July 08, 2008

Boulder Blast

My newest game launched this time last month on Shockwave. It’s a sort of ballistic match-three game. A boulder sits on a central pedestal, which you can pull back and fire at other boulders on the playing field. Wherever your boulder lands, it wipes out all connected boulders of the same color. Just to spice it up a little, some of the boulders are two-toned (meaning a chain can pass from one color to the neighboring color). There are three “power-boulders” which affect the pieces around them: a magma boulder rotates periodically and destroys all boulders in the same row/column when it’s hit; a bomb boulder destroys all pieces within a certain radius; a “spirit” boulder destroys all pieces of a certain color. By aiming tactically, the player can further grab three more “meta-powerups” that affect the game mechanic: the aim powerup allows the player to eschew the slingshot mechanic and instead simply click on their desired target; the freeze powerup prevents any new boulders from dropping; the match powerup grants you a bonus for successfully targeting a specific color of boulder instead of flinging wildly. The game marks a number of first for me as a game developer:

It’s my first game for hire. There are definitely some pros and cons to doing it that way. The money is guaranteed whether the game is a hit or not (though it’s unlikely you’ll make a second one if your first game is a total flop…), but there are a couple of caveats. At the end of the day, you’re making a product for someone else–which means the client has the final say on things like art and sound approval. I actually thought this was going to be a bigger headache than it was. Shockwave came to me with a loose concept, but my producer gave me almost total freedom to go in whatever direction I chose.

It’s my first game with “art.” I’m not an artist, and I don’t pretend to be. The end result is that most of my games take on a procedural style with very little in the way of tangible assets. Procedural is great for my own stuff, but for a contract game the polish needs to be amped up a level. To that end, I actually subcontracted out the art assets. Though a headache at times, I’ll definitely do it again for games that warrant it. I’m very good at visualizing exactly what I want, but sometimes communicating that to an artist is a bit of a challenge. I think the end results speak for themselves, though.

It’s my first game with outsourced sound. Unlike art, I’m not totally incompetent at sound design. It just takes me awhile to sift through sound libraries and pick the right sounds. In the interest of speeding things along, I opted to have someone else do the sound for me. I compiled an asset list (though I manged to forget a few, of course) and had a third party do a “sound pull” based on my descriptions of what I needed. The cost was fairly trivial (especially considering I was going to purchase the sounds anyway), but I’ve got mixed feelings on the results. For most of the sounds, I know–if presented with four variations of each of the sounds–I probably would’ve chosen a different one. On the other hand, it may’ve taken me an hour to find the four candidates and choose the “perfect” one. In the end, I got sound effects that fit well enough and saved me hours of toil. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so I don’t know if I would do the same again (unless under time pressure).

It’s my first exclusive game. Now that the game is out, the exclusivity is actually bothering me more than I thought it would. There are a couple of sites around that I’d consider “portfolio” sites (like my own site, Kongregate, and even Newgrounds) that I would love to upload the game to–not for any chance at winning contests, but more just to gather all my games in one place. That means I’m proud of the game, of course. If it was a steaming pile, I’d be perfectly happy to count my loot while no one ever played it. Aside from those sites, though, exclusivity is a bit of a relief as far as the work-load goes. I’ve done over 15 versions of Filler for various portals (with more coming still!), so there’s a sense that the work never ends. Aside from any bugfixes that need to be done, there’s a definite sense that Boulder Blast is “done.”

It’s my first game with a deadline. The release date for this game was penciled in even as I began prototyping it, which is an altogether different way of working on things. Like most of these “firsts,” I’m sort of torn on whether that’s a good thing or not. I’ve definitely still got the college many-class mentality, and I thrive when I’ve got tons of projects going at once. Knowing that a deadline is looming is great for generating focus, but it also makes the game feel like “work.” I’m much happier (albeit slower) when I can jump from project to project at my whim and go at my own pace. I might be interested in seeing if it’s possible to do a contract game without a work schedule in place (i.e. a “We want this, email us when it’s done” contract). All payment would obviously be presented at time of delivery instead of staggered payments throughout the build process, but I think that would do wonders for taking that “work” aspect and redirecting it back towards “fun hobby that happens to be lucrative.”

Summing up. Between Filler and Boulder Blast, I really feel like I’ve gotten an MBA over the last six months. Filler taught me loads about marketing, negotiations, and the economics of flash games–while Boulder Blast was all about resource management. I’ve got a lot of ideas somewhere in between sketch-on-a-napkin and full-on prototype, but for now I’m thinking I need to take a little time off from game development, put a little dev time into some of my languishing web projects, and get caught up on “fun stuff” like movies and (playing) games.