WordLeap Postmortem

Inception

It was a couple of years ago when I first laid my eyes on what would become WordLeap. As often happened when I was visiting Travis, we started talking about the things we had been working on. Travis showed me one of his unfinished projects titled Vocabuleaper.

wordleap

I was quite impressed with Vocabuleaper as soon as Travis started showing me how the game played. It immediately struck me as a game that I would like to see finished. After seeing how our recent collaboration on vGolf turned out, this project seemed like another perfect project for me to finish up. I was focused on developing Paintball Party 2 at the time, but I made a mental note of my desire to work on this project at a later date.

Pretty soon after that I began hearing news of a new indie game marketplace called Indievania. In the mean time, there was talk among the Allegro developers of an Android port. Vocabuleaper seemed like a perfect fit for mobile devices. I figured I could work on a PC version of the game and release it on Indievania. By the time I was done with that, Allegro would be ported to Android and I could release a mobile version.

With motivation in place, it was time to start thinking about how to take Vocabuleaper from its current state into a finished product. I quickly whipped up a prototype to get the ball rolling on this project. It was at this time that I decided to title the project WordLeap, so named because I vaguely recall Travis mentioning that WordLeap was an alternate title and the game files suggested to me that was also the case.

Expansion

After I had the basic game implemented, I started to think about features I would like to see in a game like this. The original game was about the challenge of making awesome words and trying to get the high score. While I would consider a game like that complete, I wanted to try something I hadn’t tried before.

hotel_hell

A few years ago I played a game called Hotel Hell which left an impression on me. That game, though quite simple and short, had some elements which made me feel like I had been somewhere. Hotel Hell was a memorable place to me, so memorable that I consider it a good game despite the mundane gameplay mechanics.

While I couldn’t quite place exactly what made the game that way for me, I was able to hone in on the feeling I got from it and associate that with some of the other memorable experiences I have had in gaming. The Metroid Primes are good examples of the kind of games which made me feel like I had been somewhere. That is a feeling I wanted to evoke in the players of WordLeap.

My early gaming experiences would also play a role in the design of WordLeap. While there are a lot of things I like about games, the one thing that stood out to me the most was the sense of discovery, of wanting to experience what lies beyond the exit. It was the thought that there was some amazing visual or aural experience in the next level that motivated me to push through the challenges.

One final influence that deserves a mention is Lumines Live! It is a game where no attempt is made to tie everything up into a nice little narrative, a puzzle game where the main focus is on getting the high score. It provided a sense of discovery through the unlocking of new skins as you got to higher levels. This is something I really liked and helped cement the idea I had for what I wanted to do with WordLeap.

The main game would naturally become a sort of story mode where the player must face increasingly difficult challenges to make their way through various places. The challenges would be abstract representations of what someone would face on a real journey. The idea of the player trying to reach enlightenment was ultimately the result of our brainstorming sessions.

The feeling I wanted the game to have, the amalgamation of the feelings from the influences described above, would come from changes in scenery and music as the player progressed through the levels. The gameplay would be essentially the same throughout, only adding in extra elements along the way to increase the challenge.

Now that I knew what game I wanted to make, it was time to start developing it, programming all of the systems I would need to make this vision a reality.

Development Challenges

The first challenge I faced during development was coming up with a way to handle the levels. Travis laid his vision for how the levels would look in an e-mail he sent me when we first started working on the project.

The way I was thinking of doing the backgrounds would be using basic polygon shapes. Have 2-3 layers of parallax and have the playfield appear to scroll up and to the right. For instance, the first level might have just mountain-like green polygons. The second level could have polygons that are rectangular and look like buildings. The third level could have polygons that look like trees. When you finish a level, there would be some kind of transition effect and it would scroll seamlessly into the next background type.

There were a few mock-ups like the one below attached to this e-mail which would ultimately inspire my solution:

test4He mentioned wanting to use fractals, but I quickly dismissed that possibility after doing a little research. It seamed like a rather complex solution. Instead, I thought it would be cool to have a shape palette for each level. We could generate the background by randomly picking a shape from the palette and placing it next to the previous shape. Each shape would be required to line up at a specific point to ensure the shapes would all fit together seamlessly. This solution wound up working rather nicely.

