The jam schedule has been updated accordingly since participation in this particular jam.
This was my 4th time competed in Ludum Dare since my first back in April 2013 (5 Days On 2 Days Off). A total of 2064 games were submitted and I managed to place rank #64 in the humour category which I was very pleased with. The theme for this Ludum Dare was "You Only Get One”, which I was fond of because I felt like it gave me enough room to experiment and try new things. It was refreshing to work on something that felt quirky while going through the testing phases of development.
Logline - Channel is a game where players smash a characters face into a table and is best described as a ‘Stress Relief Game’.
Player’s goal is to simply smash a characters face repeatedly onto a table in order to obtain items. Channel was my first ever attempt at an incremental/idle game. The theme ‘You Only Get One’ made me think of idle games. In a session with my lecturer Rob, he stated that he “would like to see me create something that was funny or comical”. So that was exactly what I try to do! Of course, humour is subjective. What I find funny you might not, and vice versa. But nonetheless, Channel fills me with amusement and it is cool watching people hit character into the thousands!
Looking over Chapter 2 of the Game Jam Survival Guide it states some examples of winning Ludum Dare entries. “The key qualities that the top ten entries all had were: Humour; Simple Graphics; Simple Gameplay; Easy to Pick up and Play”. (Kaitila, 2012) These four things were my main key points that I wanted to strive to achieve, attempted to make something humorous with simple two dimensional vector graphics in additional to super simple gameplay mechanics.
What Went Well?
I spent some time deconstructing the experimental art game, AVGM (Abusive Video Game Manipulation) by designers, Edmund McMillen (Super Meat Boy) and Tyler Glaiel (Closure) found on Newgrounds.com – Created in 48 hours for The Global Game Jam and winning entry for the 2010 Independent Games Festival award for Innovation. To summarise, the game is a minimalist idle/incremental game that explores some underlining satirical themes that are of the strong opinions of the developers. One thing I particularly like about this game is its stripped down mouse only clicking mechanic, something I have never prototyped before which makes for new and exciting challenges to potentially overcome.
These particular types of game are fairly new and often un-explored by developers so for me the genre was exciting to prototype. Being excited about something will often show by itself in the work that you do. One problem I frequently face that was in my trail of thought is that my coding limitations often make it easy to overscope, I approach design from a highly artistic point of view – particularly when working alone. However, programming this type of game was very much in the realm of possibility, so naturally, it felt like the right thing to do.
My initial vision gameplay vision came from merging two components, the first being AVGM by Edmund McMillen & Tyler Glaiel - the second one being an old experimental Flash animation of a naked character smashing their face into a table, which I created in the 2nd year of my time at University.
A pinnacle moment In the game Black & White is that it allows players to slap their creature whenever you like in order to discipline it into doing certain things – this was definitely a big influence on the nature of my game that I tried to adopt in some way when prototyping. I plan to do a new iteration of Channel that features free form interaction with the character rather than limiting to on axis in order for players to have full reign of their character – similarly to Black and White.
I like to search for interesting colour palettes in order to build up a little collection of wonderful combinations of colour. I inkdrop directly from the poster of French film ‘Amelie’ by Jean-Pierre Juenet in order collect some vibrant complimentary colours – I then use these colours as the framework for my game idea.
The way I approached this jam once the theme was revealed was by simply stating to myself, “I want to make a game with this colour palette”. I literally copy the photo into flash and inkdrop directly from the image to gather a range of complimentary colours that I intend to use for my initial conception phase. A lot of the games I make stem from my favourite films, music and artists – this one being a particularly good example.
I am a big fan of The Ren and Stimpy Show, especially the highly exaggerated, expressive over-the-top style and themes. I spent some time looking over the elaborate hand-drawn storyboards used in the show to aid my creative process. I pick out some things I like and begin sketching rough frame by frame storyboards, compositions for objects and taking brief notes. One thing I picked out that I particularly liked is the way characters eyes are drawn across frames – something I was keen to recreate. Another aspect I like was how collisions of characters into objects is expressed with such meticulous nature – often by deforming, skewing, stretching or folding the mesh/skin of a characters body into itself for short frame lengths.
The dramatic characterisation complemented by a unique animation style is truly something to admire as a stand out and definable cartoon. As designers it is important to look at the ‘greats’ in any creative or even non-creative medium to learn and understand what it is that makes them established in their field.
