Thursday, May 22, 2014

Game Design Philosophy: Iterative Design

Last Game Design Philosophy lecture I used the Controlling idea to craft the XYZ’s of Olympic Snowboard Cross.  Even though I have a core concept, the game is far from ready for prototyping, because I have yet to test the XYZ to make sure the game actually works.  

To put my ideas to the test I use the process of iterative design.  In iterative design new versions of the game are created one after the other. During the iterative design process I take the first stabs at balancing the game, making sure the game is not broken, discovering if the game is fun to play, and making sure the game flows from one moment to the next.  Problems arise and problems are solved with each version of the game.  

To give you a better idea on how the iterative design stage works, I am going to walk you through some of the iterative designs I have gone through with Olympic Snowboard Cross.

In my first iteration of Olympic Snowboard Cross I wanted to hew closely to the original theme. I decided the game should consist of several heats of elimination that lead to the final race to the podium. Each player was to control six racers from a country, and each racer would give a player five dice to make it through 7 jumps in a heat. This meant the more racers you had in a race the more dice you could roll and allocate to your team. The more races you are able to move on to a later heat the better chance you had of getting to the podium.

In this iteration the way to seed heats changed depending on the number of players.  I discovered that the seeding processes lengthened what should be a fast dice game.  Even worse, while I liked the idea of sharing dice among multiple racers, I learned the amount of dice needed was quite large and players had to spend most of their time competing bureaucratic tasks for setup instead of playing the game.

It was time to change the game. To do this I looked to solve the problems of the first iteration, while keeping the aspects I liked. Continuing the irritate process I began working on the second version of the game.

To guide this process I went back to my controlling idea, the experience of Snowboard Cross. What I have discovered is that my Controlling idea itself is too vague. What I care about is not replicating Snowboard Cross, but the racing experience of Snowboard Cross. An experience that dynamic, fast, has twisted turns of fate where first place can fall to last. Where people get too aggressive and wipeout taking others with them.  This narrowing focus of my controlling idea allows me to change the theme of the game to make the experience stronger.
I want to remove the bureaucratic elements of the Olympics, and focus on the race. To that end I changed the theme to underground street racing. Instead of multiple heats, the game will depict one race on one track. Each player will have three racers in the race and will position themselves around turns to come out ahead without crashing.
Having changed the theme and controlling idea I then turned to the mechanics. The main element in this game is throwing dice, and I wanted to strike a balance between the amount of dice needed vs. the number of turns the race contains. Because I liked a player having to split the dice between their racers I need a good amount of dice, but also feel short on dice so they will want to hit the target number and gain some back. After a few iterations I settle on 15 dice and seven turns. Obviously this is more art than science, and a number that will need to be heavily playtested, but I now feel that I’m in the right ballpark.  

This process continues as I get more detailed with the game, the changes will keep coming as problems are solved on how to handle things like movement and crashes. This is the essence of iterative design, nothing is sacred, and all changes are made to serve the Controlling idea, enhance and simplify the X,Y, and Z’s. It is true that all of these issues would have come out during playtesting, but in the last few hours I just saved myself what could be weeks worth of work building, playing, rebuilding, playing and rebuilding again. So now that this is done, there's one last step I need to take before I’m ready to unleash it upon the world. I need to put it on paper.

*Thank you to Michale Karg (@michaelkarg on twitter) for correcting/pointing out that I meant "iterative" and not "irritative" design.

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