messages about our games and how they affected them emotionally (or not). We found that when our games could create some introspection or a reflection on some personal experience we best succeeded at achieving some meaning in our games. Thoughts about families, friends, loved ones (and ex-loved ones) were all powerful things that worked in our games.
Collectively, what would you say was your best and worst experiment and why?
Our "best" game collectively we felt was MARCH. It's a game that we think created a meaningful personal connection to players in a way that surprised even us.
Our "worst" game was probably Collect, which had some interesting mechanics and visuals, but never really built up on its mechanics to create something meaningful than the sum of its parts.
Our most cherished experience is with exhaust, which is a weird minimalistic game. We jammed in a day and a half to make it and we love all the details and quirks in the game, even if it didn't work for most people.
How does your school prepare students for independent game development (compared to grooming for AAA work)?
The Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) is a bit of an odd beast. It's a program designed around entertainment fields that rely on technology and this includes games, but also location-based and themed entertainment, interactive media experiences, and even film. Since it's a grad program, students need to learn and do things mainly from their own initiative. mindful xp was a project we pitched ourselves, designed to basically be an indie game jam week after week after week.
We were crammed into a closet of a room and allowed to do our own thing with few constraints thanks to our awesome advisors. In many ways it replicated some of the best facets of being an indie developer: the freedom to do what you want, being able to be experimental and crazy with your games, and doing it with people who shared your passion. It allowed us to go about indie development the only way you can - independently.
However, one thing that ETC does prepare students well for and really for any kind of game development is the experience with working with people from different disciplines. Just getting a good sense of what certain people expect and constantly working in teams really helps with communication and collaboration.
What made you decide to get into making games?
Mike: Like a lot of devs, I grew up playing games as a kid and the very first "game" I made myself was an adventure game set in my middle school built using Hypercard. So I always had vague ideas of how "cool" it would be to grow up and be a videogame developer, but I really didn't think about it as an actual career until high school and my first years of undergrad. Games like Kenta Cho's rRootage, Gish, and, yes, Cave Story were huge inspirations for me, they basically told me that I could pursue game development as an indie.
Dan: I wanted to make games since I was a kid. I was more drawn into them visually and because of their immersive nature. I didn't really think about it (or didn't want to tell people that I was thinking about going into games) because they sort of had a stigma of wasting time and being too violent in my family. In college I realized it was possible for me to make games by myself (and teammates!) after taking a video game design/programming class taught by Andy Nealen and that class sort of gave me the initiative to get started and just do it. A lot of games like Cave Story and Flow were a big inspiration for me, as well.
Felix: Unsurprisingly I also played games and wanted to be a game developer growing up, but what really made me want to actually get off my ass and make games came about when I played I'm OK and Hikware's Warning Forever years ago. From there it was to reading TIGsource, then complete failure to learn any game making software or libraries, and then finally a class where I actually had to make games, quickly (thanks to a certain soft industrial maverick).