Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Ludum Dare: Spotlight :Game Concepts: 0RBITALIS

Every game starts with a great idea. That idea could be an interesting story you want to share with the player, or a magical world that helps the player escape their own. Sometimes it can be much simpler than that, and that's what I love about the Ludum Dare.

For those who don't know what the Ludum Dare is, it's a competition which challenges game developers to take a set theme and go make an awesome game in x amount of hours. What's truly magnificent about the competition is that it's a fantastic opportunity to leave your comfort zone and creatively express yourself.

Due to the nature of the challenge this usually means developers only have time to choose a single game mechanic and make a  great game based around it. Which is what the Ludum Dare game concepts series is going to be about! I'm going to find games from Ludum Dare with interesting concepts, hopefully speak to the developers, and strip the games back to their core concept!


The first game I want to look at was created by somebody I follow on Twitter @AlanZucconi. It was actually his tweets that reminded me the Ludum Dare was on last weekend and of course how totally unprepared I was to start making an attempt. Anyway, when I left him he was at the point of choosing his game concept for this years theme 'You only get one'. Before I knew it Monday had come around and all of a sudden a beautiful new game called 0RBITALIS had been released, and what a well designed game it is.

Eager to hear the story of 0RBITALIS and some of the opinions on design from the developer, I got in contact with Alan and he was nice enough to answer all of my questions!

1) How did you come up with your game idea, are there any other games you gathered inspiration from?

As it often happened with Ludum Dare, I got inspiration looking at other themes in the final round. It's hard to make a game that is as vague as "You Only Get One", but when you couple it with "Gravity" and "Chaos" it's much clearer what you can actually do. I have always been interested in games which explore how simple rules (such as Newton's laws) can generate beautifully complex behaviours. Gravity is fully deterministic and predictable, but this doesn't prevent me from being fascinated every time I see a stable, bizarre orbit. Something that inspired me has surely been "Newton's nightmere" a game that I truly believe is underestimated.

"...I have always been interested in games which explore how simple rules (such as Newton's laws) can generate beautifully complex behaviours..."

2) What made you certain that this game concept would be fun instead of any other ideas you'd come up with? 

I actually started with a prototype that was more oriented towards the "Genetics" theme, rather then "Gravity". Unfortunately I realised that it wasn't fun to play, not even for me. At that point I was very close to giving up, until I got a new idea. It's really hard to tell if gameplay will or will not work until you can test it. I tend to do all my game design on paper, but I am aware that it's not until I have a working prototype, that it's hard to say if the game will be fun to play or not. 0RBITALIS has been quite a risky game to make, since all the gameplay is focused in finding the right direction to launch the satellite; the rest is "just" watching and hoping. I think that 0RBITALIS succeeded in delivering a clear example of what is called the butterfly effects: small variations in the present can lead to massive changes in the future. Chaotic effects out of a deterministic system.

3) Were there any design difficulties along the way? One thing you've spoken about on Twitter is difficulty progression with some levels being more difficult that others, did you have to extensively test each level to ensure the game got progressively harder?

Levels in 0RBITALIS are not getting progressively harder. I tried to alternate hard levels with easier ones, so that players won't feel stuck. This is particularly important when introducing a new mechanic; the second half of the game re-proposes to players very similar levels to the ones faced at the beginning, but with the addition of blue stars that reverse gravity. Those levels are familiar enough to players so that they can re-use their previous know-how, but they introduce a level of novelty that requires to learn new tricks.

"..I tried to alternate hard levels with easier ones, so that players won't feel stuck. This is particularly important when introducing a new mechanic.." 

4)Were there any other game mechanics you added/removed along the way. One thing I noticed was your decision to allow the players to 'lose' and only restart from the same level, did you ever consider making them start from the beginning again? 

Most of the "features" of the game were actually consequences of the strong time constraints Ludum Dare imposed me. For instance, my initial idea was to have a moving camera that could zoom in and out, but I didn't have time to code it properly. And this automatically lead to a "stay in the system" mechanic. The vector fields that you can see in the background was a debug tool I used to test and calibrate planets' masses, but when I realised that it was fitting nicely with the style, I decided to leave it there. For when it concerns menus, programming them is something that I really hate and this is why I tend to leave them out all the time, if I can. I think they "break" the atmosphere of a game, suspending its experience. There are several attempts to make menus that are seamlessly integrated within their own games, and I am looking forward to experiment with this concept.

5)Going forwards do you think you'll continue to work on 0RBITALIS? Is there still lots of room for expansion I.E different platforms, leader boards etc?

 I'd love to keep working on 0RBITALIS. There are so many ideas that I want to try, including new levels, multiple orbitalises and maybe also an editor... who knows! I am not a huge fan of leaderboards; quite the opposite, I find them "flat" and not motivating. For "Still Time", the PSVita title I am currently working on, I decided to go with a different approach that shows how scores are distributed, rather than who made the best score. Speaking of different platforms, I'll start in the next week to port the game for Android. I am not sure how smooth it will run though, since every frame has to simulate gravitational vectors for the following two seconds ...and this is computationally very expensive.

6) Finally as a game developer what is the best advice you could give somebody about game design?

If you are new to game development and want to start the adventure of making your first game, my advice is start with something small. Lot of players have an amazing idea but unfortunately most of them don't have neither the skill nor the financial support to release them. It's easy to run out of money and abandon projects; if you start with a small project, however, the chances of releasing it in time are much higher and this will motivate to create something bigger. The second best advice I can give is stay passionate about what you are doing. Being indie doesn't mean making 2D platformers, it means having the creative freedom to release whatever *you* want. So find something you would like to play, and make it. Hey, are you still here? GO CODING! :-)

In summary:

Alan covers many key points about the importance of a solid concept in this small QandA which in my opinion are as followed:

  • An interesting game concept can be derived from multiple different themes
  • In order to become a great game designer you should have an interest in other things too i.e  Science and Newtons laws of physics.
  • If a game isn't fun for you to create then it probably isn't going to be fun for someone else to play.
  • ...Yet unfortunately it's hard to know if a game will be fun without having a prototype.
  • Being original is often quite risky, but if the risk pays off the game can turn into something truly beautiful.
  • When introducing new mechanics allow the player some time to familiarise themselves with how it works in order to prevent your players from becoming 'stuck'
  • Finally start small, lots of big projects fail because the developers have bitten off more than they can chew.

You can find more information about 0RBITALIS on Alan's Ludum Dare page here, you can also play the game on Newgrounds here. For any more questions about the game be sure to follow the developer using his twitter profile @AlanZucconi

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