Programming != Game Development

This year I decided to give the GMTK Game Jam a try. I’ve been programming for 20 years now and I’ve dabbled with Unity a while ago. I should be able to do this.

The Plan

I started by identifying my biggest challenges: Unity knowledge, artwork, and level design.

To address my lack of Unity knowledge, I decided to use a template as a starting point. This would greatly reduce the number of things I need to learn in Unity.

It would also give me more time to dedicate to the artwork and level design. My goal was to get the gameplay done as quickly as possible so I have as much time left to dedicate to the artwork and level design.

The Ideation

If you clicked the link above, you would have seen that the theme was “Out of Control”. The video used to announce the theme did provide example interpretations. I figured I would do one of two things: Add randomness or take control of something away from the player.

Initial ideas included:

  • A platformer where the character always moves forward.
  • Tower defence. Partly because it would be easy to add chaos to a tower defence game.
  • A racing game where cars try to crash into you.
  • A low-poly game where you have to manage the fidelity of your character. If it goes too low, bad things happen.

I really liked the last idea but the last time I played with Blender I was completely lost and I wasn’t going to waste precious time figuring it out during the jam.

I eventually settled on a variation of the idea: A game that takes place at night where you play as a white character that slowly loses light. You’re trying to get to light pads that refill your light before you run out completely. If you do run out then you continue playing with a black character on a black background greatly reducing your control of it.

The Implementation

I managed to find a perfect template for this: Simple 2D Template. It had a white character by default and it came with a side-scroller and a top-down template.

My game plan was simple: Add light pads and either increase or decrease the character’s brightness based on where the player is standing.

I started with the 3D template and I originally wanted to use streetlights for refilling the light.

This, however, wasn’t interesting to play. The template does come with levers, locks, and keys. However, I couldn’t think of ways to make it more challenging as the player went on.

So, I switched to 2D.

Character fully charged.

This has a lot more potential. A platformer’s difficulty is a lot easier to scale up. Especially when the main mechanic is to get to a safe place in a limited time.

Character fully discharged.

While a lot of things I needed to do in Unity turned out to be easy, figuring out how to do them took time. I had to google things as simple as referencing the player’s character in code. It’s not too terrible but it would have saved time if I knew and/or remembered how to do these things.

Despite that, I had all the mechanics implemented within the first 24 hours and I had 24 hours to dedicate to the artwork and the level design. Should be doable, right?

The Problems

Wrong! Having a good eye for design and details doesn’t mean you can create good designs.

Textures made the design look tacky and rushed. Hand-drawn details looked out of place. Too much colour ruined the aesthetic. Designing a new character was out of the question. 6 hours later, I decided to put off design modifications until later and focus on level design.

Yeah… I should have known better because I haven’t managed to create a single level in Mario Maker 2 despite having building blocks at my disposal.

While I did have a working game with a relatively-unique mechanic, I didn’t feel like it was worth submitting.

You can, however, find the final version here.

The Lessons

  • Find a partner who complements your skills.
  • Templates are a great starting point for a game jam.
  • If this video is any indication, the more you participate in game jams the bigger inventory you’d have to use as a starting point.
  • In hind sight, I regret not submitting my game.
  • Knowing how to program doesn’t mean you automatically know how to make games.

The Future

All in all, I’m glad I did this. They were very educational and insightful 48 hours.

I plan to join other smaller game jams throughout the year in preparation for GMTK Game Jam 2021 where I will focus on honing the two skill I know I lack most: artwork and level design.

Hopefully next year’s GMTK Game Jam post will have a link to a submission.