Mucky Hands Design

In which Stew extols the virtues of just getting stuck in to making games.

The best way to design games is a hotly debated and polarising question.  Does it involve a lengthy period of planning – sketching out ‘feature matrices’, creating ‘experience curves’ or ‘affecting emergent response charts’? Does it require you to say the word “mechanic” in every alternate sentence? I don’t think so. I’d like to introduce you to my personal preferred method.  Let me start by saying that this isn’t specifically for coders or artists, or any discipline you care to pigeon hole yourself into.  It’s aimed at anyone who has a game idea or concept in their mind that’s bursting to get out.

The single most important thing you need to do is to give yourself some way to turn your ideas into something tangible.  A common misconception is that a games designer is only able to operate if they have a skilled coder and a good artist to help them ‘realize their dream’.  In every other industry you can care to name, you’ll find the ‘Designer’ has an intricate knowledge of how the product works – and will be right there in the thick of it.

Simply put, my favourite way to sketch out, affirm, prove and refine any new game concept is to actually make it.  Don’t spend days thinking about it, because nine times out of ten you’ll only manage to talk yourself out of even starting.  Make it in the quickest and most convenient way possible, turn it into something you can touch and then iterate and refine.  If it’s your idea, then the only way it’s going to be realized the way you want is to get your hands mucky. It’s what I like to call Mucky Hands Design.

Before you start squawking about that being “the coder’s job” or that your idea is “too grand to prototype quickly”, believe me when I say that there’s no game – no matter how big – that couldn’t have been prototyped on a small scale.  Giants such as Gears of War, Mirror’s Edge or Final Fantasy might seem very complex, but they are very simple games at their core.  They’ve just been seriously pimped.  They could still have been proven using primitive placeholder graphics, or even in 2D. Little Big Planet used to look something like this. It’s only through doing, rather than planning, that you’ll be able to tell if something’s worth pursuing.

It’s also worth remembering that legendary designers such as Peter Molyneux, Sid Meier and Shigeru Miyamoto all started out as coders or artists, creating their own games, getting their hands nice and filthy!  If they hadn’t, they may have found their ideas, after being filtered through other people’s interpretation, were not realised the way they envisaged. We might never have heard of them!

Don’t be afraid.  You don’t find people who want to be pilots but are afraid of flying, or people who want to be firemen who are afraid of water!  Why is the games industry mobbed by people who want to make games but are afraid of actually rolling up their sleeves and getting stuck in?  If you have a good idea about what makes games tick, then the leap towards turning them into something you can touch really isn’t as big as it seems.

The irony is that if you shy away from learning this skill because you think the process will be difficult, you’re actually making life much more difficult for yourself in the long run.  I can’t think of anything harder than having a mind full of original concepts but no way to make them happen.

So, here are a few tools we like to use when we’re prototyping, presented in learning curve order from shallow to steep…

Cardboard, Paper and Pens

If your concept is a turn-based game, maybe in the style of a board game or a card game, then there’s no reason you can’t make a physical prototype from materials you can get from any stationery store.  You could scribble over a deck of cards, use coins to represent score and pepper pots to represent players.  If the rule set starts to become more complicated, you could even computerize some of it.  Perhaps write a quick function for calculating bonuses or randomizing AI turns.  Anything that can help you get to a closer approximation of the finished concept.

Multimedia Fusion

Multimedia Fusion is a GUI driven game creation tool from ClickTeam (a company founded by François Lionet, the creator of AMOS on the Amiga, fact fans!)  It’s reasonably inexpensive, yet it’s a lot more powerful and flexible than it’s given credit for.  It’s great for throwing prototypes together without having to write a single line of code.

Adobe Flash

Flash is an authoring tool for creating media-rich interactive web sites, but is also widely used for writing web games. It’s artist friendly, and is driven by a scripting language called ActionScript, which is fairly easy to get your head around, but you could even just use the editor to make an animation of play.  Another advantage of course is that you can deploy your creation on your website for all to see.

Microsoft XNA

As far as ‘real’ game coding languages come, it really doesn’t get much easier than this.  It’s a C# based game framework, it’s all free to download and there’s a wealth of tutorials and support from a great community. There’s even a wizard bundled with it to generate a skeleton platform game for you.  Aside from having someone turn up at your house and write the game for you, there’s really not much more they can do to make your job easier.  Just ask the guys from the recent Next Level Dundee event at Abertay, who managed to create some stunning demos in a single week having never used the platform before.

I encourage everyone reading this, whether you’re a student looking to break into games or a designer already working in the industry to give the Mucky Hands philosophy a whirl.  Once you’re over the initial learning hump, you’ll wonder how you ever managed before.