[In this revealing postmortem of The Adventures of Shuggy, Smudged Cat Games' David Johnston reveals how working with the best of intentions and inspiration can have a bad commercial result when the cards fall in the wrong places creatively and business-wise.]
The Adventures of Shuggy was released on Xbox Live Arcade on the 15th of June 2011. I had started work on the game Shuggy would become back in the beginning of 2007; what followed was four and a half years of various ups and downs.
It was developed using Microsoft's XNA framework which enabled me (as a lone developer) to get something up and running really quickly. The game was entered into Microsoft's Dream Build Play competition in 2007 and made it into the top 20.
Sadly, it didn't get one of the four top prizes that were issued that year, which would have led straight to an XBLA contract, but it did gain enough publicity that a few publishers were interested, and a deal was signed with Sierra the following year.
Things were going great until Activision Blizzard took over Vivendi Games (the owner of Sierra) and decided to wind down Sierra's operations.
After a long period of uncertainty, the publishing contract was terminated at the end of 2008, leaving me looking for another publisher. Eventually a new deal was signed with Valcon Games at the end of 2009, allowing me to complete development and finally get the game released.
Smudged Cat Games didn't exist prior to the development of Shuggy, but I'd worked on various personal projects over the years, which gave me the experience I needed to complete a game and get it out the door.
I've only actually spent one year working in the "proper" games industry, generally finding the lower pay and longer working hours a turn off compared to working as a general software engineer. I'm still the only employee of Smudged Cat Games; everyone else involved in the project was brought in as a contractor.
1. Simple Control Scheme
Something I decided quite early on in Shuggy's development was that the control scheme should consist of simple left, right, jump, and action buttons. I quite often find myself getting into a video game, but then things come up, and it's a while before I can get back to playing again.
I try returning to the game, but end up spending too long trying to pick up the control scheme again. I'll end up playing for a confused hour; it feels like more of a chore trying to get back in the rhythm again, so I never get round to finishing it. With Shuggy, it's easy to play a few levels, leave it for a week or so, and then come back to play a few more.
Moving around and jumping in any platform game comes pretty naturally, so the only thing you need to remember in Shuggy (or figure out when you play the game again) is that the action button is mapped to the right trigger. Obviously, the function of the action button changes dramatically depending on the mechanic of the level, from speeding up time or rotating the level to swinging on a rope -- but there's only ever one button you need to try giving a push.
I guess I was lucky that the different game mechanics I came up with were fairly easy to implement using just a single action button. It did limit me to only using a single mechanic in each level, so if there is ever a sequel I might break this rule, but for this game, the mechanics were good enough to stand on their own without throwing everything into the pot at once.
There are some levels where it might have been nice to be able to use more than one action, such as speeding up time when you're playing a rope level, but overall I think the simplified control scheme works well and really helps improve the accessibility of the game.
2. The Game Features Time Travel
Time travel seems to be a favored game mechanic now with Braid and P.B. Winterbottom having done well over the past few years. The time slip levels featured in Shuggy were some of the first ones to be added to the game -- well before Braid and Winterbottom were released, I hasten to add.
I've always been interested in time travel as a mechanic. I actually made several games in the past that featured the same time travel mechanic which appears in Shuggy, where you go back in time to encounter past echoes of yourself.
The first time I remember making a game with time travel was way back in 1998, with a game called Groundhog on the Acorn Archimedes. I then made Timeslip which was originally developed for the PlayStation Net Yaroze back in 1999, and featured on a cover disk of the Official UK PlayStation Magazine. I recently ported it to the Xbox 360 and released it as an Indie Game. After that, I released a PC game through my own website called Knight Time which allowed you to move back and forth through time rather than force you back after a set time.
I love the fact that in the time slip levels you're your own worst enemy. Most of the levels are fairly simple to complete if you just stay aware of the fact that you'll need to avoid bumping into your past self somewhere down the line.
I've seen some forum posts complaining that a time travel level is too hard, but it's really only has hard as you make it. Remember before you charge in a door that's just opened, that you'll probably be stood on the other side of it at some point, wanting to come back. I also find it helps to use the clock and make note of what time it is at certain key moments so you know what you're going to be doing next time round.
When I made the other time travel games, I found it does limit what you can implement. If you travel back in time, then everything needs to happen the same way each time round. It stops you having enemies with random attack patterns and ones that chase the player. It becomes difficult to implement objects that the player can pick up and put down.
If they pick up an object at 20 seconds into the time slip, put it down somewhere that activates a door, travel back in time and pick it up at 10 seconds into the time slip, then what should happen? The past version won't have the object to pick up, which means the door won't open. If the player has gone through that door at some point, then he'll now be going through a closed door. In Shuggy, I had to avoid those situations in the time travel levels, but because Shuggy isn't all about time travel they could feature in some of the non time travel levels.