Ludum Dare 29 – In the Black – Post Mortem

Ludum Dare 29 – In the Black – Post Mortem

Background

I had the distinct joy of participating in Ludum Dare 29 this past weekend! It was my 6th year doing so and I had a really great experience. The theme was Beneath the Surface and I made a game called In the Black–which ended up being very different from the kind of games I’ve made for Ludum Dare in the past.

In The Black - TitleI decided to go all out this time and setup a livestream of my development over on my Twitch TV channel. It was fun having different people stop by during the weekend and say hello and chat a bit. Plus, it helped make me more comfortable with being on camera–which I really don’t like all that much–it worked out pretty good! I also recorded a timelapse video of my development where I compressed 30+ hours of development down into minutes.

Since I have been pondering game design ideas involving stats and narrative recently, I knew I wanted to make a game that made use of something similar. These kinds of games are a new genre for me as a creator, but I’m mostly pleased with what I ended up with at the conclusion of the 48hr competition.

My BanjoOnce the theme Beneath the Surface was announced, I knew there would probably be a lot of games involving mining or digging. I wanted to do a game about mining as well, but take an approach that I felt would likely be fairly unique. I decided that the role the player would perform in my game would be managing a mine from afar through dialog choices, rather than have them actively going down into the mine. In fact, my game was going to display the action entirely in story.

I determined that the game would take place in a small mining town placed roughly in the old west. This would also fit well with me wanting to write a banjo tune or two for the game. I play clawhammer banjo and have wanted to feature some of my music in a game for a long while now. That worked out really well.

The premise of the game is that you have been sent out west by your boss to get the town’s failing mine operation back up and running profitably. You have 10 weeks to earn $10,000–or else! The fun of the game was designed to come from wrapping the simulation stats in narrative and choices. So, even though you are tweaking numbers to achieve a profitable balance, you’d feel more like you were making story based choices.

What Went Right

I had my game idea pretty early on. That is always a major benefit in a short competition timeframe like Ludum Dare. I was able to quickly create a design document that detailed a first pass on the stat system. Initially the game would track stats on three things, the mine, the workers, and the manager (the role of the player.)

In The BlackThe mine attributes were profit, danger level, and efficiency and the worker attributes were fear, happiness, and unrest. Lastly, the attributes of the manager were going to be greed, compassion, and ruthlessness. Each week of the game, the player would get to focus on a particular area to make their choices about how to manage the mine.

I was going to use either Flash or Unity or this game. They are both amazingly fast to prototype in. Largely my decision to go with Flash had to do with wanting to make everything from scratch for the competition. Old school style! The plugins I use a lot of in Unity are not free and I wanted to be able to provide the full source for my game, not a hobbled version. Using Flash solved this for me as I could create everything I needed.

Since the game was going to be mostly text, I knew I had a lot of time saved up that wouldn’t be used on art. That was going to be needed because I’m fairly slow at writing still and I labor over it.

The basic dialog system and main game flow were finished pretty quickly during the first full day. I knew how all the infrastructure would work. The tech was finished! Now I just needed to finish the design of the actual stats and how the player interacted with them.

With only 6 hours remaining in the competition, I was almost ready to admit defeat and throw in the towel. I can’t believe how close I came! I talked myself down though and compromised by taking a walk to get away from the computer. Even though I only walked for 30 minutes or so, and even though I felt I had no great epiphany during my walk, when I returned to my workspace I suddenly saw what I had to do in my mind’s eye. I came up with a brutal triage plan and changed the design by cutting almost half of the existing system out! This simplified and clarified things greatly and I was able to get the system coded and working well enough to actually play and balance it. Finally, I was on the right track!

As far as music goes, this was the easiest time I’ve ever had with the soundtrack on a Ludum Dare game. I’ve been playing banjo about eight years now or so and have never actually used any in one of my games. I play a lot though and it is almost always my own original instrumentals. I just love to compose tune after tune. All the time spent coming up with tunes on the fly made it fun to sit down near the end of the competition and create a tune I felt fit the old west town quite well. Here is a video of me playing the main soundtrack from the game just for fun!

What Went Wrong

As I mentioned above, nailing down the specifics of the actual gameplay stats proved incredibly challenging. As long as the stat design was foggy, I couldn’t effectively code what was supposed to happen. You need to understand the system you are trying to represent with cold hard logic after all! I was struggling with the scope of designing and balancing three areas (mines, workers, manager) that had three attributes each. Plus, I wasn’t certain as to how the attributes affected the other areas. I was worried that some of the stats were actually just inverses of the others rather than uniquely on their own axis.

In The BlackI got held up a long time by having profit be a stat. Initially I had wanted to make the game more abstract and so instead of tracking money and expenses (which yields profit) I attempt to track just a profit type variable. The problem with that became apparent for most of the prototype’s development. It just didn’t make sense in my head. I kept wanting to think of it as a usable number. It took me too long to realize I needed to change this.

I ran out of time on wrapping as much of the system in narrative. I wanted to further obscure the number in the game beneath well written dialog. I’m happy with what I managed to wrap with words, but I could have done much more.

I ran out of time to add more random events and flavor text based on game state. I really wanted to have a chance to incorporate more random events that provided choices for the player to respond. These events–and how the player handled them–would further shape the mine.

Conclusion

I’m very happy with the game I got out of this Ludum Dare. I also know that I came so close to quitting, yet somehow held on and turned it around into a game that was still very playable–even if it wasn’t my original full realization. It seems that people have been really positive about it so far too with the majority of the players being able to successfully complete it! It is also encouraging that the players have been really enjoying the music too!

Here is the Ludum Dare game page for voting and feedback. You can also play the game here on my website!

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