Our art team did a great job on Guacamelee!'s visuals and their work has received special attention from both fans and critics, including nominations for IndieCade and the IGF in the area of visual arts.
Several people on the team previously worked on retail console games, and when we started the company, we wanted to stay away from the mud, dirt and grimy brown textures typically seen in triple-A titles. Our first game bucked that style by being round, bright and friendly.
While we were very happy with those visuals, we felt they gave the wrong impression to hardcore gamers. The overall impression for many people was that the game was designed for kids, and when we showed public demos, the visuals attracted casual gamers more than the hardcore gamers we were hoping for. In contrast, when we started Guacamelee! we made a conscious decision to try and make the visuals more appealing to hardcore players.
We tried to move from a soft style to a more angular look
We wanted a more aggressive, angular look that still stood apart from other games. The starting point was Mexican culture and folk art, with its vibrant and colorful appearance. We spent a lot of time during the early development of the project trying to capture the right style and color palette for the world, as well as the right shape and look to the characters. Agonizing over details at the beginning of the project made later development much easier.
Progression of the Juan character's look
While this success was naturally a result of the talents of the art team, it also depended on a cooperative back-and-forth between the art, tech, and production departments. In particular, over the course of Guacamelee! we changed how effects were developed, counter-intuitively putting the development more into the hands of the tech team and then letting the art team direct refinement.
Early screen mockup versus final game
For character visuals we doubled down on the animation technology we'd built for our first game. The artists made animations in Flash and imported them it into the game as animated geometry. Avoiding traditional sprite sheets meant we had 60 fps animated characters that could be scaled up and down without resolution issues, while using significantly less memory. Of course, any animation system only looks good if the animation itself is done well, and to the credit of the animators that worked on the project the animation was excellent.
3. Hitting Due Dates
On this project, we set milestones for ourselves based on showing the game to external people, specifically targeting publisher meetings, public showings, festivals and competitions. This wasn't something we initially planned to do, but in retrospect the approach was a major benefit. Although external milestones run the risk of producing a lot of throwaway work, we've found that internal milestones risk creating many unrefined features.
The setup for Guacamelee! at two different PAX events
During Guacamelee!'s development, each public deadline was spaced several months apart, giving the team enough time to make noticeable progress, but still enforcing a constant pressure. This included, in order: production of a 3-5 page publisher pitch for GDC in March 2011, a concept video and combat demo for E3 in June 2011, a playable build for entry in the IGF in November 2011, a public demo for PAX East in March 2012, a press demo for E3 in June 2012 and a public demo for PAX Prime in September 2012. Having to show the game constantly while still making progress towards the final release forced us to make hard decisions about what features to include. This ensured we focused on the most important items that we thought people could measurably appreciate.
We tried to show Guacamelee! wherever we could
There were additional benefits to the public deadlines. We were able to repeatedly observe the strengths and weakness of team members at going from prototype to polished product, we were able to collect external playtests on what was working and not working in the game, and we were able to adjust our approach to production repeatedly after each milestone.