Pitch In Postmortem

Posted by (twitter: @cambrian_era)
May 3rd, 2011 8:13 pm

Well, that was my first Ludum Dare. All in all, I’m pretty happy with how things turned out. It was my second game jam of any sort, the first being The Room Jam a few months back and I had set myself a few goals which, looking back on it, I was able to meet.

My concept for Pitch In came pretty early, after about 15-20 minutes of brainstorming. I knew I needed something simple. Dead simple, that, hopefully, boiled down the essence of the theme. I also wanted to avoid making a platformer or a Zelda clone, simply because I wasn’t sure I could do anything that felt new or different with those. I tossed around a few ideas regarding the general mechanic of passing items around but eventually settled on a two-button puzzle game. You could pass things left or right. That’s it. I knew that I wanted a few characters and that who you passed the item to changed what could be done with it.

The baseball guys game first, because I felt they’d be instantly recognizable and it’d be easy for players to understand what was going on. I also knew I wanted some sort of parkour character, who eventually became, well, the Canabalt guy. Originally, I wanted the character to have a hoody or street clothes, but, well, I’m not skilled enough to make it work in 12 pixels. So a character who jumps across buildings in an apocalyptic setting? I figured he could cameo.

The caber tosser was suggested by a friend when I said I needed a character who could throw things vertically. I’m not sure he reads as that, but regardless, he’s a big burly guy, which I felt explained why he could carry items while the baseball guy could not. Originally, I wanted a baby as well, who moved slowly but could be thrown by other characters, allowing you to chain passes. It never quite gelled in my mind and was cut because it’d add a lot more complexity to the code and I had no clear idea how I’d use the idea in a puzzle.

The original ‘story’ (such as it is) was that the world was ending and aliens opened a portal through which they’d collect objects, but nothing living. In this way, humanity could be preserved. This… was both way too complex to explain and kind of morbid, when I considered that not only was I throwing babies around, they’d all be doomed anyway. Eventually, I tossed it out in favor of the general, “put fuel into the furnace” idea. Which, even so, I don’t feel really comes across.

I’d never actually designed many puzzles before, only a handful here and there in old, OLD games so I was worried about how well I’d be able to accomplish that in the limited amount of time. Part of the reason I chose such a simple mechanic was that I wanted time to design and tweak puzzles. Even so, I had some serious problems. I generally went with the methodology of training the player in a mechanic, then challenging them, and adding in a few one. I’m fairly happy with how this worked out in the first few puzzles. The second one was actually the first I designed, and even though it’s just two platforms, I hoped it’d give players at least a little pause before they went, “Oh, ok.” Unfortunately, I don’t feel like I did much with the caber tossers and the parkour guys, which were meant to have puzzles based around timing throws to get them to go in the direction you wanted, never really panned out. The birds were meant to simply be obstacles, but also never really worked out as intended.

What Went Right

Quite a bit, actually.

The graphics look and feel like I intended them to. I wanted the characters to have a sort of faceless ‘Lemmings’ feel to them, to lend to the idea that it’s not about an individual, but a group working together.

I’m really glad I was able to put music in as well. It’s just 20 minutes of noodling with FL Studio, but it adds a lot to the atmosphere of the game.

I got a lot of mileage out of the Earth and falling debris effects, which ramp up as the levels continue, with the Earth descending as the ship shakes itself apart.

I feel like some of the puzzles worked out quite well. The solutions are simple, but not always obvious and, really, only the last few rely on careful timing.

I came down with a cold on the first day, and while I was still able to work, I ended up sleeping more than normal, rather than pulling the all-nighters I had intended. So the simple design really saved me, as I had gotten the base mechanics and level loading in by the end of the first night and even had some graphics done.

What Went Wrong

The last few puzzles. Oh boy. I added them late in development and they’re riddled with obvious bugs and moments where it just feels like luck if you succeed. When it took me multiple tries to complete them, I knew there was something wrong, but I felt like I couldn’t just end the game with nothing. In retrospect, I should’ve cut or radically simplified them.

I think I added a few too many ‘training’ puzzles. In particular, the Pachinko solution relies on players realizing that they need to hit the edge of a platform and knock the object in. I felt this might be frustrating and players might spend their time trying to lob the object juuuust right to get it in the goal, so I added the puzzle before it. I probably should’ve just kept it the same, however. Additionally, I was never able to come up with puzzles that used all the character’s more unique mechanics in interesting ways.

I intended to leave the reset button in, just in case, but it’s a sign of poor design that a player needs to reset because I didn’t code or design things properly. I tried to make levels take no more than 20-30 seconds to complete, so multiple tries were fairly painless, but even so, it was a crutch.

I never really considered the setting or characters, beyond their mechanics. While this was intentional — I’m not a character designer and my artistic skills are limited, I feel like a little charm goes a long way and probably should’ve given the little guys more character as well as refined their animation.

To Conclude

Really, this was a blast. I had a lot of fun and it’s intensely rewarding to see something come together over 48 hours. I approached this as a learning experience and was able to accomplish the goals I set for myself. Next time, I’ll need to attempt a more ambitious design and work on my coding and (especially) art skills in the meantime. It’s been a great experience and I hope to try it again.

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