Note: Ludum Dare is a quarterly game jam where participants from all over the world make a game from start to finish in 48 hours (competition mode) or 72 hours (jam mode). Guerric and I did the jam. The theme was ‘You Only Get One’. Entries are judged based on: innovation, fun, theme, graphics, audio, humor, mood and overall. Participants play and rate each others games. Results will be announced on January 5th, 2014.
‘Mama is Sick’ can be played here:
My first Ludum Dare! And my second game jam ever.
This post will cover what mine and @GarrickWinter (Guerric Haché)’s game is about, a summary of the process we went about making it and the top 3 things done well and the top 3 things we could improve on.
Quick description of our game (taken from the instructions screen):
“Mama is Sick” is a resource-management, hard-times simulation game.
YOU ONLY GET ONE DOLLAR A DAY to look after your family (thanks to a generous family from overseas) while papa is away and mama is sick.
Buy food and water to make sure the food, water and health bars of you and your family don’t reach zero or death will occur.
If your education bar reaches zero, you won’t graduate high school.
You have to last 50 days until papa comes back. Will you manage to graduate? Will everyone survive?
You can work in a clothing factory to earn 50c a day, but be careful not to miss too much school. You also need to study at least three days a week or risk not being able to graduate.
As soon as the theme was announced, Guerric and I decided to make a list of 10 game ideas based on the idea. This is always a useful exercise, jam or no jam, because it means you get to think up a few ‘less-inspired’ ideas, throw them out, then go with a better one.
We ended up with a list of 12 items:
- Menopause (This was my favourite until we settled on #9)
- Child (This started a conversation about China’s one-child policy, but we decided that since it was recently overturned, the issue would be dated in a game)
As soon as Guerric said ‘dollar’, we both knew it was what we wanted to do, and we started spouting off the potential things we could do with it.
Both Guerric and I are passionate about social activism, with my particular interest lying in feminism, so whenever we design together, we try to use mechanics to explore a social issue.
We also knew that given the time-frame, we had to design a game that would play to our strengths.
Guerric is basically a wizard programmer, but neither of us had worked with Unity properly in a few months (we both attend Vancouver Film School, studying game design).
Meanwhile, one of my goals is to be a narrative designer. Neither of us are artists, although my basic photoshop skills do tend to outshine Guerric’s adorably shoddy programmer art :P.
So we knew we weren’t going to do an open-world 3D game.
After settling on the ‘Only Get $1 a Day to Look After Your Family’ mechanic, the rest flowed pretty easily. We knew that interface design was going to be one of the most important things to get right for our game, so that was the first thing I worked on.
We worked on our mechanics for the first day and a half before I even got around to touching the narrative, which I did by writing a few pages of character design, then writing out the interactions I thought family members would have with each other.
Guerric, in the meantime, was busy figuring out how to optimise the GUI elements I had given him to work with.
We started putting in audio on day 3, leaving us with a full day to play-test, fix bugs and working on extra polish.
THINGS DONE WELL:
1. Planning and Documentation:
I wrote nearly 8000 words of documentation in total during the jam, with classic document titles such as ‘Audio To-Do List’, ‘Halved Numbered Narrative’ and ‘Guerric’s To-Do-List’. If you want polish for your game, make lists! Plan! Think ahead! We utilized Google Docs during the jam, meaning when I was play-testing, I could quickly point out a bug, add it to the list, then Guerric could cross it off the list when done.
Synergy! Just kidding. But seriously. The last time I had a working relationship this good was when I was in a band and my singing partner and I could improvise in harmony.
When you work with people who are interested in similar mechanics, passionate about similar issues – productivity triples. You don’t waste time arguing about meaningless items.
Guerric and I think of ‘Mama is Sick’ as our game. Not mine, not his. Even though elements of it were tasked to one person responsibility-wise, we still communicated everything we did to each other, constantly asking for feedback. Guerric proof-read my narrative and reminded me of elements to include in the GUI, I helped him think of programming solutions – synergy!
3. Play-Testing (and Scope)
On the second night of the jam, Guerric sent off a half-finished prototype to our friend Danilo. Even though it was nowhere near ready, this proved invaluable as it helped answer some questions that Guerric and I had been asking ourselves, such as, ‘Are the character stats bars enough? Does the player also need numerical values displayed?’ This helped relieve some of the worry we had. On the flip side, it also gave us confirmation for changes that needed to be made.
Furthermore, I was able to play-test the narrative 3 times – and would you believe that at one point, our game ran 90 days long instead of 50? On my first play-through, I reached day 56 when I realised, hang on. I don’t want to do this anymore. This is getting tiresome. Shit. I need to cut the narrative in half!
But none of this play-testing would have been possible without proper scoping. We knew our abilities, we knew the time restraints, and we knew what we had to do.
THINGS FOR IMPROVEMENT:
I feel like this is something that can almost never be done perfectly, as you’ll always have that one player who gets confused about something you hadn’t considered.
During the ‘Girls Like Robots’ post-mortem presentation at Unite this year, designer Ziba Scott mentioned that the tutorial should always be made first, and that by following this principle, he discovered that he had already made a third of the game.
In the past day of playing other Ludum Dare games, I’ve found that the most common gripe people have is that they don’t understand how to play the game – whether that be confusion with the interface, what the goal is or the controls. And it’s a huge barrier for getting people to properly play-test and rate your game.
So although we spent a good few extra hours putting in things like hover-text explanations of GUI elements and an instructions screen, we definitely could do more – like an animated opening tutorial day (that would take a better artist than me to implement).
2. Don’t Learn the Engine on the Day
Although Guerric and I both have experience with Unity, we only took a brief period of time the day before the jam started to familiarise ourselves with the latest version.
This leads to precious minutes being spent learning how to use certain elements of the engine during the jam that could be spent otherwise.
It also leads to mistakes that can’t easily be fixed.
For example, I made all the GUI elements 300 dpi for a 800 x 600 game, when I should have made them 72 dpi. This led to an unnecessary decrease in picture quality, that was somewhat circumvented by a fix one of my old teachers recommended.
3. GET AN ARTIST
Oh boy. So yeah. I’m not an artist. All the GUI photoshop work I did could have been done better, in a shorter period of time, by an artist, had we had the foresight to bring one onto our team. That would have also freed me up to do things I’m more passionate about, like narrative and mechanical design.
Overall, I’m super glad that Guerric asked me to do this jam with him. I’ve had an amazing time, learnt lots, and am proud of the game that we’ve produced.
For me, the most rewarding part has been reading the comments that the community has left us, and I’ve certainly learnt a lot through playing the games of others, and the amount of talent and creativity crammed into this weekend by thousands of fellow designers awes me to no end.
The game can be played here: