4. Avoiding the game design black hole.
The first version of the game sent to Microsoft was purely a breakdancing game where you had to hit timed button combinations one after the other as you traversed down a move tree.
The game was brutally hard, and as the gameplay engineer I was the only one who could play it properly. The only people to play the game were our development team members and we never realized the flaws in our core gameplay mechanic. It is only when Microsoft's portfolio team and our product manager decided to give us feedback did we realize the state we were in.
While we had complete creative control on the game, we really gave their comments a lot of thought, as at that time it was the only way for us to break out of our tunnel vision. We decided to improve the button combination part of the game to be more like a rhythm game.
Figure 2: A Puzzling Move Tree?
Ivan then one day decided that we needed a more compelling hook for the gameplay and he had an epiphany to introduce a puzzle component to the game mechanic as opposed to the incessant move-after-move mechanic. When we prototyped that out, we realized that this would be the way forward. We sent another demo to Microsoft and they were onboard then to bring our game to XBLA.
The rest of the development cycle was spent trying to strengthen both the music and puzzle genres of the game and figure out a balance to the dificulty. We decided to take the game to Vancouver Film School,where their entire game design class played the game for two days while we looked at what worked and did not work for the game. This was the final breakthrough for the game design, and served as our benchmark for the tuning.
Figure 3: The Puzzle Evolution
5. Going online.
For the first half of our development cycle, we had just one development kit shared between the two engineers. When we started sending demos to Microsoft and they were more engaged with the game, we realized that online gameplay would be a must have component since the multiplayer component of the game was a lot of fun.
At that time, there were no rhythm-based games that provided an online gameplay experience, so it was a big challenge for a small company like ourselves to find a solution that would work.
During the initial months of development, our game-play seemed like in a constant state of flux. It was not until halfway through the development cycle that we decided to get a second development kit and figure out how to build the online game modes.
The key thing then was that our gameplay code was more stable and knowing that we would have to build online game modes later, the code was architected such that we could fill in the online related gaps.
The biggest breakthrough in this task happened when Microsoft released a light-weight library for building online components for XBLA games. Although there were some certification related quirks with this library, it greatly helped us by taking away a lot of the low-level connection, packet ordering, and packet delivery issues. We could then focus on building a compelling online gameplay experience and knock out all the super tricky de-synchronization bugs in the game.
1. When will this be done?
Self-funding the game, with no constant income, was a real trial for us in this development cycle. Initially, we thought GGBS would not take us longer than a year to make. But our ship deadline became more of ship "guideline".
The first thing we underestimated was the art effort required. As mentioned above, art alone took us over a year to complete. Next came the certification process. XBLA titles are subject to the same full certification requirements as AAA titles with tens of engineers. As we kept changing our gameplay well past our alpha and code complete milestones it took, us over six months to get the game fully certified.
Although we had a professional testing company put the game through its paces, we still failed certification once, as a critical bug somehow slipped through. This delayed our launch by a month and possibly hurt sales.