An Avalanche of Done-ness

July 10, 2015

The first Sleuthhounds game, The Unlocked Room released back in March (2015 for those reading from the future, hope you finally got your jetpacks). Since that time my focus has been almost entirely on the second Sleuthhounds game, The Cursed Cannon. Those who have been following the blog know that the second game has been patched together with temporary, placeholder art. Placeholder art that has hung around for nearly four months. Now…things are changing.

The great thing about placeholder art is that you can create and integrate it into a game very quickly. Nearly all games depend on their visuals to tie them together. You have to see what you’re playing to actually play it. Getting something visual up as soon as possible makes the rest of development much, much easier.

The downside to placeholder art is that it makes the game seem much less “done” than it actually is, which is rather psychologically demoralizing. I’ve been doing a LOT of work on the game since March but most of it has been on the writing and programming side of things. So I’ve been playing through the game with those same rough visuals and missing animations and incomplete user interface elements for nearly four months. While the game has been getting technically more mature it has not been maturing visually.

Until now.

[The crater was made more close up to better show the characters and animations.]
The crater was made more close up to better show the characters and animations.
Click to view larger.

The past three to four weeks I’ve been focused on tuning up the visuals. I’ve been creating animations. I’ve been finalizing backgrounds. And just this week (yesterday, actually) I’ve started importing those visuals into the game. A much needed facelift and one that elevates the project from being a mere prototype to something that actually looks, plays, and feels like a game.

So if the look of the game is so important and so energizing, why, you may well ask, did I wait so long to turn my attention to it?

The answer is simple: story. Story and design.

[The titular cannon had a series of lights added to it, the crowd was moved, and a balcony, ladder, and loading lift were added to its side.]
The titular cannon had a series of lights added to it, the crowd was moved, and a balcony, ladder, and loading lift were added to its side.
Click to view larger.

Ok, so maybe I simplified that too much. As I mentioned in last week’s blog on the style of Sleuthhounds creatingfinished artwork can be very time consuming. Especially if that artwork requires changes. The story of The Cursed Cannon has undergone a lot of changes since the beginning of the project that would have necessitated significant alterations to any “finished” artwork I had created earlier. For example:

  • Based on playtesting feedback I replaced one new game mechanic, the much blogged about Sleuthhounds Storyboard, with a different mechanic, the Sleuthhounds Timeline. That required a change to the game interface, which in turn requires different user interface elements be created.
  • After evaluating the gameplay as a whole, the middle of the game seemed a little puzzle light, especially after the above mentioned game mechanic change. So I altered a couple existing puzzles and incorporated a couple new puzzles. These required different sprites, animations, and, in one case, a different background from what I had intended before. Easy enough to do in rough, but much, much harder, had I already created the final art.
  • Playing through the game over and over also showed several problems with the layout of the rough backgrounds I was using. Walkable paths weren’t always visible. The placement of items and characters sometimes caused for awkward interactions, a whole host of small but important details that only shook out after I’d been working with the rough visuals for a while.
  • I fleshed out a few characters and story threads, which required additional visuals to be created and some existing ones to be changed or even discarded.

This all goes back to one of my philosophies of development and design. Anything of sufficient complexity to require a design is also of sufficient complexity that it can’t realistically be designed from first principles. You need to jump into the project and get your hands dirty with it. That’s how you explore the “problem space,” where you find all the little gotchas that wouldn’t be apparent from just thinking through a design.

Had I started work on the final visuals from day one based on what I’d designed, I’d now either be trapped with visuals that don’t work from a story or gameplay perspective or else be facing a mountain of visual revisions that would add even more time onto the development of the game than would otherwise be the case.

Sleuthhounds: The Cursed Cannon draws ever closer to a release. Although it took several weeks to create the visuals, incorporating them has been going quickly. So much so that it’s like flipping a light switch. It’s fantastic that the actually looks like a game now!