How We Built a Game in 48 Hours And Won A Game Jam
Today I'm happy to write about something fun - how I and a couple of colleagues made a game during our first Snapshot Game Jam and won pretty much all categories!
Before we begin, I strongly advise you to just check the game out. It's just a 33MB download on Itch.io, will take you about 5 minutes to play, and give you all the context you'll need to follow along.
Let's take a page out of Tolkien's book... literally!
Too lazy to do that? Here's the TLDR:
You’ve been a mediocre author your entire life. The ridicule, the rejection letters… it was all supposed to change today. But suddenly, you dropped dead on your desk. They say the spirit haunts this earth until his work is finished. Your magnum opus is almost complete. You have one night. One last re-write. Make it count.
Death of the Author is a dark and humorous game in which you take the role of a dead author. You couldn't quite finish your magnum opus, but the manuscript won't be discovered until the morning. Use this time to talk to the spirits of great writers and take their advice. When the night is over, the world will read your book and in turn, you will read a review in the press. Did you impress the critics?
Let's get our hands dirty!
The Snapshot Game Jam - Year One Edition
Back in March the studio I work for organized an in-house game jam. The goal was to spend a couple of days building something different from our usual work, have fun stretching our creative muscles, and get together with colleagues we don't usually work with every day.
It was a great success! A total of 9 teams enrolled and all managed to put together and ship a game in the very tight time constraint. To spice things up, we also had a theme that we needed to follow in our games - Death Begets Life. As per usual, teams were free to interpret the topic in any way they deem fit. And so we began!
Check out the Game Jam page for full rules of the Jam and all the submissions!
The official promo image for Team Elfo!
Enter Team Elfo
Jokingly, we named our squad Team Elfo, as we discovered a shared love for the Netflix show Disenchantment. The group consisted of me as lead designer, composer, and anything else I could contribute, the mighty Nedislav Stoychev as coder and tech expert, and the god-like Radoslav Koynov who handled all graphics, animation, UI/UX art, and level design. That's a lot of hats on the heads of just three guys!
We didn't want to start the jam with zero preparation, but we didn't want to pre-build anything either. What we did was set up an hour-long meeting the day before and briefly discuss the 10 possible topics (we had the list, but one was going to be drawn at random), and our preferences. We quickly found out that we don't want to do a platformer, so it was probably going to be a retro-style top-down RPG. In addition, it turned out we all like card games, so we really wanted to experiment in this direction. Lastly, we ran through my library of card game assets that I've accumulated and just checking out what images, sprites, and icons we have at our disposal.
When the time came, we didn't waste precious hours in an in-depth discussion. We fired up Miro, our brainstorming tool of choice, and started filling the board with ideas.
We thought of a few thematic approaches - what could "Death begets life" mean? And then it struck me - the Death of the Author! In short, this is the literary concept discussing whether or not the reader's perception of a book should be colored by the author's actions in real life - J. K. Rowling's Twitter being a good modern-day example.
However, we are way too juvenile for that, so we took it quite literally - what if you're the ghost of a dead writer and you can change your book one last time before the world finds it? Isn't it every artist's dream to be able to see how people will react to their work after their death? Let's do that!
Once we had this concept, we started discussing the technicalities - we will move on a 2D grid, Pokémon style, and the interactions will be card-driven. Let's design the rules!
Our very first idea made it to the final game
We settled on the core gameplay loop extremely quickly. You will explore a ghost library, find books, and they will be the key to your progress. But be careful - you only have one night, so you must make every move count!
A snapshot (he-he!) from our Miro board
Then, we needed to build the system. We decided to include books sprinkled throughout the level that the player must find and take a page from... literally! Each book will be based on a classic literary piece and will contain 4 pages. However, only two of these will be shown in any game, so the player will have to do multiple runs to get everything. That's replay value!
Then, we added the authors themselves to the game. Offer an author 2 concepts (pages) and they might teach you a lesson and upgrade them into an even better concept! However, offer the authors a mismatched pair and they'll only get angry at you. Careful, those attempts are limited!
Lastly, we worked on the ending. Every concept in your book will have a point value. The better the concept (upgraded by one of the authors), the greater the point value! However, this stat is kept under the hood and you'll never know your score. Play the game a few times and you'll develop a natural feel for it!
When the game is over, you'll get an interactive ending based on your point score. There are a total of 4 of these, ranging from a terrible review to glowing praise. In addition, the article will directly reference the concepts you included in your book, which is pretty neat!
One of the good endings, mentioning Satire and H.P. Lovecraft
I am not qualified to talk about code at great length, but here are a couple of interesting things Raddo and Neddo did to make our little concept a reality.
The game board was created on a grid with two layers - one for the terrain, and one for all the interactables. Rado had to go through the painful process of manually arranging every single sprite on the grid, square by square. To this day I feel sorry we made him go through this torture, but the result looks stunning! He even added custom, creepier tiles for the parts of the library where the likes of Lovecraft and Poe would hang out.
The two layers of the board are separated, though the player wouldn't know it!
The level was built the same way the Pokémon and Zelda games of old worked. Every tile is given a special character and you could arrange them in a text file (at the expense of your sanity). Here are a couple of work-in-progress shots!
From symbols in a text file to magic!
I should probably mention that everything in this game was coded from scratch, so nothing is to be taken for granted. Ned went and coded the movement system, the interactions, the point values, and even the drag-and-drop interface! That's dedication!
The art direction was simple and perfectly got the message across!
When Rado wasn't busy with the tedious level design work, he did what he does best - go crazy on the visual and creative side of things! In the very first hours of the Game Jam, he nailed the logo and even did a short intro cinematic for the game. Then he mocked several things including animations, the level map (which at some point resembled Elfo's head!), and of course, the characters! He opted for a style that looks a little bit retro, a little bit cute, and a little bit creepy - exactly the way our game needed to feel!
To me personally, the crowning achievement of our little project is the character art. Rado perfectly nailed the aesthetic and made every one of them strikingly resemble the original author. Cute!
I can probably go on for another 1,000 words about this little game, but it's probably best to wrap it up here. I'll just share one more file - a piece of music I was able to put together by the end of the first night. It's one of 4 variations based on the location of the library the player's in, though sadly, we had no time to program those pieces to switch in real time.
As I mentioned at the beginning, our fun little project was a great success. The games were voted on and judged based on 10 criteria - Enjoyment, Humor, Audio, Originality, Theme, Graphics, Overall, Miron factor (A Snapshot Games inside joke), Usability, and Animation.
We won seven out of these categories and came second in another two! Wow! We even got a funny little plaque to commemorate our achievement. However, the true prize was the friends we made along the way!
All in all, this was a great experience and perfectly achieved its goal - a shot of creative energy and bonding with the team. Please check out the other teams' games as well, as there are some true gems in there.
See you in the next post!