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.
What I wanted to make
Like last time, I came into the jam with an idea in hand. The connection to the theme was tenuous at best (something plenty of commenters pointed out), but my objective was to test my idea, not to win a game jam competition. Space Battle Zero started as a hypothetical pitch for a new 1v1 eSport, along the lines of StarCraft or Hearthstone. I envisioned a strategic combat game that blended the energy-management of FTL: Faster Than Light or X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter with the complex orbital maneuvering of Kerbal Space Program. Players’ energy would start small and build with each orbit they survived, providing a natural build-up and progression to each match and incentivizing players to consider their position in addition to juggling offense and defense.
So that’s the broad-strokes idea. My goal for this jam was to express that idea as fully as possible in 72 hours. Hopefully by doing that I could validate some basic assumptions about the project, expose (and address) some of the design unknowns, and ultimately answer three key questions:
- Is this a game? Can my vague idea be translated into something tangible?
- Is this a fun game? Are the mechanics understandable, expressive, and entertaining?
- Is this a game that resonates with people? It’s an idea that seems tailor-made for me (because it is). Will it be compelling to anyone else?
What I did make
My first challenge was how to lay out the game elements to provide the ebb and flow of battle I was looking for. I quickly settled on placing the ships on opposing and offset orbits; this gave a satisfying build-up to each encounter, and a natural lull that provided players time to lick wounds and charge weapons as they drop out of each other’s line of sight.
Then I had to start building out the rest of the game and prioritizing features. Tons of things I’d want in the final product, I knew off the bat wouldn’t make it in. There simply wasn’t time to do everything. Sacrifices must be made! First cut were the networked multiplayer, manual aiming, any hope of an overarching progression system and metagame. But I still held out hope I could achieve some sort of local multiplayer.
Unfortunately I wasted too much time juggling how to adapt my envisioned UI to allow multiple players on the same machine. There just didn’t seem to be any easy solution (shared keyboard, multiple gamepads) that wouldn’t substantially compromise the experience for both players. I kept thinking back on Introvert vs. Extrovert, and how most players didn’t even see the game’s multiplayer mode. Ludum Dare participants usually playtest solo, so their first and last impression of my game was of the very-unsatisfying random AI that provided no challenge and usually offed itself before the player even had a chance to explore the mechanics. Shouldn’t my priority should be making sure the most-common experience doesn’t suck? So, a little too late, I scaled back the scope to a single-player-only client and focused on that in earnest.
I added as many weapon and defense systems as I could with the hope of implementing customization options, but without time to build that out I was happy just to give players plenty to spend their energy points on. The weapon upgrades were mostly a matter of seeing what I had the assets to pull off, then mixing and matching from there. Two red beams? Perfect. That’s an upgradeable laser, a good all-around weapon. Three kinds of lightning bolt? Sounds like a nice alternative beam weapon that starts quick and weak and upgrades to slow and devastating.
The biggest time sink was the sheer amount of UI that had to be designed and wired up. So much UI! And it was critically important to do so, since so many of my questions needed the client to look like… what the client would look like. Less critical, it turned out, was the time spent time on the path predictor (adapted from a tool I made for puzzle design in Voyager) and maneuvering system. I had high hopes for the Kerbal Space Program-inspired orbital mechanics. But as time ticked down, I was forced to leave in a half-finished placeholder system where players had much less fine-grained control over rocket burns.
Many of the systems are more superficial than I wanted in fact, but that’s the nature of a game jam. I didn’t fret too much. In this case, more but shallower choices would still answer more questions – about the usability and readability of the interface, about player’s willingness to experiment with choices and strategize – than the alternative of cutting some systems to focus on tighter overall balance.
What I’d like to make
Ultimately, I’m pretty happy with how close a weekend’s work came to my original vision. I’m eagerly awaiting the scoring results to see how players really feel about it. My priority in the meantime is on testing more assumptions and gathering more feedback.
In the first days after Ludum Dare wrapped up, a flood of Twitch streamers descended to do marathon playthroughs of the various entries. These were my best and most honest source of data. Comments on the Ludum Dare site are often sanitized, or fixate on known issues and superficial complaints. But watching an unbiased player struggle through an unfamiliar interface on Twitch in real time, and give stream-of-consciousness feedback, was invaluable. After seeing a few get hung up on assigning energy, I added a pictorial “how to play” to the project page and got much better responses.
It also became clear that most players didn’t figure out the maneuvering controls. Those that did found them promising but ultimately not impactful since matches were so short. It could still be valuable in a slower-paced version of the game, but for now they’re just kind of superfluous. But at least the placeholder system tested the idea, and fit well with the scope the mechanic played overall. Players in the midst of deadly combat probably aren’t paying attention to the exact right time and duration to execute a thruster burn anyway.
As a next step I’m running experiments to slow down the pacing, like rebalancing weapons and improving shields. But I am wary about pushing these changes while the Ludum Dare rating period is still on. I don’t want to risk muddying the waters of that experiment. Already the number of players has dwindled, so I’m not missing a huge testing resource by not pouncing now. And there’d be no way to qualify the results. If the scores are middling, how much of that can be attributed to the original release versus the later changes?
The feedback from the game jam has already been fascinating for the wide range of opinions and ideas offered. So many players had different interpretations of what the game was, and how to expand it. Different stages, more enemies? Certainly not what I had in mind. But others just highlighted and underlined my own list of “missed opportunities” during the jam. I’d love to streamline the UI and make it more information-forward; for example, moving health bars and lock-on status “closer to the action” near the ships themselves. Shields should better communicate that they’re taking/blocking damage, and players should never be confused about when and why they fail. And boy, the way those fire buttons disappear when not moused over threw a lot of people!
And what about all the big-picture stuff I’m dreaming of? Ships should be customizable, with players choosing components that suit their play style! Maybe maneuvering could be redeemed with the right incentives? Low orbits could cause ships to accumulate drag and eventually crash if they don’t periodically top up their forward momentum. High orbits might offer additional advantages: more powerful kinetic weapon strikes, access to different resources, maybe even find a way into orbit around the moon and achieve an energy-gain rate an Earth-orbiter could only dream of!
But right now I’m at a crossroads. This jam helped answer some questions, but I don’t yet have an answer to the biggest one of all. Is this idea worth working on? Or is it time to put this on the back burner?
Well, it’s certainly a game! A prototype of one anyway. People can play it, and understand it, and even enjoy it. Players especially praised the polish and the mood.
It’s pretty fun, or at least, I think so. Feedback as been positive but not phenomenal. It’s clear based on player response that this is a niche idea. People who liked it dug it a lot. Others were bewildered by it, but were just as quick to clarify that they don’t normally play or enjoy games remotely similar to this one.
Which leads into my last question – does it resonate? That’s not so clear. It is in the top 5% of entries by number of ratings, but it’s an inconclusive data point since marketing plays such an outsize role in generating ratings. As of this writing the final scores are still several weeks away from being released.
But my impression is that this would be an uphill climb. Even if I identify an elusive but adoring audience or zero in on some hook missing from this prototype that suddenly and definitively answers the question – then what? I still need numbers to measure the market opportunity. Are there enough potential die hards to build a business around this? How does it stack up against my other projects? Could an indie even pull off an eSport-caliber product and if so, at what cost?
Those are tough questions. I guess this was destined to be a fairly unsatisfying retrospective at this point – there are more questions than answers! But that’s okay. I don’t shy away from questions.
See for yourself
Play Space Battle Zero for free on itch.io.