Game Design From Outer Space

Monarch is a small game we made for MolyJam Deux 2013, here you can find what went right and what went wrong in those crazy 48 hours

[Postmortem] Monarch

Monarch is a small arcade adventure in which you perpetuate the butterflies’ species in a polluted and urbanised world. You just need to seek the only plant each generation has at its disposal. You have a limited lifetime and you need to make your way through fans, circular saws, electric cables. Even if Monarch is the result of MolyJam Deux 2013, and therefore it was created in 48 hours, we happened to be quite satisfied with it and we thought it was worth writing a postmortem.

What Went Right

The Butterfly

Here are the first ideas about Monarch control system. It worked from the start, and we’re happy with it.

Low Profile, High Polish

This was not the first jam we joined in as a team, but for the first time we managed to keep a low profile. In the previous jams we have spent almost half of the 48 hours brainstorming and designing features we couldn’t then implement within the little time left. Well, Monarch is not that case, we had a nice brainstorming that lasted 2 or 3 hours (with an even nicer lunch break under the sun) and then we started researching stuff about butterflies for 1 or 2 hours. Some of the features came along in itinere, as our ancestors would say, but the number of assets we had to create was way lower than what we have usually done in the previous jams. The lower number of assets and features allowed us to polish what we had at a higher level, so we had time to think about the general mood and implement little details that could enforce the concept we wanted to depict: electric lights that attract you, chimney smoke that push you up when you pass by and so on… So, do less, do it better.

Cheap Solutions to Expensive Problems

Every jam session has a potential dead-end, there’s always at least one design problem you have to figure out how to fix; if you don’t keep in mind you only have 48 hours to make the whole game you take the risk of screwing everything up. I see it like a path, you have to decide which road to follow and every problem you fix is a crossroad you pass through. We faced this kind of problems right from the start: how do we make a closed level if we’re supposed to set the game in a futuristic metropolis or something like that? Our solution was in line with the concept and relatively cheap: we used pipes to make the level boundaries, they’re inorganic, somehow industrial, and most of all modular. With two assets (straight pipe and curved pipe models) we solved the problem that could have got us into a never-ending asset production and level design loop, collision detection bugs and spawn point exceptions. Cheap solution to expensive problem? Check. That was our crossroad and we took the right path.

Work Management

Being a designer in a jam can be a pain, or not, it depends on the team you get into. We both are designers, we can code in C# (even if we’re not as good as a pro programmer), we can make 3D assets (even if we’re not as good as a pro 3D artist), we can design game mechanics, dynamics and aesthetics, look for the mood, rack our brain and create some Art like pro designers. This brought us to work to whatever we wanted until we felt sick of it. It was perfect: I could spend one hour modelling 3D assets, then think about some design issues, then code some scripts, the only important thing was giving constant feedbacks to each other and discuss as much as you could. If I had to spend my 48 hours just coding, just modelling or just designing it would have been work, this way it was jammin’. So the perfect division of labour in a jam for us was flexibility.

What Went Wrong

Level design

Some level design sketches, which have almost nothing to do with the final level layout

Sometimes, People Fall Ill

A few days before starting the jam, Marina got ill. Luckily it was nothing too serious, but still we lost one valuable team member and the chance to work all together. And yet Alessandra was on vacation.
We thought about it and decided to try the jam anyway, just me and Lorenzo, teleworking. This fact added a new layer of difficulty to the jam, but in the end everything went (almost) well, and we learned some good lessons about using versioning systems.

Unity GUI Still Sucks When You Need to Be Fast

We’re not one of those always-complaining guys. We love Unity 3D. We use Unity because we’re designers and, while we love learning how to code, I don’t think our job will EVER be to develop a game engine from the ground.

Still, Unity GUI system is completely unapt for a game jam. It is too rigid, awkward, verbose, lacks resolution independency and requires far too much time to make even simple interfaces. And that bugs me a lot. The biggest problems in the development of Monarch were GUI-related. To make things as fast as we could, we had used a great deal of GUIText and GUITextures. That caused all sort of problems with different resolutions (and still I’m not completely satisfied about the user interface). Next time we probably would embed the UI in the game world. Or just go with plugins like NGui. But again, can a great and widely use tool like Unity still rely on this awful GUI system?

Cloud Services Can Go Down!

On Sunday evening, probably in the worst possible moment, Bitbucket went down for maintenance.

Lorenzo and me were working extensively on different parts of the Unity project, modifying assets and scripts. A few minutes before the most critical merge of the project, Bitbucket – the versioning system we were using – entered a scheduled maintenance, leaving us without the possibility to carry on with the project.

This caused Monarch to be uploaded late (on Monday morning). But it could have been easily avoided, if we had checked the Bitbucket’s scheduled maintenance page. Still, it’s a good thing to always have a plan B if you’re working with cloud services.

In the End

As said, we are quite satisfied with this project. It’s a small game, but it works rather well, and it has the right mood. We had a lot of fun creating it, and we kinda love the final mood. As usual, working on a tight schedule for a jam taught us a great deal of stuff, and we’re still pretty convinced that game jams are invaluable to grow as a team. You can now check Monarch by yourself here or download it for Mac and Pc.