In the battle for the time and attention of the gaming public, it’s hard not to feel the odds are stacked against the little guys. While major publishers have multimillion-dollar budgets and teams of hundreds of developers at their disposal, indies have to settle for home equity loans and volunteer contributors to bring their ideas to fruition. But there’s one area where indies have a natural advantage over the competition: Speed.

Without a budget to adhere to or a team of artists and programmers to keep firing on all cylinders, rapid prototyping – where a solo developer implements a series of gameplay concepts as quickly as possible – allows indies to dive headfirst into game design, uncovering unique mechanics and pushing the boundaries of their craft. Many of these designs will falter, and only a few will ever go on to provide the basis for a fully realized game. But who cares when you have so many new ideas to try out?

Ready, set, create

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There’s a simple question at the heart of rapid prototyping: Why restrict yourself so much when creating a game? If a single person can make a decent game in seven days, couldn’t a pair of designers create an even better game in a month? After all, quality is more important than quantity, right?

That’s the prevailing attitude in the game industry, and while it’s helped produce a host of high-quality, highly ambitious titles, it may also be holding the medium back. As the stakes rise along with the technological, personnel and budgetary requirements of a project, publishers are less and less willing to take risks. When a single high-profile failure is enough to shutter a major studio, it’s understandable that these companies would spend their resources creating games with a proven record of success, whether based on a familiar genre or on an existing IP.

That’s well and good for a 100-person company, but the prospect of working on another cookie-cutter first-person shooter didn’t hold much appeal for Kyle Gabler and Kyle Gray, two former students at Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center. Faced with the prospect of graduating into the soul-crushing world of AAA development, they opted to make the most of their last semester at the ETC by organizing the Experimental Gameplay Project. Together with fellow ETC grad students Shalin Shodhan and Matt Kucic, Gabler and Gray set out to create 50 fully playable prototypes over a fourteen-week period while adhering to three simple rules: 1) Each game must be made in seven days; 2) Each game must be made by exactly one person; and 3) Each game must be based around a common theme that varies week by week. As the team finished their weekly prototypes, they made them available for download from their website and let players rate them.

What began as something of a master’s thesis for the team ended up becoming a minor sensation in the development community. Gray posits that the project’s success was both a product of the gameplay ideas they showcased and perhaps some fortuitous timing: “I think we had enough successes where we attained a nice degree of visibility – especially since internet gaming was just starting to take off back in 2005 when we started the project.” As the semester drew to a close, the EGP site had built a large enough following that the team decided to keep it alive, encouraging other indie designers to attempt their own rapid prototyping projects and eventually hosting outside submissions. Gabler and Gray have since gone on to develop far deeper and more ambitious games, including Gabler’s World of Goo (based on the EGP prototype Tower of Goo) and Gray’s EA-published Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure. But while the EGP site has laid dormant for months, the designers haven’t forgotten about their rapid prototyping roots.

Messing with success

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Indie developers may not be able to afford posh sky-lit office buildings or 24-hour QA testers, but there’s one thing they can afford that the majors can’t: failure. For Gabler and Gray, one of the chief benefits of rapid prototyping is the ability to fail – sometimes spectacularly – without losing much more than a week’s time. “If you’re able to test out your own ideas and play with them in a matter of days (or in some cases hours), then you can determine early on if they’re duds or not,” Gray says. This early feedback doesn’t just insulate indie developers from financial risk – it helps them get more creative with their designs. “For me, one of the most difficult things about any project is just convincing myself to get started,” Gabler says. It’s important to “take a step back, stop caring and make something, no matter how horrible.”

Even the most colossal failures aren’t a total lost cause, however – they can teach designers practical lessons that would be hard to learn otherwise. Gray’s most prominent EGP disaster, a flashy prototype called Spin to Win where you use your mouse to rotate discs, was all style and no substance – it featured a charming ’60s theme, but the core mechanic was mind-numbingly boring. The lesson it taught him became one of the main takeaways of the project: If the gameplay isn’t fun, no amount of polish or aesthetic flourishes will save it.

