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:

Difficulty:

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.

Variation:

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?

Quality:

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!

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