Being happy with your LudumDare game

Ah, the Ludum dare! Your favorite gamejam. You have fond memories of the last one: the wait before the announcement, the not-so-inspiring theme, and its famous 48h time limit…

48h, Really? 30h at most if you ask me. Everyone will tell you that you need to eat properly and to take a break from time to time. This is not the purpose of this post, I will just assume that you have at least one 8h sleep and a few proper meal during the weekend.

How it might go

So 30h. Let’s do this! Let’s say you have the perfect idea for the jam, and you spend the first day producing cool graphics, slick animations, and great audio. Good. It took some time of course, but it’s done.

Now you have 15-20 hours to make an actual game that has a usage for each asset you made… Aaand done! That was easy! No weird physic bug, no special case to handle, and you implemented every single mechanic you wanted. After all you knew exactly how to play an animation in your game engine. Right?

~5 hours to go. Let’s wrap it up : 2-3 levels, a title screen, a game over screen… Aaand you submitted just on time. Hurray! Can’t wait for the comments :

 

That was super hard, I gave up on the second level. Graphics are great.

Great! Difficulty is good. Too bad he didn’t see the boss though.

Looks awesome, but I don’t understand how my abilities work”

Ow man, one of those guys who rate games in 2 minutes and don’t actually try to play it. That sucks.

I didn’t know where to go after I beat the third patch of enemies.

Wait, what? There is just one path: you need to jump on the platform offscreen. Did he not try that?

My attacks felt very underwhelming, and it was hard to beat the simpler enemies”

Well of course! You need to make combos!

 

21 days later you are a bit depressed from the comments. You even wrote a post about it, asking if people actually played your game. No one seemed to care. Results are in and your best score in #84 in graphics. Audio is at #261. You’d rather not talk about the rest.

(Copyright theMeatly.com)

 

Let’s go back, and refine our objectives

This example I gave is highly unrealistic. Nothing goes smoothly from start to finish, and the simple tasks will take more time that you would expect. That is, if you don’t have an unexpected bug popping out of nowhere.

You might have the time to implement all the mechanics you want AND have nice assets AND a proper level design… but you cannot know for sure. So Keep It Stupidly Simple! (or “Keep It Simple, Stupid” if you prefer that one)

If you ever want to make a good LD entry, you not only need to make a game, but you also need to make a game that doesn’t drive people away by beeing too hard/long/boring/complicated/… And for each feature you add to the game, you will have to make sure that it’s not too hard/long/boring/complicated, which comes on top of the technical challenge.

Why not going easy on yourself? Why wouldn’t you pick just one feature? (feature, concept, mechanic… call it however you like). It is better to have one cleanly executed (and matured) feature than a bunch of half-baked ones. A few examples:

  • You have to navigate a maze to reach a visible goal but the walls are invisible
  • You have to navigate a maze to reach a visible goal but you can only stop moving by bumping into a wall
  • A basic platformer but jumping toggles some platforms
  • A basic platformer but wall-jumping breaks the walls
  • Solve a mystery but you cannot ask the same question to different persons.

After all, YOU are the only one defining the amount of work required.

 

Pick an idea

When the theme is announced (or even before), write any ideas you may have, no matter how stupid or vague they may be.

Go through your list and, unless it’s a REALLY simple idea, remove those who don’t match your skills (you can always keep that idea for another game):

  • It needs good graphics, and you are not good at art? Next! Coming up with assets you deem acceptable will take too long.
  • It needs a physic simulation, and your game engine doesn’t have one? (or you never used it?) Next! Don’t risk going through technical hurdles when you can avoid it
  • It needs to have animation synchronized with the music, and you are not sure how to do that? Next!

This might seem a bit over the top, but my point is that you need to come up with your own rule that guarantees the idea is reasonable. Mine is “If I can’t make it with colored squares on a single screen, I need a good reason to keep that idea”.

Combine that to the “one feature” rule we talked above and you have an efficient way to filter out your ideas.

