New Dawn was the first Ludum Dare entry for both members of our team, and the first game jam/compo of any sort that we’ve done. We went in with little preparation and an overdose of optimism, but overall it came out pretty well! We weren’t able to do as much as we’d hoped – that probably goes for everyone here – but we finished in 72 hours and still came up with a solid little game.
We had a general idea of what we wanted to make before LD started: some kind of mini-RPG or adventure game. We couldn’t help brainstorming as we were voting on themes, and we really liked the idea of setting the game in a dystopia. A few of the themes could’ve made that setting difficult, but luckily for us,“Beneath the Surface” fit really well. It led to an interesting post-apocalyptic setting where the action takes place underground because the surface is no longer habitable. Plus, a dystopian setting was perfect for adding layers of secrets and false pretenses, which meant we could interpret the theme both literally and figuratively. We didn’t get to do as much of the latter as we originally planned, but we think it still comes through pretty well.
Although we started with the idea of a “mini-RPG,” we knew we probably wouldn’t have time to add many RPG elements. As it turned out, we ended up just sticking to a point-and-click adventure game. In order to have time to code extra RPG features, like a combat system, we would’ve had to spend less time on art and the dialogue system. That would have led to a very different kind of game, not necessarily a bad one, but we felt New Dawn would be better served by focusing on the story and the atmosphere. Having a better dialogue system and more detailed art helped to strengthen the story and atmosphere, whereas RPG mechanics wouldn’t really add as much in that sense. That said, if we had more time, we would have liked to add those as well.
New Dawn — A subterranean dystopia
Stefan (Coding, Art, Concept/Gameplay Design): Going in I knew I was going to use Unity (and C#), along with 2D Toolkit. I had laid out a basic plan which was to try to implement all the features by the end of the first 24 hours, then all the art by the end of the second 24 hours, and leave the third day for testing, bugfixing, and polish. I did this because I know that games always take longer than you expect, so this gave us some room to work with and helped curb our ambitions and expectations. As it turned out, this was a great idea, because although I did finish all the crucial features in the first 24 hours, the art ended up taking much longer and wasn’t done until well into the third day (and I didn’t sleep at all Sunday night either!).
Ultimately I’m a programmer, not an artist, so I’m not very efficient at that stuff because I haven’t done it much. However another big reason it took so long is that while 2D Toolkit is very convenient, it has some very tedious interface problems that require manually doing repetitive actions over and over, which really should be automated. These actions can be automated by script, but at the time I wasn’t sure if the amount of time it would take to write those scripts would be less than the time it takes to do the stuff manually. In retrospect, I think for the amount of art we had it probably wouldn’t have saved us that much. However, if I could do it over again, I would have set up those automation extensions to 2D Toolkit before LD started, because that definitely would have saved a lot of time.
The art itself also took a lot of time because I chose to put a lot of detail into it, despite it being very low-res pixel art. The details are largely in the shading, which ate up a lot of time, especially for the tilesets which required many different versions of each wall tile in order for the shading to match up. This also meant more work for Olivia when placing the tiles to build out the levels. The shading, especially on the tiles, is a very subtle effect, which I don’t think most people would notice unless they’re familiar with how tilesets work and are specifically thinking about it (which you usually don’t do when you play a game even if you are familiar with how it works). However, I still think it was worth it to spend this extra time, because although most people won’t consciously recognize that the shading is there, when it isn’t there it really stands out and looks noticeably worse. In particular, I think the atmosphere of the game was really well served by the extra shading detail. After drawing the basic shape and applying the shading, I also applied a noise filter to all except the character sprites to give them a bit of extra grit which I think fits the setting well.
On the third day, once the art was finally completed, we only had a few hours left before the submission deadline. At this point I implemented a few extra features that I didn’t consider crucial, most notably the ability for NPCs to move. At this point it struck me that the ending we were planning was going to be very anticlimactic; so I decided to spend the rest of the time quickly building out an additional final level to provide a more climactic ending, while Olivia was finishing up the penultimate level. I think this was definitely a good decision in the end, however it was risky, because we ended up cutting it very close; if it wasn’t for the submission grace period we would have missed the deadline. But overall it definitely makes the game feel much more satisfying when you finish it, so I’m glad I made that choice.
Olivia (Writing, World/Level Design, Music): We knew the general kind of story we wanted to tell before LD started, so once the theme was announced I started hashing out the details. I spent most of the first day planning the overall plot, with input from Stefan, and writing descriptions/dialogue for generic NPCs and a few items. Though I didn’t implement them that day, all of those descriptions made it into the game, and really helped the world feel more inhabited. I also wrote text for an intro screen which eventually turned into our game page’s description.
Saturday and Sunday were mostly spent setting up levels: I’m pretty new to level design, and that turned into a huge, unexpected time sink. One of the original “exterior” areas I’d made was close to the size of a real city block – way more space than we had time to fill with interesting stuff! That time would’ve been much better spent populating the existing areas and doing additional writing, but…lesson learned. I said goodbye to my hopes of having all the levels finished by midday Sunday, and had to cut a plot branch and simplify the remaining ones to make sure I’d have time to finish the story.
Monday was mostly a rush to implement the last of the plot. Thankfully I’d planned it all and written some of it beforehand. The penultimate level, two crucial dialogue trees, and two optional but pretty significant NPCs didn’t exist in-game until late Monday afternoon. I also wrote the second (and shortest) part of our music that day, since I wanted at least a little variety. In our rush to submit, there wasn’t time to put the intro text on a starting screen, but that’s something I definitely plan to fix post-comp.
There were a few things I’d hoped to fit in, even with the deadline looming, that didn’t make it. The main one was a set of PA speaker announcements (in the form of text dialogue) which would’ve given more backstory and context to the world. I also wanted to implement sound effects – we’d made a bunch in bfxr – and additional music. My next priority would probably have been adding waypoints so generic NPCs can move and putting more decorations and ambient descriptions throughout the world. In spite of all those cuts, though, we still managed to tell a complete story in 72 hours, and I’m pretty happy with it.
What We Learned:
After we submitted the game, we got a lot of great feedback from commenters. Several people had problems with the click-to-move interface, and since we didn’t anticipate that we hadn’t put in any alternate control schemes (though our post-LD update lets you click and hold, which should alleviate much of the problem). We also made the main quest a little easier to figure out in some post-LD tweaks, since several people were getting stuck. Additionally, given the amount of content we had to cut due to the time limit, some of the areas ended up feeling a little empty. They probably should’ve been shrunk down. On the whole, though, the story and art that we had came together really well, and we ended up with a short but atmospheric adventure game.
LD was a great experience, and it really motivated us to make a game of our own from start to finish. We might do something totally different next time around, but we’ll definitely be there!