Usually I make doodles as a living (It says graphic designer on my resume), or comic-strips which are basically longer doodles, or animated shorts which are longer comic-strips. I work mainly from home so my routine of ever finicky craftwork can feel a bit tedious sometimes. (But my stories are short to read I swear. Here’s my comic-book and Tumblr.) So recently, I somehow convinced myself I should try making games "for a change".
I first thought about it while sweeping cereals from my kitchen floor: “Someone should totally mix curling and connect-four”. Then at lunch I thought “Hey, I guess I could do that”, then I booted Unity and pressed buttons and made the game and looked at the time and half a year had passed and I had spiders in my hair.
But still, I’m pleased with the result: it’s a freestyle curling game for two players, with a cute ice rink and coloured stones and a pet crocodile and I called it Cuckoo Curling. I made an Itchio page so everyone can download it at this address and play it on their computers.
I had always wanted to make a game, so I would say it was totally worth the cat-on-drugs struggle.
“Should be a piece of cake.”
I had this simple plan: a day of concept art, another of prototyping, a day or two of 3d animation, some beep-boop sounds then a bit of polish and voila: a simple, humble little game.
I doodled a small mockup image, and added a crocodile in the corner because crocodiles are cool.
I was pleased with my plan, I even remember tweeting:
Yes. Yes, I know.
And by Sunday, it looked like this:
Maybe I needed more time. My week off was over but I thought I’d cram game development between comics, housework, freelance gigs and constant care for my cat who became addicted to expensive biscuits. (it says “for picky appetites” on the bag but then your cat won’t eat anything else ever, it’s a trap don’t buy it.)
After two weeks I totally forgot I had a game to do.
I thought about it again while sweeping the floor again then decided on weekly goals. I’d have one part of the game done by every Sunday. Starting with layout, then coding, then shading, then animation then sound and so on.
So it meant the game would be done in 7 or 8 weeks, more like a middle-sized project. I could finish it at my own pace now, which was a relief because the cat was really in a hard place at the time, suffering from withdrawal symptoms and miaowing and scratching all over the place which made focusing difficult.
By the first Sunday I was really pleased as I had everything in place in my 3d scene.
My plan worked really well until coding -week 2- when I figured a 9 feet crocodile can’t turn on a 2 feet wide lane and had to relayout. Then I optimistically carried on, but immediately had to recode the playing grid the next week when i wanted to use other colours than primary blue and red, and incidentally understood that separating development tasks is a bad idea.
I talked about it with my vet who introduced me to the concept of iterative design and prescribed pills for the cat.
I came back home hardly taking in the ordeal to come : prototype hell and cat pill-feeding.
“It’s almost done”
So here I was, two months of development in with a nice 3d scene and a serious street credibility problem.
Usually when my brother visits, he looks at the screen, says “cool “, then “wanna go outside play ball ?” Or skate. Or hike or move heavy things around.I try to produce enough nice images to keep him entertained but it’s incredible how well games manage to hide the work you put in them.
(I stared at this for 4 months)
What I learned is that iterative design is in fact a fancy name for trial and error. It’s about aiming for the lowest expectation you can have for your game and fail at it, then lowering it again until it works, then clambering your way back up if you can.
In my case it meant remake the grid algorithm, as well as the stone launching, score keeping , crocodile and crowd animation triggers several times so that crowd guy #2 stopped throwing paper planes through the user interface for example. Or that a badly timed crocodile meal wouldn’t keep you from playing for 30 seconds.
You don’t make things really, you just de-make and remake perpetually, thinking “I’m almost there” all along.
After 5 weeks of the picture on the screen not changing, it was becoming really hard to convince my brother that I had to work rather than being dragged into a muddy field.
Even when people on the phone asked how the game was going I was putting it poorly: “Good! I took another part out today! There’s almost nothing left standing so I’m doing pretty fine I guess! ” And I was sincerely happy, taking my game appart like a loves-me-daisy.
Meanwhile on the feline front it was not much better sadly, as the cat had become delirious from the pills and would prey on my toes, mistaking them for cocktail sausages. At least it was no longer luxury biscuits so there was improvement.
Now here’s the funny part: making prototypes doesn’t just freeze your game on spot. It rather progressively replaces it with placeholder art and blocky gizmos until the game’s problems are sorted out but it looks utterly dull and ugly.
Which meant even more development time, cat attacks and muddy fields ahead.
I took my calendar and cautiously freed another month or two.
I was a bit worried when I called Riko, who agreed to compose the game’s music when I started, because I had left him without news all this time and I was a bit afraid he would no longer recognize me from the white hair or the cat scratches.
Thankfully he was still interested in the game and played the last prototype for a full two minutes. “ Cool screen! Should I start making music?” he asked. We skipped feedback and he began composing.
What was difficult at that point is that even if the game finally worked, I had remade the same things for so long I had lost the point of everything.
Professionals say that the essence of this last stretch of development is to put the freshness and fun of the original idea back into the working game, so I did my best making everything pretty and jolly and fun by pouring what remained of my empty soul in.
After those long 5 months, my friends acting play-testers would say “Hey it looks like you should widen the crocodile lane a bit more” and I would silently nod with my tears.
I did all of the polishing in a mental fog, sticking to the idea of a game I had in another life. I was focusing on one only thing: the light at the end of this forever lasting tunnel of game dev and cat-rehab.
I didn’t mind the biting and clawing anymore, I just wanted it to end. I would grapple the cat every morning and say “Come on Albus, drink the drug. We really need to get out of the cave now” and look at the poor beast whine and rave.
This was surely the most testing time of development.
Still, a month later, when the last texture had been touched up and the last sound effect had been fit in, the game was made.
Riko’s music suited great, stones launched, crowd cheered and crocodiles munched away and cat was eating regular biscuits again.
All was well.
I could finally take my ski socks off and upload my game for everyone to play.
Game projects and cats on drugs, turns out, are very much alike: needy, hairy and most of the time dysfunctional.
But I’ll stand as living proof: with much perseverance and antiseptic, home game development, like cat-rehab, is achievable.
PS: check Riko’s soundcloud page, so much music! : https://soundcloud.com/ericjeanne
PS2: follow me on Twitter, I post coloured pictures! : https://twitter.com/Chromacool