The Art of Backing Off

As a producer you have to be open to reducing your expectations. Your customers only know what the end result is, not what you were thinking anywhere along the development process. I think it is always best to start with an idea that has a lot of room for expansion, then cut it back as development progresses. To me, iterative development is the fine art of “backing off”, and this article details how we have continued to back off on a concept until it is something that I think we are actually going to get completed soon.
Grunts: Skirmish Group Shot
Next week Push Button Labs is calling all hands on deck and attempting to create, Grunts: Skirmish, a “Game In A Week”. Adam is coming down from Washington, and we are going to hole up in our offices and see if we can actually do it. There are many reasons for us to make this game, but almost more interestingly was how ended up with the Grunts concept.

Josh Williams, CEO of GarageGames/Instant Action, wanted us to propose a strategy game for IA, so I set to work thinking about a huge strategy game with unique characters, story, and a big persistent back end. Without giving too much away, the working title was BattleTribes: Commander (no relation to Starsiege: Tribes, we just like the name). It is a cool design and idea, and we will get back to it some day, but even in Torque, this is a huge title, and we wanted to move faster getting products to market.

As I have been hinting in other posts, PBL is working with Flash. We think front line games for non-hard core audiences can best be made with Flash, and we are working on underlying technologies to allow that to happen. We needed a test case, so we decided to cut a bunch of the concepts in BattleTribes way back and make a multi-player RTS game with unique characters that had minimal art requirements and could be created in our new Push Button Engine.

As a side note, in keeping with minimal art requirements, I have long been a fan of “stick figure” games, and at one point a long time ago while I was at GarageGames I picked up the rights to Stick Soldiers, but we never did anything with the IP. I’m still a fan, so using stick figures as a jumping off point, we started messing around, and Tim came up with the idea of using mannequin figures instead of sticks, and the result is much better, so BattleTribes: Commander backed off into Mannequin Warriors. Continued work on the characters and signing up Todd Pickens to actually create some models resulted in further changes, and the awesome little characters you see in this article.

Since the characters morphed, the game IP morphed along with them, resulting in a working title of Grunt Commander, still an RTS, but with some very nice game play differences, and a bunch of back end persistence, customizations, community, etc.

As we were nailing down the characters, art processes, engine support, and back end definition for the GC game, I was looking into the emerging Flash game distribution process, and realized that we did not know much about it, and needed a test case. I did not want to sacrifice a huge project with man years of development, so we backed off yet again to the current GIAW Grunts: Skirmish concept.

Grunts: Skirmish is a single player Tower Defense meets Advance Wars game. It has some really nice innovations that we think will work, but we won’t know until we test them next week. That is the cool thing about iterative development on small games. We know that come combination of features will work, and we are pretty sure they will be the features we have laid out, but it does not really matter if it is something different.

Things we are looking to learn with Grunts is how the distribution process works, how much money can you make from a Flash game, how do the in-game ads work, how do the tracking systems such as Mochi Bot work, etc. On the technology side we are also wringing out the Push Button Engine, creating components that can be used in other games or for sending out to the community. As far as intellectual property goes we are setting up an initial IP that can be used in a bunch of games, finding out if people like it, bringing people to our sites, and setting up Push Button Labs for the future.

I really like the virtuous circle of all of this. Flash games are the future. There is so much to blog about in this area, so stay tuned. I am stoked.

-Jeff Tunnell, Game Maker
Make It Big In Games

  • http://www.subreal.net timaste

    Having been working on stuff since we started with the first concept, one thing I really like about the iterative process is how incredibly stress free it has been! Whenever things start to feel overwhelming in scope (the “holy shit that's going to be a lot of work” feeling), we've paired the idea down to something much more feasible to what we had to work with.

    Amongst all the pairing back, it's stayed a very cool game, and I'm still incredibly stoked to get going on it next week. This process has worked very well for all the projects we've had in the works so far, and I definitely recommend it as the way to run a dev. team, especially the indies.

