Instead of continuing my series about Ginkgo, our game engine, I’d like to write a short posting about our game creation process. We’re at an interesting point in our current project here at Broken Rules, so I though it’d be clever to have a little discussion on how we develop ideas and how that funnels into the game development process.
Before I dive into the matter at hand I’d like to introduce our company. Broken Rules is a small and young indie games company based in Vienna, Austria. We all own a share in the company and our staff, us, is just five people. All of us wear many hats. Each one of us, except our graphics artist, is able to code. Also, we do most of the game design together or in small groups. And it might be notable that my past is in the academia, where I used to research design theory and practice.
There aren’t many rules we’re following, hence the name of the company. But we’ve developed three key techniques for game design that I’d like to share. They work for us, so they might as well work for other comparable teams. I’m not so sure about larger teams and companies and neither about more traditional projects. We’re independent because that allows us to make those games that a traditional publisher hardly funds. Also, we’ve only released three games so far (not counting my 3 iPhone games) and only one of those is of a decent scale and ambition. But we’re currently working on our next big title. We’re in the second pre-production phase of this project. We’ve finished a playable core gameplay prototype, playtested it and made a vertical slice. At the moment we’re testing out other gameplay elements and working to get the engine on speed. The rules we’ve followed so far, and that have proven to unleash a lot of productivity and creativity are:
- Brain Day
- Constraints are King
- The Single Invention Rule
- Kill Your Darlings
Let’s visit them one by one.
This one is simple. During the early stage of development everyone involved in the creative process of conceiving the game is allowed – even encouraged – to have a Brain Day once a week. On Brain Day you’re not supposed to show up at the office. You might go shopping or enjoy a walk. Or just stay in bed all day. You might Skype with the team but you’re not expected to check your emails. Just do whatever is necessary to get into a creative mindset and let the thoughts flow. If you turn up with a gameplay idea, a setting, or a sketch on the next day that’s excellent. If not, there’s another Brain Day in the next week.
Constraints are King
This one has a backing in academic design theory and has been iterated more than enough by a lot of clever people. We’re making 2D games because with our team of five we could simply not make a full-fledged 3D game. We’ve settled for a game world before we’ve developed most of the gameplay, because once you know what world your game is playing in you can just look at it and pick those elements of that world that you currently need for your game. We’ve tried to make gameplay fun when it was played with the accelerometer alone, before we introduced buttons. We’re working with prototypes with wireframe graphics to focus on the gameplay alone. Some constraints we’re experiencing are external – budget, time, platform technology, and team size are examples for those – and we have to work within those limits. Other constraints are internal and we set them up explicitly in order to fuel our creativity.
The Single Invention Rule
This is maybe something indie-specific. Since we’ve got no publisher backing and are completely free in our game design decisions, we’ve come up with one specific constraint that’s central to our design philosophy. The Single Invention Rule is actually based on a talk by Kellee Santiago (from thatgamecompany) that I can’t find right now. Our interpretation goes like this: There should be no more and no less than one gameplay, one technological and one conceptual innovation per title. With our upcoming games we’re trying exactly that. We’ve got revolutionary gameplay, but only in one aspect. Some of the tech we’re working on is to be considered innovative for our standards. And the concept of the games we’re working on is innovative, too. I can’t go into detail because the game’s not announced yet. The idea of this rule is that it’s far too easy for an independent game developer to invent something completely new. Yet players want games that are approachable. And they want to understand what’s going on when they see a screenshot. The single invention rule keeps us from letting our creativity run loose.
Kill Your Darlings
Richard Fine wrote about this the other day: Don’t get too attached to anything. Be prepared to throw away key parts of your game if it is necessary. Every time we run into a dead end – and we’re running into dead ends a lot during the initial design of our games – we’ve found our way out by throwing something away. It might be a key game mechanic or the graphical style. Sometimes it’s the target platform or the control method. Just because you sunk a lot of time, effort and money into it does not mean that it was a good decision in the first place. The challenge is to isolate the piece to get rid of. A Brain Day helps to get some distance between you and the project. Or a pair of fresh eyes.
These four rules are cornerstones of our design process. They’ve helped us open up the design space. Currently, we’d need some new rules that help us to narrow the design space again. But I’m sure we’ll come up with those once we really need them. And I’ll keep you posted.