Event Recaps

PAXAUS 2014: Designing a game fit for a gaming convention

I can't remember when or how exactly this came up, but at some point I started pushing for us not to show Fatal Theory at PAXAUS. It was an unusual move in hindsight: we only had one game at that point, we'd just finished it, it was a reasonably safe bet for the con.

We need a better game!

But something told me (and it might have been the reception we had for the game on Greenlight) that Fatal Theory just didn't have that eye-pop factor. Its art direction wasn't strong enough to make people actively drop what they were doing to come and check it out. The art was the biggest sticking point in the critical reception.

Although that could well have been because Greenlight was only judged on trailers and screenshots, I also knew the controls were too much: we exhibited the game back at Supanova, a much smaller con, and most people just ran through the enemies hitting one of the attack buttons. It was a shame, because the strength of Fatal Theory lies in special attacks with Street Fighter-esque button combinations, which you could then string together with other specials in rapid succession to make huge combos. It was really good at that. 

But a) it never communicates that well in the game itself and b) the average showfloor player has already been completely bombarded with sound and visuals by the time they reach your game, they're not really in the mindframe to learn intricate mechanics.

A New Project, Optimised for the chaos of PAXAUS

So I proposed we make a playable demo of the next game on our project timeline and show that off instead. To get the most out of showing it, I figured that it needed a polished gameplay "feel" from the very beginning, it needed cool visuals that would really pop, and it needed to be incredibly accessible in how you control your player – something anyone could just pick up and jump right into, but with depth to reward the better players too. I also figured mutiplayer couldn't hurt. If we made it four player and set up two screens, we could potentially have 8 players in game at any one time.

That project was to be Starslinger Kings. We had a working prototype already, but everything I mentioned in the above paragraph... it didn't have. We decided to scrap all the art (which was hard, I was attached to it) and start again from scratch.

Matt resisted the idea pretty steadfastly at first. It caused a bit of friction in our studio to be honest – he still wanted Fatal Theory there, because it was the game that got us the gig and well, we'd spent a really long time making it (him much much more so than me). For awhile we were going to show both, but after reading a few accounts of running booths from other devs out there I came to the conclusion that wouldn't work. 

Why? 

It was a matter of resource efficiency. Think about it like this: for every person that comes to your booth, you have a very limited amount of time to spend with them. Usually between one and five minutes. How you spend that time is crucial.

Now there's a few ways this transaction can go down: they can leave empty handed, they can leave with a lot of interest in your product, or they can leave something behind when they go. This "something" might be money in return for a game, it might an email on a mailing list, whatever. The point being, you have this tiny window of time to drill a game into their memory or impress them enough to make a sale. If you're showing two totally different games, you have twice as much to pitch. That's twice as much to say in the same window of time, or half as much time to get the player to engage with each game before they move on to the next.

Obviously this isn't an exact science, I bet there are ways to show two games side by side with wonderful success. But you'd really have to think about your approach, and I thought we could do better if we came at this with pinpoint focus. Matt disagreed strongly, then came round.

Cut this, prioritise that: building the game itself

When we first scoped the game out, it was going to have the following features:

  • Customisable head, core, legs and primary weapon parts. Three of each.
  • Three different enemy types.
  • One enormous boss.

We had something like 3-4 months to get it done. Seems reasonable, right? 

It took a month to perfect the game's physics and movement. It took something like two weeks to work out a way to actually sub out the player's parts with any kind of art pipeline efficiency. I have no idea how long it took to get all the player's animations done. I was building the game off old code I'd written last year, but it was so old and so broken I had to scrap most of it and rewrite it.

You can probably see the pattern emerging from this: everything took longer than expected. Everything always does. We found ourselves hitting multiple junctures at which we just said "well we have to cut X feature. We don't have time to add it, we should be prioritising Y."

In the end we got:

  • No customisation
  • Two different enemy types
  • No bosses of any size (though the titans were often mistaken for bosses)

It's essentially the bare minimum the game needed to be fun. And it is fun. The game has really strong core gameplay, but right now, as of writing this post-PAX, the core gameplay is literally all we have. 

If I had my time again, I would have probably tried to get SOME kind of mech customisation in there. It's one of the game's coolest features and we didn't communicate any of it internal to the game itself. We were stuck explaining the concept to players when the time came around, and that just doesn't have the same effect as letting them play it.

MAJOR TAKEAWAYS

If you're going to cram a game before a huge con, these are the features I recommend prioritising (in no precise order):

  • Feel/polish. Even if the game is lacking content, it should feel look and feel like it's finished. We added camera lerp, screenshake, screen transitions and made sure all of our animations were complete and included before PAXAUS.
  • Core gameplay is fun and not too hard nor too easy.
  • Controls are intuitive and easy to pick up.
  • Game communicates as much as possible about the finished product IN the game itself.
  • Important: no matter how much depth your game has, carve out a chunk that can be played in UNDER 3 MINUTES. Optimise one segment of your game for public consumption at a shallow level of attention (distractions abound at cons, don't try to teach the player too much).
  • If you're scoping out your build for a con, definitely make it something you can afford to scale back without completely destroying the gameplay experience.

If you have any questions, drop them in the bucket below and I'll see how I can help!

- Adam Carr @2HitAdam

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