Learning to Dance — PostMortem

Posted by (twitter: @wetdesertrock)
December 23rd, 2015 5:10 pm

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This was probably the first Ludum Dare in which I was actually almost completely happy with the end product. What I amount that happiness to is the personal goals I set for myself. Instead of having my goal be about making a complete game at the end, I made it about having a game full of music and art that I was happy with. Another goal I had was to try to make another story-based game. I wanted a cohesive experience that used art, and music to help the story telling. My last goal was to not get bogged down by programming. I didn’t want something difficult, I wanted something simple that I could whip out. I knew that programming was the one aspect of LD that (at least in recent times) has bogged me down and de-motivated me to the point where I was not happy with my product. Don’t get me wrong, I love programming, but gamedev programming has been hard for me recently and I wanted to continue my break from it. I also had a bonus goal, which was this: Live record my music. Instead of using all of the software instruments to create my music, I wanted to record it myself. At least a little bit. I succeeded.

With these goals in mind, I knew there was a high likely hood that my success hinged on the theme. So I decided that if a theme was chosen that I didn’t like, I would go with my own theme (I choose the theme “Isolation” for this). A lot of people wouldn’t agree with this, however this time around I didn’t want the theme to be the challenging factor, I wanted it to be a guiding factor. Sometimes if I make a game based off of a a theme I don’t like, I’ll produce a loveless game. Luckily there were two themes for me, which worked out super well. I think that the dual theme was a great point about this LD, many games were produced that were fantastic, as well as a good variety of games.

What follows is a day by day account of my process.

The First Day (theme announced at 6pm)

So I started out by going to the store and buying my game jam food. If you want a list it goes a bit like this:

  • Chips (for home made nachos, I have refried beans I don’t know what to do with)
  • Cheese (running low)
  • Bananas
  • Yogurt (running low)
  • Those small cute oranges that I eat like candy
  • Rootbeer (lots)
  • Instant-freezer food

You may notice a big lack of classic junk food, which is amazing for me and Ludum Dare. If anything, doing the “healthy” snack of dinky oranges (all gone by the end of the jam) and bananas worked out well. Also, this is the only time I really buy myself a pack of soda, so it was a nice treat.

Usually I use the walk to and from the store as a chance to brainstorm, but I didn’t really get very far with that. The most critical part of LD is the brainstorming. Thats bolded for the people who just skim the text and look at the pictures. So I went to place that would be perfect for brainstorming. “The Cube” is a room at my school used for orchestra rehearsals and various performances. At night, its vacant, with a piano, 8 speakers, and a whiteboard. I had a lot of pacing space, and would listen to music and just think. I think the hour or two I spent doing this was by far the most productive of my whole LD. I got an idea I loved, as well as an idea for my music, my art style, and a vague idea of the themes and lessons I wanted to use in my story.

At the end of this brainstorming session, I knew I wanted dancers, I knew how to get that dancing, I knew what music I wanted, I knew the art I wanted, I knew the themes and lessons I wanted to use. What I didn’t know was how it would all go together, and what sort of gameplay it would have. I knew I wanted to you to be able to “control” your dancer, but I didn’t know what sort of goals and penalties there would be. At this point I was still trying to make a full on game.

I then set out on my music creation. I wanted three movements, the first upbeat, ignorant, and happy. The second was isolated, dark, and pensive. Third was to be a waltz which would be happy (but not overly), but also matured. I worked mostly on the first movement and got it out of the way, I then moved to the third and got the basic waltz and melody figured out. Never doing a waltz before it was hard, and so I had to draw inspiration (and the basic um-chuck-chuck) from another song. Its all part of the learning process after all. That would be the end of the first day (it was around 3am).

