Partial [Game Dev Case Study Ext.] : Designing an Audiovisual Team Adventure
Note: This post is the original case study written for the portfolio, and acts as a more in-depth analysis of my process. The current version of the case study is shortened for lighter reading.
Ever since my first GameBoy Advance in 2001, I found that my favorite games were those that allowed me to play with others. Pokemon Ruby, Halo 2, DDR, MapleStory, Minecraft, and League of Legends were how I connected with friends.
Once I started having a passion for game development in 2015 and sought to create prototypes, I drafted up a deck of cards with various genres and topics written on them. I randomly drew 10 of each, matched each genre with a topic, and wrote an idea for each combo. One set of cards had "Rhythm + Adventure Game" with the idea's description written as follows, "Explore a world where uplifting spirits are absent, and everything is quiet. Restore happiness by recovering the Lost Tones, weapons that revitalize the spirit with every use."
Like most game ideas, 99% of the original concept didn't make it into the final design, but the atmosphere and spirit of the game never shifted. While drafting concepts for the game, I realized that there aren't too many games out there that united audio-only players with the usual gaming crowd. As someone who's very familiar with the inability to play with friends, the project shifted gears from a hobbyist prototype into a passion project. With that in mind, I centered the project's goals around one problem:
How do I design a game that allows visually-impaired players to play alongside the common player base?
- Objective: Develop a working prototype by November 2016 to share with others.
- Concept: Partial is an action-adventure game where strength isn't measured by the tip of a sword, but by the size of your heart.
- Project Duration: June 2015 - Jan 2017. Concept/Design: 14 Months (on/off), Development: 5 Months (Part-Time)
- Approach (Chronological Order): Use Conception card prototype to brainstorm, sketch art and game design, solidify game design and marketing approach, network at SIEGEcon 2016 for a chance to pitch, develop prototype, create promotional art.
- Role(s): Game Developer/Designer [Solo Dev, Most Roles]
- Collaborators: Michy Soong [Promotional Artist], Kevin Teddy Vega [Producer]
- Tools Used: Unity2D, MS Visual Studio, Aseprite, Trello, Google Suite, Bitbucket, Sourcetree, Workrave, Slack, Discord, Skype, Unreal Engine
- Links: Unavailable
Partial was that passion project that every beginner game developer grows attached to, but in the end would fail to execute on due to a lack of experience and skill. In terms of production, Partial was all over the place-- there was no clear goal, deadlines/constraints were not set, and the scope was incredibly ambitious. I knew exactly what the game felt like, but I couldn't bring those ideas in line with the realities of software development.
Because it was a passion project, there were so many resources that went into the game that I'd like to share how Partial grew into its current iteration, despite the hardships. It's the first game I ever started to work on; and as a result, the mistakes I learned in Partial became meaningful lessons that would shape my current methodologies, ethics, and process.
Before reading on, please bear in mind that much of the content of this case study comes from a 150-page sketch book filled with Partial content-- many concepts of which never made it into a functioning prototype. Like the other case studies, Partial will be divided into various stages of design in a pseudo-chronological order. Despite the project not adhering to my current process, this format keeps similar content together and prioritizes process and execution.
Concept Research and Methodology
I researched two areas of interest: audio and visually-impaired play.
After brainstorming a concept from the "Rhythm + Adventure" constraints, I started by researching music theory and history. The research included topics like unique rhythm patterns, chords, and instruments used in specific time periods and regions around the world, and how the original soundtrack of movies and video games use these variances in music style to create an atmosphere unique to a location, scene, narrative, behavior, or character.
To gain a better idea of who I'd be designing the game for, I visited blind-friendly forums like AppleVis to speak to people who often used apps and games designed for them-- or wasn't designed for them, but somehow made it work through modding or by contacting the developer. The responses (as well as conclusions made from other areas of research) are summed up as follows:
- Smartphones are by far the most accessible way for blind players to interact with technology, with Apple taking the lead in consistent and reliable usability features in 2015.
- Users can interact with buttons and other gizmos by using an audible screen reader which can describe the interactive aspects shown on the app, such as where a button is located on the screen and explaining the button's function.