…no matter how stupid…

 

Implement your core feature

Once you have your one key feature, get it to work as soon as possible. This, as said earlier, will take more time than expected. So don’t go on a tangent here. Just get it to work. Bonus point if you can tune the controls so that it’s not boring to move around in a blank room.

Then introduce your concepts properly. Easier said than done, I know; “how to make a tutorial” deserves its own article… So here are the first 3 level of my LD26 as an example (not a single line of text to explain things):

 
sq_in_room_1

“This is how you move (what you can do), and what you have to do”

sq_in_room_2

“This is the concept I will build the rest of the game on”

sq_in_room_3

“This is how you can fail”

Congratulation! You now have a (very short and ugly) game, one that is not bugged or broken.

 

When the core feature is implemented

If you reached that stage, there is a chance that you are either late in the first day (and you should go to bed), or already in the second day. From there, you have a few options:

Implement a second feature

I wouldn’t recommend it. You are not guaranteed to have enough time to add a concept to the game. If you feel confident, go for it, but it will be less risky to focus on smaller tasks and improve what you already have.

Add some content

This will probably mean adding a bunch of new levels, but it could also be adding a bit of dialogue to NPCs, adding a new station in you space game, a new kind of enemy…

With only one twist to your game, it might seem hard to produce multiple levels without going in circles… but it’s not. Watch this:

The key here is to play with your core concept to see what kind of situations you can have. Make a couple of level based on each situation. Don’t make them to hard and keep them short (remember that “on one screen” constraint?): remember you want the players to keep playing so don’t frustrate or bore them.

Once again, gifs to the rescue:

 
sq_in_room_4-6

Levels 4-6: Follow a path, a basic precision challenge

sq_in_room_7

Level 7: Development: Find the path yourself

sq_in_room_12

Twist! Find which goal is reachable

Make it pretty

Add sounds. That’s the easy one, and the most important in my opinion: a lack of sound feels wrong. People don’t necessarily notice, but they tend to give a worst rating to soundless games. It’s better to have poor sound effects than none (unless they are unpleasant of course)

Add graphics. I know you want to. It’s ok. Now you can.

Add some juice: Screenshake, particles… There are a lot of things you can do in that domain, and a lot has been said about it (content that is just one google search away). This is usually the last thing I do, as I can keep adding “one more thing” until the end.

sq_chain_reaction

chain reactions are awesome

Add a story

What now? A story? I thought I wasn’t suppose to add a big feature!

Well… Yes. If you go for a story, you can’t deliver an incomplete one. But it is hard to break something if all you are doing is adding a bunch of if (eventX) display(textEventX); Worst case: you don’t have the time to finish it, and you just have a few lines of code to comment.

You don’t even need to have many kind of events: onLevelStart, onLevelEnd, onDeath... is enough. Before you know it, you will have a complete, narrated game. Or even NPC expressing their personality.

Boom! you gained a few stars in mood, maybe humor, and a new kind of comments “Man, I love the little dialogs in that game!”

“But I just have a bunch of squares running around! How could a story–“

 

Final thoughts and TLDR

There are a lot of rules and tips to succeed at a gamejam out there, and I just added a handful to the mix. You might not agree with some of them, and that is totally fine. Just remember that one:

You are making a game for people to play. Try to make something enjoyable, not a half-baked version of what you wanted to create.

Now go check you tools one last time, and join us while we wait for the theme.

Have a nice week-end!

Method and exciting perspective

This is a post-mortem for my ludumdare 31 entry

LDLogo2015

Getting ready to dare: Setting a personal objective

No wonder that every 4 month I -among many- keep getting back to the jam : The Ludumdare is a fantastic opportunity to learn and improve while having fun, and the community is always ready to give back (I tried to do it as well).
For every LD I participated in, I tried to focus on a specific topic, be it making my first game, trying specific concepts, experimenting with procedural generation, improving my square-only graphic style, delivering an experience more than a game…
This time my personal challenge was a bit different….

You see I noticed a strange pattern in my projects: In the past 3 months I have been working on a personal project… and I have nothing to show. I produced design documents, assets, code (a lot of code actually), but I have nothing to show. Because what I really did is pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that do not fit together.
So what am I doing wrong here? Why do I get lost in refactors, doing-only-the-cool-stuff -and a bit of over-engeneering- while not suffering from those problems in my LD compos?

