Tag «post mortem»

The bpb:game jam 2016

At the first weekend of August 2016 we once again visited Berlin in order to take part in a game jam hosted by the bpb, the Federal Agency for Civic Education. It was a special jam for us, as we were actually invited by the organizers, and the theme was a lot more serious than we're used to: "Flucht und Vertreibung" (Escape and Eviction).  We didn't really know what to expect, other than that travel expenses, hotel and food would all be paid by the German tax payer. (Thank you all!)

The whole event went from Friday till Sunday, with Friday being reserved for an unconference. It started with everybody introducing themselves, which took a lot of time as there were over 50 people! We knew some of the participants already: they were fellow indie developers. Nonetheless the introductions were very interesting, because - and this is another uncommon thing for our jam trips - around half of the people weren't game developers, but came from various fields, mostly pedagogics. The youngest participant was 16 years old, and I dare not to estimate the age of the oldest person in our group.
The only gripe was the pretty low ratio women to men. Unfortunately this is common, but at least it was higher than at most game jams.

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The more interactive part of the unconference were the 'sessions', where people suggested various discussion topics, all in accordance to the main theme, and then do group debates. I suggested "Sprachbarrieren" (language barriers), and thus a few of the participants, including Jana and I, talked about apps for language learning and our experiences with different languages, and how we could use these as gameplay mechanics.

The second session for us was about "Perspektivwechsel" (switching perspective), and here the discussion started with the split-screen camera technique in multiplayer games, but soon got more serious and went from the literal interpretation of perspective to empathy, and how we see others, and games that actually let us "live" different roles; consciously or subconsciously.

Overall these debates prepared us well to get into a more serious mindset, as right afterwards we got instructed to come up with game ideas and discuss them in random groups. I still think the idea of a "Refugee Go", maybe a tad cynical, would be an interesting take on the location-based gaming: the idea was to force the player to literally walk at different places in a real city where they have to fill out virtual forms (in real-time, i.e. with a lot of waiting). The idea was to let players empathize with a refugee in Germany who tries to apply for asylum. As you'd play it with a smartphone only which then demands permanent attention, it would also be a bit like Tamagotchi.

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It was new to Jana and me to not discuss our ideas directly with each other, but alas, Jana was in another group. There she formulated the concept of a card game with instructions on each card for the players, and they'd have to run around and solve the tasks.

In the end we found together again. After a few years of jams we became a solid team and apart from a small collaboration now and then we somehow became unable to try new constellations. ;) Some lively discussions later about what our jam entry should be, we settled for a compromise we were actually both happy with: "Visa Runners", later named "Die Stimmung kippt!" (The mood shifts!).

Visa Runners is the prototype for a multiplayer mobile game with real-world interaction, a bit inspired by Space Team. At the beginning all the players connect their smartphones with each other. Afterwards everyone gets assigned a randomly chosen profile of a refugee-seeking person, with character traits like gender, age, birthplace, skin colour, education, etc.

Visa Runner Profiles
Then the real game begins.

The players have to flee to safe countries and get a visa as fast as possible. The countries are represented by QR codes lying around in the (preferably big) room, on tables and maybe even hanging on the walls. In order to get a visa you have to run to the QR code and scan it with your phone. Then you get a few days of visa - so you need to renew this visa very soon and very often. (A "day" is a second long in our game.) To make it harder players get a day less each time they try to seek refuge in the same country. If you overstayed your visa you need to get a new one as soon as possible, because you lose if you're without shelter for too long.


Yes, the game gets unfair quickly. Intentionally so.

To underline this, every few seconds a tabloid issue appears on one of the phones - usually it's a (mildly) exaggerated headline about refugees or foreigners in general. These headlines affect all players, so the one who sees it has to tell the others (or can choose not to). For example, if there are news about "black men attacking a puppy" all players with the traits "dark skin" or "male" will get minus points in that country (i.e. less days of visa). At some point, a country will refuse visas to certain persons, and those have to flee to other countries.HeadlineThe game ends when only one person is left.

Here's hoping we made a game that captured the theme of the jam. I wish the end result were more functional, but for a prototype it worked pretty well. The funny thing is: when we presented our game, it dawned on us that we didn't even need the prototype, as we were only running around with our Android phones, yelling what we're doing currently. It could have been a theatre play...

The first day of actually programming the game was hell, as I had to download the Android SDK first (to be able to actually build games for smartphones), then try to get a certain plug-in from the Unity Asset Store running. It was very badly documented, and I needed hours to find out how it actually works. But after that we finally got the multiplayer part running, and implementing the gameplay was easy enough. Thankfully the plug-in for the QR code scanning was much less of a hassle.

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We were very impressed by the games of the other groups, some of them had a team size of five or even more. You can find (German) descriptions of most of the entries at the official wiki - ours is here, even with a downloadable APK.

Overall the first "bpb:game jam" was a success for us, and we think it also was a success as an event. Thanks to the bpb for organizing it! Here's hoping we will be able to take part again next year.

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Ludum Dare 35: Wood for the Trees – Post Mortem

Wood for the Trees is my entry for the 35th Ludum Dare game jam which took place in April 2016. For now I don't know how the other participants will rate the game, as the voting is still going on. Yet it's maybe time for a small post-mortem, especially as my last few entries were not really worthy for one of those.

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The theme of this Ludum Dare was "Shapeshifting", which was a good theme, or at least I heard far less complaints about it than usual. For my part I didn't have an idea from the beginning - or rather I prepared several in advance, but none of them actually motivated me when the weekend began. For some time I just ignored the theme anyway and did some physics-based experiments, but everything of that was scrapped in the end. Semi-inspired by the theme I then went on with an environmental experiment, which would be about looping and changing level tiles. A bit like our 7DRL Me against the Mutants, but this time in 3D. As usual I did all this in Unity.

My base idea was to have tiles as parts for the level map, and each tile would be 10x10m (conveniently the size of Unity's standard plane), and instead of connecting the tiles in a linear fashion or even in a grid, I would define the connections manually so they can loop or have "impossible" connections. This way, a tile could be connected to itself (this actually happens in the game)! A lot of time went into developing the system of instantiating and destroying the needed game assets on the fly.

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With this representation of the game world it's possible for the player to see things that won't be there when they move. Thus I added smooth scaling to all objects when they get spawned or removed, just to make it more appealing and let people accept this strange environment. This system also imposed some limitations which actually turned out to make the game tighter and more focused:

WoodForTheTrees_MakingOfMovement

1) The player is allowed to move only from a tile's center to the next, in cardinal directions. At first I had free movement, but this imposed problems with the tiles that lie diagonal to the current one. It would just feel alien. Restricting the movement was the only solution, and it also made the gameplay (adventure game) much more clear.

WoodForTheTrees_MakingOfFog

2) With my system it only made sense to display 3x3 tiles at once, thus I had to limit the view distance to 10 meters. This made me a bit depressed in the beginning, because it meant a pretty big, boring wall of fog in front of the player. But then I invented the "fog trees" - trees that would exist only in the fog, vanishing when the player comes near. In the end, they really helped making the distance fog less boring and even gave the game its name.

As usual I experimented only regarding gameplay mechanics, but as soon as I added the fog I naturally began to design the game's appearance. The fog had to have a colour, so I chose one I actually liked. Everything else had to look (more or less) good from now on, which helped tons with not having to do that later. If I remember correctly the pixelation post-effect shader was added at the same time, and I just liked it - I don't really have a justification for it. But it also helps to hide the fact that my 3D models are all very low-poly and have no textures.

WoodForTheTrees_MakingOfModels

By the way, this is the first time that I used Blender for a game jam; I like it more and more. It fits my style quite well I guess. For the trees I utilized a tool called HappyTree by Sol_HSA, which made it easy for me to generate four different trees and reuse them all the time. I only changed the materials.

The narrative structure of the game also developed more or less naturally: due to the fact I played some "walking simulators" beforehand I was okay with incorporating a personal story. So all content grew out of certain relationships that occupy my mind often enough. As a result it didn't become a straight story really, but more like a set of emotions I wanted to share.

WoodForTheTrees_MakingOfAdventure

I didn't plan to do a full puzzle game, but somehow I actually added enough elements like finding typical items and having to combine them, so I can now call it an adventure game without shame. Overall it's a simple game in the sense that I didn't even add a visible inventory (as it wasn't needed), but thanks to the shifting environment and the somewhat allegorical hints the game should be longer than just a few minutes.

You could say the background story and the adventure game mechanics are somewhat contradicting or at least exist in parallel only. But whenever I think of my childhood (which the story is touching), I have certain games in my mind which I played back then, and Wood in the Trees actually recreates them in an abstract way. Furthermore, the seemingly mundane tasks represent the protagonists quest for absolution somehow. The mechanics and plot combined with the fog trees, the game's name, the colors and some of the objects in the game, it all is symbolic and it's okay that only a small percent of players understand them fully.

WoodForTheTrees_MakingOfAllSketches

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Right next to creating the world system in Unity the hardest part of the game was actually planning it. I'm never big with story (something I really have to train), so I just wrote down a lot of things I'd like to say. Not everything made it into the game. And I laid out the puzzle progress on paper as soon as I decided that I would actually have puzzles. But only by actually implementing them I'd see if an item would make sense or not and from time to time a whole path was changed - thankfully always for the better.

Unfortunately I was not able to follow my initial plan to make the game within 48 hours ("Compo") and had to extend to 72 hours ("Jam"). I never felt that I would actually be able to finish it, which send me to a rollercoaster of emotions during the game jam - either I was relaxed and had a "it's okay, I don't care" attitude, or I was angry at myself that I would fail at Ludum Dare yet again. I'm still surprised I actually finished - and it sure helped that for the Jam I didn't have to create my own music. I suck at this still, and don't stop hoping this will change some day. Instead I used a track by my brothers, which they composed many years ago for a game prototype Jana and I made in university. It fits the game well enough and actually adds to the symbolism of Wood for the Trees.

A monster?

After several days between me and the development I can now think about the game again. In hindsight I would change a few things, especially as players rightfully complained about those. Being able to re-read the notes and texts would be a great addition, and probably easy to do. Not removing the notes in the game would be a good start for that. Moreover, the hit boxes for the clickable objects are sometimes to small, and generally it's not clear enough if you can interact with something or not. I would add a few more descriptions to some elements in the game, and also tweak the controls so they would be easier to understand. And I would take extra-care that players find the solution to the first puzzle easily. Last but not least I'm disappointed I couldn't add any sound effects - not even some step sounds!

If I find time and motivation, I might do these changes and upload a post-jam version.

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In any case I'm happy that Wood for the Trees already got some media attention - AlphaBetaGamer made the start (with a title optimized for SEO a bit too much), followed by WarpDoor, PC Gamer and Killscreen. Wow! It shows once more that pixel games - even fake ones - are the way to go I guess. And I visited the A MAZE (a festival for indie games in Berlin) a few days after Ludum Dare, so I even made an Android build of my game. It ran very laggy and the controls weren't working correctly, but it was cool to actually being able to show something when talking about it. Even though I didn't show it around that much I had a lot of fun - the fruits of productivity.

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If you're a participant of Ludum Dare 35, you can rate Wood for the Trees here. In any case, the downloads can be found on itch.io - have fun!

And here's a video - be aware, it's the full walkthrough, so of course it contains spoilers:

Ludum Dare #35: Wood for the Trees (Full Walkthrough)

Be aware that YouTube videos try to set cookies and contact Third Party servers!

TRI Post Mortem

TRI is a game with a long story, so I won't even attempt to remember every detail. Instead, I will write down what comes into my mind. This way the following article might be a bit inconsistent; I hope it's still an interesting read.

