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Nintendo is famous for long prototyping. Iwata did his GDC keynote on it. You hear about with Mario 64, they spent a long time just building a sandbox and running Mario around in this environment to get the controls right. Until recently, it hasn't been successfully prioritized enough.
DM: I agree. It's hard when there's so much baseline expectation, right? You must have great graphics. You must have great dialogue. You must have great music. You must have all these things that take a lot of time and resources to make, especially if you have a small team. Nine people made Shadow Complex. Because you have to have those or else no one will even look at what you're doing.
I think it's easy for a lot of games to be consumed with the must-haves, that they lose sight of the real must-haves, like tight, innovative gameplay. At the end of the day, that's all we're concerned about.
And I think maybe we're freed up a little bit on the downloadable service... While I think Shadow Complex certainly looks good, it's not going to compare to your $60 retail titles. But our strength is going to be more the game and the gameplay, and we were able to focus that there.
If we were ever lucky enough to make like a sequel or something... We now have got the core. The foundation is strong. And we can build off that and make something really, really special. Focus. You've got to focus on your core elements.
The knowledge base is there, too, now. That's absolutely crucial.
DM: I know so much more now about how to make a non-linear open world side-scroller than when I did when we started this. I'd never done that before. That's the problem with game design. By the time you're done with the game, that's when you really know how to make the game that you were trying to make. If you have unlimited resources and you're like a Blizzard or Valve, and you can just say, "Okay, we've made the game. We now know how to make it. Let's scrap it and make it again," that's great, but not everyone has that luxury.
You can't really run a business that way unless you've already reached the Blizzard or Valve or Capcom -- with Resident Evil 4 -- level.
DM: So, how you really make games, then -- because that's the exception and not the rule -- is you have to place the right bets early. And so what we said was for us, our game lives and dies on the control first, and the level design second. And so that was our focus, and everything else was tertiary to those two design mantras. So far, it seems like that has paid off for us.
Did you just do a lot of mocking up and prototyping in Unreal before you even had art?
DM: So, how we first started the game, before we even turned on a computer, we built the entire game on paper first.
Laura Mustard: Which was scary on the business development side -- because you need to be seeing... (laughs)
DM: I felt like we had to do it. If we were going to tackle something like Metroid, we needed to know the entire flow of the game before we did anything. We made like these little stick figures. And we said, "This is how high you can jump, this many units. This is how high you can double jump. Here's how many units it would take for you to build up a speed run."
That's funny, because in the old tile-based games, you were always working in a mentality of tiles. Obviously, with 3D games, you still have to do height units and stuff -- but it takes you back to that tile mentality.
DM: So, we designed the game as if it was tile-based, and then we built the levels to be that. So, we said, "Okay. One room is 15 tiles long, 10 tiles high." And granted, you could have as many rooms as you wanted in one actual visual room, but we did it in those kinds of units.
And we built out the entire game on this massive sheet of graph paper, and then we'd take it, and we'd play the game. I'd run through it with my little guy... "Oh yeah, that jump is too high. This is too low." That was the best thing we ever did, because it allowed us to find so many errors in our design so quickly. Because in just a week or two, I could play through the entire game from start to finish. I can be like, "Yup, that was fun there. That sucks." It really was amazing. I've never done that before in a game.
And then we went and quickly went in BSP, which is just this quick building brush stuff in Unreal, built out the entire game really fast and just started playing through the entire game with a cylinder that could do those same heights and stuff. And then we started prototyping from there.
We created these little gray box rooms that had all our jump heights. And then we started to maybe add on a character and add on animations, but we really spent the bulk of those first few months just focused on "Did the cylinder feel fun?" The cylinder was the character. "Does that feel fun when it jumps? Does that feel fun when it grabs on a ledge and pops up?" Once the cylinder was fun to play, then we were like, "Okay, we've got it. Now we can add a character." But the cylinder is fun. That's how we did it.
Do you think paper design is a real, valuable technique that could apply to a wider array of genres? Did it mesh really well?
DM: I think it depends on the game, or it depends on the genre probably even more so. For a game like Shadow Complex, where to me the core gameplay loop is exploration and discovery, where we had 120 power-ups, that if you got any one in the wrong place or in the wrong time would completely break the experience, we had to know where everything was before we did anything.
We just knew we were attempting to make an extremely complex, totally non-linear, totally streaming world. So, I was scared to death with that prospect, and just winging it. I have to know that if you get the speed boots that it won't break the rest of the game.
Not only that, but to the best of our guessing, the pacing will still feel decent. "How long do you think we've played at this point...?" Because there's just a lot more you can do when you can visualize the entire world. "Oh, I've seen the entire world. Oh, I can see they went here and they did this. It feels like right here, they'll probably need something." We were able to answer the bulk of those questions early on.
And as I'm saying that, I'm thinking, "I don't know. Why wouldn't you apply that same philosophy to like a first person shooter or to a traditionally more linear game?" That's a good question. I'm going to have to think about that more for our future game designs, because we really got a lot out of that experience. I don't see why that wouldn't be pretty valuable in a lot of designs. So, ask me again in a year, but I'm going to think about that more. That's a good question.