Okay -- 3, 2, 1: let's (game) jam!
(or how we made our first game in 48h and what we learned during this journey)
Hello, internet! We are Catscratcher Studio, and this is a story all about how our lives got twisted, turned upside down as we worked on our very first game ever!
During the past weekend (August 2nd through 4th), we took part in the GMTK Game Jam 2019, a jam hosted by Mark Brown from Game Maker's Toolkit. Every year, this jam proposes a design challenge. This time, the theme was only one - whatever the entrants took it to mean.
After 48h of a whole lot of headbutting and problem solving, we were able to finish our game: you are the only One. We would love it if you'd play it and leave us a note with your thoughts (and maybe even rate it for the jam?), but this post is actually all about sharing our process to get the game done and how we felt working on our first jam!
Who we are
Okay -- first, let me introduce ourselves!
We are Matheus and Samuel Sant'Anna, two brothers from Brazil who recently decided to make some games. And I really mean recently - we've been working on (what was supposed to be) our first game for only a couple of weeks. We decided to call ourselves Catscratcher Studio because we really love cats.
The way we divide the workload is:
Matheus handles all our pixel art and sound design.
Samuel handles coding and sound mixing.
And we handle game and level design together.
To be perfectly fair, this wasn't our first experience with making games.
Matheus (@mathsan on twitter) studies game design, has worked as a freelance pixel artist for a few years, and his college graduation project was the creation of an educational game prototype with his classmates (hello, Carol and Manu!) - and Samuel (@savsantanna on twitter) has also created a short game for college and is currently working as an assistant to a game design class. Still, this was the first time either of us created an actual, complete game from the ground up - and boy did we learn a lot during the weekend.
See, as I mentioned before, we only started working on our games a few weeks ago, and there are a lot of skills we haven't mastered yet. Programming is still very new for both of us, and we needed to figure out whatever we wanted to do as we went along, and even though Matheus has a few years of experience working as a pixel artist, he mostly worked as a character animator, so creating backgrounds and scenes is still something he struggles with to a degree. That meant we were going into the jam fully aware of our limitations, and with the ultimate goal of having fun, learning and being able to actually create a full project that would make us both proud - which, spoiler alert, did happen in ways we didn't really expect.
Dawn Of The First Day - 48h Remain
As August 2nd rolled in, we made sure to prepare everything we'd need to get through the jam. We updated all the programs we were going to use (Aseprite for our pixel art, GameMaker Studio 2 for our coding, Audacity and Bfxr for our sounds), we set up a Trello board with a broad stroke of everything we'd need to do during the jam (complete with time stamps for when we planned to have each goal accomplished), we prepped some snacks, and then we waited for the announcement of the theme. We've both been fans of the GMTK YouTube channel for years and we followed the last couple of jams as spectators, but now that we had started learning and working on our own games, we were very excited to enter the GMTK Jam, as participants this time around, and for this to be our first jam. Not gonna lie: we were nervous going in. We weren't sure if we were going to be able to come up with a good idea, to execute our idea, to make a cool game, to actually finish the game on time. We were excited and determined, but having no previous experience actually finishing games, we didn't know if we could actually make it. So we eagerly awaited for the jam to start...
And then the theme was announced.
We looked at each other with puzzling looks. The past themes had been more explicit in their challenges (building a game with dual purpose mechanics, and building a game of a certain genre without one of those genre's core mechanics), but this time around, it felt like the whole thing was very up to interpretations. What would we do with our "only one"?
