Friday, 27 April 2012

Solar Sailor Post-mortem

Solar Sailor, for those of you who aren't yet aware, is a fairly simple racing game that I made for the Ludum Dare 48 hour challenge.

Here's the competition entry page:
http://www.ludumdare.com/compo/ludum-dare-23/?action=preview&uid=10456
Or you can get straight into it here:
http://dl.dropbox.com/u/25468009/SolarSailor/index.html
Making a playable game in just 48 hours is a pretty intense experience. This is my attempt to make sense of it all, with the benefit of a few days worth of hindsight.

What went right

I used Javascript and WebGL to write the game. Although I was fairly new to Javascript*, it turned out to be a great language for writing a game:
  • Built-in support for object literals (a.k.a JSON) made it very easy to get content into the game.
  • Being able to just hit reload in the browser to test out changes made for a very tight edit-run loop.
  • You effectively get image and font loading for free, thanks to the web browser. Sound too, theoretically, though I didn't get far enough to need that.
My content pipeline for the game came together really nicely towards the end. I was drawing the race track using Nuke's roto paint node and exporting it to JSON with a custom python script. Unfortunately it was about 2 hours before the final deadline by the time I got this in place. It would have only been a matter of minutes to add more tracks - but I didn't have time to make a menu system for choosing them.

Finally, using Dropbox as my web host was a really good choice. It meant that deploying the game was as simple as doing a recursive directory copy and almost instant. The time I didn't waste with upload forms I was able to spend working on the game.

What went wrong

I struggled to come up with an idea to fit the theme. I did some unsuccessful brainstorming after the theme was announced & didn't come up with anything too inspiring. I had a game in mind before the start of the competition, but I couldn't find a way to make it fit the theme & it just proved to be a distraction. I ended up starting to write code without a clear idea of the game I was making: big mistake. It wasn't until Saturday afternoon (about 18 hours into the compo) that I realised I wasn't getting anywhere. I took a walk away from the computer for a couple of hours to rethink & that was when I came up with the idea for Solar Sailor.

Once I'd got the idea for Solar Sailor, I decided I wanted a Geometry Wars kind of look for it: glowing polygonal outlines, simple shapes, etc. I wasted an awful lot of time trying to write a glow effect which ultimately didn't work, in an attempt to get that look. Worse still, I was doing this before I'd even got the most basic gameplay elements in place. As a result, the level design was left 'til the last minute & I didn't have time for any half-decent artwork.

After submitting the game, I got some people to try it out & they all had the same comment: WTF is going on?! If I'd done this playtesting earlier - if I hadn't been so preoccupied with writing glow effects - I would have realised that the game needed a tutorial. Badly.

Lessons learnt

Stick with Javascript & WebGL kiddo, you're onto a winner there. Ditto for Dropbox as a web host.

Don't start working until you've come up with a game idea that you actually like. Even if it feels unproductive, spending extra time thinking about the theme and what to do with it is a lot more productive than throwing away a days work and finding yourself back at the same point.

Polish doesn't make a game - gameplay does. Good gameplay can excuse bad graphics but the reverse isn't true. Especially glow effects. The main lesson is to always work on gameplay before trying to add graphical polish. Make it fun, then make it look good. It's never completely cut and dried, but that's a pretty good rule of thumb.

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