I think my thoughts are sufficiently settled for me to write a blog post about how things went.
How things went: Things went well! I’m just about past the amazement that I actually managed to complete a game in 48 hours, and not only that, some people seemed to find it fun. It’s the first time I’ve went into an LD while in any fit state to do so. (LD#18 was 5 hours of focused work on a so-so concept, followed by me falling ill for nearly a week with something that had been creeping up on me for days.) I’m just lucky that my mistakes were partially countered by my good fortune.
What I did right: Lacked ambition. Or, less concisely and more accurately: came up with an idea for a game that was well within my capacity to make in the time allotted. Though there’s some slightly clever backend stuff to handle the addition, selection, deselection and use of different keys (using these revolutionary new things I’d heard were good called ‘classes’ – object-orientated programming is great), essentially the game was about a square that can accelerate up, down, left and/or right in its attempts to reach the next green square (and discover new keys), and can eventually do some wacky stuff like teleport or destroy spike zones too (the instant death spikes made a huge showing). I used the Flixel library, which provided basic tilemaps that could load layouts from .png files (which I ruthlessly hacked into so they did what I wanted them to) and sufficiently good collision and physics. I reduced my graphics burden by making the game 320×240 and representing everything as either ‘keys’ (boxes with letters or arrows on) or mono-coloured arrows and spikes (though they look pretty awful).
Where I got lucky: Somewhere on the second day, I stumbled on the revelation that gave the game a title, a plot, some symbolism and an ending, all in one fell swoop. Hopefully, at least some players (some of those that didn’t get stuck well before completing the game…) realised that the entire game is about the ‘X’ key you press at the start collecting up the direction keys and letter keys that form the title screen, creating some sort of stable transcendental loop. Finding the word ‘transcend’ to tie the game up with really was a stroke of luck, since I’d already implemented the [T]eleport and [R]everse keys and was scrambling in the dark for a way of making the game seem less like a random series of things with no significance. (Admittedly the key naming wasn’t quite as good from that point on in order to fit the discovered word, but never mind.) In this way, appropriate to the theme, the game was very much about discovery for me (and I hope that it is for players too, particularly those who reach the end and discover the start-end symmetry of the whole thing).
What I did wrong: The game ended up as a two-layered challenge, where each level (beyond the first) required players to a) come up with a strategy for tackling the level’s obstacles, selecting a subset of their discovered keys to use, then b) execute their strategy using careful precision and timing. This isn’t necessarily a bad structure for a game’s challenge to have, only I didn’t sufficiently think about how to make part a) not insurmountable to many players. Since I designed the levels, it didn’t occur to me how many leaps of logic were required for some levels, particularly level 6.
To explain why level 6 failed: players have just unlocked reverse, then are faced with a strange boost-arrow racetrack that requires a) the correct intuition that [LEFT] is required to prevent [X] being accelerated too fast down the first straight, [UP] is required to counter the down boost-arrows at the far end of the level, and [REVERSE] is required to get enough up-velocity in the down boost-arrow area in the first place (unless you are exceedingly patient and precise), and is also required to move right at the start of the level (by moving left then reversing); then b) the accurate input of keys, often multiple at once or in quick succession, to make the crazy plan work. Needless to say, this was stupidly hard given players hadn’t even used [REVERSE] before, nor had they needed to exploit the fact that directional keys had precisely equal power to the corresponding opposite boost-arrows, resulting in zero momentum and thus constant velocity. The level itself could have worked, had there been adequate teaching of the required concepts in earlier levels, but there wasn’t. So instead it probably frustrates most players who reach it, and many will give up there and never reach the nifty symbolic ending. A shame, and a huge error on my part.
So, the main lesson is I need to pay careful attention to the difficulty of game levels or scenarios, checking thoroughly for difficulty spikes.
Of course, that wasn’t the only place I went wrong. The graphics were left as their original placeholders, and so the spikes and arrows look pretty ugly. The last-minute hint system was not helpful because there wasn’t enough space for the text, meaning the hints I wrote had to be so brief as to be useless. (Also, the hints should have never automatically appeared after 2 minutes; some players found this patronising or annoying. Instead, only a reminder that a hint was available should have appeared.) As if to make up for level 6, level 9 was stupidly easy and required no strategy. Then the final level (10) could be glitched (by using [T]eleport) to allow the player to reach the end in an unintended way and find the placeholder ending screen (and potentially players could not realise they got the wrong ending). The restart level key was only mentioned on the starting screen, long before players might ever need it (at which point they may have forgotten, and there’s no way to check what it was) – it should have made its presence clear in other ways. And other flaws I’ve forgotten (feel free to remind me…)
What I’m thinking now: Numerous people have praised the idea, if not the execution. As such, I’m thinking of making a fuller version of the game (with new and/or reconsidered code, art and levels, though still with a simple aesthetic), to release as my debut into flash game production on the major Flash portals. I want to be good at this game dev thing, so I figure trying to release a polished version of an idea I know works would be a good learning experience. Heh.
What I’d like from you, my devilishly attractive and incredibly smart hypothetical reader: Ideas! Deeper criticism! Accusations that I suggest my games are profound when they are not! Anything textual and contextual.
Thanks for reading this and/or playing the game, by the way. You really are a most excellent person.