Sunday, September 25, 2016

Juggling projects

There are several starting points a game project may have. Some may originate from a beautiful artistic vision, around which a game is to be designed and built. Some may be specifically designed for a specific target audience, whether it's about going for casual gaming or being a pioneer in a small niche. Some may be about making a game the developers themselves would really like to play with the humble hope of others seeing that enthusiasm too and sharing the interest. Some may simply be sequels to existing game series or attempts to cash-in on some other game's success by making a clone of it.

For indie developers making the most technically or visually impressive variation of an existing game concept is usually not that realistic a starting point when planning a game project. With the limited spare time, resources and graphical capabilities at my disposal, this is especially true in my case. Therefore whatever I create, it has to have its foundation around a concept that's at least somewhat unique. I believe Cubendor (the game that I released few months ago) does qualify as being pretty unique despite its obvious similarities with Tetris, but then again its difficulty combined with its simplicity of being just a hiscore hunt probably made it even more niche than I initially anticipated.

So what am I about to do next? The basic starting point hasn't changed: any game has to be built around a core idea that's as novel as possible. Everything from platform to monetization is to be decided so that it supports this core idea. And one hurdle hasn't changed either: how can I make the game have a decent look visually? The latter in particular was one of the reasons why I made Cubendor (and actually also Number Avalanche): a game based on blocks doesn't require much artwork nor resorting to someone else for doing the graphics.

Other than that, plans have been changing a bit. The following table lists four projects along with their intended platforms, required workloads and vague estimations of their potential as games. I've done some minor prototyping on all four, but three of the projects have been on my mind recently. I will refer to these projects with acronym-based codenames here in order to avoid revealing too much about the idea. So if you're reading this, bear with me: it might not be that interesting a read with the limited amount of information I'm willing to share here. On the other hand, if you're reading this at a point where I've actually released one or more of these games, reading this might be an interesting throwback to how I looked upon the projects earlier.

Project codenamePrimary platformProject sizePrimary challengeEstimated potential (1-5)When
Project FDesktopBigTechnical/Visual
5 (Very high)
After TB?
LLMobileSmallBalancing/Visual2 (Too low)Never?
TBMobileSmallVisual3-4Just started
L - The scifi gameUndecidedBigAI design/Visual4?Not in a long time

Project F

This is the project that I'm the most excited about. In fact, I'm sort of surprised that no one has yet made a game like this, and at the same time afraid that someone has or will have the same idea and will make a game out of it before I have the chance to do so.

Broadly speaking the game would be classified as a First-person shooter (FPS), but more akin to puzzle games like Portal or Talos Principle than eg. Doom. In any case, being an FPS means that being able to create a decent visual style and looks for the game may easily be even more of a challenge than with the other projects. Another challenge for this game is technical: there are some fundamental requirements the whole concept has that go beyond those of a basic FPS, but I did some prototyping and planning earlier and I think I've managed to tackle those to an extent that once ready to truly start working on the project, I can do so.


A while ago I decided that as the Project F is so big, it's better to do yet another smaller project first. So I started with this small prototype. But then two weeks ago I decided that it's probably not worth the effort (see the Estimated potential of 2 in the table). Why? Well, the game would have been an infinite runner, which has been a pretty competed genre to begin with. The game would have had a somewhat unique characteristic to it, but I just didn't find that it would ultimately be much more than a shallow gimmick and as such wouldn't really keep the interest of players. 

On top of being a project with less estimated potential even when finished, I realized that one fundamental challenge in the development would be balancing the game's difficulty level so that it would offer a sense of progression while maintaining the feeling of reasonable challenge to the player. This is probably one of the most difficult things for a developer to assess by himself, as having worked on a game for long you get a lot of practice in playing the game, you get blind to a lot of the details, and you know things about the mechanics the average player just wouldn't know. Therefore it would require more intensive testing from outsiders and possibly at earlier development stages than some other projects would. And as the free-time project would drag on due to matters like this, it would take the fun out of it thus causing a vicious circle in the process: when the fun is taken out, things tend to drag on even longer. 

So as a summary: too little estimated potential to begin with + balancing challenges that would probably be emphasized in a one-man project like this = not worth the effort.


I think TB is a good project to work on at this point. It's a lot smaller than Project F, and probably smaller than LL too. At least this project shouldn't have difficult balancing issues similar to what LL would nor the initial technical hurdles that project F had and may to some extent still have, and even the challenge of getting proper visuals shouldn't be as big either.

Being a physics puzzle game though, its potential would have admittedly probably been higher several years ago, when games or game series like Cut the rope hadn't been feeding the players' appetite for the genre for years, or in the best case even before the advent of Box2D engine that's fueled a lot of games (Angry birds being one of the most notable examples). Even so, I haven't seen the concept of TB used in any game, and even more importantly I think it has potential to be a pretty fun game. Of course I've only spent a few short evenings on it thus far, so we'll see how it progresses, but at the moment I have a pretty good feeling about this - better than I ever had about Cubendor.

L - The Scifi Game L

This is a project I tempered with quite a long time ago. It would be built around a sci-fi gameplay mechanic, and compared to the other projects, it would probably also have more of an actual storyline to follow. I haven't even decided what platform this would be (primarily) built for or how exactly the gameplay would work. Nevertheless, I've written a bit of the storyline already and designed a set of core principles around which the gameplay would be built around and which could possibly be introduced through the game's narrative. These core principles could be compared to Isaac Asimov's three laws of robotics, mine are just not related to robotics and also include a bit of dark humor in them.

It's also clear that (apart from the visual challenge shared with the other projects) the challenges imposed by this project would be rather different from the other projects: there's no clear technical challenge, nor a challenge related to balancing. Instead the planned mechanic requires a combination of some sort of a pseudo-AI mechanic, designing the gameplay in a way that supports this AI mechanic while also making it possible to clearly communicate this to the players, and integrating these principles into the game's level design. All in all, the entirety seems like a really big design challenge that cannot be tested with just a quick prototype. Therefore I've at least postponed the project for until I'm done with project F.