Visual Styletook out some visual style components from the book “The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy by Tim Burton” to aid the characterisation process. I like the way Burton uses lines and dark tones of colour under the eyes, making his characters appear exhausted or ill - likewise with pale white skin colour. Looking at these particular components help me through the process of creating the character. Attention towards the eyes of your character will allow you to control facial expressions and emotions more effectively.
The character goes through a brief in-game art passes before the final prototype build is submitted. It is important to prioritise tasks alongside working quickly towards completing these tasks during a jam. Naturally, I attempt to spend more time on elements of the game that I predict will enhance the experience fruitfully – sometimes I can predict wrong. This can lead to flaws in many key areas.
From the research made and combining the components I like from different influences I began to map out rough sketches of cool ideas for the game – of course, a lot of these do not make it into the final game. I mapped out the general outline of the frame by frame animations that I wanted to create for the core mechanic of the game.
Stress Relief Experimentation
This experiment was aimed to become a digital stress relief game, which I think would work well on a touch screen mobile device. The reason the game is called ‘Channel’ is because I initially intended players to channel stress into the game.
Non-Digital Prototyping – Photography
After looking at the Ren & Stimpy storyboards, I begin mocking up the basic outline for the animation frames. Until I get a first art pass into a working digital prototype initially I stick to the creation of only 3 frames for the key motion states of the characters face during play. The 1st frame is an idle position facing straight upwards with frontal eye contact. The 2nd frame is a leaning forward in motion position with the top of the head showing, arched shoulders and eye contact towards the desk. The 3rd frame is the full impact showing the top of the back, and bottom of the neck – this is where I intended to utilize the influence of Ren & Stimpy storyboards of expressive/exaggerated character collisions.
The way I approached prototyping the key frames out before mocking up the visuals in Flash was to take photos of myself in the 3 key poses in order to obtain a rough visual aid for character form, framing, positioning, balance and composition. As odd as this may look, using photography was definitely an interesting and useful way of non-digital prototyping. It helped me get a sense of motion alongside establishing how the game would look long before the creation process had started. Shortly after these photos were taken I began coding in the core mechanic of the game.
“The genre of game that will win is ‘unique. Make something nobody has ever seen before. Invent some weird mechanic that nobody is expecting. If it’s a flop, all you have lost is 48 hours”. (Mike Hommel, 2012) I feel that I nailed what Hommel mentions about creating some weird mechanic that no one is expecting. But my true goal for this was initially for players to feel a sense of empathy for the character whilst playing – I tried to do this with positioning of eyebrows and facial expressions express multiple frames.
The mechanic pretty much came out how I envisioned it. One thing that I am highly limited by is my technical ability to program so this reflected the nature and scope of the game that I made drastically, which is expected at a jam. I am almost happy with how the mechanic ‘feels’, it’s fairly satisfying. I think one thing I wish I could’ve added was a custom cursor of a hand to grab the character so that players obtain some visual feedback knowing with clarity when they are interacting.
“A really good motivational tool for game jammers is posting screenshots of the work in progress. Sharing your work with others (fellow Jammers, Twitter, your blog and so on) will generate feedback and encouragement. Hearing what others think of what you have done so far can give you the little push to keep you going” The example below shows my evidence in sharing my very first playable build of Channel to the Ludum Dare community on Twitter to put the idea of sharing work for motivation to practice.
Although the game is flawed in terms of control I am actually relatively happy with the way that the way it feels – minus the learning curve. I really wanted to create a sense of grabbing the character and being able to physically throw him downwards with full force.
AddictionI actively seek to create games that seek to capture and engage the mind – games that make you desperately want to keep playing. Addictiveness is the thing that keeps pulling players back to the game in some cases this can lead to self-destructive patterns of play – Channel is a reflection of self-destructive patterns of play and addictiveness. Admittedly, if Channel were successful in being addictive in this prototype concrete relevance would be more substantial. It was my intent when designing to further develop my ability to keep players ‘hooked’ so that sense of not being able to put the game down – just to see if I could. Most of my work arguably lacks in terms of ‘fun’ or ‘addictiveness’, more simply something you play once and forget about. I wanted to try to make a game that keeps players playing – it’s something I never tried before. I have to say, this was ‘almost’ achieved – not bad for a first attempt.
