Hijack Humans Hastily was my compo entry for Ludum Dare #27 under the theme “10 seconds”. It was a game developed in pure ActionScript 3 (using Adobe AIR), with the OUYA as its main target but with a web version available (given the platform). Here’s a short gameplay video:
Here’s the mandatory post-mortem, with a few development snapshots scattered around the article.
What went right
Reusing stuff I already knew about
In my previous Ludum Dare entries, I’ve rarely re-used many systems. I like to build my own stuff. In fact, so far I’ve refused to use full-fledged engines, and while I’ve used Unity previously, it was mostly an excuse to force myself to get acquainted with it.
This time around, I had decided ahead of time that I would be using AS3 and a couple of frameworks for certain features (Nape for physics, Starling for GPU graphics). I had no engine, per se, but I complemented those by developing several additional libraries for game controller input, game looping, and physics level data loading (most of which are open-source and posted on my blog). I was certain I’d spend more time working on a game, rather than working on systems for a game (which, as fun as it is in itself, doesn’t make a good Ludum Dare entry).
The strategy worked pretty well. While I still had to use a pretty amount of time getting basic stuff working (due to my lack of knowledge of some Nape features, for example), I felt I was actually building a game earlier than on my previous entries.
Art was straightforward
I loved doing the art for the game, even though I hadn’t been drawing in a while. While a bit was dropped and unused (specially background art), I think the simple aesthetic I reached was pretty flawless even if it wasn’t brilliant.
What went wrong
Getting a game idea is always the hardest part for me, specially under pressure. I spent the whole first semi-day of the compo (Friday) doing nothing other than dicking around online, or reading, just because I couldn’t figure out an idea. The idea Saturday morning – of a flying UFO capturing humans – was a mechanic I’ve been thinking of for a while, but to be honest I didn’t have the gameplay challenge or the relation to theme figured out for a while.
Features were dropped (surprise)
While I tried having a smaller scope, some features were dropped out of the game. There’s only one level, for example, and while it’s randomized and it’s all based in easily configurable parameters (size, assets, etc), I never had the time to add actual level progression and assets for more levels. The current level used (city-ish) is a mix of my two initial levels ideas, park and city.
Worst of all, I couldn’t even begin to implement the enemy A.I. In the best Choplifter fashion, the second level of the games was supposed to game enemy tanks that would shoot at you. They would not do any damage, but their projectiles would throw you out of balance and make control a bit more difficult.
Not enough time for bug testing/QA
While I didn’t run into any huge problem, my entry still had some issues I had no time to test. Those include some bugs related to web playback (losing 3D context when switching between fullscreen, for example), and some OUYA pitfalls I wasn’t aware of (having the game suspended by the system puts it in an unplayable state when restored). Those are things that are likely easily fixable, but were noticed too late.
I think this was probably my most well-rounded Ludum Dare entry so far. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out, and I spent plenty of time watching my own time-lapse video of the development process. It’s great seeing it slowly transform before your eyes.
Still, the relative smoothness of this Ludum Dare made me realize something. Ludum Dare is a lot more about the content, and I’m not sure I’m very happy with it.
Because of the limited time, it’s better to have a great idea, create a lot of content and gameplay, and test it out until you have something fun. Some of the compo and jam entries I’ve tested were really fun to play, more than just being an interesting concept that could become a game.
In my mind, I like to use Ludum Dares to explore new mechanics – mostly in the form of new code – and almost as an excuse for learning something. And to be sure, I’ve done a lot of that; all Ludum Dares have been a great experience, even the ones where I didn’t have anything very playable in the end. I learned a lot in a short period of time.
Still, having to be forced to spend more time with content and gameplay is something bums me out. Having to ignore bugs unless they’re showstopping, and having to get things to work fast (as opposed to right) is something that, over time, I’ve almost forgot how to do. Nowadays, I like to get a cool system to work as a stepping stone. In a way, it’s almost as if gameplay is secondary to that (in that it comes after that, not that it isn’t important).
Something else made me realize that. Over the past few months, I’ve been slowly developing a game prototype on my free time. It makes me really, really happy. I take my time to get some things right – be it gameplay, animation, or lower-level systems – and it’s very rewarding. I do one thing at a time. Putting a pause in developing that to do Ludum Dare #27 was good in technical terms – I ended up learning several features I plan on adding to my game, such as ray casting in Nape – but I also realized I wanted to get some things right rather than just getting them done. For example, my starling shape utility classes – to transform imported Flash Sprites and MovieClip into Starling textures – is a mess. It works, but there’s a lot of edge cases where it doesn’t work as intended, or where there’s a lot of redundant code. And I’ve used it in 3 projects already, with no actual time for refactoring them and making them elegant.
I know the usual solution for Ludum Dares it to use an engine. Some might say I should have used Flashpunk, Citrus, or any other engine. And they would be right. But the reality is that it wouldn’t have been as much fun for me. As weird as it sounds, to me, Ludum Dare is an excuse to write something from the ground up. Not just to get something done, but to appreciate the journey of development. And I’m sure that, for many people, seeing something done is what motivates them over everything else. It surely motivates me. But I’m starting to realize that I care too much about getting systems right. Maybe it’s an annoying developer thing. My own professional work is always done on tight deadlines, make no mistake, but over time I’ve learned to balance it all and use time well to get something that’s mostly right from the get go. It normally means a better, more stable project in the long run.
I’m very grateful for everything I’ve done and learned. Ludum Dare is an awesome idea. But I’m not sure what I’ll do with the next Ludum Dares. I might do them, but maybe as part of a team, or maybe without submitting anything. I may use it as an excuse to build a “demo” of a system – e.g. my game controller classes, which need a few additional features – rather than an actual game to be played. We’ll see.