Organic Game Creation

Organic Mecha Hub.

For those who don’t obsessively re-read my posts (which should be everyone,) the last post in this series contained a major math error, which led me to panic:  I switched hours worked per week for hours worked per month, changing my estimate of a very bare-bones mech game from taking 10 weeks, plus polish (so three months) to ten months plus polish (so, a year).  Since I will almost certainly have a kid in that time frame for one reason or another, I need to get this show on the road much faster.

Still, three months is kind of harsh, especially when you consider this guy.  Radiangames, a company consisting of a guy name Luke Schneider.  If you have a bit of time to spare, go read up on it (it’s the same link as the previous reference to Radiangames, in case you already checked that out).

I had worked at Outrage Games for five and a half years when it closed in July 2003. Because my wife and I had bought a great house two weeks earlier, we had a choice to make: I could start looking for another games industry job out of state, or I could try to turn a Game Boy Advance prototype I’d been playing with into a full-fledged game. Making a game by myself was a challenge I couldn’t resist, so I chose the latter.

…So I made the move to Volition in 2004. Though my six years at Volition were enjoyable, the desire for control over my destiny eventually overwhelmed my need for stability. In early 2010, I left Volition to form Radiangames.

When considering the development options for Radiangames, I felt a strong urge to do the opposite of what I’d been doing recently. Instead of taking five years to make one game, I thought it’d be cool to make five — or more — games in one year.

My plan was simple: I would create a monthly series of arcade-style games for Xbox Live Indie Games. I’d seen Halfbrick and Arkedo, two small independent studios, do their own series on XBLIG, and I admired the Pixeljunk series on PSN. I also knew that the XNA tools and focused development on a single platform would make it easier to achieve my goals.

Eleven months later, I completed the seventh and final game in the series, with the last five being released in consecutive months. The titles in release order: JoyJoy, Crossfire, Inferno, Fluid, Fireball, Crossfire 2, and Ballistic. Even though I’ve moved on to a more traditional indie route (larger games, more hype, publisher support, and a higher price) it was still an invaluable experience and an accomplishment to be proud of.

Schneider’s strategy for making a crap-ton of games was as follows:

Large games take more time to make than small ones. Good games usually take longer than bad ones. So the number one priority in deciding which game ideas to work on: scope. It’s amazingly hard to keep a game simple and not to turn it into something epic, so the smaller and more focused the original idea, the better.

With the Radiangames series, the struggle between keeping the games small and making them good was never-ending. I always started small with my ideas, then spent the rest of the time trying to make it good. That invariably required adding more to the core concept, or changing the core concept to be something bigger, but in the end it worked out.

To help keep focused, I avoided hard technical problems whenever possible. …

…good scope control also meant choosing game concepts that could build off the elements and ideas in previous games. Every time I started a new game, I’d make a copy of the project it most closely resembled and build from there. Though I didn’t have a singular engine I was building, keeping a similar game structure (with improvements only where absolutely necessary) meant I could focus more on game design and less on game code. [Emphasis mine]

In the end, sticking to my original plan of creating simpler games was the main reason I was able to release so many quality games in a short timespan.

Radiangames was able to release 7 games in 11 months, approaching a rate of one game per month because he kept things small, and because Schneider grew his games organically, each one a branch off of whichever project resembled it most closely, and because he kept things simple.

I’ve already hinted at the second factor.  It’s one of the most commonly given bits of advice to new designers/developers.  Vox Day says

If you look at the successful ones, even the ones that seem to come from nowhere, they’ve almost always got a long track record of creating and completing a whole host of little games you’ve never heard of.

James Silva, creator of (and most of the employees of) Ska Studies, says much the same thing in his book Building XNA 2.0 Games:

Realistically limiting your vision is one of the most important keys to a successful project.  …Soaring ambitions eventually meet the cold, hard reality of an empty project, and the best game ever becomes a folder in Visual Studio whose sole function is to remind you of the time you tried fame programming, but gave up because it was “too hard.”  The solution, of course, is to dial back your imagination a bit.

So, let’s keep factor 2 (really, factor 1) in mind, and examine factor 1 (really factor 2).

Can we grow our mech game organically from a series of games released at a rate of almost one per month?

Think about my pessimistic XBox Live Indie Market average rates of return.  As a company, we make $30 per hour of work.  Not bad, but not good, since $30 split four ways is $7.5 an hour per person, and much of that (perhaps most of it) has to go back into the company.  But those 10 games are a foundation.  They are a track record, which in turn becomes funded Kickstarters and contracts with larger indie venues — XBLA, WiiWare, Steam, what-have-you.  That greatly increases our rate of return.

If we can get enough breathing room to give Rusty more time to develop, and he produces games at a similar rate, that’s $15 apiece.  I could replace my current income.  Which means we pick up the pace.

Ah, dreams.

Organic game growth means making a tiny game.  Radiangames did games on the level of Space Invaders, starting out, but the games grew, with weapons, upgrades, and features being added.  One game had waves of enemies, but then the next had levels, complete with mazes.  So the tiny game is a seed.  From the seed sprouts a branch which is slightly more complex not because we are better coders or took more time, but because part of the project was already finished in the seed.

So, instead of spending 3-4 months on a basic mech game, or 6-18 months on a more complex mech game, with no pre-existing experience except for ‘Dozer, a game I made more than a decade ago, why not release a game a month, with each game moving in that general direction?

In order to do that, we need to create a game that fits the following criteria:

  • The core features can be used in the mech game.
  • The core features can be created in a couple of weeks, permitting us to spend the next couple of weeks polishing.
Let’s list the core features of the Best Mech Game Ever, and pick and choose the easiest of them.  Let’s not hold back, for starters.
  • You can run.
  • You can jump.
  • You can shoot.
  • There is more than one kind of gun.
  • There is, therefore, more than one kind of bullet.
  • In fact, there are lots.  Of each.
  • You can build your robot (player character) out of any arrangement of parts of the appropriate type (e.g. guns, legs, etc).
  • Robots can transform into vehicles.
  • Vehicles can drive.
  • Vehicles can boost or fly or some such.
  • Third person view.
  • Sweet animations.
  • You can hit stuff.
  • There are different arenas.
  • Which means obstacles.
  • Some of which are destructable.
  • All of which are accounted for in the physics.
  • There is AI.
  • That behaves like it’s alive.
  • And can maneuver around obstacles.
  • And remember where players have gone, to try and find them without knowing where they actually are.
  • There is a story.
  • There are multiple players.
  • There is dynamic lighting.
  • There is normals mapping.

So far, we have Halo + Pokémon.  Yikes.  Each of these things is at least one complex job.  Some of these things are many complex jobs.  I am not skilled or experienced enough to break it down.  Fortunately, the game we want to make only has about half of this stuff… well, 2/3rds… Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?

But a lot of these ingredients can be used in a lot of different games.  So, let’s pick two or three.

  • You can move.
  • You can shoot.
  • Shots destroy stuff.
  • There is stuff to destroy.

Here we have Space Invaders, or something similar.

Organic Mecha Hub.

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2 thoughts on “Organic Game Creation

  1. So, start storyboarding or start coding or START! Analyzing it to death will only kill it. If you are truly passionate about it then DO IT! And you don’t need to wait for anone else. Lead out and do it. Quit wasting valuable time.

    • The Stranger says:

      I am doing it. The analysis is for the benefit of the other guys, who will be sent a link to the hub when the analysis is complete.

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