During a LD I work in a very specific way: I have a sheet of paper which always has a list looking more or less like this

  • feature 1
  • feature 2
  • levels
  • feature 3
  • feature 4
  • levels
  • assets
  • title screen / game over screen / level select screen / option screen
  • levels
  • fancy feature 1
  • fancy feature 2
  • levels
  • etc…

Do you notice a pattern? I have milestones in this list (usually were I write “make 1-2 levels”) which means that as long as I reached it I will always have a playable game, no matter how far I can get down the list. I also have a clear prioritization of the features and I don’t lose time on assets while I don’t have something playable.

This simple list, which I never used outside a LD compo, brings me focus and ensure that I have a playable game to deliver. I never actually stopped to think about it until 1 week before the compo, but I really think this is a strong foundation for a method I could use on bigger projects.

So I had my goal for this compo : evaluate this method. I was ready to enter the jam…

 

It begins… Theme annoncement

If you are reading this you and I probably have something in common : tons of ideas. Not enough time.
Like some of you, I have attempted a LD knowing which game I would make before the theme was even announced. I have to admit that the result was always disappointing
While this is not the purpose of this post, I will take the opportunity to share a small trick with you: I keep a record of all my game ideas. I always have a notebook with me, and I write any game idea (or mechanic idea) I may have. Right before the theme announcement I read through it. With a bit of luck, one of those ideas will immediately come to mind when I see the theme.

I have used this trick twice now, and each time I knew within 5 minutes what game I would make. I also think those two games are my best, probably because those ideas were both well-though and matched the theme.

So here was my basic idea, as written in the notebook :

the player controls various weapons with a command-line and the situation is displayed on a very simple console display. (spaceship, or command quarters)

A perfect match with the theme.

 

The original idea first came to me while reading a novel by R.Heinlein, “Citizen of the galaxy”:
citizen-galaxy

 (yes, i am french)

At some point in the story, the hero works as the fire-controlman of a spaceship. His job is to assist a computer with the complicated calculation required to hit long distance targets. While the concept of a human calculating stuff more quickly than a computer is very… old sci-fi… I found it really cool.

 

Let’s dive into it

First thing first: I quickly put together a list of features, prioritized them, set clear milestones. I came up with something like this:

 

I don’t have a screenshot of the original version, this is what it looked like after the compo

 

  1. On the left, I have the actual list of milestones. It is not explicitly stated, but after each milestone I intended to have a playable level.
  2. Then for each milestone I have a list of features I want to include.
  3. My color code is pretty simple :
    * red = blocking something else
    * yellow = good enough
    * green = does exactly what I want
    * purple = bugged

I put any asset needed in there as soon as I encounter it. I do the same for the bugs : If I don’t intend to fix it right now, I put it on the list. So the 3 lists on the right side a filled while I dev.
You can see I also use the color code in the asset list : A yellow asset is a placeholder or something I don’t like.

Choosing an idea and setting up those lists took me 20 minutes, no more. I had clear objectives, a step-by-step list of things to do, and fallback plans in case something took too much time (and it did). How awesome is that?

 

So? How did it go?

Really well. I never got lost developing unnecessary stuff, had time to eat and sleep, had early versions of the game, everything worked as intended really quickly, didn’t have any major bugs…

… except for a side effect I hadn’t anticipated.
Until 3 hours before the deadline I had nothing more than this screenshot:

ld31-early-screen

Yes I had a bunch of functional mechanics, but the (little) content that I had was hard-coded and was not enough to make an enjoyable experience. So what I did was a feature-lock. I dropped what I was working on, and I began to produce content only.

The result: A single mission. Everything works as intended but the game has only one mission (a tutorial actually, I couldn’t expect the player to guess which commands he was supposed to type)

 

Is the method working?

Yes. I don’t have any doubt about it.
While I didn’t expect it, this feature-lock situation I got into is actually pretty cool: I had very little time and had to rush the game but thanks to that method I didn’t have any last-minute-ugly-and-shameful-patch to do. All I had to do was producing content (levels). And that could not break the game.

