Sunday, February 14, 2016

Global Game Jam - Demon Days

So, its over. We had the jam. Made some awesome games. Now its time to reflect. If you just want to play the game, check it out here.

The Team

From the left: Gaston Iglesias, Rhiannon Nee-Salvador, Emma Cameron and Richard Gubb 
Two weeks before the jam we went to a IGDAM meeting. The point of the meeting was to put together jam teams. There was a little confusion at first, several folk who weren't actually coming to the jam making teams. Rhiannon running around hoping desperately to meet at least one other Unreal developer. And in general a bunch of socially awkward game devs trying to figure out if they could stand sharing a room with other people for a weekend.

The end of the night came, and Gaston, Rhiannon and I were still unteamed. People were starting to pack up and head home. The venue was becoming dominated by unattached game dev students. Rhiannon quickly grabbed Gaston and me and press ganged us into her team. We had an artist and two programmers. We were live!

Over the next week we sent dozens of emails. We established art pipe lines. Source control (more on that later). We met up in person and discussed time lines, sleeping schedules, roles and more. We had never been part of a game jam before. But we were ready.

Artist Bait

Astute readers will notice there are four team members in the portrait. Between registration and the keynote we decided we needed to get another artist. So we set a clever trap to find one. You see game devs of all types have a weakness. We all love to play games. And board and card games are inherently social. I had Love Letter in my pocket (I seldom leave home without a game). We choose a corner near registration and began playing.

At first it didn't seem like we were going anywhere. We had a couple of coders join us. We had a 3D modeler. We had several people with there own teams. An audio guy. Even an old Advanced Fighting Fantasy buddy from high school. Finally Emma joined us. We had found the needle in the haystack, an unattached artist.

The Theme

Artist secured there was little more to do before the keynote. We grabbed a desk. Set up laptops. Gave source control another kick in the tires. Played some more Love Letter. And waited. They keynote itself was pretty good. But honestly I don't remember much of it. Something about roses in Iraq. Something about VR. A whole lot of sponsors. And the theme. One word 'Ritual' that was going to dominate our lives for the next 48 hours.

Initial whiteboard design
Ritual was a brilliant theme. There were two immediate directions we could go. Perhaps a game about occult or religious rituals. Or maybe we could go with the more mundane daily rituals. Turns out there was a third path some groups took that we hadn't even considered, animal mating rituals. We went back and forth several times, but finally settled on the base concept, a demon carrying out his mundane rituals, frequently interrupted by human summoning him to the surface world. 

The idea done, we ate our pizza, and set about meeting our first milestone. A playable prototype by the end of Friday night.

Original game design documents
Source Control

One of the things that went really well on our project was our use of source control. For the technically minded we used a git repo, hosted on BitBucket. We set the artists up with a basic GitHub desktop client. It automatically took care of pulling and pushing, in a single button press. I used SourceTree. And Gaston, the only one in our team who is a professional programmer, used command line access to fix all the tricky cases.

Things went pretty smoothly. We had a couple of hiccups were an asset was committed before Unity had created a .meta file. And we did have one inexplicable problem where Snuffles managed to loose his animation four times with less then an hour to go. But the benefits of keeping everyone on the same Unity project and code base were amazing. And actual handling of stuff on USBs was minimized to almost nothing.

Game Design

By mid day on Saturday all of the base elements for the game were in. The artists were well on the way to completing all of our art assets. Gaston had plugged in an xBox controller, bumping the experience up dramatically. We'd even goBut something was still missing. At this point the game was fun. But it was kind of pointless. There was no way to win or loose the game. No way to tell who played it better. To channel Chris Murphy, the game did not have flow.

We took a time out. We made charts. What should the player be doing with there time? What things should we penalize the player for? What were the player goals? How could we provide feed back? How should the game end?

The scoring / energy loop
The result was a three pronged system. We added a timer to set the game end. We added score to provide the player with a clear goal and feedback. We added energy to incentive the rituals. We all went back to our laptops to build the new systems and art to make it work.


Gaston finished coding all of the requisite systems somewhere between 4 and 5 am on Sunday morning. The rest of the team awoke to a fully playable, fully integrated game. We had a whole day to balance and play test. What could go wrong? We snagged a few passing volunteers. Put up a rudimentary leader board on our trusty white board. And sat back to watch.

A screen shot of the final game
To our dismay perhaps one in five players actually got the game detailed tutorials. Everyone loved torturing Steve. The sound and the music were great. They laughed at being told to pet Mr. Snuffles while in the middle of killing civilians. Yet they didn't actually score points.

With very little time left we went back to try and fix this. We added key prompts over top of targets. We added floating scores when the player gets points or energy. We messed with the starting conditions and the timers. We definitely improved things. By the time 3pm came around about half of the players got what was happening without prompting. But the game desperately needed a tutorial. And we barely even scratched the surface on balance.

The future

A couple of weeks after the jam everyone got back together at another IGDAM meeting. This time to play the games other jammers had made. And to catch up with team mates. We showed off Demon Days. We played other games. We talked about what we want to do next.

Demon Days is finished for now. We aren't going to continue developing it. But we will be taking the lessons we learnt forward into our own work. And who knows. Maybe the experience convinced Rhiannon to try out Unity for her next project.

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