In part one of this feature we look at EA's new strategy around rapid prototyping. Here we go further, detailing how Tiburonâ??s Kyle Gray, former EA Vancouver man Dr John Buchanan and EA Montrealâ??s Vander Caballerro used fast idea preproduction for the company's new games.

Quick thinking

(To read the first part of this feature, click here.)

Rapid prototyping using Flash
(Kyle Gray, Producer, EA Tiburon)

A Tiburon alum like Jeremy Townsend, Gray’s take on using Flash instead of XNA focused around how prototypes can aid the pitching process, using lessons learnt on producing a Nintendo DS idea.

On quickly prototyping ideas using flash, Gray explained "the purpose was relearning something I used to know", pointing out that there was a dark side to prototyping: when it came pitching ideas and trying to convey an idea a prototype can distract from the game concept being sold.

"The danger with pitches is that a prototype can horribly derail things," he said. "They can be real red herrings."

Although brief, he quickly demonstrated two games for the DS made in Flash which were seen by execs and tweaked to suit their questions – meaning they were able to talk about both the concept and the high level design and story elements.

A game that might feature a child in Victorian era England working at and exploring a factory level can throw up questions about child labour, for instance, but also let everyone involved look at the game’s core mechanic as well. So Flash prototyping can involve lots of high-level and low-level thinking about a game’s design.

Clearly, the approach pays off – one of Gray’s new ideas that has recently got the green light from EA’s senior staff (also proving correct both Entis’ comments, and those from former EA Canada man Dr John Buchanan on game sketching below, on how prototyping is actually a great way to engage execs).

Game Sketching
(Dr John Buchanan, director of entertainment technology centre, Carnegie Mellon, Melbourne, Australia)

This part of EA’s strategy is completely back to basics, explained Buchanan, who prior to his post at Carnegie Mellon was EA’s University liaison and worked at EA Vancouver.

"We realised the only people who could prototype were those with game skills," he explained. So ‘game sketching’ is exactly as it sounds: drawing concepts on paper.

"Sketches exist in movies," said Buchanan, pointing out that animatics and storyboards are developed and designed for movies before a shot or effect is even started. "The definition of a prototype is not the idea that the industry uses," he added, reiterating that a game sketch is something pre-prototype: "A sketch is not a prototype – it’s something you build and throw away. Sketches are references for a prototype."

"The word prototype is badly over used," he added. "The saddest part about the game industry is that the core part of a game is interaction, but that doesn’t happen until late in the process. The other sad part is that games are killed by execs before they play them. So what if you could get an exec to play a game before they killed it?"

At EA, sketchier forms of games were used to test gameplay in Canada and the UK. The FIFA team, said Buchanan, plays their game with AI stickmen, "because it should be just as fun as with fully rendered character models". The Harry Potter team in week built a prototype of a 3D environment that let them work out how multi-character mechanics and camera angles worked best.

He added: "What a sketch allows us to do is use the best game engine we have – each one of us has one between our ears. Our imagination lets us fill in the blanks.

"It also keeps focus, and makes you think about single issues like art, time, environments. You have a single conversation about one thing."

Plus, when it came to those pesky execs, he said, game sketching meant a commissioning producer could see and understand a game in its roughest form before seeing the kind of prototype outlined above and taking a dislike to it. They could even have influence – and all publishing execs like to feel like they can have input on a project, right? The added result of game sketching, said Buchanan, was that it meant buy-in from the whole team: "In the ideation stage ownership is the enemy of exploration – you want everyone to share the vision."

Prototyping gameplay with Virtools
(Vander Caballero, EA Montreal)

The final speaker, Caballero’s talk was really less focused on Virtools and more on how the creative prototyping process has aided EA Montreal’s latest titles. The studio itself is being heavily pushed as key to EA’s new strategy behind new ideas, with games like Army of Two, Boogie and a recent SSX game being its key games.

According to Caballero rapid prototyping contradicts and disrupts industry norms for the better, "going against claimed of what isn’t possible" he said.

Direct evident was provided from Army of Two, which features more realistic if leftfield ideas such as marines using tampons to plug wounds – or a collaborative minigame when a player is mortally wounded that asks players to tap out joypad buttons which form the rhythm of CPR duties and also prevent the other character from running towards ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’ pictured on screen.

These ideas and a number of Army of Two’s other set piece moments came directly from rapid prototyping. At Montreal teams were given one-week deadlines to devise and build demonstrable ideas, the idea being that the compressed timeframe would "push engineers and inspire them".

Likewise for Boogie, which was originally prototyped on a home-made version of the Wiimote (consisting of motion sensors and a chopped up GameCube controller) before Nintendo had sent out devkits for its new machine. While the prototype was a full game, the evocative animations and motion-sensing control made it the first game at EA that was greenlit just 10 minutes into the pitch.

Clearly, it’s paying off, said Caballero – not just for Montreal but all of EA’s studios – summing up the key principle that makes rapid prototyping so useful, and certainly something other studios might want to take note of: "you can do really complex stuff and get people really excited early on".

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