The ‘not crazy but pretty wild’ Weekend – Asylum Jam 2014

Hey guys,

It’s been ages since I last posted, so I’ll quickly explain that. Firstly myself, Chris McMath & Daniel Arnold-Mist (my partners on Shanghai for Ludum Dare 29) and Tobias Baumann took part in the 2014 Asylum Jam. That was one weekend of work lost. Then I’ve been searching for a new apartment, taking out the last 2 weeks too. And while I actually had a semi-free Sunday yesterday… I couldn’t get myself motivated so I just checked out Vain Glory (I’ll probably post about that another day) and a little Endless Legend (ditto with the post).

In fact, Eternal Struggle will be going through somewhat of a hiatus until January 2015 as production on The Ember Conflict picks up, Ludum Dare 31 takes place, and then I go back to Europe for a much overdue holiday over the Christmas period. Instead of feeling guilty all the time about doing no work, I’m going to just forget about it until the new year and perhaps do a few blogs along the way. Don’t worry though, the game is still coming along nicely… in my head 😉


Onto the Weekend

Over the last few weeks, something pretty magical happened for me and the Asylum Jam guys. For some unknown reason, our gamejam game went viral! I’d usually say semi-viral as I’m well aware of how massive everything can get on the Internet these days, but our game has had at least 1.6 million views on various YouTube Let’s Plays. To us that’s pretty amazing and the reception to Lullaby has been downright staggering. Multiple Let’s Plays, a Kill Screen article, featured on the PC Gamer website, and just a ton of overwhelmingly positive feedback.

 

Screen Grab of the Lullaby page on Gamejolt
Screen Grab of the Lullaby page on Gamejolt

 

Click the image above if you want to check out the game yourself. If you’re too busy, watch a Let’s Play! I’ll link some below.

After all the horrid (and quite frankly tedious) GamerGate drama over the last couple of months, these few weeks of wonderful people playing our game and having a great time (and the millions of viewers enjoying it too) has really given us a new perspective on ‘gamers’ and the community. We didn’t do any marketing. We just posted on the Gamejolt website and the Internet did it all for us. From the first Let’s Play by CDawg (with 2 subscribers at the time) all the way up to Squeezie’s massive 3 million subscriber base, we saw people genuinely having fun and creating entertainment using our game and honestly it was the most satisfying experience I’ve ever had in my short game design career… even compared to when our team at Playfish hit massive revenue targets and engagement metrics for SimCity Social.

It’s definitely my first taste of ’15 minutes of fame’ and I’m hoping that one day I can release something with just as much, if not more, support from the gaming community.

 

Lessons
There are a lot of things to be discussed about this whole crazy 3 weeks (although the first weekend was particularly wild).

  • Gamejolt
    What a great website. I’m sure the featuring of the Asylum Jam and our very late submission helped a lot (we were on the front page for almost 2 weeks), but it seems that most of the early Let’s Players discovered Lullaby through Gamejolt. It seems that the website, which I’d never heard of until Asylum Jam, is a first-stop sort of place for anyone looking for free games. I can imagine that the writers of the Kill Screen and PC Gamer articles check Gamejolt regularly to see if there’s anything interesting to play.Honestly I’ve read in lots of places that websites like Indie DB are essential to have a presence on, but I kind of dismissed it. How big is the indie game community? Apparently it’s massive, as Gamejolt has proven. Without any marketing we have 3.4k plays for 8.5k views for our tiny 48 hour Gamejam submission… and as you can tell, some of those views spawned Let’s Plays in the millions of viewers.Game discoverability is the most painful part of the industry these days (unless you’re being sent death threats, I suppose) and the experience with Gamejolt has really relieved me a little.

