The Hard Truth About Ugly Babies
Are games born fully realized? Are they conceived as the epic experiences they sometimes become? Are the difficulty curves, advanced mechanics, and story arcs all apparent when the idea strikes? Of course not. I’ve never made a game that bears more than passing resemblance to the original design doc. Grand sounding ideas about real time exploring of sun baked lands can lead to Desert Bus. A prototype’s awkward mechanics can obstruct any grand ideas that served as inspiration. Even beautiful games start out as ugly babies.
How do these ugly babies develop into something amazing? If you figure it out, let me know! But I do know about one thing that has helped me: Candor
What is candor? On one level, it’s honesty. But it goes a little deeper than that. It is honesty from somebody who took the time to investigate with an open mind. It is a thought where the thinker is being as honest with himself as with the creator. In video games, it is when a designer and tester can really examine what is happening while playing, without being defensive about a “bad” design decision or being a “bad” player. Sounds obvious, right?
Well it’s actually really hard. We humans are social animals. We sugarcoat harsh feedback to not be jerks. Or we get swept up in the emotion of E3 and think that Daikatana is the best thing. Ever! Or we show our importance with loud-mouthed opinions about Dear Esther not being a game. That’s not so helpful because Dear Esther clearly worked for some people. There is plenty of hot air on the internet. What is really helpful when making a game? What is the best gift you can give to somebody bleary eyed from late nights keeping the dev kits blinking? Candor.
I received the gift of candor from Indie-Wunderkind Rami Ismail. Jungle Rumble had been pretty well received by crowds at PAX East, PAX Prime, and Florida Supercon—the game was “fun”. Rami came by the Boston Indie Game Collective and put the cans on to play. Unslept, jetlagged, and straight from the airport, he battled the Kagunga tribe for an hour. He figured out the mechanic pretty quickly. That’s nice. But it was his thoughts on what didn’t work that were real gold.
"The medal system. I hate it." The visitor from the land of Stroopwafels didn’t sugarcoat. Back then, there were 3 different time limits, the fastest being gold. Some levels rewarded gold for no mistakes. Some levels rewarded gold for steering all allies towards the bananas. I explained the different criteria to a perplexed playtester.
Head shaking. “I didn’t understand any of that. Perhaps 3 simple criteria? A time limit, taking out all enemies, and saving all allies? 3 criteria… 3 medals?”
I pondered. “But in early levels there’s no threat. The enemies are always killed. Easy gold.”
Rami nodded. Easy gold in the early levels. He had a good point.
"I get in the groove? It’s nice. I make a mistake? I lose. I don’t know until the next measure, which I mess up. So I lose again." We pondered this. A noise when making a mistake would be jarring. Having more information in the HUD up top would be distracting. We came up with the silent red Xs that show up on a mistap."
We talked for two hours. It wasn’t two hours of abuse. It was two hours of deep thoughts on the game I was enmeshed in. It was a generous gift of time and attention.