The Second Day (starting at 9 am)

I had to focus on art. I knew exactly what style I wanted to use. It was a style I saw in a print Kusaka Kenji at a museum that gave the perfect sense of movement. Because it was a jam, and I didn’t want to waste time on something I am the worst at in art (I’ll improve later), I actually took my palette from a print of his. Part way through I realized I wasn’t getting what I wanted, and decided to scrap it and start over. I had decided that I didn’t think out the form well enough and it lacked a cohesive feel. However, after I got a snack and a step back, I realized that what I had wasn’t bad, but I still needed form. To do this I layered on top my “isolated” motif, which was an orthagonal overlay that stood separate from the backdrop. In the end, I got a background I really liked (and still do). I started programming at this point, and throughout the rest of my daylight hours (only till 4:30pm!) I would intersperse my programming with the rest of my art creation. In the evening I transitioned into more music creation. I was going to record my (improvised) second movement at around 10:00pm. That time came and I set up my microphones (2 on the piano, two on the room, and one below the piano), headphone mixes, and had my drop in engineer take a couple pictures while I finished the routing.

Here is a picture of my recording set up (not seen are two room mics behind and to the right the camera):

20151212_233811

Brief postmortem on that session goes as such:

Pros:

  • Workable audio
  • Good sounding piano
  • Considerable lack of bad notes played (I’m not a great pianist)
  • Good excess sounds

Cons:

  • Shoddy mic placement (the two on the piano needed work)
  • Too dry of a room

One important thing to think about is that the piano is great for a number of reasons. It sounds great when you play it, but it also sounds great when you tap it, hold sustain pedal, brush the keys, scream into it, and do all manners of things.

My goal for the end of the day (night?) was to have all of my music done and mixed. I finished my recording at around 1:00 am and then moved to work on my waltz some more. Throughout the night I would hop around my three pieces of music, and got closer to the goal. At one point I realized I wanted some background noise to my second movement that you probably never even noticed. So for a few minutes I went outside and played around with various ways to record rain. The sound I went with was the sound of water hitting the leaves of a shrub. I finished my music and finally got to bed at 6am. Much later than I wanted.

The Third Day (starting at 9am)

At this point I was slowly realizing my goal of entering into the competition was going to be a bust. I knew I had to make more art (I hadn’t made the “branch” sprite yet), needed to write a story, figure out gameplay, and compile it all together. Because I only had around three hours of sleep I’m not fully sure how this day went. The biggest part was the creation of the story. At this point I wasn’t sure what story I wanted, or how I wanted to tell it. After talking on IRC I realized I wanted something like a one sided conversation in letter form. Although for some reason I totally forgot about it until midway through writing, its somewhat like the lyrics to the Juliet Letters (lyrics start at ~0:50):

Parts of the text were inspired by this album as well as the Les Misérable soundtrack. My line of text “I saw the world reborn, you saw it move on.” was a direct reference to this song (which has the most emotional impact on me of the whole musical):

I got the text all written, went to refine. I choose themes and emphasized them, I created reoccurring motives. My goal throughout all of this was to make it feel as if you were peering into this fellas private notebook, which was somewhat a stream of consciousness, going straight from his brain through the ball on the point of the pen and finally bleeding into the paper. This is how I rationalized using silly out of place phrases such as “Am I a fungus?“. That specific line was more or less an inside joke with myself that I was dying to put in, and was relishing the reaction people would have when it came at the time it did. Hopefully people realized how it related to the line “Our failure taught me that I can grow. This death just feeds my growth.” Throughout my text writing process I was brainstorming names for the game. It was only when I ordered my text in its appearance in the game did I realize I wanted the last line to be “I finally learned how to dance.” Which is a bit surprising as dancing is the core of my whole game. Funny how that happens.

After writing the text I had to decide how to put it in the game. I realized I wanted a kind of collage that would transform throughout the game. To do this I used photoshop to create my text in .png form as well as place them to my liking. Although this meant a lot of dull and repetitive work, I think it was a good choice.

