Many years ago, four friends gathered for a game jam. A lesson on spending time more wisely
"game": what we were making
Several ideas were shared. A game we had commonly played and talked about at the time was Terry Cavanagh’s Dont Look Back, inspired by the tale Orpheus and Eurydice.
In the first half of that game, 2D platforming mechanics were combined with screen-sized set pieces of dodging forcefields and shooting enemies.
In the second half, you lose the ability to move right (you immediately restart the screen you’re on if you do), and new levels occur to exploit the loss of a cardinal direction.
We ended up thinking of a chicken investigating the depths of it’s farm but instead GAINS giant muscular human arms which lets it destroy almost anything on it’s way out.
It was called Dont Look Back’awk. There was such a positive mood upon that name and idea that we went with it. We set our goal but now we had to reach it.
"time": there was no need to rush
When a team brainstorms you may skip key parts of actual design. If there was an idea for a mechanic or a level we just wrote it down and started thinking about the next idea. We’ll see how this can be dangerous.
What I should have done in between ideas determine if each idea was necessary given our time constraints. Careful planning early on is needed to use time efficiently. What ideas when combined on time, produced the best possible game?
For this game it is convenient to consider in terms of mechanics and levels.
"mechanics": designing mechanics consumes time
The original chicken can jump, lay eggs, and delay it’s descent after jumping. Seems simple enough. Descent is delayed by small bursts of height with a mid-air jump. Laying an egg also gives you one airborne boost, which timed with a jump could send you incredibly high.
The chicken with arms would jump and punch. Thus, we needed objects or enemies to punch. Should the punch send objects flying? should they split or disintegrate? Are there enemies that involve being punched? We didn’t proceed far enough to require fleshing it out, but its better to fully decide before starting at all.
"levels": designing content consumes time
We storyboarded connected, non-scrolling screens that explored the chicken’s mechanics. There were levels of terrain and initial patrolling enemies.
Using eggs as a weapon would be creating circumstances where the chicken can fly above an enemy. There was some makings of a dive bombing enemy hawk miniboss where you can use eggs as decoys, and the midpoint farmer tweedy boss.
Additional level ideas such as a bed of thorns/spikes that required a well placed egg as a makeshift platform, and situations involving a platform type where the chicken can stand on, but the eggs it laid fell below.
This kind of content taxes our artist. Each new screen required at least 1 additional background image, and creating a variety different environments wasn’t feasible alongside creating a chicken spritesheet that animated well.
There wasn’t going to be enough time to make all of that.
"retrospect": what if we kept the scope manageable
Given all the possible ways to spend our limited time, some ideas should have been immediately cut. Here’s two very different design paths we could have finished.
Its important to actually declare that an idea wont be in the final version of the game. Lets you know what doesn’t need your attention.
Specifically for a game jam, a game component should be reusable.
1: Scrap the return trip and have one static screen
Don’t Look Back served as an inspiration, but did not have to relate to the final game.
If jumping high and floating down is fun, you could just fly around a single screen and have enemies or temporary platforms force you to explore the movement of the chicken. You could easily have a temporary muscle arm power up if we still wanted to be able to punch intensely.
We could have pivoted into creating an arena of sorts to explore the original chicken’s abilities. And that would have been fine for a game jam.
But it wouldn’t be anything like the game we drew inspiration from. This isn’t necessarily bad, but the return trip was an important part of the game.
2: Simplify the mechanics or limit their exploration
The main idea is that you are a weak, maneuverable chicken as you navigate to the right, and can just focus on well timed punches as you rampage back to the left. This was the main experience the return trip would provide.
The first prototype of the return trip should have been quick and simple to build. There was potential to develop complex enemies and complex levels.
We needed to pick just one. Here’s two ways how the design would have then branched.
A boss rush with minimal stage complexity (small hills or bumps, platforms not necessary). Bosses can have attack patterns and respond to the player or their eggs. Each boss’ movement patterns can demand different timed jumps and movement.
The same bosses respawn and get hilariously destroyed in the returning half of the game.
Stage complexity with punchable objects (crates/barrels/etc, platforms that have collision only when the player is falling). Basic patrolling enemies that you defeat by jumps/eggs don’t cost much time and can be used as hazards as the player’s jumping abilities are tested by navigating paths.
The stages/hazards themselves just get hilariously destroyed in the returning half of the game.
In either case at the far right of the game world farmer tweedy will need to be encountered. He could have a grueling encounter that requires well timed egg drops or you could be powerless but then grow arms and defeat him in a single punch.
Again, Don’t Look Back possessed both of these elements. Care needs to be taken with inspiration.
"fun": a fun mechanic might not be necessary
More thoughts occur on with keeping the return-trip in the game.
You can make super mario bros. levels only possible with a maximum distance jump. This requires you to know how high and far mario can jump.
We also spent time on this, and found satisfying implementations of the egg boost and flight would be able to skip single-screen platforming challenges. However, successfully doing the best possible jump was difficult but satisfying.
Neither levels nor bosses needed to depend on this. The player could instead just enjoy the discovery of an advanced technique, or happily defeat the game without ever knowing. We could have carried out a fun prototype and add what we skipped later.
What was most important was the shift in the game’s feel once you can start punching, and the player’s feeling of anticipation once they know they’ll revisit the path they came from with a new ability. That needed to be the focus.
Once you’ve explored the mechanics enough, you’ve gotten the experience across. Judging what aspect of the game is actually critical was certainly difficult!
It’s nice thinking about this from long ago, and finding there’s still a lesson even though it’s been a long time.
Also in life there is always a time constraint. Scary.
Being more productive and being able to not miss a detail are amazing skills. Absolutely overpowered skills. Which are too easy to not spare the time to think about.
This blog post itself used to be twice as long. I had to cut stuff from this too because I already got the message across! The blog needs good design too… oh no.
Special thanks to Fordy, Nuno, and Jamie.
[0. a game jam reflection]