Ludum Dare 18 was over a month ago. While I didn’t get the game finished in time for the main compo, the Ludum Dare Jam was running simultaneously and offered an extra day to let me finish and submit it.
Stop That Hero! was my most ambitious game yet. It was partially inspired by a book I was reading about artificial intelligence in games and what ended up becoming the winning theme: Enemies as Weapons. I liked the idea of a hero controlled by the computer while you sent enemies to try to stop him. My initial vision was more like Super Mario Bros. That is, the game was going to be a platformer with multiple levels, and you were going to send enemies such as Goombas and Koopa Troopas at the hero. I realized right away that learning how to implement a platformer was not going to be an efficient use of my time, especially since implementing new AI techniques was already going to be a challenge. So I switched from a “reverse Super Mario Bros.” to a “reverse Legend of Zelda” game. The hero would be trying to conquer your towers and ultimately your home castle, and you would use a variety of minions to kill him first.
What Went Right
- Early Prototyping Saved Time.
During the Ludum Dare #15, I was able to leverage my newly learned rapid prototyping knowledge to good effect, as I explain in the Mineral Miner post-mortem. Even though I had an idea of what I wanted to do before this latest competition started, I still spent some time fleshing it out on paper. Doing so helped me realize requirements I didn’t know I had, such as the need for AI visibility. I also got a feel for the game play, including how the player should spawn enemies and what they’ll do. Prototypes still work well!
- Simple Controls Forced Creativity. I wanted the player to do everything with the mouse for a few reasons. One, it would make the game more accessible and easier to play. Two, it would force me to make a simpler game. If the player can’t do too much, then there shouldn’t be a lot of complexity for me to implement. Since I knew that I was going to have enough difficulty implementing AI more advanced than any I’ve ever implemented before, I didn’t want to let the rest of the project’s scope get too large. With simple controls, I would have to figure out other ways to make the game compelling. While simple controls still left me with a lot of design choices and directions to go in, I was able to focus my efforts, and I think the game turned out much better for it.
- A Focus on Artificial Intelligence Was Smart. Right away, I knew that most of my time would be spent working on the AI. The game depended on it. I had just finished reading AI for Game Developers shortly before the compo started, and I realized that I never did so in all the time it was on my shelf! I learned some really cool and basic techniques, and I learned that sometimes simple AI tech is better than more complex AI tech. I was also glad I had Artificial Intelligence for Games, Second Edition to act as a more in-depth, up-to-date resource. Between these two books, I was able to create a decent bit of AI. My game’s AI needs related to behavior and pathfinding. Behavior was easily handled by a state machine, but the biggest dependency was on pathfinding. My implementation of A* was somewhat flawed from the start due to the fact that my AI agents didn’t necessarily have a single target at any given time and it was possible they didn’t see anything near them in the first place, but I was pleased with the results considered how much time I had to work within. Seeing a bunch of AI monsters moving about the screen on their own, avoiding each other, and otherwise looking like they had agendas of their own was a proud moment for me.
- Agile Planning Kept Me Focused and Aware of Priorities.
Since I had a good sense of what the game was going to involve, I was able to plan quite a bit up front. It’s fairly common knowledge that the waterfall model doesn’t work in software development, but I wasn’t planning down to every detail. With Agile story cards, I knew what features to implement, but the implementation details were dealt with when I assigned a story card to myself. The problem with working alone is that no one is there to act as a check against my estimates for how difficult any particular story should be, but for the most part, things worked out well enough. I got two big benefits from using an Agile process to manage my project. One was that I always had a task in front of me. I never floundered, wondering what I should work on next, so my time in front of the computer was highly focused and productive. The other big benefit was knowing what features to focus on and what to cut as the deadline loomed. I originally wanted to have animations and special effects, but as the weekend went on, I knew these tasks weren’t nearly as important as getting working AI. Out they went, and I felt good about the decision.
What Went Wrong
- I Spent Too Much Time On The UI and Menus. I took time to prototype and come up with Agile story cards early in the process, but where I went wrong was not giving myself deadlines for those story cards. Ludum Dare was almost halfway through when I finally had an implementation of a window that I could close by clicking a menu item. Granted, clicking was an important aspect of the game, but I probably could have done so without worrying about how the menus would work.
