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Friday, August 5, 2016

AwfulJams 2016 - Grandfathered In

I did a game jam!  Specifically, we did a game jam; we being my old co-worker, Albert Peter, and my brother, John-Mark.  Albert did game design, writing, and art.  John-Mark was in charge of programming.  And I was in charge of character designs and sprites.

It was for AwfulJams 2016, a game jam run by some goons over at the Something Awful Forums.  It's a month long, and this year's theme was "Games for Grandpa."

Coming into it, we had this idea to do a visual-novel style game.  We had an idea of the theme, but it wasn't fully announced until the start date.  Very quickly we shifted from a single-encounter visual novel with 3D characters, to a 2D Long Live the Queen style game.

The story, written by Albert, was that the elderly were getting taken over by the militant-style Millenials, being forced to conform, or otherwise mysteriously disappearing.  We worked in several different endings, such as Grandpa successfully conforming by passing the Millenial's test at the end, Grandpa successfully not-conforming (but still passing the test at the end), and Grandpa escaping with a certain multi-platinum singer songwriter best friend.

Check it out here: https://floteam.itch.io/grandfathered-in

Before I get into a bit of a post mortem, here is the art that I had worked on:

I drew all of the character designs, did the coloring/shading, and inked all of the game sprites, except for the linework in base grandpa, grandma Muriel, and his grandson, Jason.  Albert did the linework for those.

Here are some of the pre-ink-and-color sketches.  You can see some alternate designs here.

And here are the original Grandpa Horace sketches I did, when I was exploring style.

Jacob's Post Mortem (after the jump; click Read More to view)

Of course, what good is a project if you don't identify what you learned about it.  Everything is a learning opportunity.

There were a few big issues at the end of the game.  It took me a while to get all of the sprites finished, down to the last week.  Albert was working on the script in waves; it took a while to complete, and it changed a bit as we figured what we could and couldn't do.  John-Mark was still familiarizing himself with Unity, as this was an opportunity for him to learn how to use it, too.

Now, none of these things are themselves issues.  There are actually good and bad things that came of each of these situations.  What I want to look at is where we could improve for next time.

What I could have done

First, I want to look at me.  The point was for me to learn something, after all.

I should have owned the art style.

Early on, I was going for a different style.  I was supposed to be in charge of art design, after all.  You can see what I was working with with my original sketches above.  I wanted to keep it really simple.  Solid colors, simple texture overlay, rosy cheeks, only the bust.  I constructed Grandpa Horace out of some very simple shapes, so I could redraw him very easily and have a number of faces, outfits, and poses.  This was my favorite one:


After doing my collection of sketches, Albert said he was visualizing something more Japanese-influenced.  He wanted at at least waist-up shots, in an anime style.  It was probably because of our source material.  I came up with this version of Horace to match the anime style:


It was higher detail.  Everyone liked it.  I decided to go with it.  That was my first mistake.

It's when I started working on the other characters using this style, at which I lost a little drive to work on the project (the meaning of which, I'll explain in a moment).  Obviously I didn't realize it for weeks, but in post-mortem, I can identify that now.

The problem was, I have no idea how to draw in an anime style, and I don't really want to draw in an anime style.  It's just not a style that does much for me.  Towards the end, I stopped stressing on hitting an anime style, and just drew what I wanted, and it started going much smoother for me.  That original design though, the really simple one, is what I should have done from the beginning.  I could have produced a lot more content with it.  It was the one that was exciting to me, the guy doing the art.  Which leads to #2:

I should have also worked on what really I wanted to work on.

I don't mean I should have skimped on my work to do something else, but I should have used that something else to motivate me.  Really, what I was excited about was animation.

The original idea, before the game jam started, was to do a game with two characters in 3D, with some simple goofy looping animations while talking.  I imagined something like David O' Reilly's style of animation.

When the idea shifted to this 2D game, I still kept my plans to do animation.  I knew we were going to do this 'training' concept, and I had this plan to do a little 2-3 frame animation for each type of training.  Video Games, Devices, LGBTQ, Doomsday Prep, Nostalgia; all of these were ripe for a really simple funny chibi-style animation.  It would have been cute, it would have pushed the quality of the game further, and most importantly, it would have been fun for me to do.

But I didn't do that.  I am not sure exactly why.  I know I froze up when I suddenly had to draw all of these characters in an anime style.  I guess, suddenly I had this image of doing those animations, with anime characters, and that just drained all of my drive to make them to begin with.

