Starting With A Concept

One thing that tends to stump a lot of people when it comes to developing their own software products is ‘the concept’. Most of us tend to procrastinate then ruminate over this aspect of the project for far too long (I’m as guilty as the next man). Generally this is because we want to know the minutiae instead of looking at the top 5 big ticket items and then refining those as you move forward.

In some respects this is where the split between agile development and the more traditional styles like the waterfall method diverge. I’m not going to discuss methodologies though – that’s something for you to work out. I’m going to look at how you can get your concept out in the open and defined. Your best friend during ‘the concept’ stage (and it is a stage, although it may overlap other stages within the process) isn’t Photoshop. It’s not Flash Professional or Flash Builder. It’s not even a computer. It’s a pencil (or pen) and a stack of paper.

Yes you heard right. Using a piece of paper and a pen means you can throw down ideas faster than on screen. You are less likely to get bogged down in detail, and without a computer in reach you can’t tweet or check email and generally get distracted. All sagely, if not obvious, advice I know. I still use this process on a daily basis – while I’m been a developer for many years I’m also a classically trained Fine Artist (a former life :p), so I’m not afraid of literally putting a stick in the sand and working from there. The interesting thing is that people can become precious about their work – after all it is personal to you and no one likes criticism — constructive or otherwise. However the act of writing and drawing your ideas on a physical medium can not only help with getting the idea out in the open but also clarify your thinking.

Personally I have numerous squared paper notebooks (I find this makes it easier to calculate pseudo dimensions, width, height, and so on), which I go to first and scribble down ideas, processes and designs. I can then thrash them out into a final mock before returning to my Macbook Pro to start either refining the design or coding the process.

Take the images below, you can see I tend to favour red and black pens (in fact I only use one particular brand and model of pen – anal I know). As way of some descriptive text to introduce these images: The first couple were just for working out the character navigation based on the level layout. The levels themselves were from a first person perspective but the actual environment was managed in a top down manner under the hood. While the layout was simplistic (it was a take on a Victorian UK prison) it allowed a round table discussion not only of the in-game control and navigation but also how each cell was to be mapped and registered – both visually and programmatically.

penpaper01.png penpaper04.png penpaper02.png penpaper03.png

The last two are the notes on a ‘backpack’ style system for storing items and how the character’s mannequin was segmented in relation to held and worn items (clothing, torch, knife, etc.). Notice they are quite rudimentary and only really capture the essence of the idea, with supporting notes where needed.

I’m actually in the process of trying Adobe Ideas and Autodesk SketchBook Pro on the iPad to see if I can replicate the fidelity and speed of traditional pen and paper. So far the results have been good, but I fear it is only a simple skip back to noodling on my Mac if I do continue down this digital path. As a closing thought I just want to mention Nintendo.

When designing games Nintendo use the traditional pen and paper method but crank it up a notch, (and if you have the space I suggest you try this). Their thought process revolves about distilling ideas and concepts through Post-it notes stuck on the wall. This way they can group / re-group and merge / remove ideas and items by merely removing or moving the Post-its. To quote John White, DMA Design (now Rockstar North) talking about a game they developed for Nintendo called “Body Harvest”:

“[Nintendo] basically detailed how they wanted us to redesign the entire game. We didn’t know what was going on, we were just overjoyed at being in Japan for two weeks. We got to see their whole design approach and it just amazed us – they had a large room with Post-it notes covering practically every inch of wall space.”

In the past I’ve used this on a few projects and it makes the defining process fast and flexible. The only problem is that you need to capture the information somehow (I’ve photographed the Post-its in the past) as not everyone has the luxury of a room they can dedicate solely to Post-it notes :p. If you’ve not tried using plain old pen and paper (or Post-its) then I urge you to give it a whirl – you never know it may prove useful. You may even enjoy it :)

Mike Jones

One Comment

  1. “(I’m as guilty as the next man)”
    Shouldn’t that be “I’m as guilty as the next person”?
    I’m sorry, maybe I’m wrong and this article wasn’t meant for me to read.

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