A private journey to a small revelation

by Darius Kazemi on November 8, 2010

in conferences,igda,prototyping

Last week I attended the IGDA Leadership Forum, which is an excellent conference put on by the IGDA that is focused on production, management, and leadership best practices. I won’t provide a full review here but I agree with everything in Brett Douville’s review. You really ought to go next year.

Anyway, one of the evening events I attended was the IGDA Foundation’s charity dinner to benefit the Romero Archives. It was a can’t-miss chance to listen to John Romero interview Will Wright about his own history and his development process. Towards the end they opened up the floor for questions.

I asked, “When you’re building a prototype, a lot of the times it can exist purely as numbers in a simulation. But at some point we want to show that prototype and get its point across so that another human being can understand it. Is there a sweet spot in terms of the level of art assets in terms of the minimum amount needed to aid the understanding of the other person?”

Unfortunately, Wright didn’t seem to understand the question. He seemed to think I meant the amount of art you need to show a prototype to an executive to get a green light, and his answer was (correctly, given the question he thought he was answering), “Don’t use a prototype to sell to an executive. There are better uses of your time.” What I really wanted to know was how much art effort he puts in to get an idea across to someone on the dev team, so that they understand what it is you’re prototyping.

I actually approached him after the talk and was waiting in line to clarify my question, but then the student in front of me shook his hand, introduced himself, and then literally said (I’m not paraphrasing): “I need a job.” Needless to say, Wright came up with some quick answer, grabbed his jacket, and got the hell out of there.

I figured I’d never get the answer I wanted. Later that night I was chatting up a really interesting guy who turned out to be Benjamin Taylor, the Art Director at Stupid Fun Club. As in: he works with Will Wright every day. He graciously offered to give my question a try, and when I repeated it to him, he lit up:

“Oh, I know the answer to that one. See, it’s not really about figuring out the minimum amount of art that’s needed to get the point of a prototype across. It’s about figuring out the maximum amount of art you can add to a prototype before it stops enhancing the prototype and starts detracting from it.

Wow. Ben gave me exactly the answer I was looking for, and it was an answer just a bit outside of my own mental model of the solution space to my own question.

It’s quietly mind-blowing moments like those that are the reason I attend small conferences like the IGDA Leadership Forum. (In fact, you can read about a similar moment that Jamie Fristom had at the same conference.) Small conferences allow you to have fairly long, in-depth conversations like the one I had with Ben that lead to brilliant little a-ha moments. The hustle and bustle of a giant conference like GDC makes that a lot less likely, though it certainly does happen from time to time.


Nicholas Brown November 8, 2010 at 8:56 pm

Obvious a kid who never read your articles on effective networking…

As for art detracting from a prototype, where are the points you should keep an eye on to figure out when the extra art is detracting from the prototype?

Dan Silvers November 8, 2010 at 9:21 pm

@Nicholas: When you spend more time creating the graphics than making the game. No prototype has anywhere near finalized graphics (mainly because you can never fully predict every asset you’ll need). My team’s initial prototype literally just had still concept art of the characters running around, and was like that for a good 2-3 months, but we were able to show off the core mechanics within the first week of development. Those same mechanics are still in, only with a nicer look and better programming to boot, well over a year later later.

As for the kid, well, let’s just say good for Will for just bolting. I think that’s what I’m gonna have to do from now on.

Darren Torpey November 8, 2010 at 9:47 pm

Nick — obviously, it was a kid who never gives serious thought to the motivations of the person on the other end of the conversation and/or knows very little about the world in which they apparently “need a job”. Hopefully they’ll find TinySubversions. =)

Darius — That *is* an interesting way to think of it, and jives well with what some (smart) folks said at the Prototyping talk Shane Liesegang and I held at Boston Game Loop this year. I’d like to collect gems of advice like this to kick-start that talk and others that I lead at next year’s Boston GameLoop.

Nicholas Brown November 8, 2010 at 10:15 pm

I’m currently taking a prototyping class here at RIT. If you get that collection together shoot it my way and I’ll pass it onto the faculty or at least some of the students here. A best practices guide would be much appreciated.

Brett Douville November 9, 2010 at 6:35 am

Hey man, thanks for the shout-out.

