Snowball Jones And The Game Prototype Challenge
This past week we took part in the Game Prototype Challenge which is described by its founder as “a spur of the moment motivator for making games”. Started by Jason Kaplan after an inspired weekend at GamerCamp, this is the 2nd time the challenge has taken place and the 1st time Rocket 5 has participated. In fact, this is the first time I’ve participated in any kind of “game jam” and this is also the first time that I set out to make a game specifically for the web.
The GPC concept is simple, contestants have 7 days to complete a game based on 2 design themes. For this challenge the themes were “thin ice” and “immortality”.
I wanted to write a little about our experience during the GPC. Kevin Feraday recently joined the Rocket 5 team – he’s a comic book artist and documentary film maker who’s just getting into making art for video games. We’ve been working together on an upcoming iPhone game and he did the art for the iSpoof Walken app, but we thought it would be useful to participate in the GPC as a way to get Kevin to dive head-first into what it’s like to bring a game from an initial idea to a completed project. And since I’ve never participated in a game jam before, I thought it would be a good exercise for me too as a way to clean out the old design cobwebs and try something new. Turns out we were successful on both fronts.
The GPC themes were announced on Monday December 13th. Kevin and I spent a couple of hours talking about the themes and what kind of game we might make. We kicked around several ideas – the first was a basic platformer concept; move left/right, jump and watch out for sharp things in the world that would kill you. Immediately I thought of Super Meat Boy (maybe because I’ve been playing it lately) – I find that it’s natural as a designer to (unintentionally) borrow ideas from a game I’m currently playing since those mechanics are swimming around in my brain. So as we talked about our design more, I realized it was sounding a lot like (too much like) SMB. Ok, so we need a twist, something that makes our design different so that it’s not a straight rip. Since we’ve been spending most of our time designing for iPhone, we came up with the idea to “flip” the device upside down as a way to jump rather than just simply having a jump button. Basically you turn the world upside down and then fall up (ok maybe not the best explanation, just play the game to see what I mean). But since this prototype was going to be deployed on the web instead of iPhone, we had to have the flip mechanic on a button rather than actually rotating the device.
We also needed to work the themes into our design. The quest for the holy grail came up right away as an example of “immortality”, so we decided that would be our MacGuffin. Next we needed to cover ‘thin ice”. I wanted to keep the collisions as simple as possible, so using a snowball as the main character seemed perfect for both character simplicity and for the theme.
Next we went to work brainstorming the levels. We wanted to come up with some basic cookie cutter elements that could be used in any combination to easily create at least 10 levels for the game. Again, Super Meat Boy popped into my head to inspire many of them (although I had been working on an iPhone prototype several months ago that used sawblades as danger elements). We came up with rotating saw blades, flying saw blades, laser beams, and lava. Lava is the only one of those that didn’t make the cut (the idea was that when you flipped the world, the lava would dump out so you’d have to be careful where you were standing when it fell).
So now we had a basic design: A character who can move left & right and flip the world upside down to navigate (also you can press the spacebar for a speed boost). Each level has a goal: navigate through hazards to reach the Grail. If you die during a level, you respawn at the beginning ready to try again. We also added “stars” which are placed around the levels to add a bit of extra challenge (although we didn’t get around to working these into any actual reward other than the satisfaction of getting them all). We also needed a name for the game; we decided on Snowball Jones and the Last Crusade as a tongue-in-cheek nod to Indiana Jones’ quest for the grail.
From here development was smooth sailing. Within a few hours I had the basic control scheme and then it was on to making the hazards, assembling the levels ,making the menus, finding some music and finally making the sound effects. The entire project took us 4 days, and I’m happy to say that the game turned out almost exactly as we had designed it on Monday – this is especially satisfying since it’s very common for game designs to go thru several iterations over the course of development. The fact that we hit our initial design goal almost exactly is a testament to starting with a simple design that can be executed within the project schedule.
We used the following tools while developing the prototype:
Unity 3D Pro
Unitron (text editor)
CFXR (awesome tool for making 8-bit game sounds)
Dropbox (Kevin and I work at different locations, so this is a must!)
Ok enough reading, what you really want to do is play Snowball Jones and the Last Crusade!