Surprisingly, Making Games is Hard Work

Ever wonder what it’s like to develop videogame content? Here’s a case study about developing a couple of features from “empty page” to “live.”

About the Second Metaplace Game Jam

Metaplace held a second Game Jam several weeks ago. As far as I can see (which is to say, as far as Wikipedia says, this is a concept pushed to the forefront by Indie Game Jam, where

“The Indie Game Jam is an effort to rapidly prototype video game designs and inject new ideas into the game industry.”

For the Metaplace Game Jam 2, we had a similar set of goals. We wanted a theme for the Game Jam where:

  • We could practice rapid prototyping and iteration — we set a 6 hour time limit with mandatory demos every 2 hours!
  • Some of the results could be polished up afterward and included in Metaplace.
  • We could learn a little bit about ways to “make fun.”

We settled on a theme of “2-player games you probably already know.” We started with an enormous list of common games that we felt most players would already know. This helped us on two fronts; we wouldn’t need to explain how to play to users (no help feature needed), and we wouldn’t have to design the games during the Game Jam in addition to implementation. We brainstormed before the Game Jam session and came up with a “short list” of games including: rock-paper-scissors, scorched earth (in retrospect, this one fell short of the “games you probably already know” criterion), checkers, war, go fish, boggle, boxes/dots, memory, go, word twist, pente, chess, yahtzee, jacks, marbles, othello, blackjack, and slapjack. Our goal in using this list was that we’d automatically have a bit of “scope control” on our projects — hopefully, projects from this list were of a reasonable size to complete in our aggressive time window.

In the first Game Jam, we’d gone with a looser theme of “stuff to make users interact.” We live-Tweeted that event, and users on the platform spontaneously decided to join in. That was so much fun that, this time, our Community Manager Cuppycake invited our community to join us — and several folks did! We kept in touch with these folks throughout the Game Jam, both by visiting their games when they asked us to, and through text chat.

Setting up – What, Why, and How

When you’re under a tight schedule (like “make a fun game in 6 hours”), you don’t need to get hung up on details like having the perfect UI or art. I grabbed a selection of generic icons from the Fugue creative Commons set so that folks would have some graphics to work with. A quick trip to the Metaplace Marketplace expanded the world with a couple of generic sound libraries. We also tapped one of our development team, Arcturus, to set up a framework that allowed clicking on another player to quickly launch a game, as well as a sample tic-tac-toe game for reference. We got all of this wrapped up into a starter kit, so that everyone could have a shared starting spot.

Game Jam 2 Starter Kit
The terrifying empty slate

Armed with our starter kit and laptops, and having selected games from the list, we piled a bunch of developers (including Metaplace president Raph Koster) into our conference room. We established some ground rules — Tweet often, ask API questions out loud BEFORE checking the documentation Wiki, demos every 2 hours, and the like — and hit the ground running. Arcturus got us started with a demo of the framework he’d written, and we were off. The benefit of taking this sort of approach was pretty quickly evident: With frequent demos, question, and activity, we were able to riff off each others’ ideas and keep the energy level up for the whole game jam.

So let’s see how it all turned out.


Obstacles and Lessons

A lot of us underestimated the difficulty of these “simple” games. I’d made a relatively complex board game in Metaplace before, and was tasked with completing two. I only managed one. Even Raph came in with lofty goals (“I’m going to implement TWO games today!”) and was brought up a little short (finishing only a single game, the horror). How did this happen? It wasn’t the mechanics. Of course, there were some tricky bits of architecture to figure out, but that was not the most difficult goal. It turned out that making a game work was usually relatively straightforward. Most of the Metaplace employees participating had the core gameplay mechanics working at the first demo, and nearly all by the second demo.

Some of the games we chose just weren’t as fun as we’d hoped. One well-executed game was an implementation of “War.” We learned a lot from that implementation, and even live-blogged that one pretty closely.

Coding War UI
War at a working stage, beginning to polish up the UI a bit

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot you can do to make War a fun game. After all, your options are limited to “play my next card” and “quit in anger and frustration.” And it takes a while.

A big surprise was that some games we’d considered to be slam-dunks bit us. Rock-Paper-Scissors might be an extremely simple mechanic, but that just moved the difficulty from mechanic development into presentation. Making RPS work was almost trivial; making it a fun and engaging experience ended up taking us days.

Our US-centric experience led to another mis-step. Did you know that not all Internet-connected users know the rules of “Rock-Paper-Scissors?” We do. At least, we do now.

Victories

The games that we felt succeeded at being “fun” shared some characteristics. They all implemented sound, even if that wasn’t much more than beeps to indicate turn changes. War was the first game to bring in player profile pictures, which really added a sense of “presence” to your opponent (and yourself). And each game that felt workable at the end of the session had picked a core experience to bring to the forefront; Jacks had an action component, Dots focused on the sounds and appearance of pencil scribbles, and War had a mock-bloody-violence theme.

Our community users met with some successes, too.

User-generated Othello
Behold User-Generated Othello!

How to Finish

With a whole bunch of nifty prototype games, we were left with selecting games that we felt showed enough promise to be worth a few days of polish and cleanup. Finishing a product isn’t everyone’s strong point — I know I’m notorious for fast prototypes that really need a good round of cleanup before release! We assigned this task to our polish wizard, who enlisted our art team’s help and picked a few games of varying style and length for final release: Dots, Memory, and Rock-Paper-Scissors. Tic-tac-toe was also so iconic that we had Arcturus take another round of polish on it. After a few days of work on everyone’s part, we were able to release these four games into our core social world, Metaplace Central, where everyone can now play together.

Game Jam 2 Final Product:  Rock-Paper-Scissors
Another tie. Should have picked Scissors.

About Tachevert

A cofounder of www.WorldIV.com and full-time geek, Tachevert writes about whatever strikes his fancy. Despite the inherent contradiction, he can often be found videogaming or attempting to run.
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