What Can Game Designers Learn from Improv?


This weekend, UCB conducted an improv workshop at IndieCade East, the East-Coast division of the biggest independent games festival in the country. It was an opportunity for designers of all stripes to put themselves in a more collaborative headspace, which is vital for the concepting and problem-solving stages of game development. And it was also an opportunity for us to see how many developers are using the improv principle of Yes, And without even realizing it.

“You’re trying to make a new level, you’re trying to design new characters,” said UCB Instructor John Timothy. “At any stage of the process, we’re helping people figure out: how do we collaborate better? How do we make ideas better? How do we make our environment better for new ideas to come together, and get something that’s going to add value for everybody down the line?”

Much of game development is a cycle of programming, testing, and reprogramming. But for all that time to be well spent, the team needs to have agreed on a compelling core concept. This is why our workshop emphasized high-yield ideation techniques: a surplus of ideas is the best place for any creative endeavor to start. Improv gives creative teams the pick of the litter -- and if somewhere down the line the agreed-upon concept doesn’t work, there's still a number of alternatives to swap out.

To demonstrate this, we spent a portion of the workshop dividing participants into pairs and prompting them use improv to plan the ultimate party by Yes, And-ing each other’s ideas.

“I think the party should have a DJ.”

“Yes, and there can be a light show.”

“Yes, and there can be an app that turns people’s phones into rave lights that sync with the music.”

Game developers begin with an idea -- the way the player moves, the shape of the environment, a certain mood or behavior they want to capture -- and expand from there. Yes, And facilitates that expansion by letting team members explore every possibility their imagination can produce, and zeroing in on the best one.

Being open to suggestion can also solve problems or improve still-developing games in ways a team wouldn’t have thought of initially. This should sound familiar to anyone who’s worked on a free-to-play or DLC-intensive game. These projects are practically in a constant state of playtesting, and many of them -- Kickstarter and IndieGoGo projects especially -- draw directly from player feedback.

For instance, one game we played at IndieCade was a hybrid of several genres: a tower-defense resource-management game with Minecraft-like material collection, three roguelike dungeons, a large open world and Left 4 Dead-style zombie attacks. Designer Rafi Alam called Don’t Bite Me, Bro a “work of the community;” many of the genre-mashup elements were suggested by the forum he created for playtesters. Those playtesters acted as Rafi's collaborators, and he enthusiastically found ways to incorporate their ideas into his game, making for a unique, eclectic experience.

This is what Yes, And is all about.

Are you looking for a way to get your development team collaborating better and thinking creatively? We want to hear from you. Shoot us an email at sayhello@ucbindustries.com and we’ll get started on an improv workshop that’s right for you.

We Used Improv to Make a Video Game Character. You Can, Too

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