It’s a great conference, and made entirely better by its size. We need to post articles like this when the tickets go on sale and stuff — we’ve got to keep this conference going. GDC is great for seeing people you don’t often see, and picking up some very high=level ideas, but this is a better conference for my day-to-day work for sure.

Megan Fox November 12, 2010 at 12:10 pm

I’m curious about the below line, though it does skew a bit off-point:

“He seemed to think I meant the amount of art you need to show a prototype to an executive to get a green light, and his answer was (correctly, given the question he thought he was answering), “Don’t use a prototype to sell to an executive. There are better uses of your time.”

I’ve generally understood a prototype to be quite important/desired when pitching to a publisher. Is that not the case? Or did I misunderstand your explanation of the misunderstood question? ;)

Darius Kazemi November 15, 2010 at 8:16 am

It comes down to your definition of prototype. Will’s definition is (I’m guessing from seeing him talk about prototypes a bunch): “a thing you create whose purpose is to prove or disprove a hypothesis about the thing you’re building.” This is totally different from a vertical slice — and a vert is what people traditionally use to pitch to a publisher. The definition of a vert (“a build of your game that has an example of every major feature”) is very different from the definition of a prototype. Incidentally there’s a nice description of a vertical slice in section 1.8 of this article by Casey O’Donnell.

Darius Kazemi November 15, 2010 at 8:17 am

Also, you might want to read the blog post that I link in my article, where Jamie Fristom realizes that if you’ve already proven you can ship a game, you don’t need a vert or even an early build to pitch to a publisher. In fact, it might hurt you!

Megan Fox November 15, 2010 at 2:41 pm

Huh, that’s certainly interesting. Not sure how useful it is in my case = I’m a programmer, not an artist, and the artist/producer on the team’s not a terribly good animator – but, still, interesting. I suppose it at least bears considering what the cost of just farming out a stellar look-and-feel movie would be.

Megan Fox November 15, 2010 at 5:22 pm

So, just to put it out there, I ran this by a contact I have at a very large publisher. According to him, this approach is mostly bubkis, and that prototype is absolutely key. For instance, they’ve stopped presenters mid-pitch just because their concept art and descriptions failed to communicate that they could actually implement what they said, or that their idea even had actual gameplay to it. According to him, the people they have in the pitch meetings for most developers are the sort that will see through a trailer’s flash, and would rather see a somewhat unpolished but clearly functional prototype that really shows the soul of the game. It’s only the better-known developers that are likely to draw the higher-ups into the meetings that would rather be sold on high-level / content-light videos.

So, it sounds like it depends heavily on the publisher in question and on how well known you are in the industry. Personally, I’ll continue to hedge my bets with a vertical slice prototype.

Darius Kazemi November 15, 2010 at 5:58 pm

I agree — again it comes down to the “if you’ve already proven you can ship a game.” Jamie Fristom has shipped a bunch of AAA titles plus Schizoid for XBLA, so when he pitches an XBLA title he probably doesn’t need to prove he has the chops.

Similarly, Irrational Games pitched BioShock with nothing but a single room that you move through, no game systems.:

“Early on, the team built a very small, 45-second, one-room demo that was super polished and conveyed the atmosphere of the game moreso than the gameplay. Ken stressed multiple times during his talk that building a shippable-looking demo of extremely small scope focusing on one or two things really sharply is way better than attempting to do an entire vertical slice too early.”

But again, these are experienced developers. We’re talking decades of experience. I would NEVER argue that a first-time studio not make a vert. (But I also wouldn’t call a vert a prototype!)

Trevbot November 21, 2010 at 10:02 pm

Hey Darius, why haven’t you been doing anything on the Meggy Jr. lately? Also re member those 8×8 Sprites from January? Well at Evil mad science they have plans for a Meggy link cable and I thought that you could make an Multiplayer rpg using the same basic combat system as the meggy rogue like and give It some of those sprites and make it like an arena game where you battle lots of different creatures and you can make an option on what to be and to play Multiplayer or single player.

Darius Kazemi November 22, 2010 at 7:52 am

After I worked on the SeqSynth I abandoned the Meggy for other projects. Just my wandering attention, you know? I also started to bump into the limits of the Meggy’s available memory. I could’ve upgraded the core chip to double the RAM but never got around to it.

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