    And don't worry Todd, I'm still working on the above image. Larger, more refined version coming soon. :)

  • http://www.subreal.net timaste

    Having been working on stuff since we started with the first concept, one thing I really like about the iterative process is how incredibly stress free it has been! Whenever things start to feel overwhelming in scope (the “holy shit that's going to be a lot of work” feeling), we've paired the idea down to something much more feasible to what we had to work with.

    Amongst all the pairing back, it's stayed a very cool game, and I'm still incredibly stoked to get going on it next week. This process has worked very well for all the projects we've had in the works so far, and I definitely recommend it as the way to run a dev. team, especially the indies.

    And don't worry Todd, I'm still working on the above image. Larger, more refined version coming soon. :)

  • http://www.shapesandlines.com -Todd

    Jeff, Good stuff. I think it is fantastic to set things up for rapid development in such a way that the scope and design can be iterated in the same way an artist iterates to arrive at the best result. Imagine if you had to nail it the first time, every time? Not my idea of time well spent.

    Tim SWEET! love what you did with the characters there. Can't wait to see the rest of them in there. I take it this means I can re post that image with a link back?

    I will dig in next week to help you on this ..depending on how that one thing works out, …and that other thing ;O)

  • http://www.shapesandlines.com -Todd

    Jeff, Good stuff. I think it is fantastic to set things up for rapid development in such a way that the scope and design can be iterated in the same way an artist iterates to arrive at the best result. Imagine if you had to nail it the first time, every time? Not my idea of time well spent.

    Tim SWEET! love what you did with the characters there. Can't wait to see the rest of them in there. I take it this means I can re post that image with a link back?

    I will dig in next week to help you on this ..depending on how that one thing works out, …and that other thing ;O)

    • http://www.subreal.net timaste

      Thanks, the guys are fantastic. I'll send over the PSD tomorrow.

  • http://www.subreal.net timaste

    Final image, plus viewpoints and images from other stages of our “iterative design process” up on my blog at http://www.subreal.net/

  • http://www.subreal.net timaste

    Final image, plus viewpoints and images from other stages of our “iterative design process” up on my blog at http://www.subreal.net/

  • http://www.subreal.net timaste

    Thanks, the guys are fantastic. I'll send over the PSD tomorrow.

  • http://ville.wetgenes.com/ XIXs

    You might be interested in some flash friendly multi player server tech I've been working on, mostly designed towards getting the little buggers to moderate themselves. The self moderation bit is the important bit. I'm assuming you have met the audience?

    example http://ville.wetgenes.com/
    server code https://trac.xixs.com/wet/cgi-bin/trac.cgi/brow

    .Plan is towards open source, with individually owned servers that also connect to other servers, but for now id like to work with anyone trying to use it till it gets to that sort of point :)

  • http://ville.wetgenes.com/ XIXs

    You might be interested in some flash friendly multi player server tech I've been working on, mostly designed towards getting the little buggers to moderate themselves. The self moderation bit is the important bit. I'm assuming you have met the audience?

    example http://ville.wetgenes.com/
    server code https://trac.xixs.com/wet/cgi-bin/trac.cgi/brow

    .Plan is towards open source, with individually owned servers that also connect to other servers, but for now id like to work with anyone trying to use it till it gets to that sort of point :)

  • http://www.redthumbgames.com joshuadallman

    It's great to hear a seasoned industry game designer promote the idea of “backing off” – that is, that it's not just a concept for new designers and new games, but a concept for every stage in your career as a designer.

    I learned this lesson when first making games, and I am amazed to continue to learn it now too (just when I thought I already knew it). I have worked on designing 5 games here in South Africa, and 4 of the 5 have had their scope scaled back from my original design proposition, sometimes significantly. Not that the extra features and such weren't of value, but you have to look at the economy of the game design per the timeframe and budget that you have, and what's relevant to the core concept and what's not.