Of course, the idea isn’t to create broken mechanics or games you don’t care about, but rather to “try as many ideas as possible in the shortest possible amount of time with the fewest number of people,” Gray says. From there, it’s easy to separate the wheat from the chaff. “My process for designing games is like a Roomba trying to clean a floor,” says Gabler. “Rapid prototyping means I get to make a whole bunch of stuff and just pick whatever seems to work best.”

This time it’s personal

Finding fun new gameplay ideas with clinical efficiency isn’t the only reason indies often choose the rapid prototyping route. Developing without a budget (and without any team to speak of) means that the entire process is centered around you – so you might as well make sure you’re having fun along the way.

According to Gray, prototyping is “the most exciting part of game development: tons of room to explore and experiment with quick results.” Since expectations are low for a game that takes you less than a week to make, it’s easier to stay focused on the parts of your design that are the most fun and interesting. And because you’re spending so little time on each project, you’re less likely to get bogged down by a single issue or theme. “Bouncing from idea to idea is extraordinarily appealing,” Gray says. By contrast, “when you’re developing a full game, it can take several months to see anything at all – months where the team can be plagued by self-doubt and low morale until something resembling a game starts to take shape.”

There’s also the prospect that a successful prototype can provide the foundation for a groundbreaking new game – an increasingly regular occurrence these days. “I think the idea of creating something remarkable in a very short time is seductive for pretty much everyone – especially indie kids who grew up with the internet and have shriveled attention spans,” says Gabler. Indeed, he notes that all but one of the 2008 IGF (Independent Games Festival) winners began as a small prototype.

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Perhaps one of the greatest advantages of rapid prototyping is the way it lets a single developer’s unique perspective come through. “The smaller the game team, the more concentrated the game’s personality is – something that I think you can feel in World of Goo or Crayon Physics,” Gray says. “I’m not saying it’s not possible for a 150-plus-man team to create a game with consistent character, but it takes a strong personality at the helm and a lot more effort to coordinate everything.” What takes months of careful wrangling for a major studio is a natural outcome for an indie prototype – after all, when you’re making a game for yourself, it’s unavoidable that your individual tastes will color the final product.

Experimental Gameplay Redux

After a couple years of large-scale, long-term development (when Gabler and partner Ron Carmel were playing with Goo and Gray was trying to shoehorn creative gameplay ideas into the studio responsible for EA’s Madden series), the lure of quick, instantly gratifying game design has proven impossible to resist. Gabler and Gray have returned to their experimental roots by re-launching the EGP website this morning with a slightly different format. “The new goal is to release new games every month,” Gabler says. “Each month we pick a theme, and each person has seven days out of the month to work on it.”

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That means a new round of failures and successes to experience and, more importantly, new games from a pair of once-unknown grad students that have since become household names in the indie development community. Last month’s theme was “unexperimental shooter,” which the duo inevitably interpreted as “not your everyday Doom clone.” Gray’s first contribution to the new EGP is a “funk-styled arena shooter” called Frobot: Fueled by Dancing. “The main idea is to convert businessmen into disco-dancers by shooting them,” Gray explains. “The more backup dancers you have, the stronger your character gets. You can also kill the dancers if you’re not careful (as can your enemies), so it adds a slight layer of strategy as you try to maneuver yourself around the arena.”

Meanwhile, Gabler has produced the first outrageous failure of the new EGP with Egg Worm Generator. “I thought I would be really clever and make a game where you annihilate a terrifying procedurally generated evolving race of super creatures that learn from your actions,” he says. “But I ran horribly out of time, and there are no guns or bullets or shooting at all. And the terrifying race of super creatures turned out to be really cute and adorable. And all you do is watch them try to learn to walk like babies with missing legs and too many arms. Failed.”

With the new EGP up and running, players can once again watch a couple of gaming’s biggest indie successes fumble through the design process for their amusement. Perhaps the next World of Goo will be born from a new EGP prototype. Until then, Gabler and Gray are happy just to provide gamers with a monthly dose of entertainment and aspiring designers with a source of inspiration. After all, Gabler says, “As long as you have fun with it and keep it simple, I’m sure you’ll discover amazing new things.”

Jordan Deam threw away nine drafts for this piece before arriving at this one. In other words, prototyping doesn’t solve everything.

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