Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Flipping Good Time Postmortem

It was near the end of my Freshman year, and I was wandering the hallways of my school when I was approached by a fellow student named Kenneth Lombardi.  He asked me if I wanted to join a game team next year as a Game Designer and I gladly accepted his offer.  He then went on to say: “Just a heads up, we suck.”  Little did we know at that time we would go on to make a game called “A Flipping Good Time” which would wind up winning a spot onto the PAX10 for 2011.  So how does a team go from saying “we suck” to making an award winning student game?  Hopefully this post mortem will shed some insight on how we tackled the game creation process and ended up where we are now.  

The first step was to come up with an idea and run with it.  This took us a very long time.  We started brain storming about mid Summer of 2010 and we sat down on many occasions to talk about all the ideas everyone had.  We would draw, sketch, act out, reference other games, use white boards, and used just about any means necessary to convey every one's idea.  Somehow we all came into agreement we would work on a game that we coined “Monkey Miner.”  This was a 2D platformer in which the user could pick up items to change the main character’s weight allowing him to get lighter or even flip gravity all together if he got light enough.

We spent the rest of that Summer meeting and talking about our idea, but no work really ever got done on the game itself.  We would sit around and reinforce our idea over and over.  This was our first mistake.  Once we all came together on an idea we should of sat down and began work on a prototype and tech right away.  It wasn’t until the start of Fall semester did work on a prototype begin, and on top of that it was only made because a class required us to make a 2D plat former in one month using Game Maker.  The end result was a prototype called “Gravity Miner.”

Once the prototype got done it was a really exciting time for the team.  Here was a playable version of our idea sitting right in front of us.  It showed what tech we needed and what needed to change game design wise.  We learned right away that movement and feel was going to be very important in our game.  Player’s liked to run fast through the levels and fling around, but some mechanics in the prototype were slowing this down.  The phrase “free flowing movement” became a very common line to hear throughout the rest of the game’s development cycle.

The progress we were making on the game after this became very slow.  With school, jobs, life, and the game itself, not much was getting done.  It isn’t like we really knew what we were exactly doing too.  This was the first major game project any of us have worked on.  But then, the First Playable milestone happened.  We had one full level with cruddy prototype art, the core mechanic of flipping, coins, collectibles, and spikes.  It turned out great and once again we were all very happy with the work we accomplished.  The semester was over and we now had a whole other semester to take our first playable build and turn it into an awesome game.

We sat down shortly after first playable to create a sort of road map on what we wanted to see put into the game at this point.  We wrote down everything on a white board and did a little prioritizing.  The list was fairly sizable with at least 25+ new features and mechanics to put into the game.  But at that time our idea of “scope” was way off.  We really thought we could pull off getting most of this in the game, but we were very wrong.  Shortly after this we caught our mistake and scaled our road map back greatly, preventing us from falling into development hell.  Of the massive list of features and mechanics we had, we only got about four of them fully in.  

There was a new issue brewing off on the horizon.  Here we were, about 65% through the development cycle and we had no artist and only cruddy prototype art.  We went right away to our artist friends to try and find someone willing to join the team and work with us.  The issue is, they don’t get a grade for the work they do on our game and on top of that they already have boat loads of work to do for their classes as is.  We found two artist who were willing to help us out, and now it was time to get some art direction for our game.  This was an even bigger problem.

We had to come up with some sort of art direction for our game, but we ran into the issue that everyone wanted to see something different.  Designers, programmers, and artists all had different visions on what the game should look like.  To make matters worse we were so far behind in the development cycle to be starting on art that we needed our artists to pump out concepts fast so we could all try to come to an agreement.  The reality was that we were never going to come to an agreement and we couldn’t get our artists to produce enough concepts in time to make a clear decision.  We really should of done this a long time ago.  This resulted in tempers being raised, terrible arguments, and feelings hurt.  One of the artists jumped ship at this point.  It was a pretty dark time for us.  Yet, with us all being a bit older and mature we were able to work through it in an orderly fashion.  With a few of us backing off and letting the art kinda “just happen” we were able to get art moving along.  

Now things were starting to sore for us!  We had a solid art pipeline, levels being made, features being polished up, and overall we had one heck of a game taking shape.  We did play testing every week and found players were really enjoying themselves.  It was all about iteration at this point.  Levels were going through iteration, art was going through iteration, and overall design concepts were going through much iteration.  Things were great, but then an interesting and personal issue arose that put a kink in things.  I found out I had stage three Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a cancer found in lymph nodes.  I checked out completely right away and stopped work on the game.  All content generation at that point for the levels was left on one designer.  He really stepped up his game and filled in the rest of content and then just like that the game was done and submitted for a grade, but we still wanted to do more work on it over the Summer.

I felt like such crud at this point from both the cancer and the fact I had to leave the team because of a stupid disease.  I had so many ideas and concepts I wanted to do with the levels using my ideas and data from play testers, but I never got a chance to put it to use.  It was very frustrating.  We then got word that our game was nominated at the Extra Credit’s Innovation Awards at the LOGIN conference.  This was such an awesome feeling for the whole team to have our game recognized, and it started to become clear that our game had some true potential to get even more recognition.  My treatment was in it’s beginning stages, but with just that little bit of treatment and the fact we got into that award show I returned to help work on the game.  We did a complete pass on all the levels and redesigned our over world.  Also, we now had the ability to stamp down art assets and work began on that right away.  

We then got the best news possible: we won a spot onto the PAX10.  I still remember the chills that ran through me when I read that email.  It was a lot to take in, and what amazes me about our team is the extra work we put in just because we got into the PAX10.  Like polishing up the game, making an arcade cabinet to bring to PAX, a new cool website, a brand new trailer, and all sorts of promotional material to hand out.  We didn’t want to just go to PAX10 as a student game, we wanted to go and show we could stand up there with the big boys too.  It was a surreal experience and something that will stick with us for the rest of out lives.  

Now, A Flipping Good Time is done.  In the end we are all very happy with how it turned out.  If I had to point at one aspect that lead to our success it would be the team’s ability to stay on task and not over do.  Scope was something we nailed on this project.  I am very proud of the work this team did and I am looking forward to continue working with them in the future.  

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