There are some things I could have done better to further enhance the ‘addictive qualities’ of the experience but I’ll talk about what these are later. Either way, some players have been hooked up to 1,000 hits which is cool I guess, it means I was somewhat successful in setting out what intended to set out – the game still goes way beyond that however, only a few people have seen the last item which is another reason why the design is flawed in many ways.
What worked was I had a playable build and all my mechanics in by the end of day one, which meant day two, was spent simply polishing and tweaking the game. Initially I thought I had underscoped as I submitted and stopped working on it about 6 hours early – I also slept over the weekend (a lot). Over time I’ve realised that I could’ve spent the time adding things to enhance this gameplay which at the time I was unable to come up – at that point I was creatively drained. Below shows a couple of screenshots of how I iterated the game over time:
It has been important to absorb some of the constructive feedback on the game and to then act on that feedback – some people have some pretty solid suggestions. One piece of feedback that I acted on which I was prompted to by my lecturer was suggesting the game to feature Kongregate API leaderboards. I then proceeded to spend a couple of hours figuring out how to get this implemented in a build. The game tracks each face hit that players undertake, meaning I can see with clarity the point at which players stop playing the game.
Getting positive feedback feels great, this can be highly motivating and re-assuring in what you are crafting is doing its job by pleasing players – because that is a designer’s job, right? However, I try to take positive feedback with a pinch of salt because such feedback can conflict with your ego and stump the growth in learning new things. It is important to me personally to have a “beginners mind” (Waitzkin, 2007) meaning treating every learning process as if I were a child. Children have no worry towards being embarrassed of failure when learning new things; they simply dive in and do it. As a designer it is also important to stay humble and be self-critical towards your work, be aware of your weaknesses and strengths and know that there is always going to be room for improvement.
What Went Wrong?
The only feedback that really gets to me is when people say ‘I don’t understand how this links to the theme’. Personally, I think people take the theme too seriously – a theme can inspire design to go in ANY direction no matter how loosely interpreted. For me, it’s interesting to see games where no clear link to the theme is defined – it makes me wonder how the designer got to where they did and I think that’s much more interesting. The way that this entry links to the theme is simply in the idea that you only get one point per hit at a time.
Fundamental Design Flaws
Unfortunately having never designed an incremental game, there is a ton of fundamental design flaws to be had, but that is okay! We can solve all of these through ruthless iteration and on-going feedback. I was definitely surprised by the rankings of Channel, “…almost every single game that won was a platformer. It seems that people do not look as highly upon shooters or highly experimental titles. It makes sense: people are comfortable running and jumping. They like to explore.” (Kaitila, 2012)
One of the flaws that became apparent through playtesting is that it lacks player motivation, meaning that most players get bored after a short period of time – it rapidly becomes un-interesting for players. This is the one thing that incremental games are best at, hooking players in. So a huge chunk of what idle games are defined by was very much lacking in Channel – but simply being aware of this problem is the first step in beginning to overcome it for next time.
A lot of time was devoted to visuals and art which was arguably a mistake. I was hoping that by having nicely polished feeling visuals that players would become hooked in through the repetition of manipulating those visuals. Channel does not illustrate my ability to understand how internal economies of idle games could work – which is something to work on next time. I was very much in the mind-set of approaching idle game design from a purely visual interactive point of view - which was definitely a big mistake.
Another thing that acts as an additional catalyst for lacking player motivation is that the reward system of items in Channel feels meaningless, unimaginative and unintuitive – and they are.
The way the reward system is designed is as follows.
Players get items at the following number of hits - 2, 4, 8, 16, 24, 32, 48, 62, 82, 102, 118, 148, 182, 222, 264, 333, 412, 500, 666, 777, 888, 1000, 1500, 2000.
One way this system is flawed is that players do not know when they are getting an item – making it feel too random. If you let players simply know that they will get ‘something’ after ‘x’ amount of hits, that alone can be enough keep them hooked. You just have to make sure that you keep players wanting that ‘something’ and that the time spent achieving it was worthwhile with purpose. None of the rewards in Channel have any real significance or purpose, they simply fill the screen/desk; are static, cannot be interacted with and do not speed up the process of the game in any way - all the more reason for players to stop playing the game.
Often, idle games are ruthlessly fast paced and continue to grow incrementally in pace the longer a players invest time into them. Something that truly aids their addictive quality, making players feel like progression is being made at a constant rapid rate. Channel does not utilize to its advantage, the pacing always remains the same so nice feelings of progression is lacking.