One of my favorite tricks with hardware accelerated graphics is using greyscale textures and applying color to the polygons to give the final result. I knew I wanted the level transitions to be seamless so I put that trick to good use. All shapes in the shapes palette are greyscale. This made it possible to smoothly fade between levels. I was very pleased with how this all turned out.

The Touch Effect

After I had finished what I thought was most of the coding, I decided to try and get the game running on Android. Allegro’s Android port still had a lot of rough edges at the time, so it took me quite a while to get it set up. I did manage to get the game running and was met with some disappointing results when I attempted to play the game.

I imagined the game would work rather naturally with touch controls, but I found that it was very hard to play. My initial disappointment quickly faded and I went into problem solving mode. This is where I made one of the biggest changes to the game, resizing the game board from 10×10 to 7×7. This was a difficult change, since I didn’t design the game (I have a tendency to not want to alter someone else’s work), but I knew it would be necessary if we wanted to have a single version of the game on mobile and PC.

Now it was a lot easier to touch the tile you wanted, but this wasn’t enough to fix the game. Since your finger is in the way when you touch a tile, you can’t be sure you have touched the correct tile. This was remedied by implementing what I call a touch helper, a little bubble that pops up above your finger indicating the contents of the touched tile.

With these changes in place, the game was actually playable, but playing with touch was slower than playing with a mouse. I needed to do something to keep my vision for parity between all versions of the game intact. This is when I decided to change the game from a timed system to a move-based system.

Originally, the life bar acted as a timer that would decrease slowly until it ran out and ended the game. This was changed so that the life bar acted as a move counter instead, decreasing with each move you make. This change would ensure that one platform wouldn’t have an advantage over another and we could have a single set of leaderboards shared amongst all versions.

Tidbits

After having finished most of the game, I thought it would be cool to include a music player mode. This ended up being the unlockable Music mode. I thought it would be a cool way to relive the adventure in a passive way. I think the idea came from not only the music test mode in old console games, but also games like Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance (Casting Theater) or Metroid: Other M (Theater Mode). The mode was later renamed to Scene mode since it reminded me of old demo scene demos that featured cool artwork and MOD music.

I added an Unlock Content option to the profile screen to allow players to unlock all of the content without having to play through the story mode. After reading an article on Kotaku about one player’s frustration with locked content in certain types of games, I decided this would be a good feature to add. Not all players are going to be interested in playing Story mode, and those players should still be able to enjoy all of the available content.

Conclusion

Working on this project has been a great experience for me. I enjoyed managing the project, coding, and doing music and sound. It was a lot of work, but I am very happy with the way the game turned out. I am reminded of the days when we used to take turns on the old Packard Bell 486 SX 25, trying to make our dreams a reality.

Be sure to check out T³ Chronicles #1: WordLeap Pseudo-Postmortem for Travis’ take on the development of WordLeap if you want to read more.

In Control: I Must Run

Controls in video games have always been an important area of focus for me as a game developer. Maybe it’s the countless hours of gaming over the years that have molded my idea of how games should control, but to me it is intuitive. The idea when programming controls is to understand what the player wants to do based on the input you are receiving from them. Controls are a fundamental part of video games and should be well thought out.

I was recently looking around in the Nintendo eShop and came across a game called I Must Run. It looked like fun, and for a couple of bucks I figured it was worth the gamble to try it out.

I Must Run is an auto-run platformer similar to Canabalt and BIT.TRIP RUNNER. Your character automatically runs and you have to react in various ways to keep from getting killed. You have the ability to jump, punch, and slide, and you will need all of these moves in order to survive.

The game is pretty good, overall, but there is one very annoying issue with the controls that keeps me from thoroughly enjoying the game: when I press the slide button, it only slides if I happen to be on the ground before the button press occurs. The entire design of the game centers around anticipating what’s going to happen next and reacting quickly. Having to focus my attention directly on the character sprite, waiting for him to land before giving him the next command is a serious design flaw.

As a player, my intentions are clear. When I press the slide button, I want to slide. There is no good reason for the game not to recognize this fact and act accordingly. From a programming perspective, it would only take, at most, a few lines of code. This leads me to the conclusion that the developer didn’t consider player intention when programming the controls. By not doing so, the developers held this game back from being great.