Sound Shapes postmortem: Don't make your game something it's not

In the December 2012 Game Developer postmortem, Sound Shapes devs explain how chasing "that feeling" and designing outside of their comfort zones led them to build a fun, successful core mechanic.
Queasy Games's Sound Shapes impressed critics upon its August PSN release with its effusively creative merger of platforming and music-making game mechanics -- but that creativity very well could have led Sound Shapes into development hell. In the postmortem for the December 2012 issue of Game Developer magazine, producer Mathew Kumar writes about how Sound Shapes co-creators Jonathan Mak and Shaw-Han Liem channeled the team's creativity to iterate on Sound Shapes's central mechanics until they took form into the incarnation that shipped -- and how the team's failure to define its scope early enough led to a particularly brutal series of final deadlines. Here are some choice extracts from the postmortem:

What went right: Learn what you aren’t making

Shortly after the release of 2007's Everyday Shooter, Queasy Games founder Jon Mak (who had developed Everyday Shooter solo) began collaborating with Shaw-Han Liem (also known as electronic artist I am Robot and Proud) based on a shared interest in interactive music. Using the help of an Ontario government grant, they began prototyping concepts together without a final goal in mind. “When we started, it wasn’t like we were going to make Sound Shapes," Mak said."We were just working on stuff." Liem added his memories of the time:"Vaguely, the goal was to make a game where through playing it you were also creating music -- whatever that was. A lot of the first stuff was: how can we do something similar to Everyday Shooter, where you are literally just playing a game, but through your actions, you are composing the music? With the criteria that the system is deep enough that when you play the game, and when I play the game, it could create completely different music -- or at least to map as many musical things to play as we can, and use as many strategies as we could to get closer to that." Mak explained that they shortly realized that the "Everyday Shooter setup" of "backing track plus sound effects" wasn't powerful enough to let players make their own music, so they worked as a pair to go through dozens of prototypes over the following year. "The reason that we kept on rejecting prototypes and trying new things was because each subsequent one would get us closer, but didn’t have that feeling yet," said Liem."We had a vague idea and a vague goal, but we knew what it wasn’t. If we had a prototype and we played it, we could tell this was not what we wanted, it didn’t have the feeling that we wanted from it. It narrowed down what we weren’t going to do; it helped us decide what the game wasn’t going to be." Ultimately, the pair realized that -- even having shed the Everyday Shooter basis -- they were being restricted by their own mindset. "I don't like platformers, or level editors," Mak admitted,"but in the back of my mind they made sense. Making a level could be like writing a song, and platformers, like Mario, are a game type that everyone understands. It would be a safe environment for players to get into it." With that in place, the game finally started to"click" for Liem and Mak and the first prototype that formed the true basis of Sound Shapes was begun. "What we were naturally trying to do was what it wasn't," said Mak."That's a thing that we learned: We couldn't achieve our design goals with what we would do naturally."

What went wrong: Define your scope

Perhaps the most severe issue that we faced with deadlines was that we set deadlines before the game had fully taken shape. When we showed Sound Shapes at E3 2011, the basic design had been put in place, and it was expected to be completed as such. However, the design and scope continued to evolve across the entire following year of development. "When we showed the game at E3, we expected to continue and complete what we showed," Liem said,"But there was so much momentum and excitement about the game that we kept thinking, 'oh, well, we can add this, we can do this idea; we can include external artists and musicians' while also thinking 'this is supposed to be done.' We had never made a game of this scale to see what was coming." This lack of experience running a studio and making a larger-scale game meant that when opportunities arose (such as working with musical artists Beck and Deadmau5), the Sound Shapes team would take advantage of them for the ultimate good of the game -- but the deadlines wouldn't change to reflect Sound Shapes's increased scope, which piled more pressure onto the devs. "There were so many possibilities with Sound Shapes," Mak says,"And a lot of it is my fault for acting on it, but I always placed pressure to expand it. It was almost like building a music production studio. What if we add another sequencer? What if we get some distortion tools? It was just such a new frontier, and the concept sort of captures your imagination." Locking down scope is a double-edged sword. Had we ignored opportunities that arose within the last year of development, Sound Shapes would have been a lesser product. However, as time began to run out, we did end up having to cut some in-progress content just to ensure we could polish and complete the most finished parts of the game. If we had a clearly-defined overall scope with some leeway (maintained through proper project management), we could have made our development smoother while still allowing for new worthwhile opportunities. Instead, we tried to do it all.

More in the December issue

The December issue of Game Developer magazine is now available via subscription and digital purchase. This issue also features an in-depth article on animating swordplay with realistic source material, and an end-of-year developer opinion roundup. You can subscribe to the print or digital edition at GDMag's subscription page, download the Game Developer iOS app to subscribe or buy individual issues from your iOS device, or purchase individual digital issues from our store.

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