- I Broke My Rule About Keeping the Art Simple. In past LDs, I realized that I would spend way too much time trying to create decent-looking art. Mineral Miner benefited from low-quality art because I was able to spend my time finishing it. For this LD, I thought keeping the graphics tiny would help, and it did, but I still found myself trying to draw a decent looking dragon when it wasn’t that important to make it look good. It simply had to be functional. Again, implementing AI was supposed to be my biggest challenge, but trying to create monsters that looked somewhat like what they were supposed to be was where I spent a lot of my time.
- I Missed the 48 Hour Deadline. Ludum Dare is normally a 48-hour competition, but LD 18 was a combination 48-hour compo and 72-hour game jam. I normally try to get a good night’s sleep, but I stayed up late this time around. While I was able to get a lot of work done, I found myself making mistakes and having difficulty keeping the code structure in my head. By the end of the second day, I was disappointed that I didn’t have a finished game, so I went to bed. That third day was when everything came together for me, but missing out on the 48-hour deadline meant that I missed out on feedback from other entrants. The compo has rated entries while the jam did not, so entering a compo game would guarantee some feedback in the form of ratings and comments. As I was only able to enter the Jam, my game was ignored by and large. This is the first time that the Jam format was tried for Ludum Dare, and next time there might be some changes to address these concerns, so hopefully entering a game in the Jam won’t feel like second-class LD.
- The Game’s Balance Is Off. On the last day of the Ludum Dare Jam, I found I had time to actually play the game. I tried to change values such as the Hero’s strength and speed and the amount of resources you obtain. I didn’t want the player to be able to create a dragon or two right away, so I lowered the starting resources, and then I didn’t want the dragons to come out soon after the game started, so I slowed down the resource increase. While I was able to make such a dominant strategy hard to do in the beginning of the game, it can still work well for the player so long as he/she has patience. Also, it had the side-effect of slowing down the pace of the game. You can only create a handful of minions in any game session, which isn’t nearly as fun as having an entire army swarming on the map. I would have liked more time to balance the game so that it was harder to pull off dominant strategies AND was fun to play.
What I Learned
- Simple AI Can Do Wonders! The AI in my game didn’t turn out nearly as complex as I originally thought it needed to be, but maybe it’s good that it didn’t. The AI boiled down to a few pathfinding algorithms and the selection of a target to move to, which isn’t very different from a game such as Pac-man. Once I fixed a number of bugs with the pathfinding, Stop That Hero! came alive. It really did feel like you were creating minions to do your bidding.
- Agile Project Planning Is Quick and Useful. Creating a prioritized requirements list and a schedule estimate helped me keep tabs on my progress throughout the weekend. I always knew what task to focus on, and I was able to change my plans when I realized that things were going too slowly for me to get it all done. I received advice that I should have deadlines for my tasks since a schedule doesn’t mean much without them, and I’m inclined to agree. With deadlines/milestones, I probably would have realized how slow my progress was earlier on.
- I Need Sleep. Working through the night and into the morning, I learned that my most productive spurts were soon after waking up and having breakfast. Otherwise, even if it felt like I was making progress, I was actually creating problems by inserting bugs and implementing badly thought-out designs. I was able to recover, but in general, I think getting regular sleep is still more beneficial to my project’s health (and my own!) than not.
As in previous Ludum Dare compos, I’ve found my biggest problem is deciding where to spend my time and for how long. Creating a simple menu infrastructure and twiddling with image editors to try to make good looking art took away time from implementing AI and fixing the game’s balance. Project management suffered since I didn’t give myself deadlines, but it did keep me focused. In the end, I had a complete game, with sound, and I’ve decided I liked this project so much that I’ll be updating it and polishing it up for PoV’s inspiring challenge to sell a game by the end of October.
For future projects, I’ll need to give myself milestone deadlines to ensure that I don’t spend too much time on tasks, and I’ll also need to make sure that any art assets I create are primarily functional. Alternatively, I need to dedicate the time to learn how to create quality art and how to use the Gimp.