Liftoff! Making Astronaut’s Journey in 48 hours

Once again, Ludum Dare happened, and I had to make a game in 48 hours. And you know what? It came out ruddy great.

In Astronaut’s Journey, it’s 1969, and you are tasked with flying to the moon. But unfortunately, you haven’t developed a rocket yet!

The rocket is a multi-stage affair, and the gameplay loop is a simple one of balancing your rocket and dropping stages as they empty. Each launch gets you more funding, and with that you buy all the upgrades.

“More explosive fuel in my rocket, please.”

Most programming time was spent on the shop, as well as dumb things like the ending “cutscene” that takes you the final metres onto the moon. Meanwhile, the graphics just… clicked. The particle effects, clouds, and even the Saturn V inspired rocket all went together easily, and even the UI looked quite nice.

More than anything else, I am so goddamn proud of how much I’ve improved in Unity since April. I remember making the jam version of Platformer Mixtape in 2 weeks, while Astronaut’s Journey is more technically impressive and interesting after just two days.

There’s also exciting potential. I want to add atmospheric audio, as well as effects to make those larger stages feel powerful and dangerous. I can’t wait to keep working on this mini-project.

Part 2 of my Compelling Content series will be up soon, as will the menu asset that helped make Astronaut’s Journey possible. Hope to see you soon!

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What Makes Goal Driven Games Work So Well?

Most games are driven by goals in some capacity. These can be very short term (“kill all enemies in the room”), or longer term (“progress through the story”). Why has this turned into the “default” approach to game design?

Let’s Talk Intensity

Challenges create natural moments of tension, as the player is unsure if they will overcome it, and is rewarded for doing so. As progress is made, the challenges get tougher, and the feelings become more intense. You might expect a graph of the intensity to look like this:

Totally wrong! If a game pushes the player continuously, it’ll get exhausting. A better pattern might look something like this:

In great games, there are always moments of downtime. Somewhere for the player to catch their breath, and plan their next action.

This applies to Angry Birds too, as each level begins with downtime. Here’s my visualisation, with each peak being the player deciding to throw a bird and seeing if they overcome the obstacle.

This rhythm of intensity and downtime is prevalent in all kinds of games, even including online games. (The downtime is in the lobby!) It is part of the success of triple-A open world games, as commuting to work (er, missions) gives the necessary breathing room. Think of it like a pop song with a softer verse and a banging chorus.

Divide And Conquer

A game that I really want to mention here is Catherine on the Playstation 3. It tells a story of a man who drinks to avoid thinking about long term commitments, and also a game about pushing blocks to climb higher.

Time spent in the bar is chilled out, as you talk idly to locals and drink sake. The puzzle sections, on the other hand, are long, challenging, and time sensitive. As such, the intensity graph looks like this:

Again, the same pattern is emerging. The story and puzzle areas share the focus, and it creates a beautiful synergy where downtime is time well spent. Better yet, the longer downtime means that the puzzles can be much more emotionally intense without causing fatigue.

How hard do challenges need to be?

There is a school of thought that a well-balanced game should be difficult enough to give a sense of accomplishment when goals are beaten. There’s truth to this – at some point we’ve all lost interest in a game that we weren’t feeling tested by.

However, there’s also a lot of games that manage to be goal-oriented, easy, and still very compelling. Taken to extremes, we get walking simulators; games so criminally easy that the goals aren’t blocked by any challenges. Some of these games are powerful, emotional experiences – and financially successful! What gives?

Journey

Don’t Stop Believin’

My answer is that the “intensity” can be fulfilled by any emotional experience. Beating a good challenge gives an emotional hit; however, this can also be fulfilled by a beautiful moment or engagement with the story. Even horror, or the unsettling feelings you get from interfering with people in Papers, Please.

Regular dopamine hits for successfully beating challenges might be the most recognisable way of creating intensity. But don’t forget the games, and genres, that find other ways of hooking the audience into the game.

This is the first in a 3-part series on compelling content structures. Check back soon for the next part, or join the mailing list to get it delivered.

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A Short History of Radical Dog

I’ve been a developer long enough that it seemed fair to round up my old crap in one place. That way, you can see I didn’t come from a vacuum – in fact, I came from some very crappy games indeed. So, a short history of Radical Dog!

That is “Sheepy Keepy“, a co-op sheep herding game. It’s my current “major” project, alongside the blog (obviously) and doing dumb game jams.

…Jams which produced games like Flappy Blocks and Platformer Mixtape! Game jams are just awesome for testing ideas quickly, without having to cry about development cycles.

 

Back in 2012 and 2013, I spent two summers working at Mousebreaker. All are soon-to-be-deceased Flash and unfortunately already have unfixable legacy issues; but they are also some of my favourite works. For example, Literally Insane Racing has some 40 cars with unique properties, so that every car is competitive in certain races.

   

I was hired by Mousebreaker on the back of The Man with the Invisible Trousers from 2011. This puzzle-platformer was featured on most major Flash portals, even though it’s riddled with more bugs than Lindsey Lohan’s mattress.

It clocked up 4.5 million plays, which is more people than you can fit in a boat.

Before that, was Slide Racing in 2009. This was also a hit, with 5.5 million plays. This game was my first to include a stupid story, which would go on to be a theme.

Uh oh! Here’s where it gets really scary, into the realm of games that made no money because, surprise, they’re a bit rubbish. Let’s be honest – the only awards they’re going to win are from my mum.

For example, the most disappointing “rhythm” game you can play, “Dance Bebbe”.

I have no idea what I was thinking, I mean hell, look at that dancing robot.

And finally, the first game I ever made, where you play a man avoiding a variety of confusing attacks. Presenting Save Stanley from 2006:

Save Stanley

There’s no way to pretend these early games were anything other than pure, unfiltered crap. And maybe that’s the moral? Anyone can start by making shitty games! Somehow, it teaches you the skills to make less shitty games, until you too can make games that are proudly adequate!

Hurrah!

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The Interviews

I’ve conducted a handful of developer interviews, because I find that there’s always something new I can learn from others. It’s about time I put them together to make them easy to browse!

To The Moon

Kan Gao – solo developer of To The Moon, which has exploded since this was conducted in 2012. Now a film of the game has been greenlit!

Sophie Houlden – a longtime indie who made her name in Flash games. She was very gracious and open in this interview, painting an honest picture about her life as an indie.

Lucas McCann – half of the duo working on Wild Mage, which is a very exciting project that had a successful Kickstarter.

Ben Porter – known for MoonQuest, and its long development cycle. There’s also some nice discussion on the value of coding a game engine from scratch.

That’s all so far! I’m always looking for more subjects with interesting stories, so if you have something you want to talk about, I can be reached at helloearthling@gmail.com or on Twitter.

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