We immediately started bouncing off ideas - and writing them all down on our Trello board so we could rank them and mix and match concepts until we found something that pleased us enough to pursue. We talked about creating a survival game in which certain substances would kill you and you had to pick the only right food to survive; a Papers, Please -inspired game in which you'd play as a mother who had to choose only one of her children to save (sorry); a war game in which you had to choose the right unit to send into each mission; a puzzle game in which you only had one chance to change the level and make a little ball hit its target... In most of our ideas, our focus was to find a concept the fit the jam's theme - both mechanically and narratively. We weren't very keen on making a game that had a single mechanic, but had no reason for it to work like that. Taking our army-management game as an example: why would you only be able to send a single troop to any mission? We wanted to come up with narrative reasons for that to happen, not just throw it around to fit the theme (which was another challenge we set to ourselves even though it could turn around to bite us in the ass). And then, after a lot of consideration, we finally settled on the game we would work on for the jam:
The Last Sanctuary, a top-down action game inspired by Pokémon and Hyper Light Drifter, in which you'd play as the only surviving member of a secret cult on a mission to take the only surviving member of a mystical, endangered species, to the last remaining Sanctuary where it could be safe. Our take was "what if Pokémon, but instead of catching them all, you needed to protect the last surviving Pokémon?" and we chose an old-school-Zelda gameplay - which turned out to be a lot more Hyper Light Drifter. Our player-character would need to survive the monster hunters using only one mechanic: a dash movement that could be enhanced by the divine beast in order to destroy their enemies, after you avoided them enough and picked up enough power-ups.
The game fit the theme both mechanically (as in having a single mechanic and being played by using a single mouse click) and narratively, so we were super pumped to make it work. We worked on the game for about ten hours - most main animations were done, as was the tileset we were using to build the levels.
But then we started to hit some bumps in production. As I mentioned earlier, we're still very new to making games, especially when it came to programming, and even though GameMaker as an engine makes everything way easier to accomplish, our lack of knowledge and experience still proved to complicate things, as what we wanted to do was hindered by what we were actually able to do in the short time we had. The game we wanted to build was supposed to be very juicy and dynamic, and with the dash being our only mechanic, we just had to get it right. It had to feel good to move, to dodge enemies and projectiles and to use the powered-up dash to defeat your foes, but after so many hours, it still didn't feel the way we wanted.
We also started to think the gameplay did not fit the concept as much as we initially thought. We began questioning "if we were developing this game without the theme constraint, would it still be a game with a single input and a single mechanic in the dash? And does the dash-only gameplay fit the 'saving an endangered mystical species' concept?". The answers were "no" to all of those questions, so we had a tough decision to make. The game didn't feel right, but we had already poured a bunch of hours into it and had all the levels mapped out. Should we keep pushing to try to make the dash work as well as we wanted, or do we scrap this and regroup tomorrow for an entirely new project, knowing we'd have something around 34h to make a game, instead of the original 48h? We went to bed with a mission: trying to find a way to salvage the work we had already done, or coming up with a new concept that would work better and would be doable with our current skills.
We did not get much sleep at all.
And we didn't come up with an answer either.
Dawn Of The Second Day - Electric Boogaloo
We woke up in the next morning, and our first words to each other were "did you come up with any ideas?"
We had gotten a few ideas, but nothing that felt good enough. We were talking about making the dash simpler, removing the power-up mechanic, making the player character able to walk instead of only being able to dash, we even considered turning the game into a platformer. But it didn't feel right. We worked on the game for another couple of hours to see if it felt salvageable, and it didn't. So we hit the brakes, grabbed some quick breakfast and talked it over.
We still wanted to make something that fit the theme narratively and mechanically. So what could we do?
Our first decision was to work on a platformer, since it was the genre we were most comfortable working with, having already made some previous tests for games we wanted to develop eventually.
What else could we do with the "only one" theme?
Well, we really liked our previous idea of playing as the only member of a group. But what would we be the last members of?
And then, we had an idea.
Switching It On
What if our game was actually about being the only One? As in binary and programming languages. As in "one means on and zero means off"? As the only One, we could build a game based in only one mechanic: being the only one able to turn things on.
It clicked. It made sense, both mechanically and narratively. We started coming up with ideas of what kinds of elements we could turn on in a platformer to create cool puzzles. We could make platforms move and find some interesting ways to use them, we could have light switches that would reveal parts of an all blacked-out level, we could power up some lasers to defeat the bad guys. In a few minutes, we already had a bunch of level ideas, and most of them felt like stuff we actually could pull off during the what? 30 hours we had left?
So we went to work over the next day. We knew time was against us because of our own mistakes, but we were determined to get it done.
We started with our main character, which would set the tone for the entire game. They started of looking more humanoid, sorta like a cute Steven Universe kid. We tried some different designs, like making him look like a super hero or a masked wrestler, and even though he *was* a very cute boy, it didn't set the mood we wanted. We started making him look more robotic, and even tried to actually make him shaped like a "1", but it still didn't feel right. So we went back to the drawing board and came up with our One - a tiny power-plug robot who wants to save the world from darkness by pluging into everything in sight! It was important to make them look cute and relatable, and to have some sort of indicatorof them being the One - which ended up defining most of the game's look.
We then moved to enemies - the Zeroes who wanted to turn our hero off. They had to follow the theme set by the One, so we chose red lights as the universal sith colors, gave them a round, zero-shape, and made them even shoot some little laser zeroes at our hero.
Meanwhile, Samuel started working on our core mechanics. The entire game depended on making the concept of switching things on, on command, so if we weren't able to make that work and feel nice, we would need to change our concept yet again. He handled all basic collisions and movements, and moved on to our first big test: the door switches. We wanted the door switches to be sort of the finish line of every puzzle room, and luckily, Sam was able to make the door work with little trouble, so we knew it was on and it was time to kick things up.
Next up on the art department, we had to create the tileset for the game. The vibe we wanted was that of a sci-fi, mechanical, underground base. Our first passes used a lot of lighter colors (like full on white walls), and even though it looked cute, it didn't fit the feeling of an evil base, so after much back and forth, we settled on the look we actually went for: dark and industrial, which went better with the whole "this is the only robot who can light up the darkness" thing.
The tileset was done. And then the tileset was done. And did I mention the tileset was done? Well, we had to update the tileset 20-something times, because wenever we started building levels, we'd discover there were some important tiles that we overlooked in our rush to get the game running! So many unhappy returns to that tileset file........
We then moved on to implementing some of our other big players. First up were enemies, bullet collisions and movable blocks. Those worked flawlessly, until we realized the blocks could block laser bullets, but the player wasn't able to step on top of them without glitching the game. This was just the first time setting up collisions properly would be a pain in our asses during this project, but we managed to make it work and even used movable blocks as stepping stones for one of our levels! Next, we tried implementing movable platforms, which again, took us a ton of time to get right because of those dang collisions. The platforms that moved vertically just weren't working because they kept our player object in a constant jump state, so it was impossible to make another jump away from the platform. So we cut our losses and kept only the platforms that were working as intended, which were the horizontal ones... Or so we thought, but at least back then, we thought everything was working out fine, and things felt under control even though we still had a lot to do!
We composed music and created some sound effects (you know, besides the sound effect of both of us screaming over the time running out soon). We wanted the game to sound retro - and upbeat, even though the world looked bleak.
We added some little juicy and thematically relevant elements - some screenshake for when you cleared a stage, and a soft lighting mechanic to emphasize the player was the only One who could bring up light, which then evolved into one of our puzzle mechanics.
Saturday ended and we had a good feeling. The skelleton of our game was ready and working. There were still a few mechanics we wanted to implement, and it felt like we would be able to finish the game with time to spare. So we thought "why don't we add even more features, and create a big boss battle in the end??? We can do it, right???"
It's The Final Countdown
Turns out we can't really do it, no. I'm not even talking about the entire hour we lost because our old computer decided to shut down and refused to turn back on (so fitting to our game, though). I'm once again talking about how we weren't experienced enough to know the true scope of what we were trying to do. We lost a few hours trying to add new types of platforms and laser beams and sliding doors that had to be timed by the player's switch-power, but we did not have enough time for that at all, so in the last couple of hours, we rushed to wrap up the project as best we could with what we had.
The big boss battle had to be swapped for a big, difficult level instead - not as difficult as we planned because we didn't have the levels that would introduce the mechanics we wanted to use. The boss was still used, but we didn't have time to add the Boss Battle Soundtrack we had prepared.
