The Spaceman/LD48 Post-Mortem

As you may have seen, I recently participated in the 23rd Ludum Dare 48 hour game competition.  Out of it came a game called The Spaceman.  I’d like to take a moment to talk a bit about the process of making the game during the 48 hours of the competition, as well as the design process behind the decisions I made in the game.

I originally wasn’t going to enter Ludum Dare #23.  Ludum Dare was a thing I had meant to do many times in the past, but had always passed, thinking to myself “oh, I’ll do the next one”.  This LD was going to be no different, particularly as my weekend was already fairly busy.  However, after being inspired by the venerable Chevy Ray’s keynote presentation and seeing that this was the 10th anniversary Ludum Dare, I started to consider entering.  After all, if I skipped sleep, I would have a solid 24 free hours to work during the 48 hour period.  Surely I could make a game within 24 hours.

I immediately began formulating ideas of the sort of game I could make in 24 hours.  The idea I had was a zelda-like (of course) where you play as an Indiana Jones type character searching for an ancient treasure in a temple.  Not the most original idea, especially in the indie game community, but it seemed like something I could make in 24 hours.

Of course, when the time actually came to start working on the game, I was faced with the theme “Tiny Worlds”.  Well shit.  No mental acrobatics I could manage would make the idea I had fit that theme.  Doing a zelda-like fit, but it would have to be about something other than Jungle Harry and the Temple of Surprises.

So I had to come up with a new idea.  I was still going to make a zelda-like.  I knew I wanted to make something like the original Zelda where you could do things in pretty much any order and had free reign in exploring the world.  “Tiny worlds” suggested the idea of making the world loop around. Go off the west side of the game world and you end up back on the east, go off the north side and you end up on the south.  This could lead to some interesting navigation where you see a treasure blocked by mountains to the east, and have to travel west to get it.

The original plan was thus:  5×5 game map, 3 small dungeons, each containing a gem and a weapon.  The weapons would be optional and harder to come by, but you needed all 3 gems to beat the game.  Pretty standard Zelda-like, although the weapons being optional was a bit of a twist.  I still wasn’t entirely satisfied with the plan, but I had to get to work.

I began writing the basic top-down action-adventure code in Flashpunk.  Character moves, game loads ogmo maps, .  I drew a weird-looking tileset (I knew I waned the game to be weird-looking), got it into the game.

As this process was going on, I was constantly coming up with changes to the overall game concept.  I decided to drop the dungeons, except as a potential stretch goal.  This also meant that I couldn’t use my idea of weapons and gems.  At some point I got the idea to replace the weapons and gems with shields (which are generated by crystals).  I started designing enemies with set patterns so that the game could contain interesting dodging-based gameplay, as the player would have no offensive weapons.

The urge to be more experimental made me think back on all my thoughts and discussions on videogame leveling systems, and I remembered that I had wanted to make a game where you lose power over time rather than gain it.  I’ll always remember the scene in Planescape: Torment where you have to chose whether to give up your allies or your own health to get vital information.  From this core idea came the idea to have you start with the shields, and force you to give them up to progress.

This also appealed to my desire to make level design a dynamic thing, where level layouts shift and change based on player actions.  I’ve experimented with it before in some episodes of Renegade Sector and Temple of the Spear, but this was, to me, a very elegant way to handle it.  For example, they may be able to take an easy path to one of the pedestals where they deposit the sphere, but the path back might be more difficult, as the way they came is blocked by a laser beam of the color of shield they just gave up.  Enemies which they once could shield themselves against would now be more dangerous.  The game would get naturally difficult and the navigation naturally more complex, and there would be an element of choice of which shield to give up first.

Now that I knew where I was headed, I got more focused on work.  I got some level design, started getting a feel for how the game would play.  I took a shower around 1-2 AM and figured out the details about how the shields would work (I had formerly been arguing with myself about whether they would be a passive ability, with whatever shields you currently have always on, or an activated ability which you couldn’t move while using.  I finally compromised with an activated ability that slowed you down.  I felt this made the shields effective while not being something to use constantly, and also allowed for the laser barriers which the player can only move through while using the shield.)

The lack of sleep started getting to me around 3 or 4 AM and I finally succumbed around 5-6.  I had hoped to see the sunrise, but this was not the case.   I set my alarm for 9.  When I awoke with ~3 hours of sleep, I resisted the urge to turn off my alarm and sleep through till noon and headed straight back down to the computer.

It was around noon when I began to lose hope.  I had to finish before 4 PM as I had an obligation at that point.  I had around 12 of the 25 screens I had planned made, I had no story in the game and I had a lot of polish to do.  I was about ready to give up, get 4 more hours of sleep, and turn this into a non-jam project, when I looked at the overlay of the map I had done on the whiteboard.  I realized I could pretty easily rearrange the areas I had so far into a 5×3 map, and I’d only have to add a few more areas.  I would have to drop one of the 3 crystals/shields in order to make the level design make sense, but it would work.  I decided to drop most of the story (for anyone wondering, the story would have been pretty much the same as how it is in the game now, it just would have been more interestingly told, with more foreshadowing).

I went into overdrive.  I wrote the piece of music for the game in about 20 minutes.  I designed the rest of the screens.  I threw in a simple title screen and a simple ending screen.  I made a few sound effects in sfxr.  As people who played the original Ludum Dare version of the game can attest, I barely tested the game.  I, however, put something more-or-less finished up on the Ludum Dare site around 4PM.  Though I had social obligations in the next room, I would occasionally pop in over the next couple of hours to see if my game had gotten any feedback and make appropriate tweaks.

When it came to polishing the game for internet distribution, I found that I didn’t really want to change much.  I fixed some bugs and added a new start screen.  I changed a bit of the level design to more effectively display the concept.

Alright, it’s the end of a Ludum Dare Post Mortem.  I guess I have to do one of those lists where I talk about what I think went well, and what didn’t.  But first I want to directly quote a review I got for the game on Newgrounds:

I was frustrated at first, I had no motivation to explore. Then I found the first pedestal (orange), losing the respective shield and was impressed with what I felt. The feeling of sacrifice I supposed to feel became a little too real…no game has ever really done that for me. I remember smiling as I realized what I felt as I looked at the green pedestal thinking, “Am I ready?”. I don’t think I have been motivated by sacrifice in a game before. Its the act of giving away a piece of me (unlike most games where you just die and restart) that made me feel like I HAVE to accomplish something.

Good work. A little unexpected greatness. Its nice.

I guess in the end the game was exactly what I wanted it to be.  A strange little world to explore.  A world that maybe makes you feel lost, and which makes you think about what you’re doing when you give up your abilities.  I’m hoping it’s a game that at least a few people remember, that’ll stick in their minds.  The shield loss mechanic, I feel, became a bit of an unexpected star of the game, with much of the level design revolving around it.  When I started the game, the fact that the edges of the world connect, and using this in exploration-based puzzles was the central idea, but it just goes to show how concepts can evolve thought the development process.  This sort of reverse-progression and giving up abilities is something I want to experiment further with in future projects.

The things I cut from the game are the sorts of things that tend to get cut in a timed competition like this: story, a portion of content and a level of polish.  But I think the core ideas of the game still shine through, and because of that, I think of the game as a success.

-Alec

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