    One game became simply too “high concept” and was scaled back to be more earthly and return to its root design idea of just being fun; another game had features that couldn't meet technical and budget limitations, so we're saving those extra features for a sequel or expansion; another game got designed too late after the prototype was already designed and complete, and there was too much to change (though many design changes still made it in); and the final game got literally doubled in development time simply by adding more features, we then kept those extra features which gave the most return for the investment and are saving the rest for a future sequel.

    I'm now doing some contract work with a new game developer who's making the same (yet inevitable) mistake – trying to put too much in, then not getting what's really important right. Hopefully my experience can lead him to a more “backed off” game design, which will inevitably lead to a better core gameplay experience.

    As you (Jeff) have said to me, gamers don't buy games by the ounce, they buy games based on their experience with them and the experiences of others. Cram too many back of box marketing bullet points into a game and you can lose sight of what that core experience is.

    In a sense, “backing off” is not just about making something different than what you originally intended, but about looking at what you are making differently. When you back off, you see less of the details (feature bullet points) and more of the overall picture (core gameplay experience), and that leads you to a better game.

  • http://www.redthumbgames.com joshuadallman

    It's great to hear a seasoned industry game designer promote the idea of “backing off” – that is, that it's not just a concept for new designers and new games, but a concept for every stage in your career as a designer.

    I learned this lesson when first making games, and I am amazed to continue to learn it now too (just when I thought I already knew it). I have worked on designing 5 games here in South Africa, and 4 of the 5 have had their scope scaled back from my original design proposition, sometimes significantly. Not that the extra features and such weren't of value, but you have to look at the economy of the game design per the timeframe and budget that you have, and what's relevant to the core concept and what's not.

    One game became simply too “high concept” and was scaled back to be more earthly and return to its root design idea of just being fun; another game had features that couldn't meet technical and budget limitations, so we're saving those extra features for a sequel or expansion; another game got designed too late after the prototype was already designed and complete, and there was too much to change (though many design changes still made it in); and the final game got literally doubled in development time simply by adding more features, we then kept those extra features which gave the most return for the investment and are saving the rest for a future sequel.

    I'm now doing some contract work with a new game developer who's making the same (yet inevitable) mistake – trying to put too much in, then not getting what's really important right. Hopefully my experience can lead him to a more “backed off” game design, which will inevitably lead to a better core gameplay experience.

    As you (Jeff) have said to me, gamers don't buy games by the ounce, they buy games based on their experience with them and the experiences of others. Cram too many back of box marketing bullet points into a game and you can lose sight of what that core experience is.

    In a sense, “backing off” is not just about making something different than what you originally intended, but about looking at what you are making differently. When you back off, you see less of the details (feature bullet points) and more of the overall picture (core gameplay experience), and that leads you to a better game.

  • JeremyAlessi

    LOL, the first prototype Adrian and I tackled after Aerial Antics was a RTS called Grunts. It was influenced more by Pikmin than by traditional military RTS's only it was going to be a sort of crude version where the little creatures would do all sorts of foul things like fart and hump inanimate objects. It never made it past a simple prototype where you could round up your Grunts and have them follow you when you called them. Oh, I did some simple story boards for it as well. One level had you sneaking into a local mechanic's garage to collect tools to fix a hot rod or something. The idea of it sure was fun, too bad I'll have to think of a new name for it if I ever pull it from the archives!

  • JeremyAlessi

    LOL, the first prototype Adrian and I tackled after Aerial Antics was a RTS called Grunts. It was influenced more by Pikmin than by traditional military RTS's only it was going to be a sort of crude version where the little creatures would do all sorts of foul things like fart and hump inanimate objects. It never made it past a simple prototype where you could round up your Grunts and have them follow you when you called them. Oh, I did some simple story boards for it as well. One level had you sneaking into a local mechanic's garage to collect tools to fix a hot rod or something. The idea of it sure was fun, too bad I'll have to think of a new name for it if I ever pull it from the archives!

