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Version therapy: Iteration in video game development

Posted by Timothy Loew  April 4, 2013 09:05 AM

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By Seth Sivak, CEO, Proletariat Inc.

How do you build a game?

I say, you do it one version at a time.

At Proletariat Inc., a Cambridge-based development studio, every game begins with a prototype. With Letter Rush, the team was brainstorming ideas and started talking about doing something with words that would have a fast-paced, arcade feel. We wanted to develop a new, short-session game that could give players a quick and satisfying burst of fun.

It’s hard to create. Every author, poet, artist, and even video game developer knows that. You don’t know what you’ll get when you’re done. You don’t know whether you can truly realize your vision – or whether your audience will have the experience you intend.

That’s the risk: That we won’t do what we want to do. It’s also why the act of creation is so much fun. You haven’t done it right unless it surprises and, hopefully, delights you and your audience.

Iteration is the key to any creative endeavor, but especially when trying to build a totally new experience like a game. In programming, iteration means repeating a series of steps a number of times, or until a desired effect is achieved. In video games, it means producing segments or versions as you build to keep your work moving forward and keep your eyes on the final goal.

Games are complicated. They have many moving parts and it is almost impossible to imagine the exact feeling of playing a game before it is built. When you are attempting to design a game on paper, it’s tough to know how to tune the difficulty of a playing level, or how long a single session will be, or whether the game will have enough strategic choices and positive feedback to be fun. That is why we move as quickly as possible from theoretical design on a whiteboard to a prototype.

letterrush1.jpg
The initial prototype of Letter Rush was built in a day. One of the things I wanted to try out was a means for using swiping gestures to create words on a board. It was a little like a word finding game, but it was timed like an arcade game. I sent this out to the team as you see it on the left; the board was hard-coded, and there were only about ten words. Interestingly, the original iteration was fun enough for us to use it as the initial seed for the game.

At that point, we did some exploration. We played every word game we could find and we thought hard about what we liked and did not like. The goal was to build a game that was approachable and fun, but also quick to develop. Dan Ogles, our CTO, starting building additional prototypes off this initial idea, attempting to pull in inspiration from other games and genres.

We spent about two weeks just trying different features. The team explored a range of possible outcomes, including allowing players to place words they found onto a two-dimensional battlefield to defend their turf, and a puzzle-ish version of the game that was turn-based instead of real-time. Each new prototype would be circulated and everyone on the team was encouraged to give feedback on what they liked or disliked. We were able to put prototypes side-by-side to compare and contrast gameplay rather than simply speculating. To the right is a screenshot of the final game.

letterrush2.jpg

The iteration involved in this process is a powerful way for creative people to collaborate and solve problems. We were able to fix issues we saw in the game, like the length being a bit too long. Each time we produced a new prototype, we would create lists of what we liked and what we felt could make the game better. This process was rigorous and it allowed us to create a better product.

No matter how much iteration you put into the design there is much to be learned from releasing the game into the wild. We released the game less than a month ago and have already made numerous changes to the balance and core game. It can be hard to show your game to the world, but the sooner you do it the more you will learn - and remember: you can always make another update.

Screenshots provided by Proletariat Inc.

The State of Play, organized by MassDiGI, features posts by digital and video game industry insiders writing about creativity, innovation, research, and development in the Massachusetts digital entertainment and apps sectors.

MassDiGI, based at Becker College, is a statewide center for academic cooperation, entrepreneurship, and economic development across the local games ecosystem. Follow along @Mass_DiGI.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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MassDiGI 8-24 287w872.jpgThe State of Play, organized by MassDiGI, features stories by digital and video game developers and business insiders. Follow along @mass_digi.

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