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Third 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

December 15, 2009

4 Min Read

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

In the last installment, I described our first attempt at a complete experience constructed from the musical gameplay mechanics that we had developed. Finishing the Gravy Train level took Planck v.0 out of theory and into practice, allowing us to gather useful feedback from our friends and colleagues.

However, Gravy Train was not what we submitted to the Independent Games Festival, and in fact we came close to making no submission at all. As the IGF’s November 1st 2009 entry deadline drew closer, we found ourselves constantly coming up against our technical framework’s shortcomings again and again in our desire to create complex, rewarding musical gameplay.

Scripting enemy entrance patterns was cumbersome and difficult to iterate upon. We couldn’t get as granular as we wanted in the fragments of sound that comprised the music, and the number of sprites and particles we wanted to push was bogging down performance.

Because these limitations were looming so large in our minds, we briefly entertained the rather drastic idea of skipping the competition altogether while we rebooted the project from scratch. The choice between committing to making what you have work versus abandoning it to start over again is not uncommon video game development, and it’s often a difficult decision: sometimes a team will reinvent the wheel for no tangible benefit, while other times people stick with what they know to the detriment of the final product.

Ultimately, encouraged by fellow independent developer Scott Macmillan of MacGuffin Games, we decided to make the push to get a new level based on Chad’s latest track, Mental Breakdown, ready in time for the entry. We all agreed that the game had a spark of fun at its core, and though we knew our weaknesses, we ultimately came to believe that those should not prevent us from sharing the game as it stood.

In Mental Breakdown, we ditched the boss battle and set our sights on simply achieving gameplay smoothly tied to the music of this upbeat dance track. We tried to address a negative feedback loop that can occur if the player dies too frequently by adding special enemies that allow the player to earn back weapons that were previously lost.

We also added messages to communicate when the player gained and lost weapons and musical elements, and made a wide-ranging push towards getting the art to feel coherent. As often seems to happen with game development, we came down to the wire trying to make the games as good as it could be before the deadline. Finally, after some last-minute grappling with a couple technical snags, our submission build was done and off to the judges.

A key lesson of this effort was that while we had solid ideas and mechanics to start with, our work in implementation– the part that turns a good idea into a good game– was only just beginning. As id Software’s John Carmack posted to Slashdot very close to eight years ago, in early 2002:

“The real value in design is the give and take during implementation and testing. It isn’t the couple dozen decisions made at the start, it is the thousands of little decisions made as the product is being brought to life, and constantly modified as things evolve around it.”

After we wrapped up Planck v.0, we made the decision not to continue down the technological path we originally chose. While it had allowed us to get up and running quickly and play with the building blocks of music and shooters, we just couldn’t see it getting us to where we wanted to take our game. Resetting the project will mean more time spent in development, but it also sets us up to apply everything we learned from our first stab into the new effort, which we are naturally calling Planck v.1

Thus the adventure continues. I’ll be back in the new year to chronicle our further adventures in making Planck. In addition to these in-depth articles, we’ve also set up a shared Twitter account @planckdevteam for brief status updates– please feel free to ask us questions there! 

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