Inexperienced people, absent hierarchy, doubtful team constitution, loose working hours, crummy machines, “almost-original” software running here and there, and of course, nobody gets paid… Many would say this is a recipe for disaster if you plan to make a game, or anything else for that matter.
And yet I think you could not craft a better environment to the creation of an innovative game prototype. No, really!
A little background reminder first: I’m a second-year student at a videogame school. There are 45 students per year, divided amongst six orientations (game design, programming, etc.). The goal of the semester is to experience what prototyping and pitching a game to a publisher represents, the students constituting some form of “development studio” and the “publisher” being the teachers, director, administrative staff of the school. After an initial pitch selection made by the “publisher”, students were free to constitute teams and organize.
The organisational structure that emerged is a sort of reply to the situation we were put in: limited resources (the school’s computers), limited time (less than six months), limited space (two classrooms). So we ended up working as a “studio” with five simultaneous projects. The workspace is very “open-plan” oriented, as two or more projects have to share the same room, and thus allowing technical cooperation and conceptual discussion to emerge naturally.
Four out of five projects are being made using Gamebryo, for which the school has an educational license. “Educational” as in “no support whatsoever, ha-ha-ha”, so those projects are now pooling their resources (one team builds a sound tool, 4 teams use that sound tool) thanks to the students in project management that try to have things running smooth.
I also consider having old computers a blessing, not a curse. When you know that you won’t be able to render stunning graphics with stunning physics and stunning effects, you can concentrate on creating a stunning gameplay. An infinity of gameplay ideas can be tried out on software like Flash, or even the simpler Klik & Play (or his older brother, GameMaker). These last two were sold as a “game-making” game to kids, but they can certainly hold their ground in quick and dirty game design proof-of-concept-ing. A good rule of thumb could be “If you can’t translate a particular game-mechanic as a low-tech prototype, then it might be too complicated for most players to understand”.
Another nice aspect of the situation is that while still working under very material constraints, students are given full creative freedom. No license needing a shoe-horned gameplay, no new platform needing a graphics showcase (if only we had a devkit…), no need to cater to horny, warmongering teenagers; game designers are pretty much left to themselves when it comes to setting, gameplay or artistic direction. Which, of course, is the source to another set of problems…
This might be, in a nutshell, the reason why an academic frame is the breeding ground to so many great concepts: no financial pressure. Portal is a good example of this. I think the reason behind the (at least critical) praise this game generated is its concept, inventive,outlandish, simple and developed as a student project (was called “Narbacular Drop” at the time). On that matter, I would prefer Kim Swift to tell the story in her own words.