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Postmortem: Singapore-MIT GAMBIT's CarneyVale: Showtime
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Postmortem: Singapore-MIT GAMBIT's CarneyVale: Showtime

February 24, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[In this Gamasutra-exclusive postmortem, the creators of IGF Grand Prize finalist and XNA Community Games standout CarneyVale: Showtime discuss what went right and wrong during its creation.]

CarneyVale: Showtime is an XNA game developed for Xbox LIVE Community Games by the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab. In the game, which is currently available on Xbox LIVE, players take on the role of Slinky, an acrobat determined to rise through the ranks of the magical circus of CarneyVale and reach stardom.

Slinky bravely flies through rings of fire, rides flying rockets and dodges electrical and fiery hazards, all to give a great performance to his audience.

Players make Slinky perform acrobatic stunts and death defying leaps in order to reach higher areas and progress through the game.

We describe the game as a "vertical platformer" with a fundamental difference: players control the environment to propel Slinky to the top instead of exerting direct control over his actions. 

Fig 1: Slinky can use a variety of props to reach the top of each level, including rockets.

After launching Slinky out of a cannon, players catch him in mid-air with trapeze-like "grabbers" and spin him around to build up momentum. By timing the release, players fling Slinky in the direction of other grabbers and balloons.

The analog thumbstick allows the player to have some mid-air control while falling. Cannon-fired rockets give Slinky a chance to hitch a ride, steering the projectile like a vehicle. Mid-air dashes, unlocked in the progress of the game, allow Slinky to perform high-speed course corrections while flying between grabbers, rockets, and other props.

This is the story of a very special circus...

In Boston, the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab runs a summer program where students from Singapore explore questions in game research with MIT students and faculty.

Each student team develops a small prototype game over eight weeks to test a specific idea. At the end of the summer, the games are featured on the GAMBIT website.

Some of us returning students formed a team to develop Showtime as a spiritual sequel to Wiip, a prototype game developed in GAMBIT's first summer program in 2007. (Right -- Fig 2: Slinky is a magical ragdoll who dreams of becoming the most famous acrobat in the world.)

The team for Showtime consisted of game designer and artist Desmond Wong, producer Joshua Wong, audio specialist Guo Yuan and programmers Lee Fang Liang, Adrian Lim, Hansel Koh, and Bruce Chia.

Although the mechanics of the two games are radically different and there are no returning playable characters, both games share a quirky and colorful art style that establishes the mysterious and magical circus world of CarneyVale as a recurring "character" of its own.

Our team was working under a tight schedule: we had four months to design, build and polish our game for the Microsoft Dream-Build-Play submission deadline in September 2008.

We used Scrum to plan our workload and schedules, meeting every morning from five to twenty minutes to discuss the state of our project. We spent most of our time coming up with different concepts and prototypes for our game, inviting testers and other students to help us refine the game design to make it as much fun as possible.

What Went Right

1. Nailing Down the Art Style Early

The art direction from Wiip was the most obvious component that carried over into Showtime. Because that aesthetic had already been established, we were able to quickly flesh out ideas for Showtime by churning out concept art and visualizations.

Desmond sketched out a rough comic illustration of how the game would play out while the game was early in development. Whenever we were lost or started to deviate from the main idea, all we had to do was look at the sketch to get back on the right path.

The whole team shared a good mental picture of what the final game would look like. Left -- Fig 3: Early concept art helped us figure out the atmosphere of Showtime.

This is very important in the early stages of a project, since everyone has their own independent picture of how the game should look. This gets worse when all that people can see for the first few months are squares and circles.

Since we all had a good sense of the art from the beginning, much of the game could be quickly built around that initial coherent idea.

2. Keeping Things 2D

During our development, we were torn between making the game in 3D or 2D. Thinking back, sticking to 2D was definitely the way to go.

Since our game was so heavily reliant on physics, doing Showtime in 3D would have been a technical nightmare for us. Given our limited time and resources, making the assets for a 3D game would also have been a truly immense task. A 2D game meant that art assets were significantly easier to produce; we could create and integrate new assets in the game in just a matter of hours.

Furthermore, when things had to be changed, it was infinitely easier to change one graphic than to change a 3D model and re-texture it. We were able to spend the time we saved to make a more polished game.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Mike Lopez
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Kudos to your young team for recognizing your mistakes and identifying them as lessons learned.

You are not alone in making the mistake of failing to support lower-end displays as sadly it is all too common today even with more experienced developers. I have worked with developers on several projects and continually spoken to them about this yet in the end the standard def display was always vastly inferior and not just in resolution quality but also in usability. Then these same teams are shocked when they get knocked for that in reviews and user ratings. Good on you for recognizing the lesson and striving to do better.

John Leffingwell
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Interesting read. However, I'm not convinced that "Nailing Down the Art Style Early" was something that went right. It seems to have lead to several premature art decisions that were either thrown out or caused enough difficulty to make obvious problems essentially unsolvable. If you had left the art work until later, those problems may not have ever happened. Regardless, well done for completing the project and good luck to you all in the future.

Philip Tan
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Thanks for the comments, folks!

The art issues with HD and localization were only recognized near the very end of development, several months after the Dream-Build-Play competition, when we were packaging the game for release on Xbox Live Community Games. The game was feature and asset complete by that time.

Of course, now we know that we should test our games on multiple regions and resolutions as early as possible. The XNA community can help out in this regard, since Microsoft has introduced a system for developers to submit time-limited demos for playtesting. It's not as rigorous as final review submissions, but it does give you access to a large pool of players from different countries with different screens.

Priscilla Elfrey
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Perhaps the early art concept was the basis of the vision that kept the team together despite other mistakes that they made-asdo we all. Maybe it enabled them to regroup and move-on. "Nailing the Art Style Early" may be an unfortunate subtitle. What they did was maintain a vision.