“Dots” Postmortem – Ludum Dare #30

30 Aug

The thirtieth Ludum Dare was my fourth and the third time the Knoxville Game Design (KGD) meetup participated as a location.  (If you are interested in getting involved making videos games at any level, now is a good time to sign up for the KGD mailing list to get meetup reminders!)  Last time I entered with my two oldest daughters as a team but this time I entered solo.  I was hesitant to over commit give I had a friend’s birthday party to attend Saturday that would take away a large chunk of game development time.  I have become somewhat used to Unity however, so I was confident that I would submit something.

What Went Wrong

Normally in a post mortem you start off with the good, but in my case I stumbled getting out of the gate with the jam theme “Connected Worlds”.  I really enjoy mining a theme for a unique angle that won’t be seen in too many other games.  For “Connected Worlds” however I could only see games based on a mechanic of controlling two things at once, or inverting / flipping the level to get past an obstacle.  It did not help the process when Daniel Steger joined my twitch live stream chat and we began joking about a Death Note meets Pokemon Snap game or a game simply titled “Watchdongs” (which includes 30 options for day one DLC).  I don’t mean to say it was bad for the creative process, just bad for coming up with a game that met the current theme.

The jokes subsided (mostly because Daniel realized derailing me was also derailing himself) and I stumbled upon the Monomyth and how it would fit well with the theme and not be super obvious.  I envisioned a very simple puzzle / story game where each screen was based on a section of the hero’s journey.  I wrote out the short narrative for the first third of the game, just to see where it would go:

The player beings by being told to gather fruit. An illness has spread in the village and the fruit is needed for the sick. While collecting the fruit, a fox tell the player the fruit across the river is sweeter, and might help the sick more. The player can gather enough fruit without crossing the river, but in doing so loses the game. If the player crossed the old bridge to get the fruit, the winds pick up and destroy the bridge.

In attempting to get back, the player meets a tree spirit that asks why the player risked crossing the river. The answer is not really relevant to the game, and after the conversation the player is given heal from injury over time.

Not able to cross at the old bridge site, the player heads along the bank of the river and soon encounters a moving bush of thorns. The thorns will damage the player, but as long as the player isn’t constantly hit will recover. This encounter can be a step based puzzle where each movement also moves the thorns, requiring some hits to get out but taking too long will shut the exit.

Getting past the thorns reveals a bridge, when the player goes to cross it collapses and they are sent down the river. The player is now trapped under water and must find a way to reach the surface. One out of the water, they arrive at the bank of a very strange island.

What Went Right

I woke up the next day and realized I was crazy to think I could pull off the Monomyth game in the space of a jam, so I made a game about controlling two dots at once.

It’s a very simple puzzle game where you try to connected the two dots by moving them through various mazes.  Like most puzzle games it may not be obvious at first but a lot went into level design.  Not only did I meter out new features such as walls you can’t touch and reversing controls, but I also made the order of puzzle difficulty non linear.  That might sound odd because most would expect the puzzles to get harder as they go.   It’s that expectation that allowed me to vary the difficulty to good effect.  When you solve an easy puzzle right after a hard one you don’t think “that was easy” you think “ah ha, I’m getting this now – I’m smart!” which is a good feeling and that increases the enjoyment.

The other thing I did in the puzzle design is introduce a method of approach then make the following puzzle punish you if you took that approach.  I got this method of design from playing Kami which is one of the best designed puzzle games I’ve ever played.  Kami plays a meta-game with the player, teaching ideas then shifting the rules so those ideas will get you into trouble.  The do all this without ever introducing new mechanics, which makes it all the more impressive how fun the game is beginning to end.

This is not to say my puzzle design is prefect or even great.  It works, and people are enjoying it but one thing I learned in this jam is designing puzzles, even for a simple game like Dots, is hard and tedious – i.e. not fun. At all. Whether I polish up and add levels to Dots for a mobile release really depends on if I can bring myself to design more levels!

While I loathed working on the puzzles, writing the music was a joy.  I experimented around a bit with a few ideas, and settled on a track that plays around with arpeggios.  To someone not versed in music theory it may sound complex, but anyone with a bit of training can spot me for the hack I am =)  That doesn’t mean it isn’t nice to listen too:

I had a little time Sunday after finishing the puzzles and music to polish the graphics a bit.  I added a highlight to the dots and made it shimmer when the player pressed a movement key.  This was small but the overall impact was huge.  Never underestimate how important the little touches are!

You can play the game at the Ludum Dare site and as always, here is a compressed time-lapse video of the game’s entire development process: