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Postmortem: Paranormal Captivity [Game Maker’s Toolkit Jam 2018]

By September 30, 2018 No Comments
Paranormal Captivity

Earlier this month I took part in the Game Maker’s Toolkit Jam 2018.  I had an excellent time with my 2017 entry, so was eagerly awaiting the chance to participate again.

Game Maker's Toolkit Jam - 2018

Based on previous jam experience, I’ve found the initial hours setting up a project to be a huge workflow break, especially whilst brainstorming. So in the days running up to the jam, I took some steps to prepare. I put together an empty Construct 3 project with all of the system objects I thought I would need; audio support, keyboard input, function support, etc. During this time I was still building my entry for the Mapcore Door Challenge, and had some heavy commitments at work, so that was all the preparation I could manage.

The Theme

The theme was “genre without mechanic” based on the GMTK video about Snake Pass. My first thought was to build a shmup where you couldn’t shoot. Something along the lines of Space Invaders, but where you play as a repairman, rebuilding defences that are being decimated by an incoming alien force. This didn’t lean into any of my skills within Construct, so I abandoned the idea after some initial sketches.

Next I thought about creating a fighting game without fighting. I could instantly picture where this idea could go. Two combatants jumping around a level, avoiding hazards and pushing each other into danger. Think the barrel-breaking mini game from Street Fighter 2 crossed with the health system from the Super Smash Brothers series. The only interaction between combatants would be blocking and using your position to tactically break an enemy block, i.e. jumping over an opponent to switch their block direction and expose them to danger. From the seeds of that idea I even had a name, “Pacifighter“.

The problem was that I couldn’t work out how to make a compelling experience without AI. My first steps were to get movement working with two characters on two controllers. But I couldn’t for the life of me fathom how I could build AI to emulate player behaviour. This simply wasn’t in my wheel house, so I scrapped the idea, despite having something playable. This even included my first ever attempt at multiplayer within Construct.

I needed another idea, so I went to bed hoping that my dreams would help provide a fresh perspective.

The Idea

I woke up late on the Saturday with a small idea I had thought of whilst dozing. A stealth game where you are invisible to enemies. This sounded like something I could build. But “where are the mechanics?” you ask. How about using the player’s lack of visibility to guide someone who IS visible to an exit? It sounded simple. And it sounded like my kind of game.

The Premise

You play as the ghost of an executed prisoner. Your final mortal act was to share vital information with the prisoner in the adjacent cell. You must use your spirit powers to free the prisoner lest they suffer the same fate as you.

The Jam

I began reworking what I had built of the Pacifighter project and morphed it into a top down game. The basics came together rather quickly; likely due to my past experience building Rebel Call for Ludum Dare 40. I decided to grant the player a number of abilities, starting with enemy possession and later object possession (or poltergeist activity if you will).

The rules of the game were simple. As a ghost you could use possession to take over the minds and bodies of patrolling guards, whom provide you with the ability to shoot and flick switches. These switches open doors that allow the prisoner to escape or lock guards behind doors. You could also use possession to take control of inanimate objects and reposition them to create a blockers against enemies or clear a path for the prisoner. My goal was to build a game with simple mechanics and a number of rules that would play off each other to create complex situations. That’s right, I was dipping my toes into the realms of emergent gameplay.

By mid day I had built a prototype with clean, basic art, very reminiscent of Rebel Call. That was until late Saturday, where I attempted to start an art pass using a cute, low resolution art style.I started drawing key angles for the primary sprites but quickly realised two things. First, it was going to be a hefty chunk of time to animate the sprites at each of the cardinal angles. Secondly, I wasn’t enjoying creating it. I had grown attached to the simple shapes and bold colours of the prototype. This second point taps into a bigger problem I’ve been experiencing across the last couple of game jams, but I’ll get into that later.Paranormal CaptivityAs Sunday rolled around, something felt “off”. I decided to scrap the sprites and move to a more vector-style aesthetic. It worked well for Rebel Call, and in many ways this game was starting to feel like a spiritual successor to that. Remember that information you’re spreading in Rebel Call? Well, it might just have come from a certain prisoner! With that in mind I pushed to the finish line and delivered a relatively bug free build 5 minutes before the deadline.

Postmortem

What went well?

Pushed myself

Up until now I’ve never really embraced the roughness of a jam setting, and as such have always limited scope and made quite “rigid” games. However, this time I wanted to embrace emergent design, and while I only had a small number or mechanics, players were still able to come up with creative solutions of their own.

Failed fast

I explored where I needed to. I didn’t invest too heavily on an idea until I knew it was feasible for me to build.

Used past experience

Rather than building a completely new game, I used what I had learned from Rebel Call to cut corners where possible. Due to the time saved here, I was able to expand the scope of the game.

Paranormal Captivity

What went wrong?

Wasted time on aesthetics

This was a “mechanics first” game jam; the fact that I even attempted to rework my prototype shapes into pixel art is telling of a larger issue here. I was pandering. I wasn’t confident enough in the design itself and felt I needed to use my past successes in pixel art as a crutch.

Took too long to get the game flow in

As mentioned previously, the scope of this game was wider than my usual two day jams, and as such, rather buggy. However, I should not have spent as long as I did bug fixing mid way through the project. At least not before I had a complete walk through in place.

Only one level

It was a shame that I only managed to build the starting level, as by the end of the jam I had built the tools required to create more. If I had toned down the amount of polish in the intro and overall presentation I feel that I could have managed to include one or two more levels.

The Game

My entry was called “Paranormal Captivity” and you can play it on itch.io here…

The Results

The results are now in and I placed 138th out of 1055 entries. Not too bad, but not as good as my previous year’s attempt with Bad Juju. You’ll notice that Paranormal Captivity wasn’t in the GMTK “best games” video, and I feel that there are a number of reasons for that. Don’t get me wrong, the feedback was positive, as you can see from the entry link. But I would be remiss if I were to ignore potential reasons as to why I didn’t feel the same satisfaction I did last year.

Firstly, the competition was far more fierce this year. I feel that the last jam was seen as a great way to gain some exposure and as such attracted more attention this year. Therefore it was harder to stand out from the crowd. I don’t particularly like promoting my work at the best of times, but when you’re up against a lot of others who are shall-we-say less modest, it’s easy to get lost in the noise. That’s not to say that it’s entirely a popularity contest, but for me, one of the key reasons to jam, is to share your ideas with others. Otherwise, why would you ever solo an organised jam? Surely, you could just develop something on your own schedule?

Secondly, I don’t think my heart was in it. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed making the game and am quite happy with the result. I just don’t feel satisfied making 2D games anymore. I was just constantly thinking, “I wish I was making these mechanics in a 3D environment”. Perhaps I’ve just moved on. This even extended to pixel art – I hate to say it, but I’ve lost the passion for it. I think I need a break.

And finally, I felt that I may have been doing this for the wrong reason. I touched on this with my first point, but I detected that I may have been doing this for recognition. Which is different to simply creating games for others to play. I feel that if you’re looking for likes, retweets or the smashing of a subscribe button, you’re already down the rabbit hole. It’s not healthy behaviour, and I need to rise above such things.

Final Thoughts

As mentioned previously, I’m going to be moving away from my earlier 2D work. Going forward I’m going to work towards something with a third dimension and using tools and techniques I use in my day to day work. You can find the first example of this in my Mapcore Door Challenge entry which I will be writing about soon!

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