Though much of the game has been loosely designed the team needs something concrete and productive to work on. We need a goal to strive for that represents real progress on the game, so a good start is the first playable level.

A first playable level doesn’t have to be pretty, but it has to be functional. The main character Tommynaut should be able to walk on a floor, push a button and collect an item. The Unity engine will be up and working as we apply temp sound effects and make sure music plays, character animation can load, and the camera presents the best point of view for the player to experience the game.

While my designs are still images, it’s the magicians Mike and Ed at Pencil Test Studios who do the animation. The first playable level might have some puppet animate visible, but most of it is “pencil test” animation, which consists of roughly drawn, loose animation sequences that aren’t even cleaned up. The drawings still represent correct proportions and snappy timing, so they act as a playable proof of concept before we pull the trigger and devote expensive resources to final puppet animation.

We’ve got about a month to make the first playable level, but if it succeeds we’ll have a huge, reliable and definitive tool kit to make about 75% of the game! While Mike and Ed are working on this first playable level, I’m working on a super-tight design for the first 1/2 of the game. So if the first playable works out, we’ll be ready to go into production on the first half of the game, and the work being done will be very close to finish when it gets dropped into the working engine.

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I’m amazed at the similarities between all of the art mediums I’ve experienced. Much like siblings, the early process for designing a game is near identical to making a TV show, movie or sculpture. Everything is planned on paper, and it has to start loose so that nothing feels like cement yet.

There’s nothing worse than going rock solid with an idea too early on because once I see something that looks permanent it’s hard for me to think of it any other way. A variety of solutions need to be explored before the best one is chosen. The problem with a bad game idea and a good game idea is that they look similar in the earliest stages.

But the reciprocal is also a problem in that if nothing is ever firmed up then the entire idea remains a ball of much for too long. Indecision is at least as destructive of a problem as is impulse.

I’m in the thick of it. Designing a game means there’s scraps of paper all over my work space. Chunks of dialogue scattered over Final Draft files, Word documents and strewn across three sketchbooks. I like creating in a complete mess so that it’s easy to make a quite note or thumbnail a puzzle idea and move on. There’s a North Star I’m aiming for, so there is a theme and a core cast of characters, but the details and connective tissue aren’t there yet… that comes last.

This is where game design is similar to every other medium I work within, I go from general to specific. Jumping to specifics early on is bad in my view because bad ideas can get locked in too soon, and it will often compromise the larger structure that needs to hold everything together. As an artist, we sketch the proportions first, and don’t move on to thick lines until that structure is nailed. If I’m drawing someone’s portrait and get the structure wrong, then adding detail to that structure will only emphasize a broken face… I’ll never reclaim the likeness of the person by adding detail. The same goes for plotting story or script writing. The outline is king, and I have to feel confident in the notecards before going on to scene breakdowns and detailed dialogue. Once the structure is complete, I feel safer to move on to the next step knowing all of the connective tissue must serve that overall structure.

Game design is no different. I don’t want to start by throwing down finished puzzles and plots or it the player might feel like a section is suddenly coming from a different game. I try not to fall in love with anything too early, and it’s those early ideas that want to scream for extra attention because anything put down feels more real than what hasn’t been developed yet. But the strongest structure of the game could come along later, so it’s wise to allow better things to come down the line that could completely undermine what is created early on.