- Smartphones are easier for transportation as opposed to a laptop, desktop, mouse/keyboard, or game console. The UX is often standardized on smartphones as well, so users are able to reliably predict how to use a smartphone.
- Game studios tend to fall short regarding blind accessibility.
- The cause is a mix between a lack of disability awareness and ill-suited software. Game engines like Unity have not implemented blind play features like most other app development software has, so screen reader functionality would need to be hard-coded into the game.
- Many developers and publishers also worry about the financial cost of designing for a marginalized minority and believe its not worth the time spent, so focusing on their target audience is a common strategy. (Whether this belief is accurate or not remains to be seen, but games like Celeste have become strong arguments for more accessible content.)
- Blind players would like to see more AAA-quality games that they can play alongside their sighted friends. The closest their community has been able to reach to this goal is by playing Super Mario 64, where the audio in the game is good enough to be played without eyesight.
- Many developers who make games for impaired audiences inaccurately assume that life without eyesight (or isn't perfectly able) is inherently miserable, when in reality the visually impaired find themselves living happily like everyone else. The only difference between them and those who can see is that the developed world around us wasn't designed for those without eyesight, and as a result the visually impaired often deal with setbacks that people with eyesight don't experience often.
- Because of this perspective on the developer's end, most games designed for blind players showcase a bleak atmosphere and narrative that are often set in horror. To blind gamers, this is usually taken as an insult and a missed opportunity.
Core Design Tenets
Using this data, I started drafting a game design system in conjunction with the original concept. To best accommodate visually impaired players without ignoring visual players, I set some core tenets to act as a guideline for the game's creative direction.
- Every object and action in the game needs to make a sound, including inanimate objects, idle actions, and static UI elements. In doing so, the player is given the necessary information to take in the world around them in order to make an informed decision.
- In reference to the above statement, there should be as few moving systems as possible, so as to prevent information overload and a messy mix of audio.
- The overall atmosphere should be cheerful and exciting, much like how many Nintendo games manage to create a lively style of play.
- The game doesn't necessarily need to allow multiplayer functionality, but should foster a sense of community in the real world to where players of all kinds can talk about it.
- The game environment can be in either 2D or 3D, as long as the audio allows 360 degrees of freedom.
- The importance of art direction should never be underestimated-- without a recognizable and memorable art style, marketing the game could become an arduous task.
- The game systems should be modular by being broken down into small, reusable parts when possible. In the inevitable instance that a feature needs to be cut, the cut is less likely to cause major damage to the rest of the related system.
- A predictable UX design language needs to be established in the context of game development such as audio placement around the player, audio pitch, instrumentals, etc. How does the UI audio differentiate itself from an enemy standing idle? Should the gameplay audio always be in front of the player? How should the audio space behind and to the side of the player be used?
To stay in line with the core design tenets, a few game design decisions were made:
- To ensure that every object and (in)action in the game is audible, every instance needs to exude life. This includes in-game objects that are traditionally inanimate and lifeless.
- Collectibles could be small creatures that make noise when the player is nearby, and the creatures would need to follow around the player physically to get a sense of how many collectibles the player has collected.
- Power-ups and other game systems typically displayed in the UI would need to make audio as well, so having each power-up be a living ally provides seamless audio, a solid gameplay objective, and allows for narrative cohesion.
- As a personal preference, direct combat with another non-player character would be avoided. I sought to create a fast-paced game that felt on par with combat mechanics, without the message that everything should be solved with violence in games. (Also back when I worked at GameStop, there were kids who asked if the store had any non-violent games and it was much more difficult of a task than I had originally thought.)
- The world environment always has to be in motion. Blind players have a difficult time pinpointing exactly where a noisy object is, but can vaguely mention the area in which the object is located.
- To make level design a little easier for development and also more predictable for players, the environment needs to be segmented into large chunks.
- Each chunk of earth would always need to make sound even when idle, so the chunks would need to at least move subtly to provide the player with necessary info.
- "Always moving" doesn't have to mean "always moving in one direction". If the object is moving subtly back and forth around an origin point, that works too.
- Each chunk needs to have a predictable shape through to the game's conclusion.
Core Game Mechanics
Before defining the core game mechanics I established the rules of the environment that the mechanics would have to exist within, while also aiming to determine a compelling game pitch.
