Fun on Paper

So, among my various projects that I currently have going right now, I’m working on some game design. I’m gonna refrain from going into a lot of detail because I have a tendency to oversell both my capabilities and ambitions, so I’m making more of an effort to avoid that. But suffice it to say, my good bud Joe and I are working on an Xbox Live Indie game. And sometimes, it’s rough. Not because it’s hard – hard is actually fun – but because it’s mind- and ego- boggling.

One of the rough things about building an Indie game, whether you’re working with a ton of experience or very little, a vast wealth of resources or a real paucity of supplies, is that you (here meaning the design crew) almost always get to a point where you have a concept that’s “fun on paper.” I’m sure not every team gets to that point, and some talented teams and folks can actually distill core fun into a handful of very direct thoughts that can line a paper. We (Joe and I) have something that we think is Fun On Paper. It feels interesting when we talk about it. We’re excited to discuss it. It makes us pumped to try and make it a reality. But we’re sort of stonewalled by indecision at this point. It’s like we’re at the turning point where we have to decide if what we think if Fun On Paper is worth locking in and moving forward. I think, before we make that decision, we ought to try to encapsulate the feelings we get with the flow of some other games and get them down so that we have idea of what they look like as “Fun On Paper.” Then we can analyze our Fun on Paper in a new light and see if it’s too refined, not refined enough, or what have you. There are a lot of questions that I have about transitioning a game from an idea that excites us to an execution that engages us.

Particularly, I’d like to try to figure out what makes another game Fun On Paper and see if it accurately translates to the gameplay experience itself. The inherent problem is my passion for games and the idea of “fun engineering” causes me to play them incorrectly sometimes (more on that some day), and even worse, I love Behind-The-Scenes stuff. I adore it. It means I’ve played through Valve games with the developer commentary turned on, have watched every bonus DVD with every Halo game, and buy special editionsĀ of Bethesda games and everything else to really try to get into the brains of some of these creators. I say creator because I think the knowledge I’m seeking isn’t specific to design, but that’s tangential, as well. So I need to make a more concerted effort to play other games, games I don’t know well and whose developers’ preferences I don’t know intimately. More on that some other time as well. As I do that and catalog my experiences, I should be able to narrow in on the fun loop that the game begins to suck you into. It shouldn’t take long – an hour of play, tops – and in that window, I wonder if I can certifiably talk about what I’ve written down as the games’ Fun On Paper with the same enthusiasm as our ideas. In essence, I’m wondering if the idea itself is fun or if the process of forming ideas collaboratively is fun and distill one from the other. It’s not an easy thing.

Inherently, in this problem of having Fun On Paper, as with many good problems, is another problem. With Indie games, and Xbox Live Indie games in particular, there’s a massive tendency to leap without looking. Developing a video game, like developing any application, is a sort of exercise in logical problem solving. You know, roughly, what you want to happen when the game runs. You want it to draw objects onto the screen and you want to create interactions with those objects in fun ways. You have a handful of problems right there that, I think, every Indie designer/developer jumps up and says “Thou Shalt Be Solv’d First!” and sets about researching exactly how they’re going to do that, without a workable plan for the game in place yet. Sometimes that’s ok – when you’re tremendously talented, tremendously dedicated or have some abominable combination of those two superlative traits, you can sort of afford to wing it as you learn the elements of actualy code to ground yourself in. I’ve definitely done it two or three times, to the massive detriment of the projects that I intended to work on (i.e. they were never finished). So once you start solving these technological hurdles, that has become the fun for you and now the Fun you had On Paper might as well be a distant memory. You’ve worked so hard to learn this stuff and get to this point that you don’t want to sully it by accidentally making a bad game.

On the other hand, I thought it was really quite fantastic to read through how the folks who built Slam Bolt Scrappers didn’t make several of the games they had originally planned out as “Fun on Paper.” In fact, they went ahead and made several things that were Fun On Paper but that none of them felt strongly about and that ultimately weren’t that fun in execution. Which reiterates, in many ways, that it’s super hard to get an idea for this stuff on paper. People with time and money and the luxury/curse of doing it as their job have to bull ahead and do it, and that empowers and frees them of the wishy-washing and hand-wringing that involves committing to an idea which may wind up crap.

So that’s where we are. Joe and I have learned from our misfires in the past. We have a sufficient grasp on the technology that we feel like the elements we’re not wholly committed to will eventually fall in place (or our research will force them in place). We’ve learned to code flexibly and with enough agility to cut whole swaths of the project out and replace it with something simpler and more effective. But we haven’t truly committed to the game that we’ve put down as “Fun On Paper.”

Sometimes I wonder if we shouldn’t prototype it in a different format. In other words, since we’ve built it out on paper could we create s scenario where we played it out like a DnD game or a round of Magic or something similar? If we could, would this show us on any perceptible level of the degree of fun that could be had eventually when we commit to it on the platform of our choice?

Or am I just pussyfooting (yeah, it’s one word. Look it up) about to avoid the potential of the reality that we may have done all this discussion and intellectual development and actual development of a project that proves to be absolute anathema for games: boring?

I’m not sure yet. But once I can make more of a determination about the value of having something that’s “Fun On Paper,” I’ll definitely talk more about it.

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