Sunday, March 06, 2011

Torchlight, paper prototypes, and iterative design (with kids)

I'm a big fan of Torchlight, the PC RPG darling from Runic Games.

I'm a fan because I like dungeon crawling hack-n-slash brawlers with smarts. I'm a fan of a game that takes the genre, refines what works, and adds new gameplay elements unique to the title (Pets! That you feed! And they turn into bigger, badder things! That have their own inventory and can do the runaround to return to the village and sell your unneedables, so you aren't wasting too much time doing inventory management and grieving left-behind treasures!).

Watching Runic move a successful PC game to the Xbox 360 (via XBLA this March), has been a neat case study in reworking UI, controls, and functionality to work on a different platform, without reducing features (and, in fact, back-porting some of the new features from the upcoming Torchlight II for PC to the XBLA version of the first Torchlight game).

Most of all, I like that Torchlight is fun.

But this post isn't about that; it's about usability, paper prototyping, and not learning things that keep you from learning.

Part of my background is formal usability. I've done the whole usability / human factors / user-centered design circuit at a few companies.

My kids have not.

Sure, they're firmly steeped in the comic book, toy, and video game geekdom that is going to be their life. But, because they're on the younger side, for personal and developmental reasons I've actually kept them fairly distant from a lot of the games I play (excluding stuff like Disney Epic Mickey, of course).

Recently, they started watching me play select games, including Torchlight (I turn the blood off), asking questions about RPG tropes, leveling, stat and inventory management, and the like. I was surprised by the detail and specificity of their questions, and their intuitive linking of design follow-ups based on previous answers.

Having watched me play Torchlight for a sum of 2-3 short sessions, they surprised me one Saturday morning with their own analog and paper prototypes of the game.

Granted, I'm biased, but understandably impressed not just with their reverse engineering the game rules after such short exposure to the game; I was taken with their mini-re-enactment of usability and paper prototyping.

First, there is this paper prototype they worked up.
Torchlight kids' paper prototype 1 (Too much fidelity)

They told me they abandoned it right away, because they realized after they made it, they didn't need the keyboard. What they hadn't been taught (but had figured out on their own), is a paper prototype too close to what you're trying to represent is less flexible, and it's tougher to iterate with it.

Next came this more stat-centric version of the rules. They said they didn't try to re-create the HUD like they had in the first prototype, because "they knew how that worked", and "that's not what we want to play with" (they wanted to iterate on the stats side of things).
Torchlight kids' paper prototype 2 (Sans HUD, more stats-driven)

This one captured more of the rules set, and let the girls iterate on the character, enemy, and weapons stats. This one is interesting to me, because while it starts with enemies and weapons they'd seen while watching me play, they quickly branched into the creative and invented their own "Rhino Monster", "Cobra Staff of Venom", etc.

They said they figured out, though, that as they changed the numbers (damage, rate, elemental, etc.), they were erasing and redoing work on the prototype, which was taking time and "making it messy" (my oldest has a bit of an attachment to order).

So, they created separate stat cards they could write up quickly, and lay on top of the paper prototype to "overwrite" previous stats, add stats to creatures or weapons, etc.
Torchlight kids' paper prototype 3 (separate, swappable stat cards)

Following closely behind this, as they were trying to explain the game to their two-year-old sister (they went through a lot of iteration before I woke up as a new audience). They found analog avatars a useful communication tool, so they dug out toys that closely matched what they were building, and used those to explain the game to their sister.
Torchlight kids paper prototype 4 (Physical avatars)

I'm not sure, but I get the sense at this point the prototyping effort went off-rails, and they started instead "playing Torchlight" with their toys. Wish I'd been around for (and videotaped) that.

Fascinating stuff, and fatherly pride aside, I'm impressed with how efficiently a 9- and 7-year-old worked through gameplay prototyping, not having learned stuff they'll potentially later have to unlearn in order to learn how to do it right.

Now I'm making game deconstruction and design a regular part of our unofficial learnings at the Creighton household.

(For those curious, the character, basket and potion are from the Mattel Disney Princesses (Polly Pockets-like) line; that's Bell. The sword and staff are from LEGO ninja and pharaoh single-pack capsule toys. The fish is from the Hasbro Littlest Pet Shop line. The rocks that represent embers are tiny, actual rocks. The cat I think is one of the few non-Schleich animals we own; Schleich stuff rocks.)