- The game environment is divided up via hexagonal grid (as opposed to a square grid or triangular grid) to allow for smooth audio recognition within 360 degrees of motion.
- Rather than a static grid, each hexagon is its own object that can only shift up and down, while being allowed various properties. Within the game they're known as Hex Plates.
With those constraints in mind, I can start designing the core game mechanics.
- Using Hex Plate Manipulation (HPM), the player is able to control how a hex plate moves and activates. If the player is squashed between two hex plates, they lose health. If all health is lost, the player loses.
- The player is able to traverse through the game world via platforming-- the player can walk and jump off of hex plates like normal terrain. The player can also walk on a hex plate that the player is manipulating directly, as if controlling an elevator they're hitching a ride on.
- The player only gets stronger by gaining Allies (ie. Iota(s) in-game), which are personified power-ups that are gained by either competing against the NPC to gain their favor with a win, or befriending them.
- In reference to the above statement, the Partials that the players play as do not level up or become stronger. By gaining more Allies, the player can diversity their team to adapt to the challenges in front of them.
- Collectibles take the form of Seedlings: small creatures that follow the player around when collected. Seedlings help befriend Allies and if enough Seedlings are collected, they can be fused to form a new Ally.
- Bosses (ie. Giga(s) in-game) act as protagonists rather than antagonists, and the bosses are often found enduring a catastrophic event that the player must aid them in. Rescuing the boss and their community rewards the player with a Giga-based power-up.
- The game world (ie. Euterra) is divided into numerous regions, with each area sharing unique gameplay elements and narratives.
- There are three different game objectives, with each objective dedicated to a specific game mode throughout the game: seedling rescue, terrain race, and squad knock-out. Seedling rescue asks the player to save as many seedlings as possible, terrain race asks the player to reach the end of the level, and squad knock-out asks the player to out-do the other team in a mini-game setting.
- Each Partial has a unique personality, so each Partial befriends certain Allies more easily than others. This narrative helps veil potential balancing issues when organizing a team of Allies before each level.
An early lesson I had been taught early is to build your project around your personal ability: do what you know you can do. It's likely that there are some instances you hadn't planned for, so you're still likely to learn something new along the way.
My art skills are limited to stick figure comics and simple characters with dotted eyes, though, so there are a few limitations as to what I can do aesthetically. I'm terrible at character posture and body proportion, facial expressions could use some work, and appendages like hands and feet are a nightmare. To top it all off, I needed to design the main characters so as to draw attention, be immediately memorable and recognizable, and can be easily replicated on pen and paper for ease of sharing.
After a few tries with creating human-like characters for Partial, and with my experience with human protagonists in other media, they still didn't feel memorable enough. Even if they were, the character design would create a time sink when it came to animation and expression.
I kept trimming down the detail by removing arms entirely, rounded out the design features, and a disconnected head Rayman-style. I also gave the Partials a chest cavity, initially to play with how it might look, and opted to keep the design since the characters would otherwise look too similar to other fictional characters who were similarly shaped.
Once I had a more certain idea of what the final characters were designed to look like, I needed an artist's touch. Michy's art and animation style vibed well with myself and the project, so I reached out to her on the basis of giving her complete control over the final design of the Partials. She found herself resonating with the project as well, so we ended up working on the art direction for a couple weeks.
While Kevin and I were able to afford the promo art, our budget had essentially become spent. Due to budget constraints, Michy was only able to help with the promotion art but not with game assets. I later updated the game assets to better reflect the final art direction.
Prior to production, I estimated the development costs for the game which initially came to $1.1 million (and that's after cutting it down by at least half). These funds would cover the salary of a four-person team over the course of 3 years, in addition to miscellaneous legal fees, events, software, and unexpected emergencies.
While many independent games developed by established studios cost around that much to create and ship, there was no way I'd be able to raise or negotiate that much funding as an unknown and inexperienced developer. The project was compelling to many, but remained too high a risk. Kevin and I thought about a crowdfunding campaign, but it was a similar chicken-and-egg scenario-- we needed something playable and presentable before we could ask for funding from our community. $1.1 mil was still too high of a goal, so if we were to go that route we'd have to aim for a smaller goal that would only cover a single area of need, such as audio.
