I’m at a stage in my current commuter project where I think I’m ready to start sharing and writing about what I’m making.
Introducing: Crocodile Cat
It is a very silly and simple one touch mobile game about a cat in a bubble who is trapped between the jaws of an infinite crocodile. Currently it features art made by myself in MS Paint, but it will look good one day.
The gameplay is basic, the player cat is moving up and down vertically between the crocodile’s jaws. The player must tap to change direction before they touch the jaws, and the jaws move to the position that the cat was at when the player tapped.
This encourages the player to test their nerve by changing direction as close as possible to the jaws, since the play area is shrunk with every tap.
The jaws are opened again by collecting special coins that fly through the scene, disrupting this game of chicken by offering a reward and brief respite from the increasing pressure.
A .gif below shows the game working in it’s current state. Early days yet but the mechanic is already testing well. I’m looking forward to seeing where I can take it!
With the scary rise of populist fascist sentiment in the west, many of us are confused, scared and unsure how to act. An unusual opening line for a blog post about a game jam, but Resist Jam sought to unite game makers in a stand against fascism: to create games exploring issues around civil rights, freedom of expression and resisting the abuse of power.
I wanted to contribute a game to this jam, so I asked my friends Nat, Jim, Jules and Joe if they wanted to work together on a project. We all wanted to get involved and so we formed a team! I’ve worked with these people before and this unit is my game dev dream team – we had a great time working together.
One of the first things that surprised me about this game jam is that it encouraged us to discuss our political ideas and stances together as a group. I’m not sure about other countries and cultures, but on the South coast of England we don’t discuss the subject of politics in public very often. An opportunity to hear the opinions of your friends (and people overhearing in the pub) is really enlightening. Freedom of expression during a game jam brainstorm is not unusual, but the amount of learning that came from listening to other people in stage was notable.
Our discussion around the game jam brief was mostly political, so we were likely to make a political game. Inspired by games like Papers Please, we were looking for a game that gave players incentive to make decisions that were against their natural political opinion, to encourage players to look at issues from another point of view.
After brainstorming a few ideas, we ended up circling around the concept of playing as a politician and appealing to a crowd. Political margins are slim, and UK politics are all about appealing to the centre ground. I believe that most politicians are doing what they think is right, but they seem to contradict and betray core voters around election time, compromising their core values for populist policies. We thought that this area of politics might be fun to turn into a game, with the key question:
Will you compromise your own values to win votes?
In many ways it’s asking sympathy for the Devil, encouraging the player to empathise with a politician. Still, we hoped that by encouraging players to consider what politicians phrase as “difficult choices”, we’d encourage our players to me more aware of the pressures that underpin the nature of our democracy.
The first design of this game saw players operating sliders to adjust their policy, then broadcasting their stance to the crowd. All the characters were human at this point! A little bit like a game of mastermind, players had to tease out a policy that appealed to the broadest range of voters. This design lacked a little depth, so we came up with this idea of newspaper headlines that change the issues that the voters care about, forcing the player to adapt and respond. This essentially puts the player as a politician against the press!
Under the hood, each voter had a value from -50 to 50 as to their left and right political lean on each issue. Adjusting the sliders on our policy areas generated the lean of the player’s message. Through maths (kindly provided by Susanna) the voters moved towards the politician they agreed with most on a sliding scale.
There were lots of problems with this design. Firstly, most of our voters had to be centrist in order for our ‘message’ to work, and subtle changes to policy actually had very little visual effect on the crowd. Perhaps this version was too accurate a simulation! Additionally, explaining the UI, the notion of policy, the synchronous turn taking, the cause and effect – basically the whole game – was much harder than expected. We had key policy areas and descriptions, put players never really engaged with these ideas in order to win over the crowd, so we weren’t challenging the player’s values as intended. Time to rethink the game design.
During our brainstorm session, we’d had an idea whereby the player was given a statement and then asked how they wanted to respond. We realised that interacting with policy areas in this way was powerful, and we can feed this into our existing game design.
This led to the current design of the game – the player is presented with three statements, and has to choose the one they most agree with.
To make the voters more responsive, we changed the underlying mathematics so that they move toward the politician they agree with on the most amount of issues. There are 5 issues in the game, so if a voter agrees with the player on at least three issues, they will be on their side.
This solved most of the problems, but the voters were still moving around with some mystery. The player was just clicking issues and seeing a response – we wanted to challenge how willing they are to trade their beliefs for political gain. Allowing the player a little peek under the hood, telling them “55% of voters will agree with this”, lets them see how their choice might affect the game and makes them consider how strongly they believe in it.
The newspapers were kept in this design to mix up the voter profiles and force the player to respond to the changing whims of the crowd. These flip the opinions of a random set of voters on a certain issue – changing the public support for an issue.
