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“The cat is fine but sad” – Doctor Drown (Ph. D) postmortem

Posted by (twitter: @dreamfeeel)
Friday, September 6th, 2013 8:27 am

Doctor Drown (Ph D) was my second dare Ludum Dare entry (Bayou my first), my second doing it with Sam too, and probably my 5th/6th game jam where I finished something. You play a corny 60’s Super Villain who floods his chambers with sharks. Simple. I’m happy to have made it, but I definitely learned a few lessons I thought I should already know. So let’s start with that so we can end positively.

What went wrong:

– A focus on mechanics, AGAIN. I’ve become increasingly disinterested with game mechanics, at least the traditional forms of them, beyond being a means to an end, and the real lasting appeal of digital attractions for me is in their sustance. By ‘substance’ I don’t mean “hours of content” or even exactly a thematic total but the volume, maybe density, of detail/love/personality/experience/gamestuff/expression/ units of resonance a game contains. Expression might be a good word actually. Often things that have no functional reason to be there. Example! Earthbound & Mother 3 are full of it. The black & the white pixels you can talk to or don’t in the desert, that’s substance. In Problem Attic, the entire game is built upon distorted memories and methaphor, everything drips substance. Psychonauts is mechanically not the greatest platformer ever but it’s dearly loved by huge numbers of people. In Stephen Lavelle’s Missing the world is full of characters despite them all saying the same thing, no they haven’t seen your son, and every character is aching substance. It’s not necessarily textual either. In Proteus, the standing the stones, the crabs, the owl, the abstact reactive music itself is all substance. So, a fairly ill-defined, nebulous idea so far but an idea all the same. Strange. Funny. Heartrending.

Sure, if you want to do something truly new you may need to spend a lot of time on the mechanics also, but in my opinion the game is strictly no better or worse for this alone (rather in what expression that might allow you), and as there’s already so much untapped in what we can already do (ie: creating work informed by anything beyond the last 20 years of computer games),  this is misguided or even outright silly for a game jam. Game jams should be punk. thecatamites started making awesome experiences in AGS because he couldn’t program, whereas most people start making poorly programmed derivatives because they can’t program. Do it yourself. Can’t sleep? Make a game.

So, to the point! As the games I have tended to work on (read: all of them) over the last two years have been bogged down in mechanics and never reached the good stuff beyond, this was on my mind. And every game jam I’ve participated in I have very consciously shied away from doing something more writing weighted and instead focused on something mechanical and “replayable”, but this has never quite worked and I’m really not that interested anymore either. I’m pretty sure if I was 24 5 years ago I would be a million miles from making computer games right now (good/bad?). Anyway, the last jam I did with Bayou was probably the closest I have ever come to making something vaguely interesting and less focused on mechanics, but still I focused on functionality & art instead of what was going on. So going into this jam I knew I wanted to make something that didn’t give two jots about mechanics and instead create an experience/story/substance.


But I didn’t. Out of the two final ideas we whittled our jam down to, one being experience/narrative weighted & one being untested mechanics weighted, we decided to go with the mechanics weighted one because it was more unique. It was certainly unique, but if you have a voice every creation should be. And as no game I’ve played yet from LD27 was even remotely like the other our worries were unfounded. I chose to make another game where I could grapple with obtuse mechanics and waste time getting pretty effects in. I’m not alone in creating something defined primarily by its mechanics though, I was a bit disappointed, like the last LD, to find that most of the other games are too. People like different things so that’s totally cool (although shout outs to At the Cafe, exposure, Gone in 10 Seconds, Become a Great Artist in Just 10 Seconds, Detective Awesomepants & Xyloctopus for being awesome, and I still have SO MANY I want to play). Initially I planned to get some of that kind of material in, characters would spout inane hero dialogue & there would be a tv in the control room blasting stuff out incessantly, but TIME. Although really, it didn’t feel like it belonged in the game I agreed with Sam and then I was probably nervous to put myself out there at the same time.


At the Cafe by pierrec


That was a bit long for a bullet point! I guess that was probably the core thing I wanted to excise with this post-mortem but I’m gonna round out the rest of the right/wrong anyway. I feel bad for Doctor Drown, because the game is grand once you get it, and the above point is in no way its fault. It’s just indicative of where I am I think, and I think I’m done with expression-less games.


