Friday, February 4, 2011

Game Design Tools for Game Jams

Game jams are great for flexing your game design skills. They are a sort of pressure cooker where all your skills are tested to the extreme. More importantly they offer the designer a chance to own up to his (her) short comings, which often has to do with unrealistic design scope, the inability to kill your darlings and communicating the design. Finally, game jams are a chance to test out the various game design tools and building a better understanding of how they can help.

A game jam doesn’t allow a game designer much luxury qua time, resources and scope. That means that the design tools that you choose must be chosen for- and used with efficiency. In this rant I have reflected on my past game jam experiences and try to pen-point my general game design methodology (or in other words a series game design methods).

Following is the shortlist of game design tools that make up my Game Jam Design Methodology:
     Concept Selection
     Game Design Heuristics
     Game Design Prototyping
     Game Design Documentation
     Game Design Analysis

The tool I most often begin the concept phase with is a selection tool called a Scope Model, selection tools are general approaches to organizing and determining the goals and results from concept phase. The scope model is a method that focuses on the expectations from your team and those of the player, these are then used to create an integral perspective, which is then built into the concept process. This method provides an object way of selecting concepts and is a handy way to avoid ‘elevator pitches’, which has more to do with a person’s glibness, ability of persuasion or authority than having a clear vision or a good concept. I usually combine this with a concept framework, which is a list of elements that should be covered (e.g. core & progressive mechanics, theme, game-play experience) when pitching a concept.

During the recent game jam I fell back on game design heuristics during a concept phase. Usually I use these implicitly during development, but in this case I used The Art of Game Design Cards. While flipping through the cards I came across ‘The Lens of Essential Experiences’, which resulted in a speedy conclusion of the concept phase and an agreement on a general vision.

The next tool that has proven itself over and over again is prototyping, and in particular paper and physical prototyping. In my opinion if you can’t create a paper prototype within a half-hour then you are over designing for a game jam. There are some things that you may want to remember about prototyping: first, it’s a proof of concept, and if the team doesn’t see its potential immediately scrap-it and try again; second, it’s about communication, if your team has played through the game mechanics, it will be that much easier to build.

Yes, I do use game design documentation during game jams, but I use a particular form of documentation which consists of a one page description. The documentation is based on the same object-oriented philosophy found in my game concept and design document template, which documents the game from the perspective of the player. The 1-sheet documentation also includes visuals in the form mock-ups and diagrams that aid in the explanation of the game mechanics, play mechanics and back-story. Another form of documentation used was a simple power point presentation to explain the game-play experience. Ultimately, game design documentation is a great way to explain the game to other game jammers, game jam judges and a quick reference for your development team. It is also the best way to confirm the design decisions defined by the paper prototype.

Play-testing is something you want to start doing as soon as possible! I like to start play-testing with the paper prototypes, which means that within the first hour you can have player feedback on the game mechanics. The next play-testing takes place when you have your first playable, at which point the play-testing is aimed at the play mechanics. Finally when everything is put together you can gather feedback on the game-play experience. I like to compare the player comments to the original vision set in the presentation to see how well the game-play experience was achieved. This being said, not achieving the game-play experience you set out to accomplish is okay too, as long as players think that the game has good game-play.

Lastly, I use game design analysis to help with design decisions during game development. The form of analysis I use separates the game mechanics into core and progressive mechanics. Using these definitions I constrain design choices based on what is critical to the core and progressive aspects of the game’s design during the phase where the game is being tuned .

While my focus is game design, the creation of a video game is a collaborative effort. I also believe that game design is a critical factor to creating a successful end product, but not the only one. What can be designed and developed during a game jam is highly dependent on your team’s skills and cooperation, and the experience with- and choice of- technology.