Reflections on Developing Lifelines

Posted by Chris Morrell on Friday Apr 30, 2010 Under Blogpost Assignments, Design Reflection, Game Design

Over the semester in LCC4725 I worked on the game Lifelines which is hosted at Kongregate. Feel free to check it out if you have a friend around! Anyways, over the semester we started with an inspiration and through a lot of creative meetings, frustrating coding sessions, and a few much needed naps we were able to bang out a decent attempt at a Flash game. I’m going to breakdown the entire design process and hopefully at the end of it we’ll have a nice summary of what exactly it took to create Lifelines.

Sugar and spice, and everything nice..

I’m not 100% certain but I think the inspiration from the game came exclusively from the three girls in our group. I know I personally didn’t have much in the way of creative thoughts when we were brainstorming game concepts. I have a feeling if I had chosen the game concept chances are it would have been less creative and have involved stuff blowing. Luckily we came up with a great concept that we then built out to a full fledged game complete with quirks and bugs.

Iterative Design

Iterative design is a design methodology based on a cyclic process of prototyping, testing, analyzing, and refining a work in progress.

- Eric Zimmerman (link)

The process of iterative design was taken to heart with the development of Lifelines. Over the course of the semester we had many builds of the game but there were three principle cycles of development that enabled us to create a complete game. Our first build was actually a paper and pencil build with paper cutouts, two players, and two observers acting like tabulation machines. The game play was very slow, the game took nearly an hour, but it showed us that the concept was both feasible and entertaining.

The second cycle involved a basic ActionScript2 prototype that was chock full of nasty code and bugs. This was perfectly fine though as this cycle was a fast prototype stage during which we were honing our coding skills. We needed a prototype out the door quickly as we needed to be able to play test more extensively at a faster pace. With this prototype play testing time dropped from an hour to under 10 minutes.

The third and last cycle was our ActionScript3 prototype that we presented in class. After extensive reworking and the inclusion of many more features discussed after our second prototype’s play testing we yielded a fully working sample of our game. This cycle was our longest cycle as we adjusted from a fast prototype phase to a fully working final product phase but I’d consider the result of this phase to still be a prototype.

One danger of an iterative process is that it can lead to a never-ending list of tweaks and adjustments.

- Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman(link pg22)

Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, we are limited on the amount of time we can expend on the development of Lifelines. At the end of the third design cycle there are still features that we would have liked to have implemented like networking, a chat box, and extensive game balancing. This may have all been possible with only one or two more cycles of development but they may have also then yielded even more features to include. Since we are at the end of the semester we are out of time though and Lifelines must be considered complete.

The emotion of play

People play games to change our structure their internal experiences.

- Nicole Lazzaro(link)

Nicole Lazzaro of XEOdesign wrote a very interesting abstract on XEOdesign’s research in player experience. In the abstract she mentions four keys of successful game design. There is hard fun, easy fun, altered states, and the people factor. She mentions that “analysis of best selling games.. reveals that these games creation emotion in at least three of the Four Keys”. This is an interesting concept and I believe that applying their analytical process to Lifelines reveals that it touches on at least three of their Keys.

Hard Fun is the process of overcoming obstacles. Lifelines is a very simple game but there is a lot of strategy involved in order to successfully win. The strategy that the player employs can range from very simple single-turn strategies to three and greater turn strategies that require a proper sequence of events to yield results. This flexible variations in requirements make for a variably complex game.

Altered States stands for how players feel during and after playing the game. Since Lifelines is a very short game, each round can be completed in under 5 minutes, the players are able to achieve a sense of completion and accomplishment in a very short period of time. The calm nature and the board game mechanic also yield a relaxing form of game play.

Lastly, the People Factor is the enjoyment found in playing with other people. Lifelines is inherently multiplayer as there is no artificial intelligence. Players playing with their friends or with random players, if we had included networking, would find that different players would dramatically change the nature of the game. Perhaps a version on something like Apple’s iPad would further reinforce this key with an interesting face to face social game.

UI Design Affordances

There are several ways of getting a new user to understand what actions are possible.

- Don Norman(link)

For the sake of facilitating understanding our UI we included an introductory page that explains how to play the game. However, I feel that since the game is so simple that a user can stumble through it once and instantly become experienced with the method of interacting with the game. However, we also use a few conventions in Flash games to help users learn the game controls.

The use of the hand icon to indicate what can and cannot be clicked helps users to quickly learn what they are able to interact with. Now that I’m thinking about it I wish we had included a switch in the code that made the hand icon visible only on tiles that are part of a valid move within the game rules. This may have made it easier for players to see valid moves in the game instead of being confused as to why they can’t place a tile.

We also make heavy use of textual descriptions in the game in order to explain game features. If a user ever has a question regarding their abilities in the game they can hover their cursor over the ability in question and a short text explanation pops up.

Closing Thoughts

In the end we had the chance to build a pretty awesome game and I feel we got about 90% there. Our issue was the amount of time given to develop the game. If you read the comments and view the rating at Kongregate it is obvious that multiplayer functionality would have made Lifelines a hit. People like the game, they just don’t like playing alone. This isn’t something that we addressed in our prototype but one more iteration and we’d have had a chance to include this.

Given more time I’d have liked to include multiplayer functionality and port it to the iPad, iPhone, and Facebook. Since Lifelines is turn-based it can be played over the course of hours, days, or minutes making it an ideal game for such platforms.

In closing I’d just like to say I had a blast stumbling through ActionScript3, becoming mildly proficient in ActionScript3, and creating something rather unique. A shame about our time constraints.

Sources

Lazzaro, N. (2004-2005) “Why We Play Games: Four Keys to More Emotion Without Story.” Self-published white paper. <www.xeodesign.com/whyweplaygames.html>

Norman, Don A. “Affordances and design.” 2004. Web. Jnd.org. <http://www.jnd.org/dn.mss/affordances_and.html>

Salen, Katie, and Zimmerman, Eric. “The game Design Process” The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology. Ed. Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006. 21-24. Print.

Zimmerman, Eric. “Play as research: The Iterative Design Process.” 8 July 2003. Web. <http://www.ericzimmerman.com/texts/Iterative_Design.htm>

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