Gamedev Updates

My First Demo Night: a story of abandonment

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The curse’d Idea Fairy (click the image for the original comic by TheMeatly)

I’ve abandoned another project. That is to say, the Idea Fairy has won this round: I’ve shelved the game I’ve been working on for the last few months and begun something new.

While I’m excited about my new game (and why wouldn’t I be? I’ve only been working on it for three days), I figured it’s worth taking some time to figure out what happened to Strange Gravity, and why it’s back on the shelf again.

A large part of this is due to a demo night here in Boston that I took my working build to. And that’s not to say that the evening even went badly. Here’s what happened.

I’d taken things I’d learned from watching people play the original 7DFPS build and revamped many features, including the logic behind how spores are generated, transferred, and destroyed (which is quite a lot of the gameplay). My improved logic was considerably faster and more efficient.

Also improved was the tutorial, which I saw many people just skip in the original game. I made out much shorter, which was a good thing. I still counted on people walking up and reading placards I’d set up, which was not a good thing. Also not a great idea: setting the tutorial on a flying disc above the ocean with no invisible walls or logic to handle falling INTO the ocean. In my tests, of course, I’d never fallen off the platform once. This didn’t stop a good 40% of players at the demo night tumbling helplessly into a low-poly abyss just moments after the game began.

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My modest table setup at Playcrafting Boston Winter Expo. Note the tiny screen and even tinier split screen! (not pictured – the 8-foot tall banners and 50-inch TVs other devs brought in)

Aside from that, though, I learned that I hadn’t actually improved the tutorial at all. People had just as much trouble following the 5 simple instructions I’d put on the sign as they’d had meandering through my museum tutorial from the original version. Now, I’m assuming that I didn’t randomly get a sampling of players incapable of playing through any given tutorial, so the fault was clearly on my end. I’m currently chalking it up to confusing layout, overly-small instructional text that wasn’t drawn directly on the screen, not incorporating learning better into the actual gameplay, and the fact that I was doing a multiplayer-only demo (tutorials work better for single players, I guess).

That being said, I still don’t know how to make a tutorial WELL, especially for a game that has some relatively complex mechanics. I guess I should go back and play some old favorite games, and NOT skip the tutorials because I already know how to play them. If you know any games that have excellent multiplayer tutorials, particularly first-person games, please let me know on Twitter.

So, the tutorial was a major stumbling block for first-time players, which was especially frustrating because I felt like it was so much better. But, beyond that, a note about design: the structure of the game is that of a top-down RTS, like Galcon or Phage Wars, but in the first person perspective. I knew from the single-player prototype that the format COULD WORK in first-person, but I learned this at the demo night:

It doesn’t work SUPER well.

Especially in multiplayer. The battles quickly became very hectic, with swirling cameras and little player awareness of what was going on. I can think of a few reasons why this might be, including poorly-thought-out level design and the very small screen that I was testing on, but it was discouraging nonetheless.

Now, I got a good amount of feedback, and a lot of people said that it had ‘potential’, which was very nice of them. But the one piece of feedback that I got which really hit home for was this:

“When are you going to start making story-driven games again?”

It's Not About the Aliens screenshot.
It’s Not About the Aliens screenshot.

This came from the awesome David Cherepov, who played, enjoyed, and gave me tons of great feedback for my favorite game that I’ve developed, It’s Not About the Aliens.

This comment, as well as my other experiences at the demo night, brought me to an important conclusion: I’m not making the type of game that I really want to play.

I mean, sure, if Strange Gravity were a completed game, with a fully fleshed-out story mode and a multiplayer mode, I would play it and enjoy it. I would not, however, play the multiplayer mode. I don’t really like multiplayer. I was mostly working on implementing this feature because I felt like it would fit for the game style, not because I thought it sounded fun. Thus, a large chunk of my recent developer energy went into a part of the game that I wasn’t super interested in.

One of my main goals was still accomplished, though, which was learning how to do more stuff. I learned tons of stuff I didn’t know, and that’s half of why I do what I do. The other half, of course, is ending up with a finished product, which was not the case here.

I still think that there’s a lot of ‘potential’ in the game concept, and I think that I have a solid enough code base that I could go back to it and begin developing the single player campaign. (Someday … maybe …)

At present, though, I’ve begun work on something that I actually DO want to play (a story-driven, 2D platformer), and I think that’s serving me well for the time being.

Have you ever lost a battle with the Idea Fairy? What happened to that old project?

Preparing for Your First Demo Night

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My untitled, unfinished sledding simulator. Gosh, purple is really the color of the sky in my mind, isn’t it?

When I saw that the Playcrafting Boston Winter Expo (an open-form demo night coming up in Feb. ’15) was still taking submissions, I decided to enter. The question then became: what game do I submit?

I have a number of projects that I’m working on at any given time, most of them excellent ideas that are far too large in scope and destined to be forever unfinished. I knew the chance to show off a game to a largish number of people would be an excellent motivator to get some real work done on it beforehand, but what game to choose?

My first person sledding simulator I’d been working on for a few days? One of the several untitled, bare-bones prototypes that I started making for friends in the holiday season? My long-abandoned third-person action-adventure, Spider the Fox? My well-received, but unpolished and tedious, 7DFPS entry, a “first-person-strategizer” called Strange Gravity? You can play the current version of it here, if you’re so inclined.


I ultimately decided to submit this final choice, Strange Gravity, for two reasons:

  1. It is playable from start to finish, which, while not strictly necessary for a demo night, means that it has functional gameplay that I could actually use feedback on, and …
  2. A YouTuber who did a playthrough was very complimentary (though I can’t remember which one 🙂 ), and said he hopes I turn it into a full game. In my mind, it already was a full game, but I took that as meaning that there was room for expansion.

