Monday, 25 August 2014

Albums and B sides

Hello internet.  I’m back once again with another random musing on what I’ve learned from making games. This time round I’m going to set up an analogy and then torture it to death: Putting a game together can be a lot like mixing an album!

So I have pretty much completed development on our latest game, right now it has a grand total of 14 levels, each one of them with different mechanic or twist on the main game. 

Individually I’m happy with each of these sections.  They’re all debugged and tuned up to be as good as they can be on their own merits but now it’s time to think of how they hang together as a whole.

…and that’s where this whole album business come.  What I have is a set of pieces: some easy, some hard, some (hopefully) funny and so on.  Also the mechanics are all over the place, some just pop out of nowhere whereas others are pretty boilerplate to the game’s main theme.

If I just chucked them out in the order that I’d written them then it’d just come across as a disjointed mess. Instead the idea is to arrange them in such a way that they flow seamlessly from one experience to another along an overall arc.

It turns out that doing this is one hell of a balancing act.  Here’s a sample of the decisions that I and the rest of the team have been wrestling with:


The game should get harder over time.  You want a relatively straightforward opening level to get the player in to the swing of things but then what do you do next? The player is naturally going to get better at the game the more they play so you have to move with them.  Keep the levels too easy and they won’t perceive a challenge and wander off… make them too hard to quickly and they’ll hit a brick wall, get frustrated and again wander off. 

So you have to judge the difficulty curve right but even that isn’t enough… if the curve itself is smooth then that in itself becomes predictable, it can make you feel like you’re on a treadmill – progressing but not actually going anywhere.  MMO players reading this will be nodding right now J.  Instead I think that the ideal solution is to generally follow a curve but to spice it up a little! Every so often chuck in something solid for the player to chew on and then afterwards maybe give them an easy level as a breather.

Finally there’s a kicker to this.  I’m in the privileged position of intimately knowing exactly how the game works.  I know how the baddies think, I have played every level tens of times, I am the best person in the world at my game – so how the hell do I accurately judge difficulty for anybody else?

Well I’ve no idea.  I’ve gotten a bunch of people to playtest it but to be honest it’s mostly guesswork.  I’ll be fascinated to see how close to the mark I was when the game comes out.


Just as with difficulty, the actual experience of the game needs to be moving all the time.  If you stick with the same mechanics over and over again then you’ll slowly drain all the fun out of the experience.  Most games solve this by drip feeding in new weapons/mechanics/tools/etc. over time to keep things fresh.  To be honest this is pretty much the approach we’re taking here.  We’ve already got a mixed bag of easy/hard/funny/zany/straightforward levels so we’ve made an effort to shuffle them around so as to keep the player on their toes.

The Cut:

This is where the ‘B sides’ part of the title of this post comes in.  Out of the 14 levels I started this process with, right now it looks like only 9 of them will make it in to the main game.  So what’s wrong with the other 5? Well. Nothing really – they all play fine individually and they’re all fun and challenging in their own way… they just don’t fit in to the overall experience that I’m trying to achieve.  It’s painful to let them go but as football pundits say: there is no I in team!

On the plus side all these redundant levels can be repackaged as bonus content. If you get to the end of the game then you can take a crack at them as a semi-sadistic reward. Did I mention that some of them are really hard?


Games take fekkin ages to make. We’ve spent maybe 6 months on and off working on this one and a lot of the time we’ve been wrestling with where to set the bar in terms of production values.  Take the intro sequence, that took Mungy over 3 weeks to put together.  Yes it looks really good but if we polished the rest of the game up to that level but if we did then we’d still be building it next Christmas.  So I’ve been trying to walk a tightrope between making things nicer and wasting unnecessary time.

The result, I think, is that the presentation is sketchy in places. Hopefully though it won’t ever drag you out of the experience, and the time we saved can be used to get to work on the next game J

It’s also part of the learning process we’re going through.  We’re still very much in our infancy as a team.  One of the things that we’ve still got to nail down is how to produce and present a coherent vision of a game when we’re all running off doing our individual bits separately.  Turns out it’s quite hard to pull off!

Ratticus’ final comment

Anyway, how we did on all of these points is ultimately up to you! I hope you’ll all have fun playing ‘The Python Pythoff’ in a couple of weeks when it’s out there in the big wide world.  Maybe you’ll enjoy it maybe you won’t, either way please leave me some feedback – I’m dying to know!

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Finding Fun

Hi internet,
So far on this blog my posts have tended to fall in to 2 categories. I'm either moaning about something or other that’s pissing me off… or cheering up and getting all excited again.  Well luckily for you, this one’s taking a different tack.  Instead I'm going to talk about something odd I've noticed.

Put bluntly: the difference between fun and not fun is bloody minute!

I've been prototyping a lot recently, i.e... knocking up quick and dirty builds to test out various gameplay ideas I've had… and in almost every case they don’t just emerge as a fun experience on the first attempt. Instead I normally have to go through a process of tinkering and testing over and over again until something entertaining emerges.

If a level is too short then a player will feel unsatisfied, too long and they’ll get bored.  Make it too hard and you’ll piss ‘em off… too easy and you’re back to boredom again. Also how fast should the character be? How about the relative speed of the enemies? What should the time limit be? How much damage can they take without dying? And so forth… Even on a purely mechanical level there are dozens of these factors that have can have an effect on a player’s enjoyment of the game.