    Gamejolt
    Gamejolt
  • Let’s Plays
    I knew Let’s Plays were good. I’ve read in a lot of places that they’re growing in importance. What these few weeks have told us is that they’re incredibly powerful. I’m not sure how much information sharing happens in the Let’s Play community but it appears that from CDawg’s first Let’s Play we received bigger and bigger personalities playing our game. Did they all just stumble upon Gamejolt independently or did they see their rivals playing our game and decide to do one themselves? I’m pretty sure it was the former, but in the case of huge games and personalities like PewDiePie I think there is probably a lot of cross-pollination.Game journalism has had a hell of a lot of issues recently and it feels like Let’s Plays are really the natural format for evaluating whether a game is worth purchasing or not. Unfortunately for Lullaby, we have a very short and linear puzzle game that gets completely spoiled if someone watches a Let’s Play.Obviously Horror helps with Let’s Plays. LPs are not really about the game, they’re about the personality playing them. The game needs to give the personality enough tools to create entertainment for their followers.
  • Game Design X Let’s Play
    Linked to the last point, Lullaby is great for letting personalities shine through…

    • The Baby
      This is number one. The baby itself is incredibly unique (I never would have thought it, but looking after a baby really hasn’t been done that much). Looking after a child, protecting it from something weird that you can’t explain or stop was the core design for Lullaby. For Let’s Players, this is great because they have a unique game that allows them to show their caring side. No-one wants to see a baby in trouble, so it created a sort of mothering/fathering instinct in everyone that played. In fact, only one person who completed the game in the Let’s Plays left the baby in the house when they escaped… even though there was nothing forcing them to take her.
    • The Horror
      When Chris McMath and myself were concepting out ideas for Asylum Jam, our key idea was having something to protect… something vulnerable, and that you had to put it in harm’s way to be able to progress. I hate jump scare games, I don’t think it’s intelligent horror and I can’t play something like that (physically I can’t do it!). Moving the danger from the player agent onto an NPC helped a lot with that and the tension and release of Lullaby is in the time pressure and environmental ‘obstacles’ as you try to find the next part of the puzzle and get back to the baby in time. In fact, we even referred to the baby as just a ‘timer’ because mechanically that’s what she was.The Kill Screen article is definitely the result of this different type of horror. It tapped into real fears that parents experience and that non-parents think parents experience (honestly though it wasn’t our intention to design the game like that). It felt very different to other games. Seriously though, I think that the vagueness of the whole experience (no raison d’etre) really helped with the interpretations of the game as an artistic piece. We weren’t 100% trying to be completely vague 😉
    • The Twist
      People loved the twist. As a dev team, we kind of added it as a joke. The earliest version of the game was just a regular “you’re the good guy” experience. Then someone joked about a tongue-in-cheek M.Night Shylaman style twist where “YOU’RE THE MONSTER ALL ALONG”. Even though it was a little jokey, we thought it would be a very unexpected twist and a great ending to the game (which would be very anti-climactic without it). It worked. Really well. The Twist is what’s mentioned in almost every positive comment and what changed Lullaby from a good gamejam game into a great gamejam game. The reason why I think it worked so well, and what made it so successful, is that it managed to use a video game narrative in a way that no other media form could do. When you realized you were kidnapping the baby, after spending 10-20 minutes trying to keep it safe… the emotional shock is pretty huge! You thought you were doing good…. you thought you were getting better at saving the child, but you were actually getting better at kidnapping a child. It was nice.

Overall these 3 points created a game that really worked well with Let’s Plays. It was unique, it allowed unique emotional reactions, and everyone likes seeing a ‘mind blown’ incident live on camera.

 

What next?
While we’ve discussed doing more with Lullaby, I’m not sure if any of us really have the time or motivation to work more on it. Turning it into a full game would be a pretty gruelling experience. We’d need to create a new environment that has more than just ‘find a key, unlock a door’ mechanics. The design of the Darkness and how difficult the game is would have to be much better. We made the darkness just come from the parents’ bedroom at the end of the hall, but that made the game way too easy when the baby was placed downstairs in the kitchen. Just one small example of major systems changes.

Don’t get me started on how much work it would be to animate the baby, the darkness, and overall polish of the entire environment!

Perhaps we’ll do something with babies again, or horror placed on an NPC instead of the player character… but I don’t see Lullaby 2 happening any time soon.

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2 week update + Asylum Jam!

