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Dual development for Switch and PC/Mac - Post Mortem of a 2D platform game sequel
Published 3 months ago
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Loot Monkey: Bling Palace is the sequel to Loot Monkey and was planned to be bigger and better than before, as well as ported/developed for the Switch at the same time as desktop release.

Project Info

With the idea of a sequel in mind I applied to Nintendo for access to their development tools and website. As part of the application I included links and information about the then current Loot Monkey, as well as the plans for the sequel and a rough idea of scope and a general timeline. I was as open and honest about the project as I was about myself and my situation.
I can't tell you why they said yes (I doubt they will ever tell me) but if I had to guess I would say that it's because I had already completed a similar game, I was intent on developing a game for desktops, and because that determination came across well when applying.
So before I had begun to flesh out the Bling Palace I had access to Nintendo's fun stuff. I ordered a test Switch device from Germany and got the environment up and running on Windows 8 (in a virtualised environment on a Mac and yes it's not just possible but fully working).

Timeline milestones (simplified)

  • 1st Month - thinking, art, Switch Dev environment
  • 2nd Month - levels, testing, EGX Rezzed
  • 3rd Month - levels, testing, Intel Buzz Workshop
  • 4th Month - testing and LotCheck submission
  • 5th Month - re-submission and dual-platform release

Tech used

  • Unity 2017 C# (versatile, flexible, beautiful, brilliant)
  • Photoshop/Illustrator (other image programs are available but they are crap)
  • Audacity (great audio tool and free)
  • Garageband (great for loop based music and free)
  • SXFR (sound effects galore and free)
  • Parallels (because I'm on Mac)

What went well

Concept

The concept of the Bling Palace was simple, structured and suitably absurd. Once I had committed to the idea of an excessive over-the-top environment it was almost frictionless to realise that through all the elements. I was glad that I stopped at the concept stage before coding or drawing or working on anything so that I had a strong idea and solid plan. (Thank you Lewis).

Level Design

Instead of a rambling - sorry, organic - map design the palace was sectioned off into wings, each with it's own style and set of themed rooms. Despite the number of rooms being double that of the first Loot Monkey creating and testing these rooms was even easier and more fun that before. I spent a lot of the development time flipping between photoshop and Unity to test the rooms as they were created. (I used the same sprite-map design technique as before, slightly refined). I also made the rooms near the start and on the central axis easier with harder rooms towards to the back the palace, to ease in players (and yet some people claim it's too hard, even so-called hardcore players).

Sequel Improvements

I was able to clean up and improvement the collision of the monkey as well as add new tiles, new surfaces and new enemies. Following feedback at EGZ Rezzed and the Buzz Workshop I added other improvements including the zoom mode, overlay info, and overall sprite clarity (more contrast and outlines, basically). I also added more spoken samples and several helpful UI elements for the player to see their high score, last score, entry point and so on.

Dual development

Developing on a Mac with regular builds on the virtualised Windows 8 (for the Switch) meant I had the best of both worlds, with the advantage of a backup of the virtualised environment when it went wrong (of course it did, it's fucking Windows).
The first and only really tense moment was just after I got the development Switch model and built a really early build of the game with just a couple of rooms. I had read nightmare stories of games not even getting to the title screen and for a moment I feared the same. But it did get there (the pause was all the crapola loading and initialising on first launch) and played as well. Woo hoo!
I am pleasantly surprised how building for the Switch in Unity was as almost easy as building for desktop in Unity, save a couple of niggles towards the end when submitting to the Nintendo Elves for LotCheck. One of the small traps I fell into were not coding the correct #IF statements for the Switch and changing all the auto-initializing classes for the Switch and making them platform specific (initializing on correct #IF). I don't know if this was my mistake or something I'm meant to do but it worked for me. Why do this? Because it means that to go from Mac to Virtual PC all I had to do was drag the Assets and Settings folders (but NOT player setting) across, launch Unity, waiting for Library folder to be rebuilt and that's it. The player setting on the Virtual PC was set once AND LEFT ALONE because it contained the necessary technical details for the Switch (such as AppID which is required for the build to actually run on the Switch, even if it's a fake one).
I had thought that I would have to develop for desktop and then port but dual development worked and it worked well, providing a smooth workflow and valuable testing and feedback on my game. I was worried that developing for different platforms (and therefore different screen sizes) would be difficult but it actually helped a lot when making design choices - making Loot Monkey: Bling Palace consistent across different platforms was initially scary but turned out to be a plus point and easy to do; the LotCheck procedure forced me to amend a couple of things which meant desktop users would get the same experience straight away as Switch users by dual-launching too.
If anything was a problem it was developing through Windows, because it's Windows, and because Windows is a hundredth-rate bastard-coded pile of poo masquerading as a fit-for-purpose operating system. Why Nintendo didn't release tools for the Mac is beyond me.

