Postmortem: Space Battle Zero

Three months after my first Ludum Dare, I came back ready for more in LD 43. As I guessed in my last postmortem, I decided against the restrictive compo this time (48 hours, everything from scratch) to take advantage of the more relaxed rules of the jam (72 hours, 3rd party assets allowed). This freed me up to focus on design and programming instead of asset creation. The theme this time: “Sacrifices must be made,” and my entry: Space Battle Zero.

Anyway, I’m going to try something a bit different with this postmortem. Instead of attempting to frame it in terms of what went well (or not-so-well) on the development side, I’ll focus more on following the thread of design through the process. Start with breaking down the original concept, then cover how the design evolved during prototyping and the process of paring down the scope to meet the deadline, while maintaining as much of the vision as possible. And finally, I’ll go over what I’d change about the game if I were to continue developing the idea knowing what I know now.

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An honest guide to getting your Ludum Dare game rated

or, “What do you mean I have to market?”

Ludum Dare is not like most game jams in that it’s not over when it’s over. Finishing and submitting your game is actually just the beginning; after that, you need to market. You may have (and probably did!) make something really cool in just a weekend, and that’s great. But if you don’t find a way to get it out in front of people, nobody’s gonna know about it but you.

Looking back at the Ludum Dare 42 statistics, fully one-third of the entrants failed to crack 20 ratings, and therefore did not get their game scored. Some of them probably weren’t interested in a rating at all, and were just doing the jam for fun. That’s fine! But part of the appeal of Ludum Dare is the scoring. If you want to be part of that and are just at a loss for what you’re doing wrong, the answer is probably either a beginner mistake about your game’s presence on the website, or a failure to properly market it.

Part 1: Common mistakes

First, here are some of the most frequent errors new users make, and the simple improvements you can make to get your game noticed.

No cover image

This is the single mistake most likely to make people overlook your game. Here’s a snapshot of the None filter on a random day. A big chunk of the titles with no ratings at all simply do not tell me anything about the game. How’s that supposed to pique my interest? Why would I play gray box #3 over literally anything else?

Luckily this is an easy one to fix. Take a picture of your game. Scale and crop it to 640×512. Upload it. You’re done!

Still struggling? That’s okay. One quick-and-dirty trick you can do to make a nice cover image is to turn off your in-game UI, take a screenshot of something interesting in your game, then overlay your game title in an image editor. Alternately, if you’ve already put some effort into a pretty title screen, you can use that in a pinch (again, just hide the buttons and stuff).
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Tales from the Back Burner: Stack

Sometimes we learn more from our failures than our successes. In this series, we’ll take a look at some of our projects that didn’t pan out, and see what lessons can still be gleaned from them.

What was it?

Stack could be pitched as an innovative brawler-style free-for-all about hoarding, hauling, and hurling super-powered stacks of blocks. Think Super Smash Bros. crossed with NES pariah Bible Adventures. Wait, where are you going? I swear it’s better than it sounds!

The setting: a 2d platform-littered arena

The cast: 2-4 players vying for control of a limited supply of valuable blocks

The objective: collect stacks of blocks and carry them back to your goal. Meanwhile your opponents will do anything in their power to collect them first. Luckily, blocks are good for more than just scoring points – many have powerful offensive capabilities, like the rocket and flame blocks. Each match is a chaotic struggle between collecting as many blocks as possible, and expending blocks to prevent your opponents from doing the same.

How’s it play?

Players scramble around the stage, picking up blocks and carrying them in a large stack over their heads. As a stack grows, it becomes more unwieldy, and blocks at the top are at risk of falling off if the player runs into low platforms (not to mention providing a bigger target for attacks from other players). Individual blocks can be tossed in to a goal for individual points – even from far across the stage, if nothing else gets in the way – but running into the goal with an entire stack earns the player a big “touchdown” bonus. These differing incentives (large stack = lots of points, small stack = agile and less vulnerable to attack or mistake) provide plenty of opportunity to develop and refine strategies, react to counter-strategies, and develop personal mastery of the game.

The blocks themselves are a blank slate on which to paint an array of surprising and delightful gameplay concepts. It starts simply: a vanilla block is worth one point; a gold block is worth many. But throw a fire block at an opponent and they’ll burst into flames, periodically shedding blocks off their stack until the fire is put out. A direct hit from a rocket block will blast the entire stack out of an enemy’s hands. Hit a seed block with a water block, and it’ll suddenly grow into a vine that provides a convenient ladder to higher platforms. A well-lobbed milk bottle block will drench an opponent, attracting a swarm of hissing cat blocks, tying them up and causing them to drop their stack (cat blocks can also be picked up and thrown, but they don’t like it and will try to escape!).

What went wrong?

Stack was incredibly fun to design and showed a reasonable amount of promise as a game concept. The reason I decided not to move forward with it had little to do with the idea and everything to do with competitive analysis. Couch multiplayer games are already a well-served market segment. Even putting aside AAA heavy hitters like Smash Bros., Steam is littered with quality indie offerings like Towerfall, Ultimate Chicken Horse, and countless others.

What’s more, even with full confidence in my ability to compete on quality, the fact remains that the segment itself is very challenging in terms of market size. Titles cost just as much to bring to market, but in all but a few cases only one person has to buy the game in a group of friends for everyone to enjoy it. A few more might shell out based on an enjoyable experience at a game night, but most players would be happy with a few fun play sessions and quick to move on to whatever the new, exciting release was. This means these games tend to have a short tail.

Lessons

  • An interesting idea doesn’t necessarily mean a viable product
  • Competitive analysis is a critical component of the decision-making process. With limited bandwidth to work on ideas it’s important to dedicate time only to the ones that offer the best chance of success
  • Study the size of a potential market. Lots of competition doesn’t always imply a profitable segment. Red oceans are red from the blood of competitors, not customers after all