TRI

The story begins in April 2011, when I participate for the first time in a big Ludum Dare event. It was the 20th Ludum Dare, with the theme "It's dangerous to go alone! Take this!" (a quote from Zelda) – but the theme didn't really matter, as I got the idea for my entry the evening before. I was inspired by working with 3D modeling software, where you create and manipulate polygons, and I thought: how could I use that for a game? Good thing the eventual Ludum Dare theme kinda fit – I just equipped the player with a "Tri Force Field Gun" (the "this" for the theme), and TRI was born, where all you do is creating triangles to walk and jump on them, and solve a few puzzles.

The Olde TRI

My entry was kinda successful: I submitted it to the Compo, but eventually switched to Jam, because I copied a character controller from the Unify wiki (as Unity's inbuilt one was too wonky). The Jam worked a bit differently back then, so my entry didn't receive any ratings. But PoV featured TRI in the results announcement post, and people who played the game (the community of Ludum Dare, and players on Kongregate) liked it well and some even asked for more levels.
A few months later, in October 2011, we were searching for a cool new project. Somehow we convinced ourselves that we could create a full version of TRI within a few months, which of course was very naive. We actually already made two commercial games back then, but as those were done in a much shorter timeframe and were for mobile only we still underestimated how hard it is to make a full-blown game with individually designed levels, somewhat complex gameplay, physics and a story-line. Also – and this was the worst part – a lack of clear direction (due to missing experience) hindered a straight development, and so we changed the design several times before TRI became the game you can see and play nowadays. Of course, we learned a lot during these three years, but I often wish we would have learned this stuff faster.

Soon!

TRI was made by Jana and me, Friedrich. Jana created the visuals and most 3D models, while I programmed in Unity/C# and also made the GUI. We both created the levels and searched for and worked on the sounds. The music was composed by my brother Ludwig.

It is still funny for me how each department is received extremely differently by different people: some love the graphics, some find them bland. Some adore the gameplay, some think it's clunky or just headache-inducing. Some bought the soundtrack, some just found it repetitive. I know that tastes differ, but as most feedback nowadays comes from official reviews, it's just silly how one piece of opinion claims that our levels are "not convincing" while the other describes them as highly genius.

Scribbles

But yeah. A lot of reviews miss the "polish of Portal" in TRI, and I can't do anything else than concur. We are a two-man team, still learning, with a fraction of the budget of Portal. I guess the secret of success is to hide such facts as well as possible, but I don't know how. So the biggest learning for us: we won't do anything this big again soon. At least we shouldn't.

We even had to take breaks during the years, because of interfering contract work, or just because we had to take some time off. Both didn't make development any shorter, and if Rising Star wouldn't have approached us to give us some funding and a deadline to kick our asses, we probably would still work on TRI (or having a break from it).

In reality, TRI was a good project for a small team, as the game has a narrow scope: the main gameplay is about creating triangles, and almost all of the other mechanics somehow work with this mechanic. For example, there are light rays, and you can reflect them – with the triangles. And you can walk on the walls and the ceilings – thanks to the triangles. There are also some basic physics puzzles (dropping crates on platforms and so on), but the physics are built into Unity. So how did TRI become a "too big game"?

By not being absolutely clear about the game's direction.

TRI, V2

One indication for this is the game's story. We wanted a background story from the beginning; the original TRI has one, although fairly simple and only communicated via texts on walls. And yet it added a big portion to the package – so we still think some kind of narrative is necessary as a hook. Just think of how showing triangles would be boring for reviewers and YouTubers. This is why we needed some characters in the game. Unfortunately our story changed a lot during the development, or rather: the whole design and with it the story. From a sci-fi setting with a mad professor and a fantasy story with an alchemist, to the now present fable about a Monk and a Fox. This last iteration of TRI's plot feels a bit tackled on sometimes, and really you can still complete the game (hopefully) even when you skip all story bits (hopefully not). So it's there to entertain, but the narrative sadly isn't an integral part of TRI.

Reading

The most problematic thing was that Jana and I never fought over what TRI actually should be – at least there never was a clear winner. Jana was all for making a game about atmosphere and looking at nice architecture. I on the other side was totally focused on the gameplay, and how there should be a lot of puzzles, because I feared people would be bored otherwise.
This way TRI became a game with two souls – there are parts that are mostly about the design, and parts that contain a lot of riddles and obstacles. Thankfully it doesn't feel too much like a game with multiple personalities because Jana added her personal touch to each level after they were done by adding the textures and decorations. And fortunately the Monk and Fox also help to string them together, at least in my opinion.