EGX Rezzed and Buzz Workshop

Attending both EGX Rezzed and the Intel Buzz Workshop was great for feedback, discussions about all types of games, and a chance to spend all day being around like-minded people. I went without expectations to both events and spoke honestly about my game and made lots of notes from press and devs, as well as from the other games and events at the venues.
I was only one of a very small number of people who went with a game to play on the Switch and this was multi-positive in that the many people who still don't have one got to try it and my game is ideally suited to it (many people said so). It was a mild negative though because when you're trying to get attention a really large monitor never really fails when compared to a hand-held device. That and obnoxiously loud music (from select selfish devs - no names - there should be a rule that it's no speakers, all headphones, no exceptions, for fairness to other devs and for sanity to those attending all day long suffering with your samey, crunchy, bassy sound effects).

What went ok

Marketing

Releasing on desktop and Switch at the same time was a blessing because of the attention the Switch still gets and a small frustration because of the unpredictable and indeterminate delay the LotCheck took (along with creating and approving the store fronts on Nintendo). The Nintendo Elves were kind and thorough and patient and answered all my galactically-stupid questions and without them I think the 4-ish weeks to get approved would have been 4 months. I went through the LotCheck AND marketing materials process for Nintendo stumbling almost every time, mostly righting myself but losing ground in terms of getting the message out and staying organised throughout.
In some respects I should have created some marketing sooner and begun publicity once Loot Monkey: Bling Palace was in LotCheck, regardless of waiting for approval and settling on a launch date. Waiting for an actual date, as I did, was worse than what actually happened, which in the two weeks before launch felt like a minor firefight. Entirely my fault and lesson learnt although it was far from disaster.

Nintendo Support

The Nintendo Elves are beautiful, majestic creatures that work odd hours and must put up with a lot of fools, like me.
BUT…
From the moment I got access to the Nintendo tools I felt like a small boy that had been let into the big mens' club and not given much advice or guidance on where to go or what to do. There is an assumption I felt from Nintendo that either know what you are doing (i.e. you are familiar with BIG NAME tools and how they structure themselves) or that you are extremely savvy (bordering on savant) to workout what's going on quickly and easily.
Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of manuals and forums and people to ask for help.
What there is currently lacking is a focus on the entire process. It's broken down into lots of very small processes that don't appear to join together very well. I understand why this is the case (because there are many ways to develop for Switch and not all parts of all the processes are required depending on the nature and development environment of your game) and yet there can still be an an over-arching approach that can help with orientation, which at the time didn't exist.
At any given stage I almost always felt dis-orientated, bombarded with strange techy abbreviations and Japanese and legalese, spoken to as though I have intimate knowledge of what blah-blah is and how it relates to foo-bar in the flub-flub procedure. In some respects it was as though I was expecting a driving lesson and yet instead of being handed a driving manual I was given an essay on the evolution of the physics of the combustion engine. Relevant? Erm, hardly. Useful as guide on the process to getting to public release (including filling out the correct forms, marketing material, registration certificates etc)? Not al all.
Luckily the Nintendo Elves were on hand. As were the very friendly and level-headed Forum Elves who understand that as devs we just want to get our game made without plowing through hundreds of online manuals just to find the exact Axis Input name for all the controls on the Switch (seriously, the Elf who made that information highly accessible deserves an award and the person at Nintendo who didn't think that Axis Inputs are crucial information when developing for Switch on Unity needs a slap with a heavy, slimy fish).
The biggest take aways from developing for the Switch is this: ignore all manuals, look on the forums, and asking for help is the normal. There is a better way, I'm sure of it, but I don't feel experienced enough to confidently propose one, yet. And would Nintendo listen anyway, given their rigid organisation of development material along technical lines that have apparently near-nothing to do with actual game-dev workflow?

What went badly

Release Timing

Oh dear. I need a hug.
  • I launched my game right near the start of the Nintendo Switch summer sale.
  • I launched my game toxically close to a game in a darling, critically-adored genre that all games media never shut up talking about whenever a game in this genre is released.
  • I launched my game in early August to avoid a so-called September surge that *should* occur when students return to study and autumn stuff begins.
  • I launched my game to get it out there as soon as possible.
  • I launched my game before attending another event where I could publicise the fact that I has passed LotCheck.
  • I launched my game without pushing all the latest publicity material on the same day, at the same hour.
  • I launched my game and didn't follow up on all the contacts enthusiastically enough in that first week.
Let's break this down a bit...no, wait, let's not. It's as naked as it can be that I fucked up with the timing of the launch. It almost warrants a grotty brown plaque outside my home with an image of a busted clock on it.
Oh dear. I need a hug. And marketing lessons.

Conclusion

I did it - developed a sequel, for desktop and Switch at the same time.
My Chief Programming Consultant is as happy as I am and keeps fighting the local cats to celebrate, in between lengthy cat naps and cat-treat binges. I bought a new SLR camera as a treat (for me).
Thank you for your time.

Future

Onwards to the next game, BombFall.
www.bombfallgame.com

Links

tackorama.itch.io/
Nintendo US
Nintendo EU
www.lootmonkeygame.com
www.tackorama.co.uk

Philip Dodd
Mr - Designer
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