The Great Big Blog Of Things I Should Get Marks For – Vol 2

Over the past several weeks (thirteen to be exact) yet again, I have been involved in the development of several games as part of my studies. And, yet again, I’m taking this opportunity to create a small gallery of particular pieces of work that I’ve created. Unlike Volume 1, this volume will focus more so on design and management, than on audio, art, and programming. Right then, let’s get to it.

Design

Throughout the recent weeks I’ve been lead design/creative director for four different games: PULL, Prosperity, J.E.R.R.Y, and Dyadic. Whilst the design of these games is an impressively broad topic, I’m going to narrow it down to a few specific examples of mechanics, level design, and player communication.

Mechanics

In terms of mechanics, this trimester I explored a couple of new genres of games.

Firstly, there was PULL, which was a very basic side-scroller with rather simple mechanics. You could pull the statue, and shake the statue. That was it. It was an interesting look into how to get the most out of the smallest amount of mechanics, and thus, the smallest amount of technical work, within a game.

Next, I looked into the development of a game’s economy. Prosperity was a purely economy based game, entirely focused on resource and workforce management. This gave me opportunity to break out a spreadsheet and start doing all kinds of math on it. In turn, this allowed me to structure the economy so as to have players reaching certain progression points at very specific intervals in the game. Not only that, it allowed me to ensure that the player’s economic growth was properly balanced so that even if their strategy was ‘perfectly’ optimised the game’s flow would not be disrupted.

Finally, I tried my hand at 2D co-op puzzle platforming with Dyadic. Quite the amalgamation of genres, but an important distinction nonetheless. Whilst designing interesting ‘puzzle pieces’ to use in the game was itself an interesting puzzle to solve, most of the mechanic challenges here were strongly linked with the experience of the two players. What we wanted was to have the two players mistrusting each other and coveting a particular item, yet we ended up with a game where that item had little value and the players tended to work in complete co-operation. This design process was a particularly intriguing puzzle based around how mechanics affect player behavior and interaction.

Level Design

In terms of level design, there was only one game that actually had a level that required a notable amount designing: Dyadic. Given that this was a puzzle-platformer, not only did I have to design interesting and appropriately challenging puzzles, capable of teach the players as they play, but I also had to create level that were easy, yet interesting to traverse. And to top it all off, I then had to try and combine the two so that the layout of the level helped create the interesting puzzles. Quite the challenge indeed.

Regardless of my success, this foray into the realms of puzzle making has forced me to consider all kinds of design aspects I hadn’t previously. Obviously, puzzle design is a big one. I had to take a step back and really design my levels from the ground up. It gave me an opportunity to examine methods of ensuring players always had a way to solve the puzzle and also the ways in which players approach various situations. Not to mention methods of gradually increasing the difficulty of the puzzles, without creating a combination of pieces that resulted in a significant complexity spike.

Furthermore, all of this tied in very closely with the mechanic design, as you’d expect. A good example is the way that certain items affected player movement meant that I had to always account for the player potentially being in either of the two states (altered or unaltered) at any point in the level. The puzzle design also ties in heavily with whether or not one particular item is critical for progress or not, as it’s obviously what actually determines that fact.

I think a the main areas for improvement in the future are the gradual difficulty build, and enjoyable traversal. With what we had, the players got through the ‘tutorial’ area, and were suddenly hit with a massive increase in the complexity of the puzzles. Ideally, I’d like to iterate on the puzzles we already have to improve the flow and build of this difficulty. The other key issue we noticed, is that traversing the level was often more of a frustration that a joy. This is part a level design, and part mechanical problem, as the core of the problem is that the two don’t work together perfectly. Again, the way to resolve this is to continue to iterate on and analyse the design to find the nature of the components that give us the best results.

Player Communication

Player communication was without doubt one of the greatest problems I encountered this trimester. The first three games I created suffered significantly from a lack of proper and effective player communication.

In PULL, there was little to properly indicate where the player had to stand in order in interact with objects, then little more to indicate what to do once they were there. In Prosperity, the interface was both ugly and confusing, which made people struggle to play the game at first. In Dyadic, the functions of all the various puzzle pieces and devices weren’t immediately clear, which mean that some of the simpler puzzles took much longer to complete as they had the extra puzzle of figuring out what the hell everything does.

All of this has made two things abundantly clear: Player communication is exceptionally important to create the experience you want, and I’m not very good at it. This is without doubt my most obvious area for improvement. And to do just that, it will require the continued development and widespread playtesting of both existing and new games/prototypes. I’ve already attempted to rectify many of my interface errors in my game J.E.R.R.Y. But to  determine exactly how effect I’ve been will require a fair amount of extra playtesting.

JERRY

Art

On the art side of things, I have taken a small delve into a whole new realm of 2D pixel art, with a very small side of 3D modelling as well. My first game PULL, featured a small host of 2D art created entirely by me, and (with the exception of the statue) totally from scratch. The statue itself was a pre-existing image that I pixelated and modified to suit my purposes. I also managed to create a super small two frame animation for the game’s enemies. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, I was unable to make anymore.

I felt that this particular project has opened the path to an art style I might actually be able to be good at, with a fair bit of work of course. If the opportunities present themselves, I will definitely look into continuing to explore this art style.

In terms of 3D modelling, I made some modifications to some work kindly donated by Savik Fraguela. I can’t say I’ve made a great deal of progress on that front.

Beautiful.

Beautiful.

Audio

For audio, majority of it has been placeholder audio that hasn’t made it into the final game. The one exception to this was PULL, for which the audio was created* entirely by me (music aside). Some examples are below.

Given that I was mostly creating* SFX in the same way as previously I can’t say I’ve made any great progress on this front lately. I’d definitely better simply thanks to repetition, but not better by much.

*the original audio was heavily edited

Management

Through all of my four games, I was in charge of project management for everyone. This was no great feat for two of them considering they were completely solo, however for Dyadic the case is quite different. Managing a team of 8 people from five different disciplines is one hell of an experience.

One thing that this game made exceptionally clear was that (and I’ve said it before) effective, and continual communication between all team members is critical for success. The fact that we made use of the service Slack helped with this immensely, it allowed us to properly organise all of our discussions and share content as it was produced, not to mention it allowed us to stay in touch almost all the time.

I’ve also found that with the nature of student projects, a rigid management method such as waterfall does not provide a great deal of use considering how random people’s schedules tend to be. They’re still useful for providing significant milestones, however a more flexible approach similar to scrum has proved to be far more effective.

For future management however, I think it will be important to ensure that all team members maintain strong contact – this means quickly and effectively chasing people up before they disappear for too long and implementing alternate communication methods. Furthermore, documentation can always be more detailed, and better designed to effectively communicate to different disciplines (more visual references for the artists, more audio references for the musicians, etc.), so that’s something I’ll aim to do as well.

The End Of It All

Through it all, all the countless weeks of development, and the countless iterations of countless designs, I have become something far greater than what I was before. Sadly, I can’t use the phrase “something more than human” just yet, but certainly something more than what I was. I’ve achieved a great many things, and learned even more. I continue to refine my skills and advance ever onwards. And what lies beyond my horizon? Only time will tell…

And so, this marks the end, of Volume 2.

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