Cat Tidying: the post-mortem

Posted by (twitter: @mahalis)
May 5th, 2016 8:03 am

Neko Katadzukeru is a puzzle game where you take delivery of an endless assortment of contortionist cats and must package them neatly to send them on their way. It’s my fourth compo entry (see the previous ones here), and the first one where I actually had the whole weekend to work on it; here are some tales of its development and bits of advice.

Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 6.14 p

Things what went good

  • Sleep. Seriously, I know the jam tradition is to grind late into the night and hypercaffeinate and so on, but in my experience that results in making sillier and sillier mistakes as the weekend goes on, and being totally burned out in the last couple of hours which are the most critical for finishing things up. I aimed for ~7 hours a night, and while I did have to keep working down to the last few minutes of the deadline, I spent way less time staring blankly at weird bugs and wondering where my life’d gone wrong than I would have otherwise.
  • Early ideas. It’s really important not to spend too much time agonizing over finding the Perfect Idea that is Definitely Better Than All The Other Ideas. Think of as much as you can as quickly as you can, pick one, and go. I typically look over the list of theme finalists on Friday and try to brainstorm at least one or two possibilities for each one. Another thing that’s helpful for this: not just staring at your computer trying to think of something. Go outside; take half an hour to wander around and mull things over. Brains are really good at taking random stimuli and building ideas out of them; the more stimuli you’re exposed to, the better your chances of finding a good idea.
  • Hand-drawn art. A lot of people go for a pixel-art style in the compo. When that’s done well, it can look really cool, but it’s hard to stand out unless you are a pixel wizard (in which case I hope you are enjoying Pixel Hogwarts—bet it’s rad). Somewhat less common is a hand-drawn look, which, even if you’re not great at drawing, instantly gives your game a unique character. You don’t need a scanner—take as straight-on a photo with your phone as you can, then use Photoshop or similar to make the image grayscale and adjust the levels so you have a pure-black-and-white image, as in the image below. This time, I made most of the art using a Pencil, but the principle is the same if you’re working with a pencil of the lowercase variety.
    • levels example
  • Mouth sounds. Again, lots of games use tools like sfxr to generate old-school beeps and boops, and that’s fine, but you very likely have a way more flexible sound-effect generator at your disposal. Every sound effect in Neko came from me standing in my closet with a towel over the door (to muffle outside sound and echoes) making noises into the Voice Memos app in my phone. Record a bunch of variants on the same sound in a row, then get the file onto your computer, chop it up in something like Audacity, and you’re good to go. It’s quick, efficient, and it makes your game stand out; the only downside is feeling kinda silly standing in your closet trying to do cat noises.

Things what didn’t go so good

  • Difficulty. This has been a perennial problem for me, and I’ve seen it in a number of other games too: when you’ve spent all weekend playing and replaying the same game, it becomes much easier for you than for someone approaching it for the first time. Neko is really hard; a number of people have told me they couldn’t even finish a single box. It’s critical to have other people play your game while you’re building it, or at least early enough that you can tweak it before you submit it—if the game’s too hard, people miss out on the fun of succeeding at it.
  • Tutorials. Think you’ve taught players your mechanics? You probably haven’t. People will misunderstand things you tell them, or forget about them, or not even notice your instructions at all. Games I’ve seen that do this well will show you prompts that don’t go away, or don’t get out of your way, until you’ve successfully done the thing they’re trying to teach you—there’s a reason basically every AAA game makes you go through a “press X to jump over this thing, press Y to crouch under that” section at the beginning. In Neko, I put instructions on the title screen, which is an incredibly easy place to not see them. Don’t do that, and really don’t put the instructions on the download page (at least not as the only place they’re available). Make sure your players always know what they’re doing.

This has run on longer than it was meant to, so I guess I’ll wrap it up here—I hope some of this proves useful for your next jam. If you haven’t played Neko Katadzukeru yet, please do; I think it turned out pretty well. Thanks for reading!

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