More than that if I build a level and it isn't quite working it’s normally a combination of the above that I need to tweak to get the gameplay where I want it.

And the tweaking itself is a fascinating process, it can go something like this…
Build the basic game – not fun
Make it a little harder – still not fun
Make it a little faster – still not fun
Add more enemies – FUN!
Add a few more enemies – not fun again
Make the game slower – MORE FUN!
Slightly tweak the controls – no fun at all
Paint everything green – BINGO! Fun for breakfast, lunch & tea!

And so forth.  The point is that it’s not a formula that I'm working to at this point- it’s a semi-guided game of trial and error. Sometimes I have no idea what the magic combination will be, other times I may think I do and end up with an unplayable piece of crap.  Even if I hit a fun combination how do I know if it’s the best possible version or that some more tinkering wouldn't yield an even better solution? – I don’t!

Add to that the fact that at the same time I'm losing my objectivity by playing it so intensively and even then, fun is a subjective experience, (i.e.. if I do make something fun for myself there’s no guarantee that the next guy will), and it’s enough to give me a bloody big headache!

So there you go kids, fun is a crap shoot.  Admittedly it’s not completely blind, (I do generally have an idea of the areas I need to tinker with), but it’s fascinating to see that moment when it all clicks together and I know I've got a game on my hands!

Ratticus’ final comment.

I've taken a few things out of this: nothing I didn't really know already but in future I’ll put more emphasis on:
Getting more playtesting done
Prototyping quickly and often
Making anything that might need to be adjusted easily configurable
And so forth – you've heard it all before no doubt…

I don’t really have a silver bullet solution for this.  I'm sure experience will also help hugely as time goes on, but I don’t think there exists a way of honing in on a fun experience by design, you've just gotta chip away until something nice pops out!

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Creativity Catharsis

Hey internet.  How've you been?

Last time we spoke I spent most of the post whining on about how depressing it can be to be creative when making games. It’s a contains a lot of whining so don’t bother to go and look it up but the main gist is that you’ll never have a chance to realize all the ideas you have for games because they take too bloody long to make.  I.e. you think up games far quicker than you can make them.

At the time this was getting me down, knowing that most of the kick ass concepts I have floating round in my head will have to stay there because I’ll never find the time to turn them in to ones and zeroes.

Well a few months have passed and things are different, I've got the spring back in my step and I’m full of programming.  So what’s changed?

No.  It wasn't drugs.

We've made a few changes around here and right now they’re all working out for the best… here’s what happened.

1. Mess about

Basically I was burned out on most of the stuff I was working on back then.  We had a couple of long running projects and, to be honest, I was sick of the sight of both of them.  Development had slowed to a crawl and it was hard to find the motivation to even load them up to work on….

So put simply I kicked them in to touch. I dropped everything I was working on and started a new project, one that I could do quickly, be creative with and have a little fun.

The core concept is very simple, and based on a classic game you’ll all know, it’s a template that I could rapidly build on. Instead of hand crafting a complicated engine for it I built something very straightforward – the idea being that I could bang out a new level or piece of content in a day or two rather than months…

From there I went nuts: Every level has a different central mechanic and requires a different play style, thematically they’re also all over the place.  It’s not a particularly polished or deep experience but its great fun in a tongue in cheek sort of way and is an absolute blast to work on!

In about a month of on-and-off weekend and evening coding I’ve gone from nothing to a fully working and 90% complete game. You lot will have to wait a while before you can get your grubby hands on it but it’s already succeeded in its main goal… getting me engaged with making games again!

2. Democracy

We also started looking at a new project as a team.  It’s at a very early stage at the moment so I don’t want to talk about it… instead I want to wax lyrical about the process we’re following.

We’re trying a new collaborative approach for it.  We picked a genre that we’re all interested in and from there on out we've discussed everything as a group and evolved the design together.

It’s actually really difficult to stop yourself going off and working on it individually but we've put in a couple of rules: all design decisions are group decisions.

Now none of the above is rocket science but previously we’ve tended to have one person take the lead in terms of the design.  This means that you can get a very good picture on how the game’s supposed to work… but on the downside it’s harder for the rest of the guys to keep motivated on the project.  Because they haven’t been involved in coming up with the idea, they’re not as invested in it… which can be a real drag if it involves several months of their time and effort.

So the new approach then:  downside is that it’s a lot slower.  Obviously it relies on us being able to regularly meet up (which is not always possible) and sometimes you can spend ages debating a point which you would have decided in 5 seconds if it was just up to you.

The benefits, though, far out way all of that:

  • Everyone is fully engaged from the start.
  • We’re all fully up to speed on the development and direction of the game.
  • We’re having to articulate, defend and justify our ideas…
  • ….which we have plenty of, because we’re all thinking about it separately then bringing what we’ve come up with to the table at meetings.
  • Also, the discussion is making us want to research a hell of a lot more.  Example:  right now we’re hoovering up episodes of Horizon and Stargazing Live to pin down the fundamentals of interstellar travel (yes, the game’s based in space)
  • Finally, there’s a snowball effect: As the design develops we are all getting more and more enthused with the whole project.  When the time comes to actually crack on with production then we’ll be chomping at the bit to get going.

Now: I'm not saying that we won’t be using the autocratic approach for some games going forward (my experimental muck about game being a prime example), but: I do think that we’re starting to come up with a trademark Caper approach for collaboration.

I'm beginning to get an idea of what working on Caper games is going to be like in the long term.

And it feels great!