Ludum Dare 35 Postmortem

Back in April I took part of Ludum Dare 35, the game jam you can do comfortably from your own home. I didn’t really thought too much about it beforehand, just saw my friend Belen preparing for it and I decided to give it a try. It’s not my first Ludum Dare, so I had a clear idea of timelines and how to organise my time.

I set my expectations really low, my only objective was to do a puzzle game because it’s something I’ve been curious about lately. When the theme was released, the idea of mixing Triple Town with Werewolf came to mind really fast, so I open Unity and started to code furiously. 

I was able to release something which I was quite happy (without not too many hacks I believe): Crops of Carnage.

As I am writing this postmortem with the ratings already published, I can say that this was probably my most successful Ludum Dare in terms of score. The game was #68 in Innovation, #110 in Humor (probably because the male character is super funny), #131 in Fun (the score I am more proud of) and #189 Overall (best rank so far).

What went wrong

Art direction: Back in 2012, I missed having better art skills because I always felt it was the weaker part of my entries. Nowadays I am not professional artist by any means, but I have read a couple of drawing books and I watched some videos about colour and composition. Also I learned a lot about drawing from my friend Áureo. This time I got the basics ok: using references, I know how to choose colors better and I was using a software made for pixel art (Aseprite) which made me a little more productive.

My mistake this time was that I followed all the tricks I had been learning without thinking about the overall style and the amount of work the assets would take. The problem of making animated and (relatively) high color sprites is that you still need a lot of time to crank them. Maybe I should have used a more symbolic/tabletop look and feel for the game.

With so much time doing the main sprites, I had almost no time to work on backgrounds so the game doesn’t look as cohesive as I would like.

Music: As I had zero preparation, I didn’t do any preparation for the music. I have very little practice with music software, so it’s something I need to experiment  a bit before the jam, so at least I know how I can input the notes into the software and look for some good (and free) synths.

For this entry I decided to skip the music because I didn’t want to spend time browsing and setting up stuff during the jam.

Scoring: I had the idea really fast, and the first set of rules was really natural, but then I found that the game didn’t really had a goal nor there was a proper scoring system for it.

My initial idea was to make the game about how long can you make your town last, but that ended up being too confusing. So I tried reverting the score, switching the game completely, because you want to fill the board as fast as possible, which seemed to require a little more skill and gave you an objective you could use to guide your placement choices.

Randomness: Another problem with my design is that the breeding and killing rules had quite complex interactions, because the tokens are evaluated in the placement order and the bumping could make a token change position, it’s very hard to foresee the implications a placement, and that makes hard for the player to feel empowered when his move results in a big play (or a terrible one).

The randomness also limits thinking ahead, so is very hard to become skilled in the game. You can experiment and learn the rules, but then it’s very hard master because there is a lot of hidden information (like the order in which tokens will be processed).

Theme: After seeing the cool Belen’s brainstorming notes she posted on Twitter, I really miss not investing a little bit thinking about ideas. The werewolf thing ended up being used a lot in the jam. I would have liked to do something a little bit more original.

What went right

Unity: This was my second game jam using Unity. I have some experience with the engine and, although I am no expert with it, I am quite productive with it. I have to confess that I use Unity as a glorified SDL, because I use very few plugins from the Asset Store (just DOTween to ease making animations from code) and I don’t use the physics or any advanced features.

I think Unity was the right choice, because I spent most of the time of the jam writing the code for the logic of the game, instead of trying to get the rendering or the input right. Also, one of the reasons why I chose Unity was because I wanted my target platform to be…

WebGL: If I had to point the best choice I made this jam was that I decided from the get go that my main publishing platform had to be WebGL. I wanted as many people trying my game as possible, and the Unity WebGL exporter worked flawlessly. With the game working in the web exactly as in the Editor.

Feedback: I have to give big part of the merit of the success to Kabutor. He was kind enough to try multiple versions of the game and give me player feedback and some design suggestions that helped me focus my time on what was the bigger fire of the gameplay at that point.

I didn’t had any release plan, but as soon as I had something worth trying I pushed a build to my server. It wasn’t fancy, just FTP the contents into a new folder and tweeting something about it.

Iteration: I think that if this game is a little more polished than my other jam entries is not because of Unity or my skills but because it’s the first jam where I had time to do any kind of iteration.

In my other jams, I spent most of the time making the game take shape and there was no time to try to rework something that wasn’t working. For me a game jam is an opportunity to try genres I haven’t done before, so of course there was plenty of things they weren’t working at first try.

Making a new puzzle game mechanic (even if you start mashing two ideas) takes a lot of time. The gameplay is still very flawed, but at least I had time to try to shaping it into a funny gimmick that you can fiddle around for 5 minutes. Making a game right from the get go is feasible if you can use some other game as reference (and then you still may want to tweak it a bit), but if I try to do something new I will want to have time to just iterate and polish.

Conclusion

It’s hard not to be happy after a game jam. You learn a lot by pushing yourself to do some project, and the 48 hour limit requires a little bit of mastery and scope management that I have to confess I haven’t groked at all.

From the technical point of view, I use Ludum Dare to play a bit with toys. In a past game jam I did a game in Game Maker to have real experience so I could help the kids in Pelitalo. For the next one I want to try the new Unity 5.4 release.

Creatively game jams are also great to take a do something different after being so focused on the same game at work for months. Jonathan Blow calls this taking a working break.

Something I want to try the next game jam (probably Ludum Dare 36 at the end of August), is to have a deliverable version as soon as Saturday night, so I can spend Sunday tweaking and improving the game. To achieve that I will invest more time beforehand looking at references of possible art styles that require few work and try to add sound and a first version of music earlier than I am used too.