Easy is Shit

One year on this game. Wow.

To be working on a game for a full year and still be struggling to pull a playable prototype together is not a happy place to be. To be fair, none of us in the Brooklyn Game Ensemble have been working anything even close to full-time on this project. Last spring and summer, we met occasionally to toss ideas around, and this past fall we started getting together for a full day of design and production each week.

Given this extremely part-time process, our pace of development has been slow. Still, it often feels like we are caught in an endless cycle of iteration – trying out ideas, modifying the gameplay and game logic, gradually migrating the overall concept and player experience. We’ve tried out hundreds of ideas on paper and in code – the image above are notes from today’s design discussion. But because things haven’t fully settled yet, the game still plays more or less like an early prototype – ugly to look at, clunky to interact with, and completely baffling to anyone outside the development team.

Creating an experimental digital game that is not just an interactive slideshow or a platformer with a clever twist – in other words, a genuinely experimental game – is fucking HARD. There is a tremendous amount of uncertainty, and we’re generally taking several steps back for each step forward. Perhaps the one advantage of slow-motion development is that you have a lot of time to live with your ideas, to chew on them and refine them as they gradually are implemented into code. This is in contrast to a more typical development process where deadlines are looming, everything is happening at once, and there is no time to mull over each decision. But maybe we have too much time to think things over.

I’ve been involved with many many experimental games, on and off the computer. Sometimes it is possible to stumble upon a satisfying core mechanic early in the process and  build the up an entire game around that single kernel of fun. In the case of the Brooklyn Game Ensemble, it’s a much more gradual process. We’re slowly and painfully constructing the machine of our game, based on our group faith in the core ideas of the project, but very little about the prototype is actually enjoyable.

Why is this project so difficult? If you look at the design goals we set out for ourselves, they are based on making a game with a procedural (ie, strongly nonlinear) structure, based on a content theme (being in a library) that isn’t typically found in games. Many standard game elements that could form the foundation for a design, from the structure of the game space to things like enemy combat and a straightforward point score, just do not fit our project. It’s as if we’re not just writing a book – we’re also having to cut down the lumber to press our paper pulp, and mix up the chemicals for our writing ink. But perhaps that is the only way to end up with something genuinely new.

It’s easy to lose heart. But as my Uncle Lenny likes to say, “Easy is Shit.” If it’s not a challenge, it’s not worth doing.

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