In game prototypes, find a good feeling first

At GDC this year, Jonathan Dower of Supercell described the process that his team had used to build and ultimately kill a game called Smash Land. One thing surprised me more than the fact that they’d killed a game showing promising signals: the fact that they focused on look and feel early in the process.

After identifying the core mechanic that they wanted to build around (a slingshotty thing from a Japanese game called Monster Strike), they focused on gameplay: “the feeling of how the character reacted, the audio, the pops and all that.”

That surprised me. That stuff seems like polish that you add near the end, after you’ve validated that the game has what it takes to be a winner. But Jonathan’s team worked on that stuff first. Why?

Over the last couple of months I’ve been working on games for the first time. Today my team presented results of a game jam to a small panel of judges. And I understood why Jonathan’s team worked on that gameplay stuff first. The game creates a feeling in the player, and that feeling is either positively or negatively valenced. And the only thing you have to offer, as a game, is positive feelings. That’s what you’re delivering: an emotional experience that’s more desirable than what the player would otherwise be experiencing. If in your prototype you haven’t added the gameplay stuff that’s necessary to create a good feeling, you’re not going to be able to get much of a useful signal from your playtesters. They won’t like it. And the only thing you’ll be able to do is ask them to pretend they like it, which, as I’ve written, is the one thing you can never do in prototype testing.

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