  • Jeff Johnson

    I've been a long time reader of makeitbigingames.com(almost since you began it), but this is my first comment.

    1st off, I am really excited to see some of the new things you guys are working on @ PBL. I can't wait to see the Push Button Engine in action. I really enjoyed reading the Garagegames blogs of Ben Garney and Tim Aste and have been big fans of their work.

    l have 2 questions for you.
    1. There are tons of Flash game portal sites out there. Will PBL host their own games or will they submit them to some of the more popular portals? More importantly, how will you market your products in such a flooded market?
    2. You have said that “Flash games are the future”. Why Flash? I ask because I want to know why PBL picked flash over some other Rich Internet Application Language. I am currently an Actionscript 3 and Silverlight developer, so I am familiar with the capabilities of flash. Why flash instead of something like Java? Just curious.

  • Jeff Johnson

    I've been a long time reader of makeitbigingames.com(almost since you began it), but this is my first comment.

    1st off, I am really excited to see some of the new things you guys are working on @ PBL. I can't wait to see the Push Button Engine in action. I really enjoyed reading the Garagegames blogs of Ben Garney and Tim Aste and have been big fans of their work.

    l have 2 questions for you.
    1. There are tons of Flash game portal sites out there. Will PBL host their own games or will they submit them to some of the more popular portals? More importantly, how will you market your products in such a flooded market?
    2. You have said that “Flash games are the future”. Why Flash? I ask because I want to know why PBL picked flash over some other Rich Internet Application Language. I am currently an Actionscript 3 and Silverlight developer, so I am familiar with the capabilities of flash. Why flash instead of something like Java? Just curious.

    • http://www.makeitbigingames.com Jeff Tunnell

      1. We will do both. To compete in crowded markets, you need to make great games. People tell other people. Great products don't need a lot of marketing… they market themselves. Have you ever seen a Google ad?
      2. I will be writing a lot about why Flash, but the main reason is ubiquity. It is installed on over 95% of all Internet connected computers. Java simply does not have the installed base, and Silverlight is not even close. Both are good platforms, and may be more powerful, but at the end of the day Flash is good enough, and everybody has it.

  • http://www.makeitbigingames.com Jeff Tunnell

    1. We will do both. To compete in crowded markets, you need to make great games. People tell other people. Great products don't need a lot of marketing… they market themselves. Have you ever seen a Google ad?
    2. I will be writing a lot about why Flash, but the main reason is ubiquity. It is installed on over 95% of all Internet connected computers. Java simply does not have the installed base, and Silverlight is not even close. Both are good platforms, and may be more powerful, but at the end of the day Flash is good enough, and everybody has it.

  • http://www.pinayspeak.com/pinaytest/ Emely

    you have a good concept of art stuff, make it sure having fun,..

  • http://www.bolinaoph.com/ Bolinao

    How cute are the toy soldiers in this post…

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  • http://brandfeelsgood.com chris

    The link to Todd Pickens's website is broken, it should be:
    http://www.shapesandlines.com

    • http://www.makeitbigingames.com Jeff Tunnell

      Very strange. In the text for the post it actually said http://www.shapesandlines.com, but for some reason it was getting a http://makeitbigingames.com/ in front of it. I just redid the link and it is working, but I'll have to check with Rick and Sean to find out what happened.

      Thanks for the tip.

  • http://allcolortattoos.com Allan

    Hmm, looks interesting…

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  • Helen Atwood

    your blog is awsome

  • http://fmdonline.com Family games

    Thanks

  • http://fmdonline.com Games

    Interesting

  • http://fmdonline.com Family Games

    Thank you for your information

  • http://www.premsp.com Portfolios

    I still wouldn't completely dismiss Silverlight. It will soon enough have an install base to rival Flash. Soon all new computers sold will come pre-installed with it, and there is literally an Army of people out there coding in Visual Studio everyday anyway, it will be easier for them to just stay in it and churn out games in the same dev environment.