Of course this is a first draft of the method. I can already see some problems with it:
– the lists are inaccurate (you can see I left some entries untouched in the early milestones
– the lists are too basic: I actually had a more short-term TODO list on paper (especially for the command-line input, which had sub-features like auto-completion)
– dependencies between features are not visible
– the color code is very simple and was not always accurate
– I am not sure how this could work for a team.
– feedbacks (and requirements for a feature, and design-stuff, and….) are not well-integrated
– …
So I will keep working on it (and will probably write about the results). I already did some research and found something pretty similar, and much more detailed.

 

What about the game?

As a result of the method, even if there is only one mission, the game feels very complete and don’t have any broken feature.
But it is not the game I wanted to make.

If you re-read the idea that was in my notebook, you can see it was all about weapons:

the player controls various weapons with a command-line and the situation is displayed on a very simple console display. (spaceship, or command quarters)

Instead I have scanners, sensors and communications… far from the “fire-controlman” I wanted the player to be. To sum it up, I ended up with a simulation of… whatever her job is:

 

Anastasia_Dualla

Anastasia Dualla simulator 2014

Yes, I was a little disappointed in the game itself.

And yet, it works.

Since I didn’t have all the features I was hoping for, I had to be a bit creative with the way you could use commands. And the result surprised me in many ways:
– I ended up with mechanics far from what I wanted, but I was still excited about it during the dev (and still am a month later)
– I expected the game to be fast-paced and all about quick reactions (basically this kind of game, but better). Instead, I ended up with a really good concept for a narrative game.
– I thought a game about scanning ships would be dull and boring. It turns out that the play-testers (family and friends) were really liking it. More surprisingly, people who I though would quickly-test-it-and-tell-me-i-did-a-good-job-to-get-rid-of-me were the most enthusiast. When someone tells you “You know… of all the game you made, I think this is my favorite” several days later, it really brighten your day.

 

What if…

The more I think about it, the more I believe the punch-line I came up with (“Paper Please meets Battlestar Galactica”) hits home. I have a really good material to make a good sci-fi game. And by that I don’t mean a game with heroic moments, laser shooting, planets exploding, teleportation and fancy stuff like this… I mean that I have a way to deliver a “real” sci-fi story (the ones that present a setting and make you think about it) with mechanics that serve it. I could totally make a full game out of it…

Not so fast!
Having good feedbacks from your family and friends is not enough, even if you really believe it could work. Let’s not jump to conclusion and collect some real data:

I put together a post-compo version of my game that I updated multiple time. In it I…
– Added one mission which is not a basic tutorial
– Added a lot of common-0 sounds (I couldn’t do that in the context of the compo, but the difference is incredible)
– Reworked (very quickly) the GUI to tackle the most common feedbacks I got
– Fixed minor bugs

Those change are there to give a clearer view of what the game could be. Below I added a poll to ask people if they would be interested in the game and a field so people could leave me an email address to be notified if I actually decide to make a commercial version of it.

Here are the results:

  1. ld31-pollEven if I consider any played-but-didn’t-vote as a “no”, I have a positive ratio
  2. I was not expecting much of it, but people actually left me their mail! (no screenshot for that one, obviously).
  3. I have more plays on the post-compo version than I have votes on the LD site.
  4. Some people (not coming from the ludumdare site) contacted me to tell me I had a really good idea
  5. I was told from several sources (once again, not only on the ludumdare site) that I should make a full version of it.

So should I make it?
– I have an Idea I believe in, and that other people like.
– I have a method that will help me to stay focused and to respect deadlines
– I have time, and money (I didn’t talk about that? Well I do)

So yes, I think I should. It may not have the same name, the same context or the same look, but it will probably happen. Stay tuned!

Rating consistency: How I rate games

I first published this article for the 29th ludumdare. This is a slightly revised version that better suits my views after 10 participation to the event, while keeping the new “opt-out” option in mind.

 

Hello community!

