Posted On: 2021-06-21
I recently participated in the Game Maker's Toolkit Game Jam for 2021, and created the combinatorial micro-puzzler Too Many Games! This week's post is a retrospective of that experience: both the creation of the game itself, and the judging period in the ensuing week.
Note: While you technically don't need to play the game to understand this retrospective, you'll likely get more out of it if you do.
I really enjoyed this year's theme, "Joined Together". Brainstorming it was really satisfying, and I quickly found myself with several ideas I loved - all of which were just a bit too ambitious in scope for a jam. After briefly considering trying to find a more achievable idea, I decided it was best to just take a shot at something I love - even if I missed.
Coding without thinking about whether I can maintain it months later was quite refreshing. Where my normal work requires me to weigh the opportunity cost of every idea (adding new ideas/features now makes it that much harder to add new ones later), the jam let me throw all that to the wind and just make. It was liberating, and I am delighted that I managed something with a satisfying play experience - even if the code-base is an ugly mess*.
Aiming for something beyond what I could achieve meant it was critically important to cut early and accept my losses. Fortunately, that worked out quite well: twice I had to cut scope, but doing so left in enough time to fix numerous outstanding bugs as well as work through some unexpected build pains.
I'd learned from my previous GMTK jam experience that the judging portion of the jam is particularly stressful for me. To combat that, I deliberately avoided engaging with judging during the first 24 hours - to clearly delineate between the two experiences, and give myself time to recover. After that, I kept my participation light and voluntary - allowing myself time to step away and unplug whenever I needed to.
The game is quite short - and that was not exactly intended. While the idea came quickly (only about an hour brainstorming), the execution started off painfully slow. Nine hours into the jam I had two of six micro-games barely functional: the 2D and 3D physics were massively janky, but technically working. I kept moving forward, but, by the time I had started work on the fourth, I knew I'd have to cut scope to get it done in time.
I dropped the last two micro-games, and focused on taking what I had and making something coherent out of the 4 screens - spending the better part of the second day fleshing out some puzzles and challenges that the space afforded. As release drew ever closer, I knew I had to cut more in order to save time for upload troubleshooting - and by dinner of day 2 I'd resolved myself to cut my next idea, slap a bow on it and call it "finished" - even though it felt far too simple and short.
There's a reason there's no downloadable version of the game - and that's not for lack of trying. I'd originally planned to do both WebGL and download, but both turned out to have some pretty significant obstacles. All told, I probably spent five hours working through said obstacles - and along the way I had to make the call to cut one of the two and solely focus on getting the other one working. (Though I'd actually made the opposite call initially - but the downloadable version really did not want to work for me.)
Between the lousy name (a common weakness of mine) and spending no more than a couple minutes on any individual art asset (including the game's screenshots/preview), the game, frankly, looks quite bad. Again, this is a product of running out of time (I'd planned to at least texture the walls - but alas.)
In hindsight, I perhaps could have updated the itch page for the game post-launch (since cosmetic page changes are allowed by the rules), to make a better first impression. Regardless, it's something to consider for next time.
A few things turned out very different from how I'd planned them, but despite that, I am quite happy with the end result:
I had originally planned to find and work with a team for this jam - to stretch myself and try something new - but a shortage of time and spoons left me developing solo again. Despite that plan falling apart, I had fun, and I'm quite proud of what I was able to accomplish on my own.
The original design was intended to be much more modular, and much more difficult. I had initially intended to have players confront and solve the exact same puzzles repeatedly, but each time add complexity by adding another (new) puzzle to solve at the same time (on a different screen). I was optimistic that designing that way would allow me to make as many (or few) puzzles as my time allowed, but after spending the better part of the first day on just movement mechanics, I realized that designing a tight difficulty curve like that would eat up a lot of time that could otherwise go into exploring new directions on the idea.
By pivoting away from the more demanding original design, I think I made something more approachable and enjoyable than I otherwise could have: several players have said that a more demanding design would have been overwhelming, and the warping system (which seems to be a favorite for many players) was a direct result of this design pivot.
Overall, I am very pleased with how the jam turned out. I made something that would never have existed otherwise, and I found a good strategy for balancing the promotional and social demands of the format against my own needs. I've learned areas I still need to improve on, and I've even got some lessons about my workflow and planning that I can apply to my main project.