At this point, the game still featured some nebulous concept of a political debate – there were voters, campaigners, newspapers… but no setting. We wanted an English feel to the game, so decided upon a village fete: a right wing speaker pitches up and you have to present alternative arguments. Upon seeing the field designed, we asked “What if the voters are literal sheep?” This gave us a unique setting for our political argument, and a name – “Bleat the Wolf”.
Having a farmyard theme meant we were ready to pin down our policy areas and ask Joe, our writer, to come up with some specific policies to challenge our players! Joe did a great job creating a mix of farrmyard puns, references and policies that make sense on the farmyard but have a place in the real world too. This made the game lighthearted and fun to play, but still fulfilled the aim of questioning the player’s political beliefs.
The final touches were added in pretty UI, animations, music and SFX. I wrote a function that causes the sheep to baa() every 4 seconds (I’m pretty happy about it) and we were ready to submit!
Everyone on the team worked really hard on the project. It was an intense time, putting long evenings into game dev after our day jobs making games. Working again with Nat, Jules, Joe and Jim, I was reminded how lucky I am to work with such talent, and what it takes to make a game in such a short space of time.
Please give the game a go! It’s not perfect, such is the nature of jam games, but it achieves what we set out to do. For this reason, I am incredibly proud of the work we put in together.
In case you’re looking to hire me, please can I highlight the two main imperfections of the game. 1) You really need to invest time to read all the cards before you make a decision, but the time limit is too short. The time limit was added to make you feel under pressure, like a politician, but it’s too much. 2) The newspapers appear at random times, rather than between rounds, and dismiss all the cards played in the round, often disappointing the player. We also don’t make it clear enough as to what causes newspapers to appear because we ran out of time to get the animation in. Game jams, eh?
By now you’ve probably seen the trailer for RememBear. This post is going to discuss how it came together and look at some of the decisions I made whilst creating it. Just in case you haven’t watched it yet, it’s linked below:
The original creative direction for RememBear was to revisit woodland characters as they might have been portrayed in old fairytales. No child should survive an encounter with a bear. This fairytale element led Joe (the game’s writer) to suggest delivering the tutorial in rhyme.
This was a brilliant idea and caused me to make this remark on twitter:
I’m at that part in game development where EVERYTHING MUST RHYME!!!
But is was not to be. It’s more important for a tutorial to be clear than it is for it to be awesome. Nevertheless, the seed had been planted and come trailer time, I knew that I had to explain the core concepts of the game through rhyming prose.
But how to go about that? I’m lucky to have been working on some animation production at work recently, so I’ve gotten quite handy with After Effects and Premiere Pro. It would be great to have seen my characters fully animated, but I’d run out of art budget and I believe that a game’s trailer should reflect its content, so I had to compile something awesome just using the in-game sprites.
I flick through the asset source. This is going to be easy.
First off, I storyboarded the trailer in a few panels, just to get a feel for the story I was telling. The image below is an early revision, but is the tidiest(!) image I have to share of this. On a small & personal project, this process is more like brainstorming and its aim is to create the foundation of the story you are telling. Putting your ideas into shots helps visualise the narrative.
(If you’re working with an animation team, please make sure your storyboards are tidy and well composed. Please.)
With the structure in place, I moved on to the script. Since I had my framework, knew I had to set the scene, introduce the baddies (bears), introduce the heroes (rangers) and end on a cliffhanger. Easy. “It’s picnic time in Bearsville park…”
I handed my completed script to Joe who smoothed a few things out. Meanwhile I wrote a quick ExtendScript that would let me generate a large forest scene in Photoshop (using the 4x Assets for the iPad) to use as my background. I needed a larger forest than the game’s play area to allow for lots of camera movement to keep the viewer’s interest. The production pipeline became clear:
I’d create a set in Photoshop, direct the actors in After Effects, then choose my shots in Premiere.
Just as I’d finished exporting the forest foreground into After Effects, Joe got back to me and I started recording voiceover.
I recorded the voiceover to a metronome because the poem was very rhythmic and I knew I’d be adding music. This would prevent me from having to retime my animation at a later date! I added the sprites in time with the script recording and got ready to export. At this point, I could see everything coming together. Very exciting!
The next job was adding zooms and pans in Premiere, much as I was tempted to start on the music. I’m used to receiving a final cut of a video when I work as a freelance composer, so I thought I’d treat myself in the same fashion! Of course I knew I had the luxury of adjusting any cuts that weren’t quite fitting with the music.
Music composition will be the subject of my next blog post.
With everything timed, cut and looking beautiful, I added the app store buttons, blood splats, some SFX from the game and exported at good settings. Video encoding can be an artform in itself, so I took great care with this step and I advise you to.
How long did the process take? Working evenings and weekends, I’d say the Trailer took about a week to produce. It’s time well spent and I got to exercise my skills in areas outside of game development too. I’m really pleased with my trailer and I hope that you have enjoyed watching it!
If you’d like to know more about RememBear you can follow me on twitter, like the Facebook page or subscribe to my blog.