I’ve been a bad blogger, but a reasonably decent part-time indie developer! While I haven’t been blogging, I have been working on Eternal Struggle, so here are the updates…

 

Day 9

2 weeks back, my goal was to add the basics of Actions affecting Mood… and Mood affecting Actions. The Mood/Action System!

If you’ve ever played Long Live The Queen, you’ll recognize what I’m up to.

When a Hero takes an action, it will affect a certain statistic (be it an attribute or a mood) by increasing it’s value. With the Mood/Action system, these values are now modifiable.

In the example below, Betty is Excitable. When a Hero performs an Intense Strength Training Action while Excitable, they will receive a minor increase to their Courage Mood and a minor reduction in their Defense attribute.Being excitable while getting stronger will increase your fearlessness… but that can also be reckless.

When I get around to polishing the game, there will be much more explanation of why this is the case, in the form of beautiful illustrations or text descriptions, but for now it’s just in my head.

Eternal Struggle - Day 9
Eternal Struggle – Day 9

One of the more interesting design decisions I will have to make is whether to make these Mood/Action links transparent or hidden. Do I want players to know exactly what will happen when they perform an Action while in a certain Mood? This makes planning and strategy easier, but it also removes a lot of fun discoverability (especially with niche combinations of Moods and Attributes).

To master the game and win, players will need to know all the links… so perhaps one option is to make them all discoverable but once discovered they will be displayed to the player. The game is all about repeat play-throughs, so that could be a fine solution.

If you’re interested in playing a system similar to the Mood/Action system, do check out Long Live The Queen. It’s been a big inspiration to both Outdoor and Eternal Struggle. Despite its wrapping paper (it’s very anime looking), it’s a truly interesting and difficult ‘planning game’ that’s ticks a lot of the boxes that I’m trying to tick myself with Eternal Struggle.

 

The Actions of Long Live The Queen
The Actions of Long Live The Queen

 

Day 10

Before Day 10 I was in a bit of a slump. The woes of Indie Development were getting to me and I was having all kinds of creative issues. I was wondering if the concept of Eternal Struggle was even fun at all, “What if it’s just garbage?” was a question I was asking myself. I have so much still to do on it, but it still wasn’t feeling like a game yet and I’ve wanted to expressly avoid the situation I got into with Uffizi, working on a not-fun prototype for too long.

To get out of this funk, I decided to work on an entirely new system… one which wasn’t based on all the work I’ve been doing for the last couple of months. Hero relationships haven’t been discussed that much since I started this project. All systems I’ve built so far have been based around Heroes as independent actors. One of the reasons I started this game, especially after the feedback from Outdoor, is that managing your Heroes while befriending or avoiding other Heroes in the same area is a challenge I want players to have. A slightly scary thought is that all my current systems feel ‘complicated enough’, so adding relationships just makes the game really over-the-top deep… but whatever, I want to see if it works!

Eternal Struggle - Day 10
Eternal Struggle – Day 10

As you can see from the screenshot, the Town has changed a lot. I actually had to rebuild the whole thing because I’d gotten all the dimensions wrong and the mp_grid pathing systems I wanted to use from GameMaker were bugging out like crazy.

I had to redo a ton of work with this update, so I’m pretty proud of how much got done in a single day. Firstly, the Town is now perfectly aligned to a grid… which is used to calculate paths to and from buildings. These paths are used by Heroes, who move from their current building to the chosen one when an Action is picked. Debugging was the main delay on my progress with this feature, and the result is rather small to look at on a blog.

Heroes have their destinations marked when an Action button is pressed. When the turn ends, they move towards the destination. That’s it. That’s version 1.0.

Version 2.0 is the hard part (for me, as an awful coder), as I need to generate events when Heroes bump into each other. I’ve got collision working but pausing the movement while events are concluded is proving to be a pain. That’s definitely Day 11’s task!

 

Asylum Jam!

The final thing I want to mention is Asylum Jam. You all know how much I love Game Jams, so I decided to join up with Chris & Dan from Substantial Games (my employer) and Tobias Baumann (from Perception Neuron). I’ve never worked on a horror game before so it should be an enjoyable experience. More details on that in the next blog!