Sub Terraria Zero Post Mortem (Pt. 1?) : Game Design

Posted by (twitter: @PhotonGD)
May 2nd, 2014 1:27 pm
Hey all! Here comes another post-mortem (or at least part of it.) Here I talk about the underlying design of my game, Sub Terraria Zero.
Sub Terraria Zero Icon
The Idea

Friday night was basically me bouncing ideas around. I had a couple that “sounded” cool but that really didn’t grip me. Basically I had three questions in mind:

  1. Is it fun?
  2. Does it immerse the player/take the player out of their element?
  3. What is the focus/selling point of the game?

I basically tried to flesh out what “Beneath the Surface” could entail: what can I be beneath, or what kind of surface am I talking about? I actually played some Mega Man 10 in an attempt to get the gears turning; it was here that I recalled the quicksand of Commando Man’s stage which led me to consider how well that could fit into the theme. I came to really like the potential of a quicksand mechanic and began trying to take it further. Eventually, I came up with the idea of a monster that lurked beneath the surface and tried to catch prey who fell too deep into the game’s terrain. It wasn’t the most “innovative” take on the theme, if you will, but I felt it lined up very nicely with the air of suspense that naturally followed it.

Of course, there is no quicksand in the game. I considered that quicksand monsters were somewhat common and/or cliche, so I began to consider a different setting. Thus, I came up with a monster that burrowed and hid in the snow instead. Suspense and tension–alongside the apprehension of loss by insta-death–would be the game’s calling card, and to wrap it all up into a strong package I went with an open exploration type format; this would allow the player to kind of find their own way through the game, including what to do with the monster and how to deal with it.

The Development/Gameplay

Early on and as you may have already guessed, I knew what I wanted the game to revolve around: the snow beast. It was about the severity of mistakes (falling into the snow, for instance) and the perpetual awareness that it was basically waiting for you to make such mistakes.

The “no-health” system was deliberate. Grunt monsters would only knock you back, not hurt you, and that was because it was the job of the snow beast to do the “hurting.” Oh, you got killed by a little firefly? How cute. No, the firefly’s point is to make you panic when you accidentally tumble into the beast’s bed of snow and you have to scramble to reach higher ground. The snow fish was the star of the show, and the small monsters its supporting actors; I tried to play to that in a different way.

Other facets played into this as well. The dark/light effects further concealed the monster and made it easier for you to trip up. Part of this had to do with what I exposed and how I led the player along using, for instances, torches as guides (be them good or bad guides.) If I could lull the player into false sense of security, it could make the simple, “silly” mistakes that much more jarring without using a forced “razor-sharp” difficulty, if you will. Simple little touches that get ignored can be all that it takes.

To lend to the mystique of it all (and/or because I was short on time and/or didn’t feel like it :P ), I didn’t try to do a lot of hand holding. You get very little direction; the rest is left to the player to figure out using subtle hints.I wanted there to be an element of player intuition to the game. For instance, the ruby (flame projectile) is put in a pit for a reason. That way, the player can more easily deduct one of the purposes of his new toy. I haven’t directly told him what to do, but I’ve quietly hinted and pushed him in the right direction. All of these helped add to the in-the-rough “wild” feel I wanted for my game, or at least they appear to have done so.

The Results/Reflections

I was pretty much exhausted by the time it was all said and done and kind of just happy that I’d made it because I really had taken it down to the wire. Fortunately, the game’s simplicity had made it easy for me to ram out some content in a pinch and give the game enough of a completed feeling to it (not that anyone has made an indication that they’ve made it to the end yet, LOL.)

But the simplicity for me was key. Whether or not it was more of a deliberate design principle or a subconscious decision to stay well-scoped for the jam, I’m not sure at this point. But it worked, and it worked well. Even the simplicity of the monster seemed to work well; I had some features planned for the monster that didn’t make it in, but it may have been for the better. I had planned to make the monster stronger as it ate small monsters, for instance, but it really wasn’t needed. Not every little detail has to be ironed out and part of a complex web; sometimes you just let the mechanics do their things.

Which spins me into my next point: gameplay and difficulty don’t have to be the result of rigid design. What I mean is that not everything has to have a pixel-perfect place. I may “acknowledge” this, but it doesn’t mean I follow it well. This entry has brought that back into the light. Sure, there are some things I still think could be balanced or structured better, but sometimes you just need to leave the game mechanics, the player and whatever else alone and just let them all duke it out. Let the player “make plays” on his own terms. Let scenarios be naturally and intuitively difficult, if that makes any sense; you don’t have to look at a level from every angle and try to block or force player creativity and difficulty. Just leave it alone for once! Although you still have to design the game thoughtfully, which is where striking a balance between two seemingly opposite agendas may seem tough, I think there can be a happy medium.

Finally, three words: minimum viable product. Again, I didn’t get to everything and I probably didn’t need “everything.” But the bit I did finish showed promise. Maybe its time to stop focusing so hard on the “perfect” game design. Development can be tough and time-consuming which is why I might spend so much time racking my brain over how to make a game, but that’s why a “MVP” can be so important… because of the “M”. Its minimum. Don’t be afraid to run with an idea for a few days and see where it takes you. Ludum Dare, if you take to heart how it forces you to adjust your normal habits, can really take you out of that “perfection” mindset.

At the end of the day, shelf your pride and just make something. Stop trying to look good by going for the home-run; experiment. Try to see the forest AND the trees. Its amazing how effective the simple touches–not the complex details–can make the biggest difference. Although I really did like this idea from the beginning, I think I’ve learned more from this experience than I imagined I would.

What Now?

So far, the feedback has been really positive for this game; I’m already looking forward to how well its ratings are going to turn out at the end of the jam, though at this point I seem to have accomplished my goal of delivering a fun, quality experience. Thanks to all who have played, commented, and enjoyed! It means a lot to me!

At this point, I feel like the game has a lot of room left for expansion. If I properly build on the no-nonsense foundation that’s there, I can see this going places. And after seeing what can be accomplished with the right level of detail and scope, I feel like its something I could actually maintain momentum with (art is manageable, audio is low level enough.) I may mess around with it and try to develop it further, seeing what other kind of suspenseful effects I may be able to garner and utilize in the game.

Thanks for reading. I may write about the actual development later as well (yes, even more text.) If you haven’t played it yet, you can go play it here:



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