– Okay onto the actual development related mistakes! Firstly a late-ish start. As a two person team we didn’t even start discussing ideas until after lunch and at this point many of my more developed ones went out the window. Then we had to take another couple of hours to think some more and talk again. So we didn’t start until Saturday evening and it was really towards the end of the day on Sunday when we had a complete rough prototype. Not good. It’s a bit of a pain that Ludum Dare starts in the morning for us GMT-ers, that sleeping on it is invaluable I think. This deliberation over the idea can be a huge time sink but I do feel it’s valuable to get it right at this stage. Unfortunately, we didn’t. I worried about how the game would actually play and the more I thought about the mechanics the more I grew comfortable with them, not thinking how a newcomer would see them (especially if they didn’t read the description).


 This resulted in what could be a rather unclear, obtuse game. The ‘twist’ of the game is built around the screen position not representing the room position. This is mentioned in the description and the opening images, but it’s very easy to not catch. And if you did understand it then it can still be hard to follow and play. I tried a number of things to make it easier, such as only shuffling columns so the rows are consistent (that is you can what level everyone is at) and lots of things around highlighting (the last one which semi-floods connected rooms being the most effective I feel). But it still doesn’t quite work if you don’t ‘get it’ in the first place.


One solution might be shuffling the screens in real-time to make the shuffling explicit. Another might be making a much slower paced game, where it’s more detective work to make notes and work out connections. This was actually an original intention. However it’s probably one of those ideas that sounds better on paper, and maybe I should just get rid of it. Although a better solution might be building the game around different mechanics, such as shuffling the screens yourself to fit them back together. In the end some people got it, after a couple tries sometimes, and some people didn’t. With jams like Ludum Dare your game probably needs to be super accessible & immediate.


What went right

– Collaboration. It can be tough creating stuff solo, or mostly solo; there’s a lot of pressure and even guilt when you’re not working. If you don’t do it, nothing will happen. It’s refreshing to be able to bounce ideas off someone rather than just paper. Something that’s helps massively from time to time on solo stuff too. Working at a distance can be tricky though, especially in informal loose circumstances. It’s difficult to know what someone is doing and an inability to get in touch can lead to stress. Comes down to trust ad good team members though, sharing similar aims is crucial. Two people is possibly the most effective team you can have too, the least overhead and communication, just collaboration.


– This led to a really strong aesthetic. Sam’s animations are great and all the visual elements carry his style and vibrancy. Happily a lot of people find it funny too, the cat is the kind of touch that makes things special (coughsubstancecough). This all merged really well with the sound design (it kills me to still see LD games without any sound, even otherwise fantastic ones). I was happy with the music I found to use after scouring through lots of old spy music and soviet jazz (and I enjoyed just discovering lots of other cool tracks too). Next time I might use Terry’s Bosca Ceoil although recently I have reinstalled and enjoyed playing with some tracking software for the first time in over a year.
Unfortunately I should mention we also got some awesome music from the most excellent kayfaraday (who contributed a stellar track to Taquito Tower) but I received just under two hours before the deadline and I didn’t see it until the morning after. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to use it in the future.


 Unity & lots of cameraaas: I decided to make it Unity as it seems to be my go-to tool now. I had a separate game camera for every single room and used render textures from them onto the monitors inside the control room game scene. I wondered if this was overkill (19 cameras in all!) but it actually turned out to work really well. This allowed us to develop the game in a logical fashion but more importantly allowed us to put all kinds of effects on the monitors like the noise, fish-eye, panning etc. Most happy with this.

The ‘physical’ lair in Unity. The rooms totally make sense, look!


– I made a game! This is a big reason I was looking forward to this Ludum Dare, to take a break from everything else I’ve been slowly working on and actually get something out. So success. There’s no reason why I couldn’t release punkier games more often though. I like short stories, we need more short story games.


Phew, I’ll also look forward to the next Ludum Dare and game jam generally (I started one a few days before LD27 and I’m going to 2 more in the next two weeks!). Feel free to get in touch via Twitter (@dreamfeeel) or email (paul at dreamfeel.net) and play the game if you haven’t goshdarnit!

All the best,

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