Indie Dev Diary: From concept to prototype

August 1, 2010

Editor’s note: Brad Talton is an independent game designer and developer. What kind of games? Video games? Board games? Card games? Well, yes. His company, Level 99 Games, creates all kinds of geekiness. In a series of columns here at SBG, Brad shares insights into the game creation process. In this installment, he talks about starting his latest project: a 2-player iPad action game.

The game I’m currently developing for the iPad is called Super Psychic Chibi Fighters 3. Yes, it’s really called that.

Let me explain.


It occurred to me that it might be fun to do another video game. After the recent success of some other, more practical products, I had a little money to spare, as well as an idea that I had been mulling over for some time. Gradually, the idea took shape, and seemed like a viable option. 

My first thought was about the delivery medium of the game. I thought it would be fun to do a two player, frantic action game on the iPad. The device is big enough to support two people playing on either side of it while still seeing whatever catastrophic action was happening in the middle. 

As long as the action doesn’t require hands to cross over the middle of the game surface, that is. So I needed a game where the players are interacting with each other at a distance. Maybe blasting bullets or shots at one another? I was reminded of two games–one I had played and one I had made.

In high school, I was a fan of Psychic Force 2012 for the Dreamcast, as well as the anime X1999, and wanted to make something similar. In these, combatants fly through the air, blasting enemies with massive bolts of elemental magic. So, in C++ on Windows 2000 using DirectX as my graphics source, I developed my first game, Super Psychic Chibi Fighters 2

Yes, 2.

It was one of those zany, tongue-in-cheek titles. In SPCF2, the players tossed blasts of magic at one another while trying to dodge out of the way of other blasts. It was a simple but feature-filled game, with 4 play modes, as well as 20 characters with unique campaigns. It only had a production run of about 5, but the gameplay and idea were there.

I was also intrigued by the Touhou series–a series of fan-made games most haven’t played. When I was living in Japan, I was introduced by a friend to this series and the danmaku (or “bullet hell”) style of space shooters. In danmaku games, the goal may be to shoot up the enemy ships, but that’s not the challenge. Danmaku enemies and bosses can fill up the screen with thousands of slow-moving bullets that form a deadly, shifting maze for your character to navigate. 

I knew what I should make Super Psychic Chibi Fighters 3: a humorous, frantic, head-to-head game for the iPad that combined the original’s chaotic gameplay with modern special effects and a new battle system that focused more on evasion.


The first thing to do was find out if it was actually any fun. It’s easy to come up with game concepts, but how well do those work in the real world? Unfortunately, I’ve developed enough time-consuming, highly polished games that just weren’t fun that I’ve come to understand the value of prototyping. Determining whether an idea works must be the top concern– until you know it works, a game concept is just a shot in the dark against a faraway moving target.

In order to test, I decided to develop a quick and simple prototype of my idea that gathered together the most basic elements of gameplay. So I fired up XCode and created a Cocos2d game for the iPad using the Chipmunk physics engine. These engines are both open source, so my base prototype didn’t cost a dime to create. (Of course, I already had the iPad and an Apple developer subscription. Those cost $700.) It took about 4 hours to put together the basic game, which looked like this:

I didn’t bother with life bars, fancy graphics or even putting up walls; I just wanted to see if flinging blasts at your opponent was any fun. So the player targets are the two “mage” characters (recycled graphics from a previous project), and the little red pucks took only a minute to create. The interface background is just a suggestion–none of the walls or boundary lines are enforced in the prototype.

You make some surprising discoveries by prototyping. In the first game, you flicked the projectiles at your opponent, sliding them forward and releasing them like air hockey pucks. However, Lynda (my fianceé and playtest guinea pig) and I found that we kept smashing hands together and blocking the screen. So I changed the puck release mechanism. Now, players touch a puck and pull back, releasing to fire it off like a slingshot. This made the game much easier to play. Moving your characters to dodge was a reasonable challenge as well, since without fingers blocking the way, it was easy to see what was coming.

The frantic action was there. Before long, we were both laughing as our characters got blasted by exploding hockey pucks and spiraled out of control off the sides of the screen. The skill factor was there: it was possible to line up combos that would follow the path of a character blasted by an explosion and keep pressure on them. The strategy was there: I could dodge a blast, or block it with my own. We could use trick shots off of the walls or backs of the arena to surprise foes. It was actually a lot of fun, as simple as it was. 

So now that I had a working concept, it was time to move to the next step.

In the next installment, Brad will talk about his experiences contracting artists, gathering resources and developing a budget.

Character art by Victoria Parker for Level 99 Games.