Today I came across the most wonderful series of articles by 2D Boy about the development of their incredible game, World of Goo, showing how the game evolved over the months (complete with downloadable builds that let you see it in action at each stage!) What fascinated me most was seeing where they decided to start: firstly, by focussing on the core gameplay mechanics, but then very quickly moving on to give their little goo balls real personality and making the whole thing “feel” fun, even before they had any actual levels. Then they just endlessly tweaked tweaked tweaked until eventually the whole thing was perfect and they had a real hit on their hands. They had a clear vision of what was going to make this game fun for people, and trusted that the rest of the nitty gritty details would fall into place once that core gameplay element was taken care of.

I’ve been constantly battling with this problem when developing my Old Testament adventure game. Any idiot could tell you that the essence of a good adventure game is its story, and yet in practice it turns out to be really easy to get distracted by other things, like tuning your graphics engine or making new 3D models and animations. My self-assigned project for the summer holidays was to mock up a complete working prototype of the whole game, so that I could get a feel for the pacing of the story and the way the puzzles worked. Graphics didn’t matter one jot for those purposes, and spending time on making things look right just made everything take much longer than it needed. But it turns out that there’s a huge psychological barrier to doing even unimportant things badly. I want my game to look good straight off the bat, and its weirdly discouraging to see it looking crummy, even though I’m not supposed to care about the graphics at this stage. For example, you can see from my previously posted screenshotthat I’ve been trying to use cowboys as placeholder models for the various characters. But when it came to add one more character to the scene, the thought of using yet another cowboy that looked identical to all of the other characters was grievous to me, even though it should have been perfectly adequate. Similarly, the fact that they sort of look like people made the urge to properly animate them and make their heads turn to face the right direction and so on was incredibly strong. Using plausible graphics for placeholders constantly tempted me to lose focus on what really matters at this stage: the story.


So in an effort to regain focus on what really counts, I decided to strip things right back and make it painfully obvious to myself that I shouldn’t be focussing on the graphics, and instead to literally use coloured cubes to represent people and objects of interest. Then if I wanted to add an extra character to the scene, all I’d have to do is pick a new colour, and instantly they could be distinguished from the others. Also, there’d be no possible way of animating them, removing that temptation altogether. But then I thought, why stop there! If all you really want is a way to get a feel for the flow of the game and how its various puzzles fit together, and to force you to make some of the details a bit more concrete, why get the computer involved at all! For true agility and the ability to make changes quickly, why not just do some quick and nasty storyboarding on paper with a biro? It also has the advantage that I’ve been able to work on it in my lunch hours and in those little moments of downtime throughout the week, without the added mental barrier of firing up my PC and waiting for everything to load.

The results have been fantastic: in just a couple of weeks I’ve been able to get most of the story down on paper, enabling me to see at a glance where the gaps are and where things just don’t feel right and where I need to add in some extra puzzles or strip some out. I still plan to proceed with my coloured cubes idea as a next step, but this has been a great exercise in focussing on what really matters and removing all extraneous details. What it might look like for your project depends entirely on the nature of what you’re doing: for the 2D Boys to begin by focussing on the level design on paper would have been a complete disaster (just see how many levels they ended up throwing away by the end of the project!) But ask yourself this: what really matters most at this point in time? and then focus relentlessly on that, doing all you can to ignore everything else.

Edit: I should add that as a Christian I think there’s a reason why “focussing on what matters” matters – there is a coming judgement day when we’re going to have to stand before the Lord Jesus and give an account for all we’ve done and how we’ve used the time we’ve been given. Are we going to have to admit that we’ve squandered all our time chasing irrelevancies?


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