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Second in a series about the design and development of Planck v.0, a “musical shooter” recently entered into the 12th Annual Independent Games Festival.

Matthew Burns, Blogger

November 19, 2009

4 Min Read

[This entry was crossposted from the Shadegrown Games blog.]

Part I of this series on the prototype “musical shooter” Planck v.0 (see video here) dealt with how we try to interpret musical events on a granular level with quantization: the timing of discreet events, such as individual rhythmic hits, as they relate to gameplay.

There’s more to music than that, of course, and there’s more to Planck than that as well. As we left off, I’d been put in contact with Brenton Woodrow, a student in his senior year of the game design baccalaureate program at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont.

Brenton had been exploring various concepts for music-based gameplay at a summer internship in Los Angeles, so we had a lot of common ground to speak from with regard to design ideas.

He proposed a system by which Planck could not only tie music in with the moment-to-moment gameplay but also provide longer term, over-arching song structure as the player moves through each level in response to the sum of his or her actions: as enemies of a certain type are defeated, individual elements of the song are “earned” and turn into one of the player ship’s weapons. A skillful player gains more weapons, and thus has more parts of the song going at once as the level progresses.

We also decided that a scripted level progression, of the sort found in the classic 2D shooters such as Ikaruga, would allow us a natural way to hook up transitions from one part of the song to the next– for example, to begin a B section after the player has made it through an appropriate amount of the A section.

This combination also opened the door to special events, such as a boss battle, that could be used to create an analogue to a mid-track breakdown with special rhythms or even elaborate “call-and-response” style solos. The possibilities of integrating musical progression with shooter level progression were exciting, and we were eager to try them in practice.

Our first stab at integrating all of these elements together into a cohesive experience was not what you see in the video today, however. The very first version of Planck v.0 was built around a different track by Planck’s composer, Chad Bechard, called Gravy Train. Chad had put together a full-on, funk-inspired song– complete with wakka guitar and horn solos– then broke it apart into all of its constituent elements so that it could be reassembled within the dynamic framework of a Planck level.

We learned many important lessons by going through the process of making the Gravy Train level. The first and most heartening was that the basic concept was workable and that the spark of fun was present.

Thanks to the efforts of programmer Kyle Murphy, we had a solid implementation of music-based event scheduling and a behavior system with which to construct levels– a system that Brenton and fellow designer Chris McCarthy pushed to its limits. Completing the level also allowed us to show the game to fresh eyes and see if our own views of Planck as it stood were accurate or distorted.

Gravy Train also brought into harsh light the weaknesses of our approach, however. For one thing, it was very difficult to understand what was happening if the player didn’t already know how the system worked (this is an area we have made some improvement upon in Mental Breakdown, but still requires attention, as discussed in the comments here). The level also featured an ambitious boss battle.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work at all for a long time, and when it finally did, it was a serious disappointment. It took us the process of creating one to realize that bosses in the best 2D shooters are scripted with a lot of precision and care– as much or even more than is required of the level proper– and we had underestimated the investment needed to make them good.

Personally, the process of making and sharing Gravy Train helped convince me that secrecy in game development is overrated. Having come from a corporate environment where complete silence to the outside world is the norm, I was initially reticent to share the details of Planck, its design strategies and its progress, fearing that someone might come along and steal our ideas or otherwise compromise our momentum. But the feedback we got proved far more valuable than any PR splash we might have gained by working in the dark.

In the next installment of Planckogenesis, I’ll talk about how we put what we learned from Gravy Train into our submission level, Mental Breakdown, and discuss where we intend to go from there.

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