Secret Project part 2: The Prototype(s)

After getting the pitch shortlisted, our first task was to actually prove that the mechanic was viable ASAP. This was a rather unique challenge compared to other selected pitches, since they mostly had to build a regular First Playable.

We had two weeks to make it work. I’m kind of freaking out thinking on how to actually get the mechanic implemented in networked multiplayer under such a short deadline. The project would have most certainly failed its first milestone if it weren’t for the heroic arrival of… El CTO! *cue Mariachi fanfare*

Proof of Concept

The pitch had piqued the CTO’s curiosity, and since he didn’t have much to do after the client project had died, he had decided to participate in the prototyping phase. Bonus points: he even had recently released a single-player mobile game with germane mechanics.

We quickly set to work. After a short meeting we defined our objectives for the milestone and hashed out how the mechanic would work out. The only design documentation I had at that point were the pitch slides and some old notes I had taken months before, when I had written down the first iteration of the idea.

We found a Unity multiplayer boilerplate project and used it as base. While the CTO set to work on the basic tech needed for the mechanic, I attempted to find what would the minimal level design requirements be for it to be properly shown.

It’s interesting to me that during our first tests of the mechanic, we managed to temper our enthusiasm for the mechanic enough as to remain skeptics. I believe, in hindsight, that this attitude helped us refine the mechanic to what it needed to be.

A week in, we had a quick informal review with the C-level execs to check how the project was going. Being a 1-week prototype, we still managed to prove that the mechanic was possible, albeit poorly explained at that point.

During the following week we concentrated on stabilizing the tech and adding feedback to the core shooting to make it feel better. We were playing it daily between us and now little by little our skepticism lifted.

At the end of the two weeks, all projects were expected to present to the entire company what had been achieved since. When it was our turn, something magical happened. While we were playing, the entire audience started cheering, booing or otherwise reacting to what was happening on-screen.

That crowd reaction sealed the deal for our CEO, who, even if he still didn’t properly understood the game per se, recognized that there was something exciting in there somewhere. We had just passed our very first milestone.

Pre-prod Prototype

After that stage was cleared, the bosses met and we got our second mandate: make a stabler version of the game, but in another engine. For that task we got assigned a second programmer, so the team was now a whopping 3 people including me.

Since we were after all low-resource, we didn’t receive a deadline like other, more staffed projects. For the first 3 weeks we even worked with no deadline at all, just porting the game and improving it over the initial prototype.

So with a rather free outlook but low resources, I was half-forced to focus on high-value, low-cost features and tasks. We chose to keep stabilizing the core of the game, adding very few map features. One thing the game did require due to its core mechanic was good HUD info to help the player make sense of what is happening, so we iterated that.

Slowly, as I tested the game, it made its way onto the computers of some co-workers. We are using Steam to distribute internal builds, and a side-effect of that is that old testers were alerted of when we had pushed a new build, and very soon started playing between themselves, without having been prompted by me to test. This was actually mind-blowing to me, never in my career as designer had people outside of the project been eager to play an in-progress prototype!

Even more, for some matches other co-workers even stopped what they were doing and instead spectated the matches, cheering the players on.

Around 3 weeks after we had started the port, my boss lets me know that they want to set a greenlight date for the project. He assured me that it wasn’t a kill-gate, rather a test to see whether the game was ready to go into regular production or not, and that if it failed it would get a further greenlight. A rather sweet deal. I was secretly hoping to not pass the greenlight so that I could keep refining the project’s core at my own pace.

With the deadline set, this helped us give a narrower focus on stability and readability features. Every test we made drew larger internal crowds.

A day before the greenlight, a high-profile local game designer friends with my boss came to test the game, and he seemed to really dig it. His feedback went in the direction I was already thinking of, so that assured me that I wasn’t doing everything wrong or that the game’s appeal so far also existed beyond the microcosm of our company, which was one of my main concerns.

The greenlight meeting came, and obviously everyone agreed that the game was more than ready to enter production and target a limited closed alpha release ASAP. No extended refinement period for me…

I decided to take a week’s vacation to prep for what seems to be a more hectic time. In the following days, I attempted to generate a backlog of stories as complete as possible for what would be a closed alpha. As a last fun activity before vacations I organised an internal tournament of the game.

That tournament’s reaction took over the company by storm, and rather shocked me. It was more than I could have dreamed a game I worked on could generate. Maybe people will really like this!

Now I rest, and we’ll see what the following months bring.