I submitted it a week ago and heard back that I got a table a few days ago. Over the course of the three-day weekend (thanks to a snow day from work), I have done, gosh, maybe 25 solid hours of work on the game – not including the feverish brainstorming I always seem to do for a half hour or so every night after I turn off my bedside lamp.

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Two new planet types and a completely different code structure under the hood

With these hours, I’ve been able to completely rewrite a lot of the inefficient code underlying the main gameplay, including leaving room to insert local multiplayer functionality and the groundwork for a considerably more varied main campaign (with multiple opponents and several game styles). I’m thrilled with the work that I’ve done, and I still have several weeks to continue improving.

And if I’d chosen a different game for the demo night? Would I have gotten the same amount of work done had it been accepted?

Probably, but I have a distinct advantage against my own inefficient work ethic in this case: because the game was already functional and, in my opinion, rather pretty, I’ve been able to stop myself from pouring hours into needless beautification and ACTUALLY work on improving the gameplay and structure.


What can you take away from this?

  • Showing off a game is a great way to actually make yourself work on it beforehand.
  • Keep an eye out for local demo nights and meetups in your area. They’re a great way to network and show off work, and who knows – your ‘only okay’ game might have a chance against other submissions.
  • Know thyself (and how much you procrastinate – working on a project with a few steps done already is great way to bypass some slacking)
  • If you go back to an old project, be prepared to re-write most of your old code. At least, if you’re like me and rapidly improving your coding skills, you’ll look back and cringe at your old scripts, if you can even read them at all. It can be painful, so be prepared.

But, of course, here I am giving advice, and I haven’t even been to my first demo night yet. Here’s hoping it goes well!

Have you shown off your game at demo nights before? Other venues? How did you prepare?

GET MOVING: Motivating Yourself to Work on Your Personal Projects

If you’re like me, you have some personal projects that you’re working on, in addition to whatever you do to make money.

If that’s the case, you’re pretty lucky, because you have gainful employment and (some) time to work on your own stuff. You may find, however, as I have, that it’s not always easy to motivate yourself to work on these other projects, especially when you’re just scratching the surface of Dark Souls 2. (And let me tell you, being a mage is very fun.)

So, if you’re like me even more, you probably are working to find ways to motivate yourself to get going with that sweet, sweet, creative outpouring.

Here’s a list of the top ways I motivate myself to make video games in the little free time I have:

  1. Accountability
  2. Time Limits
  3. Anticipation of Finished Product

Let’s take a quick look at each of those.

1. ACCOUNTABILITY

ACCOUNTABILITY is the big one. If I have someone who’s expecting me to finish what I’ve started, I’m about 10 times more likely to actually work on it AND finish it. Even if this someone is just a co-worker I told about my most recent game, that counts. (This can be a bad thing, too, if you’re, say, working for an overbearing boss or some such. Never having developed professionally, though, I can’t speak to that intelligently.)

2. TIME LIMITS

TIME LIMITS are closely tied to accountability. But, essentially, they’re a way for me to actually work on all parts of the game to have something actually playable in a reasonable amount of time. (See: minimum viable product)

My tendency is to spend a bunch of time beautifying my games before they’re even playable. Take a look at this screenshot from my great unfinished game Spider the Fox. Or this gif. Lots of pretty stage dressing … mediocre, limited gameplay. In my experience, (and I think in a lot of other developer’s experience as well) game jams with short timeframes are an excellent way to actually finish things, especially if you’re not great at setting reasonable time limits for yourself. Or if you can’t stick to the ones you DO set …

3. ANTICIPATION OF FINISHED PRODUCT

If accountability and time limits are the main things that get me to work on games, ANTICIPATION OF FINISHED PRODUCT is the main reason that I want to make games. Yes, there’s the thrill of creation and the joy of learning new things, as well as the sense of satisfaction after I code a particularly elegant function, but, at the end of the day, it’s about being able to say, “Here! I made this thing! Let it entertain you! And let me watch!”

Any one of these is potentially enough to get me to actually sit down and do some work. But in the absence of any of these, you better believe I’ll be back in Dark Souls 2, trying to kill some hovering knight or something.

I’d love to see some comments about what other people use as creative motivators. Do mine work for you? Will yours work for me?

“Here! I made this thing! Let it entertain you! And let me watch!”

Self-Promotion in Game Development

I just read this article by Raph Koster about self-promotion in game development over on Gamasutra.

You should check it out – it’s good stuff. You know, if you’re a game developer.

What struck me most was the section about being kind to fellow developers. Sharing in successes and failures and generally being a nice person to the other people around you. So, I’m beginning a development blog to share in my success, failures, and interesting things I’ve found or am thinking about.

Raph says, “…there’s almost no advice as good as a signpost that says ‘watch out, a flood washed out this road.'” Here’s a little nugget of advice that I learned between the time I wrote the title for this post and the time I wrote this sentence:

Sometimes, you’ll discover a huge bug in your game that you’ve already released. This might be a major, hard-to-fix bug, but, more likely, it’ll be something stupid that takes two seconds to fix. It’s really nice if you have the capability to fix it whenever, wherever you are, because otherwise you’ll be pounding your fists against your head, berating yourself for not playing it through THAT FINAL TIME. So, even though I was at work, I was able to sync my latest build version of The Sinking Feeling from github, turn the script that I’d stupidly disabled back on, and re-up the builds to GameJolt. Then, I felt way better.

So, there’s a little signpost for you. I’m not saying that you ALWAYS have to play ALL THE WAY through EVERYTHING you do EVERY TIME you change anything, but, by golly, it wouldn’t hurt.

“…there’s almost no advice as good as a signpost that says ‘watch out, a flood washed out this road.'”
Raph Koster