Puzzles

Nobody ever complained about the sound design – apart from our very own voices for the climbing. Still, this fact is kinda great because although we actually tried to hire someone to make sound effects, the deal didn't come to place and we found our best partner in freesound.org – really a great resource for indie developers. Most of the sounds actually were done within a few days. Sound design may be something that we still neglect, but TRI didn't focus on sounds anyway, even though we wish we had time to create atmospheric "sound carpets" for each level, because sometimes everything is silent and nothing happens, and it then feels a bit too lifeless.

Screenshot 1

Although we normally tell everyone that the game was released on 9th October 2014, we actually put TRI online for the first time in June 2012, as a "pre-alpha", which was a stupid description. We renamed it quickly to "alpha", and a bit later I also tried to get rid off the version numbers (like 0.3.0) which always were low and unattractive, by replacing them with something cooler: code names! The next version was then "MagicalMonk", which sounds much more confident.
These early-access versions (purchasable via our website and Desura) were not very successful in terms of sales, but we actually never did much marketing for them. We rather tried to get feedback from people interested in the concept and art style, by pre-selling the game for a low price and adding a survey at the end of the game. The later versions even included the possibility to give direct feedback via an inbuilt form. (Thanks to Jedi for the idea!) This was great, because people could send us bug reports or suggestions together with a game save. And it was a solution for our QA problem – every game needs testers, and this way everybody can be one!

Grid

In October 2013 we submitted TRI to Steam Greenlight, and some months later it was finally approved by Valve. It also made a lot more people aware of our game. But unfortunately Greenlight was a better marketing tool when it started in 2012. While the first batches of greenlit games were celebrated by the press, this effect became non-existent, thanks to the countless, bi-monthly batches with 100 titles approved at once – and TRI was part of one of these, in February 2014.

It was like winning $20 – nice, but absolutely underwhelming. On the other hand we're a bit proud of being greenlit before TRI even reached the Top 100, although I am not sure what exactly that means.

Thank you!

Anyway, at least we're on Steam – and as the saying goes: “be on Steam, or don't be”. A little anecdote: to be visible to curators (the new thing on Steam) we had to rename TRI, as the name was too common (think “Counterstrike”) for the search form to work, as it relied on auto-completion only. This is why TRI is now called “TRI: Of Friendship and Madness” (Jana's idea) almost everywhere.

Thanks to Rising Star Games we're also on GOG. GOG was great regarding the release, as they wrote a very cool release article. And you can also get our game directly on the HumbleStore, too!

Overall we are happy with the reception of TRI: more reviewers than I would have expected like or even love the game, and our Steam user score is pretty high – as of writing we have 30 positive and only 2 negative reviews, resulting in 93%. Yet, the game is still missing visibility – Steam, Greenlight and reviews alone don't do that for you (anymore). We need more YouTubers with a high amount of subscribers, playing the game on their channels. And probably some sensible discounts, as it seems a lot of potential buyers are just waiting for the inevitable XY% off sale. I can't even blame them: with so many games on my backlog, I do the same with most new titles.

Title

What can TRI offer you? It has 16 levels created by our hands, 5 different "worlds" each with a different background music and a new look, two animated NPCs, all degrees of freedom, and unlimited triangles. You conjure these to overcome abysses, to block and reflect light rays and lasers, and to walk on the walls and the ceilings. A lot of areas can be approached differently, depending on your own play style. Even some of the puzzles have more than one solution, and I sometimes see people solving them in a new, unique way. There are very open levels where you can fall into the void, and levels with a lot of narrow hallways. You can jump, crouch, climb, run, carry crates around and use levers.

TRI is a bit about celebrating freedom and possibilities, and we hoped that a lot of people would love that. For now, we still have to find out how to reach them.

Trailer

If you enjoyed reading this, you might want to have a look at our Making-of video series, our the rest of our blog.

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