Friday, 11 January 2013

On Prototyping & Writing

Hello! I'm Paul Callaghan and I'm part of the The Family Starr team alongside David and Ian from Pachinko Pictures, and I'm working on writing & coding.  It's a return of sorts for me to a big project having spent the past few years freelance writing & designing, as well as the Freeplay Independent Games Festival.  In that time, development has changed so much - and my own attitudes, theories, and experiences have too - that I'm really excited about seeing all of that from the inside again.

I'm also really excited about working with Pachinko Pictures. We've spent a lot of time talking about our ideas for indie development so we know our sensibilities match, and I've been hugely inspired by the branding work they did for Freeplay, that it's a real privilege to be working with them on an original title.

As Dave has already said, we just had a week of pre-production. What that meant for me was  fleshing out with the team our story ideas, and then implementing the first gameplay prototype.


At this stage of The Family Starr, we know the beginning and we know the end, but the middle is a mystery.  It's rare for me to work knowing the end-point of a story.  Whether it's my own or a client's project, normally I write forward, feeling my way through the ideas and the shape before taking a step back and working out how to tie the threads together. Having a new way of thinking about things means I'm looking forward to seeing how this impacts my own process and the rest of the project.

The beginning came from the original premise & pitch of the game, and the ending grew naturally out of conversations the three of us had about the general shape of things, the themes we wanted to explore, the locations we wanted to cover, the characters, and a sense of what statement we wanted the game's story to make.  With both in place, it creates a spine for our ideas and makes it easier for us to flesh out the characters - the first of which is up here in sketch form - and work out the shape of our plot.

And just like the shape we currently have, this approach is quite different to other game projects I've worked on.  There, most of the spine is already set and my job is simply to fill in the middle or write dialogue for characters.  Here, we're spending a lot of time up front sitting with themes and metaphor and establishing the relationships between the world of the game and the fictional framing for the mechanics so that the story carries weight and really meshes with the player's experience of the game.


As this is the first time we've worked together, we're still figuring out some of the rhythms that are going to work best for us, but after a day or so of working on story, it was clear that we needed to step back and transform the energy into something a bit more tangible.  For me, this meant prototyping the first mechanics for the game based on a pitch video done to secure Film Victoria funding.  Having the video there meant that we could all see how the game was supposed to work, how to communicate some of the ideas, and what the overall pacing should feel like.  Just like the story & pre-production phase, this is quite different to other projects. Normally, I've worked from a detailed game design or technical design document to implement mechanics or systems. Having a visual reference like this is significantly easier, and I suspect will form a core part of our design & production pipeline as the project progresses.

Some horrible prototype code

In a past life, I worked as a programmer at a bunch of games studios and over the years I've put those skills to some sort of use, even as my day jobs have focused on other things. I'm still a little rusty, but in the years since that past life, technology has reached a point where it's so much easier to focus on high level content and ignore the minutiae of just getting an image on screen.

For Family Starr, we're using Unity, which I'd dabbled in a little bit late last year, and which Pachinko used to create their previous game Take A Walk.  It's quite a different environment to creating for consoles or PC, but close enough that I picked it up quickly. Coupled with a 2D plugin for handling sprites and another for handling tweening, we got the first 3 mechanics up and running in a matter of days.

Some of our prototype sprites (the 2nd one is very small!)

At this incredibly early stage though, it isn't a glamorous thing at all. Just circles and blocks moving around on a screen, but it's enough for us to confirm for ourselves that the core interactions for the game are fun and that we're on the right track.

Next steps

Pre-production is all about answering the open questions about the project, and that's what we'll be working on in the coming weeks. Fleshing out details of character & location, symbolism & metaphor, plot & action for the story; finding the edges of the mechanics for the gameplay. All the while collapsing all of our ideas into the ones that will eventually make it into the final game.  Over the coming weeks, I'll write more about how we're approaching storytelling in The Family Starr, how that meshes with other disciplines, and how we're using our prototypes to figure out as best we can with months of work still to go what we hope the game will become.

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