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September 20, 2020
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Indie Pre-Mortem: second year on my side project

by Thomas Gonzalez on 02/12/18 10:50:00 am

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

QUICK PITCH

Before explaining my second year's process, I would like to quickly remind the basics.

You can also read the first part on this Pre-Mortem which talk about the first year working on ASTRE.

It is a third person action/adventure game developed using Unity and aiming a release on PC and consoles.

You play as a traveler sent by its city Hyllios to find energy sources. 
You meet 3 types of energy species:

  • Friendly (weak, can't be neutralized)
  • Defensive (strong, can be happy or neutralized)
  • Aggressive (always angry, can't be happy)

You can use your energy to:

  • Shoot in order to neutralize the species
  • Give some energy to make species happy

You can also:

  • Hit energy rocks to get energy or species' shots to send them back
  • Acquire species' energy when they are happy or neutralized.


ITERATING AND FINDING A JOB

In April 2016, we had an early version of our character model integrated in Unity!

I was also building levels hoping to launch an early access version in 2016 and still searching for a job.

The global idea behind the levels was: 1 level = 1 arena. In each level, the player had to survive the species by going to the Source while dealing with all species. Either by killing or taming them all. 

At the end of each level, the player gained experience points equal to the energy amount he had left. Experience points filled a power bar. This bar showed and rewarded player with special powers:

  • Jump (A)
  • Dash (X)
  • Shield (B)
  • Invisibility (Y)

The idea was to have a few arenas and a boss. The player would have all his special powers when at the boss level. He could also have them earlier if he was careful with its energy.

One month later, I had my first job in the game industry: QA Analyst at Focus Home Interactive in Paris.

This was great. After six months of searching, I had my first job in the game industry!

This meant money and QA experience but also less time on ASTRE.




BOOSTING THE PROJECT AND CHANGING THE MAIN CHARACTER DESIGN

At the very beginning of June 2016, I went out to drink with a school friend. He was beginning his internship at Illumination Mac Guff (Minions, Despicable Me) as a 3D modeler.

I needed a 3D modeler to help progress on this part and he was willing to work on side projects. So here we have a new 3D artist joining the team!

Early on when integrating the project, he strongly suggested to change the character design.
I wasn't really sure about that at the time but it has been a pretty great decision!

Old design

After a few months of artworks (made by our concept artist), the character was really looking better! Later he also had his final scepter design.

  

New character and his scepter
 

ITERATING ON THE CORE GAMEPLAY

Before going deeper into level design, I was back on the core gameplay.


To add more possibilities and make the gift more fun to use, I added a lot of capacities in what I called the Reverse Mode. By pressing Y, this mode changed the 4 main capacities to have a different effect.

  • No more shield capacity
  • Invisibility triggered with B instead of Y
  • Y activates the Reverse Mode
    • Drain life instead of acquiring energy
    • Bomb instead of gift
    • Hit heals species instead of sending back their shots
    • Gift send forward instead of shooting

This mode happened to be too complex. One day, I decided to ditch the Reverse Mode, the special powers and the cooldowns on each capacity. After that big mechanics clean up, here is what remained:

  • Shoot energy
    • Energy bomb if not locking a species
  • Hit to send back species shot
  • Gift energy sent (like shots but not hurting)
    • Gift put on the ground if not locking a species
  • Acquire energy
  • Dash

Acquire energy already had a secondary function: catch species shots to empower our next shot.
To let the possibility to calm down Aggressive species, I added a new function to the acquire mechanics: if catching and letting go 3 Aggressive species' shots, the species will calm down and could get happy with gifts.

The global idea with that iterations is that I added a lot mechanics to test it and then cut what I didn't really needed. Also, my goal of making the gift more fun to use was achieved!
 

 

ITERATING ON THE UI

In addition to the core gameplay, the UI has also changed during that second year.

The changes were mainly linked to the core gameplay being simplified to keep what was important.
Here are the main steps:

  • Adding numeric values to the bars
  • Removing powers indications
  • Removing main capacities indications
  • Removing the ship's energy bar
  • Removing the life bar to merge it with energy

This last change is still effective today. To avoid the player from killing himself by shooting his last energy bit, I added what I called the last chance. When at 0 energy, you still have a chance to gain energy but you can't use any energy capacity (shoot, gift, bomb). If a species shoots you during this state, you die.

Important changes also happened on the species UI:

  • Removing life bar to show life status through their scale
  • Removing emotion icon by showing them using their color

Species also came from cubes to particles balls during that time. We didn't know what they will look like yet.

All of these changes helped to go to the essential and show only what the player needed to see. 
There is a last big change that happened on the player's energy bar but I will talk about it in next article.


FINDING THE RIGHT DIRECTION FOR LEVEL DESIGN

I am more of a system than a level designer. So the level design part was still a bit secondary to me. But along with the systems iterations, I still took time to find the right direction for the level design.

First, I added what I called the Pillars system to the existing level. A few pillars had to be activated to let the Source appear and then finish the level.

After a few criticisms about this too basic level design, I tried to find a fresher approach. By the end of September 2016, I had found it!
Instead of having a few quick levels, we will have one bigger level. The level would contain several islands floating in space. It was linked to the game's theme and let the level feel more open!

To add a sort of puzzle aspect, I reused the pillars we had but with a different function. They would let the player move next island in 4 direction to make it reachable. Each island contained species and one or two pillars to activate to go next island until reaching the Source to finish the level.


QUITTING MY JOB TO GO FULL TIME

By February 2017, my QA Tester contract was finishing and I had a clear direction for the gameplay, level design and main character design.

With that confidence and motivation to continue the project and make a vertical slice version, I quit my job at the end of the contract to work full time on ASTRE!

I had some savings and France helps a lot when you get unemployed. That would let me have enough money until at least January 2018. At this time I would need to have a vertical slice version to find a publisher or go get another job.

I will talk about that in next article about my third year working on ASTRE!

You can follow the project on Facebook and Twitter :)


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