in game design, rant

I like good games and I can not lie

I recently applied for European games funding and had to withdraw my application because I did not want to lie about the game development process. This blog post is my way of trying to improve that situation in the future. In addition to publishing this text, I submitted a formal letter to the European Commission’s Open Public Consultation on the matter.


Let’s start by looking at how a game is made. I will concentrate on small and medium productions, but most of this should also applicable to AAA productions.

In the beginning, there’s an idea. Maybe you want to make a game about bureaucracy. You contemplate setting, plot, and mechanics. You look at how other games handle the matter for inspiration. In the end, you have a rough idea of what one of the core concepts of your game is. E.g “You play as a cat trying to petition for the right to vote, by filling out forms with only your paws. In Virtual Reality.”

Next, you prototype the idea to establish if it actually works as a game (“Is it fun?”, “Does it evoke an emotion?”, etc.) and in a technical sense (“Is technology available that makes it feasible to create this idea?”). While this prototype has to be able to demonstrate the validity of the idea, it is very far removed from what a final game would look like. Often it has no or only very preliminary artwork, spaces are greyboxed, there’s no plot, in short, it’s the barely playable essentials. In our “Cat Voting Simulator 2018” example it might be a white square representing a form, a black circle representing ink and rudimentary cat paws controlled by a VR controller that can drag ink on the paper. It’s just a quick and dirty sketch of the core concepts that is explorable as play-space.

Cat Voting Simulator 2018 Concept Art

Prototypes like these are made within weeks or days. In the case of a game jam — a social event dedicated to generating ideas and making them playable — they emerge after 24 to 72 hours.

The hard work begins after the first playable prototype. Refining the concept, building out the world, writing plot and dialogue, writing 99% of the code. First (and second and third) prototypes are created to avoid having to do all that work for months and years, just to realize that pretending to be a cat interested in voting isn’t very fun in the first place.

One great illustration of this process is Double Fine’s Amnesia Fortnight event. Double Fine, the studio lead by industry veteran Tim Schafer takes off two weeks to generate new ideas and make them into playable prototypes. Here, watch this video, you deserve it for eventually reading this whole post.

Okay glad to have you back, to summarize: Games are prototyped fast so a Game Designer can get a feel for mechanics and check out if the game “works”. Playable prototypes usually emerge after weeks or even hours. Game development is typically an iterative process, i.e. you usually start small and refine your work, building bottom-up.


Now let’s look at the criteria to get funded by the Creative Europe program. The games creation process as defined by them has two phases, Development and Production. Which brings us to the main issue:

The production phase (see definition) of the submitted project must not be scheduled to start before 8 months after the date of submission of the application.

So, in short, I have to spend at least eight months developing the game before entering production if I start the project by submitting a request for funding. Sounds fair enough. Development takes a lot of time after all. Let’s check how they define production, just to be sure.

Production: the phase starting from the testing and debugging of the first playable prototype or trial version until the end the production of the Gold Master or equivalent.

Whut?

Wait, what? So, after two weeks when I have a playable prototype, production already starts? So, development only covers the “development” of the idea and a quick sketch? That can’t be true, right?

Development: the phase starting from the first idea until the production of the first playable prototype or first trial version, whichever comes first.

So, what’s a playable prototype?

Playable Prototype: is understood under the current guidelines as Alpha version, Beta version or Trial version.

Okay, but what is an alpha?

Alpha version: one of the first iterations of a video game. The Alpha version is usually not complete and most likely unstable and comes before the Beta version.

That’s pretty vague and applies to pretty much everything that is playable. (And don’t even get me started on how there is such a thing as a pre-alpha in the real world.) What about that trial version?

Trial version: the first iteration of the first playable level of a video game. It can be played, tested and used for seeking financial partners

There’s no definition of what constitutes a level and — depending on the game genre — levels aren’t applicable anyway. So again this applies to any playable prototype. Especially given that you can attract financial partners with game jam games nowadays. As soon as you have anything playable, development ends by these definitions.

At this point, you are probably thinking: “Hey, Martin, you are taking this way to seriously, they cannot really mean what they think you mean, you should just talk to them about that.

Which I did. I sent long emails explaining games development and how prototypes are artefacts of the process from the very beginning. The answers I received boil down to:

Absolutely no prototypes for 8 months! The rules are the rules. We cannot make exceptions. Don’t lie to us, we will check if prototypes exist.

GPOY

So here are your options when you want to take advantage of this tax funded program designed to benefit innovative games made in Europe:

  1. Submit an idea you had a while ago (and tucked away for Creative Europe) without prototyping it, wait for 8 months and start development. If it turns out your idea does not work very well as a game… well, tough.
  2. Ignore the rules and make up your own definitions. Prototype an idea, make a submission you are actually confident in and rest easy knowing that nobody can actually check if you really have prototypes or not. In short: Lie.

If you ignore that this means you either do a shit job or open yourself up to a lawsuit, how does this benefit the creation of video games in Europe? This sets up a system that eliminates an important layer of quality control.

Even if the goal is only to support fresh ideas, the insistence on banning prototyping is a disservice to the quality of submissions and completely ignores the way the games industry works.

I. don’t. get. it.

So yeah, thanks for reading and maybe even sharing my confusion…

PS: If you read this before or on April 16th, feel free to give the European Commission feedback here.