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Ludum Dare - The experience of building Tiny Shard

What's up, everybody. After the Ludum Dare marathon, I finally recovered enough stamina to write this whole postmortem thing- a summary of the process of creating a game. One of the good things of being a game designer is that you get to write a postmortem without having to deal with corpses first. At the end of this post, there's the famous "What worked / what didn't" part, that summarizes our main learnings from creating Tiny Shard. By the way, the game is (obviously) free, and the link is at the end of this post!

But let's start with the beginning.

A couple weeks ago, we decided to host a Ludum Dare meet up here at the messy garage known as Pixel Cows. In the end, most people decided to participate solo in the competition and prefered to work at home for the comfort and all that. Still, we had some sort of kick off gathering, where we met to exchange suggestions and ideas, eat pizza and wait together for the theme announcement.

Our modest Ludum Dare meet up - who cares if half of the people are here just for moral support? :)


The Beginning
At 10pm (Brazil time), the theme was announced: "Tiny World".


Quite honestly, not the theme I wanted the most, as I had some (hopefully) decent ideas for the others... But that's life. At some point, a good idea would have to come! Since I had worked all night long the previous night (going against all my plans of being physically prepared for Ludum Dare), I went to sleep shortly after the theme was announced, hoping to wake up with some inspiration. I didn't get much sleep really; I was up at 6:40am. Had some coffee and started drafting a level background in Photoshop, with a surreal / dreamlike platformer in mind - any influences from The Journey of Eko? Our plan here at Pixel Cows was that I would create one game, and JP would create another (Joao Pedro, aka JP, is the other half of our huge crew). Early in the afternoon, he already had a basic platformer engine going, while all I had was a bunch of psychodelic story ideas and Photoshop open in front of me, with a level that was supposed to be a vertical comet with a waterfall, but ended up becoming a pink teapot. Things weren't going too well for me!

To the left, what I imagined. To the right, what I drew. I started suspecting that my drawing abilities had seen better days.

By the end of Saturday, we changed our minds - we decided to merge our productions and participate in the jam (a new competition mode in Ludum Dare that allows the participation of teams, and that gives a 72 hours deadline). At first, we felt like we were cheating, since we had originally planned that each one of us would take the challenge of doing an entire game alone and in 48 hours. On the other hand, it was nice to go back to the work scheme that we are used to with The Journey of Eko.

The Middle
On Sunday, after virtually no rest, we kept working. At this point, the main character's movements and attacks were already coded, as well as most enemies.

Multimedia Fusion on the background, and the game running on the foreground. The pixel enhancing effect was already working, which really helped improving the in game aspect of our pixel art!

However, we still had to import the graphics and design all the other levels, import all the dialogue lines in the game, test everything and fix any bugs that might arise. Those were tasks which complexity we clearly underestimated, because by the end of Sunday we still hadn't done any of them; instead we had only added more content and polished what was already working. By the end of the day we tried our hands at importing dialogue and designing levels, but the results sucked. We were completely exhausted by the huge amount of work, lack of food and sleep time, so we drove to Burguer King, where we hoped to heal ourselves through unscrupulous ingestion of fat.

Graphics completed in Photoshop: the sweet illusion that work is almost done!

From Sunday to Monday, we slept like 11 hours. Sleep deprivation from the previous day had finally taken its toll. We started the day on a franctic work rhythm, terrified with the possibility of not having enough time to finish the game. JP spent most of the day balancing the game and doing level design, and I had decided to rewrite the whole dialogue - something I had to do in the few spare hours, since during daytime I have a corporate job (or a "grown up job", as some people insist to see things).

The End
By sunset, adrenaline came at full speed. So much still needed to be done, and the time was almost over! I tried to create some musics in iNudge, and one hour later, I understood I wouldn't be able to create anything good enough to convey the mood that the game demanded. I decided to spend my time looking for appropriate music at Incompetech.com. That proved to be a good decision, now that I look at it, for if I had insisted in creating almost random music in iNudge, I would end up compromising the whole game experience; Kevin's music, on the other hand, proved to be a perfect match for the atmosphere we wanted! JP was in a typing frenzy, importing all the dialog into the game engine. Unfortunately, I had only about 20 minutes to create the game's title screen and ending. The ending was cool, it got pretty much as we intended, but the title screen certainly got simpler than we were planning. In addition to that, even if Tiny Shard is a really short game, we only had the time to play through all of it once. The clock was ticking, the last minutes before the deadline running quickly. At some point, we were literally pale and shivering in despair, terrified with the possibility of the site going offline somehow and we become unable to submit our game to the jam!

Since it's our first time in Ludum Dare (or in any short time game creation jam), anything better than total humiliation would be considered a success. Well, we managed to submit our game in time, and there are even those who say it's good! :)
So, the little baby's called Tiny Shard; you can download it HERE. It only runs in Windows. Simply unzip the whole folder and click on the .exe file to play.

Tiny Shard: made from scratch in 72 hours, against all the odds. Phew!

What went right

  1. Using tools that we're familiar with, specially Multimedia Fusion 2. We didn't have to spend time reinventing the wheel.
  2. Dedicate enough time for polishing. Small details such as the weekday sign, the next day's shard being shown at the background, the opening and closing animation for the gates, etc, ended up contributing a lot to the game's setting and message.
  3. Low res. We're still shocked with how quickly you can come up with reasonably well polished content when you work with a 200x150 pixels screen!
  4. Creating the type of game that we like to design and to play. This makes it easier to immediately notice if a feature is important or not, if the game is well balanced, etc. Besides, since The Journey of Eko is mostly a platformer, Ludum Dare wasn't the first time we had to meddle with the science of balancing jump height, gravity, inertia, etc, which is a good thing from a time standpoint.
  5. Particles!


What went wrong

  1. Initially planning a scope that isn't feasible in 48 hours. We fortunately had the idea of merging our projects and redirecting our efforts to the jam, also gaining an extra day to finish the game; but if it wasn't so, each one of us would probably have submitted a poorly finished compo entry.
  2. Underestimate the time that level design and content importing take. This was pushed to the last hours, and we really had a very real risk of not being able to finish the game in time because of that.
  3. Think that iNudge is a magical tool for creating music with no time and effort. Don't get me wrong here, the software is really good, but a random sound made in 5 minutes will most likely not convey the atmosphere you want for your game. To use it to its full potential, it certainly takes practice and time (that we still don't have and that we didn't have, respectively)
  4. Balancing the game difficulty based on our own skill level. Many people found the game to be too difficult, specially the already infamous last passage in Harday!


Since the day we submitted Tiny Shard, we've been spending several hours every day reviewing other people's games (a huge responsibility, since we really know what they went through to craft them), and chatting with the other game designers about their games and our game. It is a true honor to be among such talented people! The community is amazing, and most participants have a really constructive approach when giving feedback.

By the way, this is only a bit of it - in fact the whole experience of participating in Ludum Dare was (and is being) amazing. We want to thank to all the veterans of the event for welcoming us so warmly, and to all you guys who played Tiny Shard and are giving us such a positive response! We are truly overwhelmed! You guys are just great!

Cheers

Gabriel

ps: After Ludum Dare, we resumed working on The Journey of Eko as one would expect. Updates coming soon!