By the end the night I had my story written, made the text placements in photoshop, semi-exported manually into the format my game could read, and had the timings done. I had also improved my dancers dancing and created the branch sprite. I had a mostly complete game at this point. I had more I wanted to do though. I wanted to add shaders to improve the mood and feeling, I wanted to fix my mixes (turns out doing final mixes late at night isn’t a good idea), as well as add refinements to the dancing. I went to bed at around 2:00am

The Fourth (and final) Day (starting at 10am)

Nothing new really transpired through the day. I added in shaders, improved the timing of the text elements, finished up the dancers, finalized the song’s mixes, title screen, and added in the ability to go fullscreen. The only hitch was fullscreen. It seems like the window resizes when going fullscreen, which would mess up just about everything in my game. The art was made to order, it is the exact same size as the intended resolution. While this is bad practice in general, it was a necessary one for LD. Also a good practice for my computer, as photoshop tends to slow it down, especially with large images. I eventually hacked in fullscreen support (overwriting framework calls such as love.graphics.getWidth()) to not destroy random aspects of my game but also have it centered on the screen. This along with one other minor thing (making all of the text white in the second movement) was my only real hacky programming I did throughout the whole of this LD. I packaged and submitted 30 minutes early. Although in reality it takes me about 1 hour to package and release so I was only done 30 minutes into submission hour. Only at 6:30pm did I finally get a chance to breathe, and say hello to my programmer pet, Monty.

Post Mortem

If (and when?) I do a post-compo release I have a few things I would fix for sure. First of all is the music. While I like the feel and how it turned out, I need to refine the melody and give it a bit more form (in all songs). I also need to re-instrument it to be more unified throughout the entire game. I also need to redo the art, make a palette that fits the game more, as well as give the colorful part of my backdrop more of a formal idea (so it can stand by itself). I would also separate the art more so instead of it all fading in at once, I have bits an pieces fade in, as well as for the orthogonal layer I would separate it into lines and have each line move in independently. I would also redo bits and pieces of the text to make the times at which they appear more often as well as remove all of those spots where nothing was happening. Also dancing, I have ideas on how to improve the dancing.

Pros (what worked):

  • Music, many people enjoyed the music I made for it. And while the second movement didn’t get as much attention as I hoped, many people enjoyed the waltz
  • Mood, I think my art and manipulation of it throughout with the music and text worked well
  • Brainstorming, that initial brainstorming session was necessary and helped a ton in the long run.
  • Goals that intentionally avoided things that may cause me to burn out.
  • Use of theme and subtheme to help create larger themes
  • Wavetables for dancers
  • Story and text
  • People had multiple interpretations of the story

Cons (what I would do differently):

  • More attention to methods to manipulate the dancers
  • Definite decision on how to display text and allow interaction without interference between the two.
  • Make the dancing more dynamic, dancers slow and speed up, twirl on impactful points, maybe spin around eachother.
  • Team? For this type of game, it would’ve really helped to have someone just program while I do everything else. Naturally this isn’t how it would actually work out if I teamed.
  • Try doing my crunch work early in the morning rather than late at night. Dunno if this would work but late at night my productivity drops a ton.
  • Try to come up with more ideas on how to add personality to the text.

 

Lessons other LD’ers (and game devs) should learn:

  • Brainstorm is key to success. Write it in a notebook, move around, listen to loud music, cross things off, write things in.
  • Push yourself, but at the same time realize the limitations that are already imposed. The main difficulty of LD (or other short game jams) is knowing how much time you have and what you can do with it.
  • Realize what you are good at, and capitalize on that. This is of course unless you are trying to improve on your weaknesses. Then go for that instead.
  • Don’t be afraid to make what you actually want to, rather than your standard run of the mill game. Or make a standard run of the mill game if thats what you want.
  • Don’t be afraid to draw inspiration from other sources, it will add a unique flavor to your game, as well as possibly push you to do something you never did before.
  • Find a simple thing you can implement, and then build off of that with the time you have left.
  • Have fun, don’t be afraid to dance.

 

Some links:

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