I attended Atlanta's 2016 SIEGEcon alone to network with others in the games industry for the first time, despite my social anxiety. While I had an amazing time meeting everyone and playing many different games, I rose above my anxiety and was able to have a two-on-one conversation with an entertainment attorney and a well-regarded angel investor who sought to hear more about the project. I sought to learn more about how to approach funding and if my business plan was even viable, and after learning that the project wasn't a good fit for investment I was soon turned down.
However, the investor was kind enough to offer that if we brought a prototype to him by the end of October 2016 and it met his expectations, he'd send it forward to a few publishers he knew. Our foot was in the door, and I had a prototype to make.
After heading back home, Kevin and I organized a plan to meet the two-month deadline.
The prototype wasn't too far along, and we had some assets from earlier concept gameplay art to work with. We set the following goals:
- Iron out player movement and HPM mechanics
- Design one demo level from start to finish
- Prepare a promotional art piece to help envision the final product
- Revise the High Concept Document and Business Plan
While the HCD, Business Plan, and promo art were taken care of in time, the prototype was dealing with some trouble. Bugs in the game appeared faster than they were being squashed, the gameplay was more frustrating that it was engaging, and I continue to worry about the game's usability. Soon enough our deadline had long passed. I had confronted the realities of my skill level as a developer and chose to put the project on hold while I practiced game development with other projects and game jams.
Although the project never took off the way I had hoped it would, Partial taught me many valuable lessons that I wouldn't have learned otherwise.
- If you feel that your skill set is sorely lacking in an important area of expertise, don't be shy about bringing on a consultant or mentor. After ceasing production due to an overwhelming pile of bugs in the code, I hired a Unity/C# consultant for future projects like Faux Fliers to provide insight into scripting roadblocks.
- Don't reach out to a publisher or investor unless the project has some proven results. Even without a working prototype, I was incredibly eager to get the project out there. I managed to find a number of people who took interest in the project, but because I wasn't able to deliver I had soured relationships with amazing people. While I'm glad my passion got through to them, passion isn't enough for a pitch. Have something usable, make sure your business plan isn't ridiculous, and make sure the game mechanics are working as intended (and are enjoyable!) before putting anything on the table.
There are also a few creative approaches that I believe could have been a smarter tactic in designing a more usable, inclusive, and enjoyable game.
- Write an "Audiovisual Controller" C# script that would cause every object/asset/thing in the game to be transparent unless the thing made an audible sound. This could've gone a long way in placing myself in the player's shoes and avoiding unnecessary complexity.
- Remove the Hex Plate Manipulation mechanic. On top of player movement and power-ups, HPM asks the player for way too much input at once. It wouldn't hurt to take care of the hex plate level design further in order to streamline player objectives.
- Simplify player movement. The emotion I originally sought to create is the feeling of jumping from one falling piece of rubble to another, like in an action movie. A full suite of 2D/3D platforming mechanics is unnecessary bloat. A good design experiment could have the player choose which hex plate to jump to, then jump to it using a slingshot-like game mechanic that would cause the player to jump in the direction of a hex plate.
- The antagonists would need to be re-designed or re-written. Even though the antagonistic Voidlings were inspired by the Heartless in the Kingdom Hearts series, it became apparent that the "light versus dark" narrative theme is lazy and is embedded in inherent racial bias that I had failed to acknowledge during the game's development. Even just suggesting the theme-- and using it as a plot twist where the antagonists are actually well-mannered-- is still biased writing. I need to be better than that.
- Cut up the game into way smaller chunks. The game is incredibly ambitious and I found myself too attached to the project, which gave me a hard time scaling it back. A possible solution would've been to give each Partial character their individual narrative that could progressively fit into previous narratives (ie. Oni would have their own small game, then Dori, and afterwards DLC or an Act 2 update that introduced Oni and Dori traveling together).
The lessons and narratives the game seeks to deliver are messages that I'll always find myself relating closely to, and an unprecedented feeling of cooperation and camaraderie is still something I'd like to bring to the games industry. While Partial is a project that I don't find myself letting go of anytime soon, it'll be some time before I can get back to work on it.
Thanks for reading, and I look forward to working on it again in the future!