How small changes can radically change tone and direction
From humble beginnings…
Step into the shoes of Vic and his explosive furry sidekick Flint as they blast, dodge and run their way across the floating islands of the Skylands to free the Boomie eggs from the clutches of the Evil Mole Empire. That is the story set up for Boomie Blast, a 3D arcade blaster developed by us at TreasureHunt, a game development studio consisting of 18 team members.
While we have team members coming from EA, Zynga, Rovio, Kabam among others, Boomie Blast represents not only our first entry as TreasureHunt, it also represents the production values we want to convey about what kind of developer we want to be. The core philosophy being that we strive towards building games with the high production quality of Triple A games but for mobile and with an appeal to all audiences.
The idea to put Boomie Blast on a series of floating islands, each populated with its own puzzles and enemies has (and forgive my pun) floated around since the very early days, when restaurant napkins served as whiteboards. We were heavily influenced by the design and artistic direction of classic arcade titles like Super Mario Brothers, which played a key benchmark to strive towards in building our game. But with the demands of production milestones to reach, we placed such ideas on the backburner and our levels and our map initially became more grounded in nature.
While serviceable At the start, and as far as we were concerned, the levels and map were there simply because they needed to be there. Thematically at this point, the levels all tied together as Vic & Flint travelled across a series of wide jungle island valleys in Rumble Reef rescuing Boomie Eggs. However, unintentionally no matter how different individual levels were, they were all bordered by the same jungle background and reduced the individuality of each level in our view. Certainly in many cases in other video games such a style could make sense but for us it hindered our ability to visually express the player experience of reaching new levels, difficulty and progress.
It was this nagging feeling of incompleteness that led one of our art designers on a whim one weekend to render a new in-game background. Based on our original idea of each level being its own self contained island in the sky with many other floating lands in the background.
The reception by our team on the subsequent Monday (and from the public later on) was overwhelmingly positive.
To Great Things
It was a fundamental shift in visuals as now we were able to present the individuality of each level. Now there’s blue sky, clouds and even other unique islands in the background. What was a relatively simple change work-wise, it managed to introduce to the game perspective, scale and a feel of upward level progression which was visually more appealing while doubling down on the presentation of our arcade retro classics inspired theme. Players could see they were part of a larger moving world which goes hand in hand to our fast paced gameplay.
With TreasureHunt team’s support, the art and dev teams set about the work needed to make this ready for global game launch. Our game at that stage had 150 levels and all would require different background updates. Our level progression map and marketing copy on the home screen would also need to be updated to reflect the new aerial nature of our game world. We would also need to do QA testing to make sure everything doesn’t break.
And it so happened, this all occurred about 2 months before the game was supposed to be released.
Sprinting to the Finish
We could conjure a story of super human endurance and hard work ethic as we managed to push through our changes right down to the milestone date. But in reality, the making of the new level backgrounds was easier to do than ever before the Rumble Reef theme. In the old backgrounds, we were manually building each level so every tree, rock and bush was planted ‘by hand’. For our new backgrounds, we built several different islands and generated variations of backgrounds based on these islands floating into different areas. And since most of the background was blue sky we were able to create and update all levels quite easily.
All this also had an additional positive performance impact. While being able to create new levels much quicker from there on (very important for us rolling out new content), we had the ‘perfect storm’ of while improving the visual experience of the game, we had significantly improved the game performance (important because Boomie Blast was designed with graphics running at a demanding 60 fps performance). This happened because we were able to reuse a pool of assets to populate the background instead of individual backgrounds, which in addition to all of the above, also made the game file size a little bit smaller.
Settling on the final name of ‘The Skylands’ was easy enough. It projected an aerial based geographical view with multiple “locations” and it doesn’t hurt the fact that Skylanders is an incredibly popular game with similar audience appeal. Replacing marketing text that referred to our previous land “Rumble Reef” was easy to do, but it was a chore to try surprisingly hard work to retroactively go over all the marketing copy, websites, ads and descriptions one had to update for launch. If there is one important thing we learned very quickly was to keep a consistent message and a detailed list of where and what texts and assets were used. Nothing ruins brand image a good storyline like inconsistency.
The level progression map took more effort to build but we experienced similar benefits here too. Since we now had standardized cubes of floating islands and the sky covered much of the general background, the art team could spend more time customizing each island instead. So that players get the This created the sense that players were advancing in the game both physically and challenge wise, while also hopping between new and unique islands.
Boomie Blast Level Progression Map (Before and After)
Unity Engine gave us the flexibility and speed we needed to iterate quickly as a team. Specifically the intuitive tools, options and development pipelines allowed the team to push for for high quality visuals and designs to be implemented in quick succession. Without it, we could not have made such major changes in as little time as we had.
Okay so What?
Building out a game world is no small feat of imagination or technical implementation. But as we saw, changing something seemingly small and indirect can produce a shift in tone and perspective that can add a lot of depth to your game without the need for exposition, dialogue or radical changes to the game design. For our art team it gave them more creative options on each individual level as well as greater ease in making new future levels. For our players the floating islands changed the way the background interacts with players. From placeholders to a display of the fun and exciting levels that came before it - and the promise of more challenges along the way up.
Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed this article and if you’re interested please check out our game at https://itunes.apple.com/au/app/boomie-blast/id988407268?mt=8