Watching my lecturer Dave play the game, he stated “how do I know when the game has started”. This was arguably a silly mistake on my part as I could have found time to implement a simple main menu. Although,
However, this did in fact cross my mind during the jam and the reason for it was that I was trying to steer away from typical gaming conventions, “silly I know!”
I imagined a player opening the game for the first time and being thrown straight into the thick of it. I imagined them observing the system, slowly figuring it out and then upon that first hit laughing about it with some thoughts of shock from the goal of the game. Sometimes clunky UI and menus sometimes create a detachment from the player to the game – which was something I wanted to avoid due to my technical limitations. This was also an attempt to give a sense of experimentation and discovery, I like the idea of players figuring out what to do and laughing with it when they accomplish it. Looking back it would have been beneficial to add a menu so that this flaw was then avoided.
Having observed a plethora of playtesters, it was clear that players pick up and play the game differently to how I initially intended – which is a fundamental design flaw. It was a conscious decision to make the interaction of the game a dragging motion. I wanted to make players feel as if they were physically grabbing the character and forcing him into the desk. Unlike most idle games they simply use clicks and I feel that dragging gives players the freedom to be slightly more expressive in their motions as opposed to simple mouse clicks.
How I Would Develop It Further
Flaws aside, I can see a lot of potential in Channel. I commute by train a lot, one thing I often notice in people whilst clutching a coffee in one hand, playing games in the other. I would like to release a game that is geared towards this specific type of person. I aim to target the game towards busy commuters travelling by train or bus.
Conclusion/What I learnt?
This was hands down a very successful Ludum Dare for me – I feel like I have developed a lot as a designer because of this entry. Although Channel is fundamentally flawed in a number of ways, I am nonetheless happy with it – or at the least some elements of it. I like to define it to people as ‘a little self-portrait game’, as odd as it may sound Channel feels very ‘me’ in a number of different ways. The game being good or bad aside, I am strangely proud and fond of Channel - and I can rarely say with ease I am proud of the things I create.
Fortunately, I scoped the game well this time around. I learnt that forward moving gameplay is vital in holding players focus, specifically when repetitious inputs into the game.
I plan to release a completely re-designed version of Channel that hopefully resolves its fundamental flaws for touch screen devices before the end of 2014 based on this original prototype.
List of Illustrations
- Amelie [Poster] (2002) Available: http://www.wildeytheatre.com/CMS/uploads/amelie_001.jpg Last Accessed: 2013
- Art 1 (2004) Available: http://www.ljplus.ru/img4/l/y/lysergic_lady/5.jpg Last Accessed: 2013
- Art 2 (2004) Available: http://www.ljplus.ru/img4/l/y/lysergic_lady/6.jpg Last Accessed: 2013
- AVGM Interview (2012) Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3bxzhiH374 Last Accessed: 2013
- Black & White (2013) Available: http://media.pcgamer.com/files/2013/07/PCG250-BlackWhite4.jpg Last Accessed: 2013
- Book Cover (2004) Available: https://encrypted-tbn2.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcS9bUcHoTmm-ezt-Ncerw2betUoWaI0nmJXREZwMB-PHB9ACjug Last Accessed: 2013
- Girl 1 (2013) Available: http://37.media.tumblr.com/de02771fc87f648eafb0a48ac7832786/tumblr_mr3aqwnvxy1srrq2zo1_500.jpg Last Accessed: 2013
- Girl 2 (2013) Available: http://www.ljplus.ru/img4/l/y/lysergic_lady/_2.jpg Last Accessed: 2013
- Ren & Stimpy Storyboard 1 (2012) Available: http://fc03.deviantart.net/fs71/f/2012/157/5/d/eediot_by_studiobueno-d52k6zq.jpg Last Accessed: 2013
- Ren & Stimpy Storyboard 2 (2010) Available: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_mJ4lc_Q9Q6k/S3xUkcRmx3I/AAAAAAAAlqo/l96WGa_Zguc/s400/seq4_sc6_18.jpg Last Accessed: 2013
- Ren & Stimpy Storyboard 2 (2010) Available: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-d0oWmgOEguA/UHMf_f8hzFI/AAAAAAAAGP4/-fRj0EYDMLs/s400/bhbrands.jpg Last Accessed: 2013
- Ren & Stimpy Storyboard 4 (2010) Available: http://artyougrewupwith.com/images/products/0000004161/large_0000004161.jpg Last Accessed: 2013
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