A bunch of levels had to be cut, because we weren't able to fine-tune them in time. One of our moving platforms shipped with a collision problem (sorry to everyone who got stuck on the side of our platforms in our last level! We thought it was fully working and we only found the bug after we had uploaded the game and it was too late). Our ending screen wasn't really finished but we added it to the game anyway because, well, the game needs to end. The first export was supposed to be browser-playable, but something went wrong and the resolution got messed up, so we had to quickly export it to Windows and add an input for closing the game. Our last couple of hours were chaotic as hell, but after all was said and done, we were able to finish the game!!
10 minutes late.
Luckily, Mark was kind enough to still accept it - and itch.io faced an enormous traffic so nobody was being able to upload their games on time anyway.
The marathon was over and we finally were able to feel - because up to that point, we were 100% on autopilot mode, just rushing to get the game ready on time. We didn't eat. We barely slept. There was no energy left in our bodies, but we only realized that after the jam was over and we tried to walk to the nearby coffee shop but our legs refused to carry us (yes I am being dramatic but also that's 100% what it felt like).
We felt super tired and somewhat disappointed at the things we wanted to do but weren't able to.
We felt really good.
Yeah, there were issues. There was a lot of frustration over not being able to accomplish some of our visions, and over losing precious time on things that had to be scrapped. But we still made it.
And heck, that's the best feeling. Our game may have been short and simple and buggy at times, but we made it. Do we want people to like our game and have fun with it? Yeah, that would be awesome! But mostly, we finished those 48h feeling like we had accomplished something. We went into a jam with serious time constraints and close to none previous experience, and we still were able to create a game we like and are proud of! We have a very charming little robot, a smooth difficulty curve, some cool ideas and challenges, a cool setting that makes sense and fits the jam's theme. We were faced with 48h of issues to overcome, and sure, we weren't able to overcome all of them, but in the end, we still got through our first jam feeling proud of ourselves. We learned a lot, we had a ton of fun, and we made it. That's all we could've hoped for!
So yeah. That's the story of how we made our first child. you are the only One will now be forever in our hearts! We truly hope you give it a chance and (hopefully) have as fun playing it as we had making it!
Some Final Notes (We're Still Tired)
I know that's always the number one tip, but our biggest takeaway from the jam was to KEEP IT SIMPLE. If we had focused on a simple mechanic instead of planning entire complex dungeons with challenging boss fights, we probably wouldn't have lost so much time.
The second best tip we take away from it was to LEARN TO PRIORITIZE. Even if something feels important and like it wouldn't take much time, if there's anything more important you could be doing with that time, do the more important thing instead. There's no use in having super polished details if the bigger picture does not work.
Also, it's very important to get some sleep and actually eat your meals. Having snacks on the table doesn't help at all if you don't actually eat them, and trust me, you'll need the energy.
Another great thing we took from this experience was the gigantic number of talented game designers that are out there. A single theme was able to prompt so many cool ideas, and you really get to see how different voices can building unique things out of the very same building blocks! We're trying our best to check as many games from the jam as we can, but so far, we've been blown away by the fact were able to play a game about having a single spear to hunt some kebabs or a super cool game of jumping puzzles that require thinking and precision. It was also amazing to be able to get feedback from those same talented designers - we're already changing how the camera behaves in a few levels of our game because the comments made us realize a simple change could make some of our puzzles a lot more enjoyable!
But, most of all, what we took from the experience was how fun and fulfilling it is to actually finish projects, especially projects you are proud of. We learned a lot about our limits, and about how to push them. We didn't even know how to do most of the stuff we actually ended up doing, so the Jam served as a pretty good learning experience as we needed to figure out how to accomplish our design goals.
This experience was fun as heck, and we come out of it very excited to participate in new jams in the future, to update you are the only One into a full game, complete with proper collisions and all the puzzles and mechanics we wanted to build but weren't able to - and to develop some of our personal projects in the meantime!
Which, you know. We are also very excited about.
Thanks for reading this far, and we hope to see you again soon!
Get you are the only One
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