Cube & Star: An Arbitrary Postmortem - Part 2.

The importance of contests and exhibitionism: It's Part Two of the subjective post-mortem of Cube & Star: An Arbitrary Love. Developed in Unity, by a single man, and his crippling sense of doubt. Winner of Intel LevelUp and IndieCade finalist

The Story Thus Far

Read Part One here.

Cube & Star: A Love Story began development in March 2013.

It was currently May 2013. The game was in a weak alpha state.


I'm a confident guy. I'm headstrong. I border on being obnoxious, by some translations.

But when it comes to going public with my games - particularly games that are so experimental, I'm extremely hesitant.

By this stage - Cube & Star had been in casual development for around two months.

It was April, 2013. Game contests were open for submission.

@TheDopplerDuck pushed me to enter a few contests. I was hesitant, but she was persistent.

This was the turning point. A cascade of things happened after this moment.

The Big Move

I was living in Sydney, Australia at this time; working from home in relative poverty.

It was a weekday afternoon - treading figurative water in that classic Australian heat and silence and depression.

At this stage I received the first call that would trigger a fundamental shift in our lives.

I had won the QANTAS "Spirit of Youth" award for "Interactive and Gaming".

The "youth" aspect was funny - I felt like I was twenty-nine years-old going on sixty. But I was excited. I had never really won anything before.

The winner was publicly announced, I was happy - and I received a message from the Los Angeles wing of an Australian company - SOAP Creative.

They liked my style, they liked my work - and they wanted me to move to Los Angeles.

And so... we relocated to sunny California.

Cube & Star: A Love Story - the trailer that was the source of so much contention.

Serving Two Masters

There is a distinct danger in having a day-job that you enjoy. There's a tendency toward contentment. And I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy.

But I was attempting to live the dream - working a day-job I loved and working on my own projects at home.

Cube & Star had stalled at a weak alpha state, having been submitted to a few contests and having been interrupted by the move.

And again - a call came through. I had won the Intel LevelUp Contest for Best "Other" Game.

The "Other" aspect was hilarious. I really enjoyed that tag. Cube & Star was an obscure little thing. It could be argued that it was (and remains) barely a game at all.

And so - we went to PAX Prime to show Cube & Star at the Intel booth.

Real people playing a real game.
It blows my mind and causes me intense spiritual consternation to see people playing my game in real life. So flattered. So ... anxious.

Intel LevelUp

Intel LevelUp deserves its own subheading.

It was a massively valuable experience.

I can't emphasise it enough.

Showing at PAX Prime was a huge opportunity for bedroom-developers like ourselves.

Watching people play the game was intense. It wasn't a game I was 100% confident with. It hadn't yet bloomed and fully hit that resonant note. It was still very much a prototype.

Still - the response was largely positive. It was a hard game to show; slow-paced, relaxing and mellow.

But the trance-like nature seemed to resonate with a few people, and it was nice to have a theory validated in person.

We got the opportunity to meet representatives from the big consoles, and signed up to their respective developer programs.

And then - on the back of this, we were offered Steam distribution.

Our weak alpha was labelled a "demo" and uploaded to Steam as part of the contest guidelines.

At the time this was huge.

Greenlight was still the ever-present guardian of the platform.

The Demo Conundrum

And thus we were presented with a problem:

Cube & Star was functionally complete, in line with my original vision. It was simple, it was colorful, you collected things and explored.

The Cube & Star Demo as at PAX Prime
A flat land in a flat world. Cube & Star: A Love Story as a "demo" on Steam. 
Worlds away from its final manifestation.

But it was labelled a "demo" on Steam.

We needed to somehow force it to grow beyond the original vision - enough to classify it as a full game.

Freedom Paralysis

There's a real danger to having too much freedom. The scope of possibilities is too broad to be able to rationally visualize.

Cube & Star entered a four month period of stasis, nothing changed. Things were added, they were removed - nothing really worked.

The game was too abstract, too zen and my original vision was still tainting my decision-making process.

I had toyed with the concept of pursuing the AI aspect and adding genetic algorithms for critters or making their behavior dependent on world color and state.

