Last weekend, I got to participate in a fun event called the Ludum Dare Game Jam. A typical game jam involves working solo or as a team to make a game from start to finish within a short period of time, usually over the weekend. The three of us who did the jam always end up talking about game design whenever we get together, and we had been wanting to actually sit down and work on a project together for a while, so Ludum Dare was the perfect opportunity to buckle down and make that happen. Although I mostly just worked on the art and sound, I feel like I learned a ton about game design (and lot of it was from my brilliant fellow teammates!).
This year’s theme was Evolution, so after dinner my team brainstormed and tossed around ideas while we set up our workspace. Deciding on an idea for our game was definitely one of the most difficult tasks! We spent a long time trying to get away from ideas that seemed too “obvious” or blunt with the evolution theme. My original plan was for us to pick an idea, and then to try and work each team member’s game design goals and ideals into that idea. At one point, we decided to run with one idea (evolution of fashion) and designed it all out, but it wasn’t really the kind of game that sounded fun or interesting to one of our team members. Although we had a fully-designed game and it had gotten pretty late, we decided to scrap that idea and start over, focusing instead on what each team member cared most about in the game we wanted to make. We landed on three basic design goals: a game that makes you “feel” something (makes you react when you’re playing, ideally something actiony and skill-based where you that “flow” feeling when you’re doing well), a game with “sticky friction” (difficult to describe, but it’s one of the ways a game lets you really feel like you did an action, almost tangibly. Here’s a great robust article about friction in games.), and a game that is “about something.” Once we had those pillars in place, it became a lot easier to identify and discard ideas that wouldn’t easily accommodate our design goals.
At some point, one teammate suggested being able to replace your limbs with the limbs of your enemies. I asked if it could be about robots, he said yes, and I said let’s do it. We did a bit more designing and landed on a 2D endless brawler with a cyborg/transhumanism theme where you can tear off your limbs and replace them with robot limbs. Awesome. It was actiony and skill-based, it would have tons of sticky friction, and it would be exploring themes of transhumanism and whatever other aesthetic goals the gameplay inspired along the way.
Things felt a lot better once we had a solid idea that everybody liked, and development went smoothly for the most part, though we did have a few low points. The programmers hit a bit of a speedbump trying to get Github to play nicely, and eventually just went back to Tortoise SVN. I had to constantly wrestle my art demons and deal with the frustration of my taste outpacing my skill. There were also several points where it started to feel like our scope was way too big for the short development time, and general fatigue was a serious threat as the weekend wore on. But visible progress, positive attitudes, and freshly-baked cookie breaks prevailed and got us through with a game we’re all proud of! There are certainly things we would add and change if we had more time, but the game is fun and we all enjoy playing it. (I’ve even been playing it as a break from work!)
I was really impressed with my teammates’ design skills, and how thoughtfully they considered all aspects of the game. A lot of work went into difficulty balance and progression and making sure that the game was fun to play over and over (not too easy in the beginning, no stuff to skip through every time you restart, etc.). I also had my own little revelation post-submission when one teammate suggested we might have used the limbs as lives, and had the robots struggle with the player and force them to give up a limb. I thought about it for a bit and decided I much preferred the player making the choice to give up a limb as a gameplay strategy, since we were exploring themes of humanity and sacrifice rather than just pure survival. Then I realized, oh hey, on a very basic level, that’s “gameplay that is consonant with the meaning you’re focusing on.” Narrative through gameplay. I think I get it now.
Overall, the game jam was a huge success for us. Our goals for the experience were to have fun, to finally work together on a game, and to make something we were proud of. Check, check, and check! It was pretty much perfect, and I’m so glad to have been a part of it!
If you’re interested in checking out our game, Reckless Abandon, hop on over to our page the Ludum Dare site for the download link. Be sure to leave a comment with your feedback if you have any!