by Ian Brock
Ludum Dare 21 marked Incredible Ape’s second Dare and fourth ever game jam. We had a great time and are quite proud of our little game called / ESCAPE \ (which will be henceforth referred to as Escape in this post). If you haven’t played it, you should check it out right now! You can also watch a timelapse of Josh’s screen during the development process.
The following is an (extremely long) account of and reflection upon the successes and failures that Josh and I experienced during the making of Escape.
What Went Right
Falling in love with the idea
There’s a lot of pressure when you’re trying to crank an entire game out in less than 72 hours. Knowing when to call something “good enough” and move on is crucial to a successful jam (ie finishing your damn game), but the brainstorming phase is one thing that should not be rushed through. When we began brainstorming on Friday night, it was already decided that no actual programming or artwork would be made until the next day. This decision made it easy to bring up and ultimately throw out lots of bad ideas because we weren’t feeling rushed, and there wasn’t the pressure to just go with an okay idea simply to start working on something. Instead of considering and analyzing the merits and practicality of every idea we had, if a concept wasn’t immediately exciting, we simply moved on. We did this until the idea of a one button wall jumping game was brought up, and it instantly sparked excitement in the both of us. We quickly boiled the gameplay down to its purest form and, despite what had been previously decided, started working right away. We were too excited to wait!
Playing to our strengths
Successful teams know what they do well, and they also know what they suck at. For Ludum Dare 20, Josh and I were using Unity for the first time and both of us were in unfamiliar territory. We came up with a pretty neat idea but everything took longer than it should have and at the end of the 72 hours we had only finished two simple prototype levels. For this jam, we stuck to our guns. Josh is good at Flixel and I’m good at 2d sprite art so that’s what we went with. We also brought in our friend Guerin McMurry (aka spamtron) to do the music and gave him utmost freedom to do what he does best. Unsurprisingly, the end result was a much more complete, polished and satisfying game than when we tried something completely new.
Focusing on controls first
Since we decided to make an action game, we knew the most important thing to get right was the feel of the controls. Good action games make the player feel skilled and powerful and nothing ruins that more than sloppy, laggy, confusing, or otherwise poor controls.
The jumping mechanic was the very first thing Josh prototyped (with beautiful programmer art) and it proved that our idea would be fun. Originally, I had been skeptical whether we needed to give the player control over their jump height, but Josh insisted and after playing his prototype, I completely agreed. I had first imagined the game relying purely on the timing of your jumps (trying to keep it simple), but Josh’s controls were so intuitive and responsive that they won me over. A big inspiration came from the tight, fast, acrobatic jumping in Super Meat Boy and Escape’s controls were basically designed to feel just like that. With the controls proven early on in the development process, we knew that even if we didn’t have time to add all the cool visual stuff we wanted, the game would still be fun.
Designing good levels by hand for an action game takes a long time, and 72 hours is anything but. Early on, Josh and I both knew that the only way too make something small that could keep a player entertained for more than a minute or so would be randomly generated levels, an idea we first realized when we made PewPewPewPewPewPewPewPewPew for the Global Game Jam earlier this year. Of course, randomness can introduce complexities as well so you have to keep the variables to a minimum. There are several elements to a level in Escape and two of them never change: the walls are always the same distance apart and the laser accelerates at the same rate every time. The only things that are variable are the min and max distances between shockers, their probability of spawning, and their size. With just those few variables, we were able to generate dynamic, challenging and fun levels that test a player’s skill and don’t feel cheap or impossible (most of the time). Josh also adjusted the variables based on height so that the game’s difficulty ramped up gradually, creating accessibility for new players and reward for those who play long enough to really hone their wall-jumping skills.
Playtesting, playtesting, playtesting
If you watched Josh program Escape, you probably noticed that a large percentage of the time was spent playing the game during its various stages of development. He would test the game after each and every change, no matter how small, and it was this mentality of playtesting, playtesting, playtesting that I think contributed the game’s overall quality. However, I wished we could have gotten more fresh eyes and hands on Escape during development as by the end of the jam both Josh and I were extremely adept at the game’s mechanic and it was a bit too challenging for new players. When we realized this (at the last minute, of course), we reduced the difficulty, but by too much, and the late-game challenge disappeared, so we had to scramble to re-balance the game with seconds on the clock. This bring me to . . .
. . . What Went Wrong
Let’s get the least humble and admittedly bullshit reason out of the way first. As I said before, playtesting, and playtesting often, was a key component to the game being fun, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with making a game you genuinely love to play (I mean that’s why we do this, right?). With that being said however, we often spent too much time just playing Escape when we should have been implementing new features, fixing bugs, or making assets. What can I say? The game is really fun and addicting as hell (IMO). At least the fun we had kept us motivated throughout the process.
Confession time. Unlike my friend Josh, I don’t have professional experience in my field and I’m not used to working in groups. That’s no excuse to ignore your partner’s requests though. It’s not as if I was doing it on purpose, but I’m generally not very ordered or organized when it comes to working on stuff. I tend to just go where my attention is drawn and I also tend to start tweaking assets that are already in the game when I should be making new ones. That’s just my perfectionist nature I suppose, but at times it was a significant hindrance to Josh’s productivity. As the artist, I don’t usually rely on Josh to get my work done but he often relies on me to be able to progress. If I had realized this earlier, we could have had the game at a more finished state earlier and we could have avoided some unneeded tensions.
Too damn hot
Yup, I’m blaming mother nature, or maybe I’m blaming anthropomorphic global warming. In any case, this summer has been particularly hot and no more so than now. Unfortunately, our apartment was without air conditioning so we had to sweat it out. The heat made us lethargic and relatively unproductive during the day, with night time bringing some relief but not much. On the second night we worked outside for a bit but Josh’s laptop quickly ran out of juice and so it was back to the oven that we call an apartment. I suppose we could have gone to a coffee shop or Fred Meyers or something, but that probably would have been too distracting to be worth the AC. I’d rather be hot with a finished game be than cool without one.
Forgot to eat/drink
Not only were our bodies secreting moisture at an incredible rate, but Josh and I weren’t even re-hydrating most of the time. This was not a conscious decision of course, just an unfortunate side effect of being completely wrapped up in a project with a looming deadline. I think I ate just one small meal on Monday. I’m sure these factors decreased our productivity, so next time we’ll definitely plan breaks and meal times in advance so as not to forget.
Despite all that went awry, this Ludum Dare has been our most successful game jam ever and I think Escape is certainly the most fun out of all the games Incredible Ape has made thus far. We can’t wait to do it again in four months time! I hope you enjoyed our game, I hope you enjoyed this lengthy postmortem, and I hope you enjoyed Ludum Dare 21 as much as we did. Until next time!