Life being life, I had a lot of time on my hands during the rating period of the ludumdare 29. While this allowed my game to be featured in the “most coolness” section of the rating page, I was also confronted with a problem I never faced before: rating consistency.
Like most of you, when I find a game that I REALLY like I give a lot of stars. Even in categories where the game doesn’t deserve much stars. And yes, the opposite is also true: I will give fewer stars than you deserve if there is something I really don’t like about your game.
Those bias are often unconscious, but after a few sessions I found myself questioning my past ratings. Things like “Did that gorgeous game really deserved 5/5 overall?” or “Wait… I gave 4 stars to that other game, and this one is clearly better. But not 5/5 better”
With the amount of game I had already rated, and considering the amount of games I still intended to rate, I felt that I needed a scoring system if I wanted to be fair with everyone.

I am NOT telling you how I think you should rate games. I post this for those who feel like their rating is not consistent. Or for those who find themselves giving either 1 or 5 stars in some categories. Or even as a tool to analyse your ratings if you like.

 

General rule

[N/A] I used to leave some categories empty when I felt there was no intention from the author to create a mood/humor AND when I felt nothing special. With the new opt-out option I always rate a category when I encounter it.
[1] You tried to do something but it was more an annoyance than anything else OR I don’t understand why you didn’t opted-out of that category. (To me, giving 1 star is a punitive action. It’s my way of saying “don’t do that again”)
[2] You tried to do something… but really REALLY poorly. This is often the rating I give when it feels scamped, pushed-in-there…
[3] I can see you made some effort with it (even if I don’t think you accomplished what you wanted)
[4] Pretty good, but not perfect
[5] I hardly see how it could be better

more specifically:

MOOD

[1] Expressed intention from the author to create a mood (either in the description, in a text early in the game, or by not opting-out of the category), but nothing in the game to support that.
[2] Crap sound/visual effects, “telling me” what I am supposed to feel (“you arrive in a spooky town”), dark visuals that hurt the gameplay instead of serving it …
[3] Meh… Yes maybe
[4] Something feels “off”. (don’t have a better way to describe it, depends on the game)
[5] I was “in the flow” of the game

HUMOR

[1] Not funny at all. No really : NOT. FUNNY.
[2] Something in the game made me genuinely smile, but I don’t think it was intentional
[3/4] I smiled/laugh in multiple occasions
[5] I kept playing because I knew it would make me laugh

AUDIO

[1] Either a lack of sound that harms the game, or if I muted the game
[2] Sound effects that are not unpleasant (basically any game that use exclusively bfxr sounds)
[3] Some music and/or sound effects of good quality or well-integrated (ie. proper bfxr sounds with a well-balanced volume).
[4/5] Depends on the game, but the game must have REALLY good music and sounds. Otherwise, it’s a 3

GRAPHICS

If it is a text-based game I rate based on the clarity of the interface (with bonus points if you have some effects)
[1] I don’t understand what is happening on the screen. Seriously, some games do just fine with colored squares!
[2] I understand what is going on
[3] You took the time to create some assets and/or have some effects here and there
[4] Good assets OR a nice aesthetic (style, colors…) OR some notably cool effects
[5] Everything listed in point 4, or REALLY beautiful art.

THEME

[1] You did nothing with the theme (Come on… LudumDare is a theme-based jam) OR the link to the theme was explained in the description but I felt it was just “Here is my take on the theme : [absurd explanation]. Now play the game I wanted to do anyway”.
[2] A take on the theme that is not original, or the theme is only mentioned at the beginning/end of the game
[3] A not-so-common take on the theme, but used only to set the context of the game.
[4] The theme is used in someway in your game
[5] A fundamental mechanic of the game is built from the theme, or the mechanics of the game all revolve around the theme

FUN

[1] I was forcing myself to play the game (Frustrating game: no clear objective, bad controls, bugs…)
[2-3] I didn’t feel the need to keep playing after a game over or after a few levels
[4] I kept playing for a while
[5] I want to come back to this game later