I should have been more involved.

John-Mark and Albert were able to work on the project during lunch breaks.  At this point, I wasn't working at DiSTI, so I missed a lot of those discussions, though we were pretty active on Google Hangouts.

I would watch the commits, and check out the project updates, but I wasn't that involved in the Unity side of things.  I would have liked to be, but my job on the project didn't require me to be in there as much.  But also, that means, a lot of the time, I wasn't exactly sure what was going on.

There are some things I should have pointed out to the other guys, too.  I had been a part of several games already, so I knew that we needed placeholder models.  I knew that I needed a short list of all of the characters, their traits, etcetera.  I knew that because I had been through this process before, but at times I had forgotten that they hadn't.

Also, I probably could have worked on the UI during the downtime.  Our final UI wasn't really that great.  Again, I had some experience here that the other guys didn't.  There were some problems that we caught, and some that we missed.  In the end, the UI was functional, but not as clear as it should have been.

Of course, a lot of that was easy to catch after the project, but while being in the middle of it, it's much harder to see.

What we could have done

I'm not taking all of the blame here.  There was a lot that we could have done as a team, and knowing all of this now, we know to watch out for it on any future projects.  Now only if we had know that...

We should have met up early and often.

We all live in the same city, less than 30 minutes from each other.  There is no reason we shouldn't have met up; but for some reason, we just didn't.  The one time we did, I was in NYC, so it's more that they did.  (Did I mention I had a trip planned to NYC for a week in the middle of this?  I should add that to the section above.)  That one time they met up, they got a lot of work done and progress made.

In hindsight, there is no reason we couldn't all have met up for a few hours every weekend; or even for a couple hours after work one day.  It would have kept us on the same page, we would have had time to discuss ideas and what needs to get done, and it would have been an opportunity to talk about what we wanted to work on.  I think this one thing would have made the biggest difference in the project.

We should have been feature complete a lot sooner.

I give this one a much bigger pass.  Everyone was learning.  Everyone was trying something new, too.  But all the same, that IS something we planned early on, and didn't quite hit.  I did warn everyone to finish the bulk of the game as early as possible, to allow time to playtest and iterate.  We probably weren't feature complete until the end of the third week, and we probably weren't completely done until the day before.

It wasn't REALLY plausible that we'd be done in the first week.  Not for a new designer, a new programmer, and an artist out of his element.  But there are two things we missed out on due to not finishing early.  The first one I mentioned already...

We should have done a lot more playtesting.

I knew this one would come up!  We all knew this one would.  There were so many little things that were caught after the game was released.  Post-testing, I like to call it.

During post-testing, some critical things were pointed out, such as, someone didn't realize you trained before the day's events.  He thought that you had to succeed at the day's events to get those training points.  Another person spent some time on the first UI screen, clicking every bit of the screen, except the go button.  And that's because he tried that first, which wasn't supposed to work until he assigned a training subject for the day.  A lot of people thought the days were randomly generated, and didn't realize the game was meant to be learned and replayed.  Some people, well, some people did just fine.

Each of those problems could have been fixed extremely easily, too.  We could have shown Grandpa's stats go up as a result of the training, before the day's events play out.  We could have highlighted the button the game expected you to press to move on, and grayed out the buttons you couldn't press until they were available.  We could have just told the player that the events were static, and even drawn a little picture for each day, to remind the player what is going to happen that day.

I didn't understand why we didn't do a lot of playtesting until we talked about it after the project was done.  Albert wasn't ready to playtest without most of the art in place, which ended up not getting finished until the last week.  Due to lack of communication, I never pointed out that the idea was that we were supposed to use placeholder art to playtest with.  Speaking of placeholder art...

We should have used a lot more placeholder art.

I have run into this before, and I've made no bones about being very supportive about non-artist placeholder art.  We actually had a bit of placeholder art initially.  We had placeholder content for the intro video, for the title screen, for the menu buttons.  In fact, some of the funnier lines stayed in game.  The thing with placeholder art, if it looks like it's out of place, it's less likely to bother you (or playtesters) about not fitting in.  Programmer placeholder art is extremely useful.

But Albert is an artist, and it's hard for artists to put in intentionally bad art.  What would have helped is if we used stock real-life photos for every single character sprite.  Some of them would change dramatically, and some of them would have informed us how the characters were supposed to look.  But by not, we weren't confident in showing off the game early on for playtesting.