I considered pushing the "painting" metaphor and adding flood-fill capabilities.

I thought about adding levels and puzzles - impenetrable areas of brambles that required the user to combine colors to summon critters that would eat brambles.

But nothing really tasted coherent. It felt a bit like an add-on.

I was in a weird state of crisis and lack of cohesive vision.

At this stage - I was informed that Cube & Star: A Love Story was nominated as an Indiecade finalist.

Revisiting the Narrative

I had lost my way, narrative-wise.

I was toying with framing the entire world system as the analogy for a human brain. Color sets emotion and action, with a relevant conclusion: "You were angry. You died angry".

I considered a "deconstruct the world" twist. Paint the world beautifully - then deconstruct the entire thing.

Perhaps summon a plague of beneathers. Whatever they might be. Give the world an ancient and dark history in the Hieronymous Bosch style.

I really had no idea. I was thinking too hard. Things had become too complex.


Cube & Star was in a grim state before Indiecade - full of half-finished additions and turmoil.

I rolled back development to the Steam demo build and we set up our table at the festival.

It was an interesting affair. The Indiecade audience is so different from the PAX Prime audience.

At PAX Prime, it seemed like the audience had a target-oriented mindset.

Find that thing that you like, play it, repeat.

At Indiecade, the mood was more exploratory. The audience seemed to be seeking out new experiences.

Both are valid. I understand it - I went straight to the Behemoth booth at PAX, and then swung by Elder Scrolls Online.

Indiecade turned out to be more fruitful for Cube & Star, as a game.

It's odd. It's ... abstract to the point of being obscure.

But the audience seemed to respond positively to it.

One of the more interesting gameplay tendencies we observed: Players would hesitate to leave the opening grassy zone, as if the greyscale tiles were harmful.

I thought that was interesting. A little... color-psychology.

Hearing John and Brenda Romero read out the game's nomination at the Award night was a singular thrill.

The Grind

You know it, I know it, we've heard it a thousand times: The last 10% of a game's development is 90% of the effort.

I cringe writing it - it's almost become cliche.

But there I was.

It was approaching December, 2013.

I was on deadline at my rent-paying job. I was not inspired.

I was fortunate enough to have a few weeks off over the holidays. I allocated that time as the "Finish Cube & Star era".

And I sat there... and stared at the game... and just had absolutely no idea where to take it.

The Invigorator, The Spindle

It's pretty rare for a project to follow a straight trajectory of A-to-B.

Development mostly seems to follow a winding path - taking little side-streets, stopping to engage in distractions.

It's both the greatest perk and greatest danger of being independent.

We have the freedom to explore.

The distraction that re-invigorated Cube & Star was a superficial thing:

@TheDopplerDuck had been working on a side-project of her own, and I proposed that we curve the world in her game, much like Animal Crossing appeared to be.

I really enjoy technical challenges. Much more than design tasks. It's one of my greatest flaws as a game developer.

I will program systems just for the joy of programming systems - potentially to the detriment of the game itself.

I put together an algorithm that would take a 3D object, a pivot point, and a radius, and curve the object (deforming the mesh itself) around that pivot.

The net result is a world spread out over the surface of a sphere or cylinder.

Cube & Star wrapped around a sphere
Life on the spindle is bizarre. The fear of falling is ever-present.

It looked good! It had an almost surreal vibe to it.

So I thought...

Given that I have precious little time left to complete Cube & Star, and how a superficial feature like this would clearly not save the game....

Why not implement it anyway?

Life is short. Chase the thrill.

And so I stretched the Cube & Star world over a sphere.

And the joy of working on the game in-depth again, and the myriad little bugs I fixed or things I tweaked while testing, all combined to pull me back into development.

And thus the final months of development began.

Cube & Star: Life on the spindle
The joy of gifs, the joy of spheres.

Next Up:

What makes a demo a demo? What makes a game a game? Adding those final features to Cube & Star: A Love Story to elevate it from its "weak alpha" roots.

Things get really interesting, in my mind. Maybe they'll be interesting to yours, too?

Stay tuned!

-Joshua McGrath

Read Part Three Here

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