“Level 1 Design” and the prototyping process

Matt Searcy worked until recently at Nexon Games, and since that studio’s recent closure, he’s now taken the principles he learned in that environment and shifted it to his own independent development. He explained how the process works at a talk at the Game Design Expo presented by the Vancouver Film School.

Nexon dominates online gaming in Asia, and makes most of its money on microtransactions within games that are “free to play.” Even though Humanature (the Vancouver studio) has shut down, Searcy said, the decade of experience Nexon has accrued throughout the past decade has helped him shape his design process, specifically through the “Level 1 Design” method, which consists on building out from the core of the game, one step at a time. It’s the only way, he said, to sufficiently manage the interconnected complexity inherent in game design. Starting from the core gives the designer a guide by which to continue the development process.

The exact wrong way to design a game is to start from bullet points on the back of the box, Searcy said, because inevitably those points will be reduced or scrapped as the pressure rises to release the game under already punishing schedules. This almost always results in crippled games that don’t satisfy anyone. Online games have an advantage in this regard, he said, because they can build incrementally.

Searcy walked the audience through the fundamentals of game design which consist of creating a character, deciding how he moves, then creating enemies and objects in the environment. THough that might sound simple, it’s the first prioncile of everything from Mario 64 to Sonic the Hedgehog all the way to the current Need for Speed.

“Fun is the priority,” Searcy said, which should be a no-brainer, but he said designers can sometimes be sidetracked by a problem or feature and end up watering down the game. Consistency is also important, and testing is an absolute must.

Level 1 design gets you a game that’s always playable, it helps a team to figure out what what the game is about. It also makes demonstrating the game easier with people who aren’t familiar with the design process.

Building the core experience involves asking as many questions as possible, then asking smaller questions, which in effect creates your design document on the fly.

Key to Level 1 design is a small team, and people who aren’t afraid to embrace failure, or work in a different way than they’re used to. And constant communication and transparent progress is a must, in order to avoid problems and share solutions.

Stay on top of the questions, Searcy said, And rememebr that games only do a few things well, so it’s important to focus on those things.