That animation stuff I mentioned above?  The design for Grandpa Horace was done, I could have done that for a week, while we worked out the rest of the system.  We could have used our Grandpa sprite to represent what the game was supposed to look like, used placeholder art for the rest, and worked on other important things in the meantime.  But also, I think we were still figuring out things as we went along, too.

We should have locked in the design.

Remember when I said that I should have worked on the UI?  Well, I am going to backpedal a bit here.  I couldn't have, even if I had thought to.  We all generally knew what the game was going to be, but we didn't really lock down the design.

I was working on some of the designs for the characters, and I got the feed back "oh, they're supposed to be much younger." or "I was expecting more of a Phish concert guy, not a Rastafarian."  What I needed was a list of the characters, and who they are.  I just needed a one page document that just had names and descriptions.  Now I'm not blaming Albert for that, I'm blaming myself for never asking for it.

At FIEA, the designers were taught to make one-page design docs.  It makes the designs easy to consume, succinct, and clear.  We never really had that, because none of us knew how to do that, or really to just do that.

I don't think we ever all agreed exactly what the game was going to be.  We had faith in each other, which is why it didn't fall apart.  We knew Albert knew what he was doing.  But design docs aren't just about instilling faith in the project.  They are about letting everyone know the design, so they could do their job to fit it.

As far as design documents go: we never graphed out the 'correct' method of getting each of the six endings.  We never decided the balance of each trainable stat.  We never physically drew out the branching decision paths.  That's what designers do, and we did not, because we are not designers by trade.  But we will next time.

What we did well

It's not as interesting to write about the good stuff, because it's good stuff.  But for all of the stuff we could have improved, we did plenty of things extremely well.  If we were to run this project again, we could complete it much faster.  But...

We got it done.

And that's the most important achievement.  We set out to make a game in a time frame, we made the game in that time frame.  Like I said, it's not funny or dramatic.  But we got the game done.

We trusted each other.

We trusted Albert in that he had a vision on how the game was going to play.  They trusted me to get all of the art done, even though I was working out of state for a week.  We trusted John-Mark to figure out Unity and get the game working.

You've gotta pick a group of people that want to work together, or give them a darn good reason to work together (money is usually the good reason).  We were all already friends.  We had talked about doing this before, and we all decided together to do it.  That's part of why we got it done.  We knew we could rely on each other to do the work and get it done.  The other part was...

We managed our scope well.

Early on, I warned about the concept of the scope bomb.  I think we all knew what an overscoped project feels like, just from every day work.  It happens.  But in our case, it didn't happen.  We managed our scope extremely well.

We limited the amount of content in the game, avoiding the concepts of dynamic storylines.  We cut out the idea of using 3D characters.  We identified what features would have the biggest impact for the least time.  The character-unique buh-buh-buh talking noises was one example of a feature that took a small amount of effort to implement, and had a huge impact on the humor of the game.

One of the best scope decisions was to drop facial expressions towards the end of the project.  Facial expressions on Grandpa was an idea from the very beginning.  We even had some of the structure set up to do that, and the art ready to do that.  But we ended up cutting it out so we wouldn't have more stuff to fix up towards the end.

That allowed us to focus some time on other existing frameworks that wouldn't cause more bugs.  For example, I spent the time cleaning up all of the sprites, and re-shading half of them.  Also, Albert and I added a number of alternate outfits for Grandpa, which ended up being a favorite feature among players.

The game was genuinely enjoyable

No, seriously, we aren't just tooting our own horn here.  Albert's writing was on point for the audience of  mostly Something Awful Goons.  The tongue-in-cheek writing about Millenials (which most of are, or are close to being) was very relevant to the audience and it poke fun with and at us.

Part of the AwfulJams is a gong show that happens at the end.  Some of the judges play the game on stream.  They have 10 minutes to play the game, talk about it, show it off, and when they are done, or run out of time, they play the gong, and go onto the next game.

During our game, we got a lot of love from stream chat; a lot of commentary making it clear that a good number of them had actually played the game, and were pasting in some of their (and our) favorite lines from the game.  And we got the full 10 minutes on the show, all the way to the buzzer.  Maybe it's because ours is a format that is longer than others, but I'd like to believe our game just had that many interesting things to talk about.  And yes, now I am tooting our horn.  Toot toot.

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