INNOVATION

[1] Nothing unique OR a copy of another game
[2] Classic mechanics with a minor twist (often poorly integrated)
[3] Any “abstract” game, or classic mechanics with a nice twist
[4] Multiple cool features, or an unusual mix of mechanics, or a clever mechanic (often associated with the theme)
[5] Unique gameplay

OVERALL

[1] Neither a game nor an interactive experience. I also give 1 when there is just a mechanic with nothing built around it (a guy running around)
[2-3] A game I won’t remember
[4] Great game overall (often have multiple 5 in other categories) but don’t feel like a “complete” game
[5] A game that feels complete OR with an excellent rating in every other categories

 

Now, a few random thoughts:

  • Read the description. Sometime you don’t want to read a wall of text (especially if it is a big thesaurus of all the entities in the game), but the description is the only medium for the author to communicate with you.
  • Post a comment. It’s not always easy to post something nice, but for some people comments ARE more important than the actual rating. I suspect I am not the only one to check my page at least once a day.
  • Be constructive. I have seen multiple games with comments that were not far from “nice art, shitty game”…
  • Don’t get your expectations too high : The goal of LudumDare is to make a game and to get feedbacks on it, not to win it

 

Don’t get your expectations too high

I first published this article for the 25th ludumdare. This is a slightly revised version that better suits my views after 10 participation to the event.

 

Right after the results I always see posts like “woohoo! 27th overall and 17th in fun”. And sometime I see some posts like…

  • Seriously, only 3/5 in [graphics/audio/…]?
  • Ok that was cool, but I will now take a break from making video games
  • What’s the point of making a game if you are up against professionals?
  • The rating system is broken! (ah… my old-time favorite)
  • Very disappointed with my results 🙁
  • A-ha! 33rd in fun, better that notch!
  • did people actually played my game?

This is not a competition. Yet many people feel like it is. This is an oportunity to learn new things, to have fun, to gain some experience, to try new things…. but this is not a competition.

How do you rate games?
– Do you have strict criteria for each category, or do you go with your guts?
– Do you leave the category empty or do you put one star when you feel there is no humor/mood/… ?
– Do you give/remove an extra star without really thinking about it just because you liked or disliked the game ?
– Do you give some stars in humor if something made you smile, even if it is more cute than funny ?
– Do you always finish the games or do you sometime feels that you have seen enough after a few minutes (or even a few seconds) ?
– Do you feel more positive towards a game because the guy is a friend / made you want to play the game / is one of those entry everyone is talking about ?
– Do you give less star if you don’t see the connection with the theme? If there is no goats, kittens, potatoes or snowmen in the game?

Everyone has a specific way of rating, and you will only be rated by a few random strangers.

If you think this is a competition you can genuinely feel that the rating system is broken and unfair. If so, try to think about it in another way: a few random strangers took the time to play your game and rate it to give clues on what you should improve. A guy that only gives you 1 or 2 stars in each category has something in common with another guy that will spend 15 minutes on it to give you plenty of stars: If your audio is fantastic, they will both notice it. If your game is fun despite really poor visuals, they will rate accordingly.

So let’s say you focused really hard on the audio and not really much on anything else. You get the following ratings :
Mood 3.8
Overall 3.3
Audio 2.8
Innovation 2.2
Fun 2.0
Theme 1.8
Graphics 1.5
Humor 1.1

Only 2.8 in audio. Not bad. You were expecting more, obviously. But if you look at the other categories, you can clearly see that people noticed your efforts. that is what matters.
More importantly, people found your game very moody. It is a bit difficult to see the connections, but I feel that some categories greatly affects others :
– fun, mood and innovation will boost your overall rating
– humor, graphics and innovation boost the fun
– audio and graphics boosts the mood

Of course there may be other factors that are hard to describe without an actual game (and I believe that categories like controls, level design, narrative, tutorial… could be a great addition), but with only 1.5 in graphics I can safely assume that your rating in the mood category (nearly 4) is mostly due to the audio. And that is a fantastic result.

Now for the ranking, let’s be honest: you are just 1 entry. Among the 1500-2000 entries there are professionals and people with better skills and more experience than you. Ranking in the top 200 for a category already means you did an excellent job.