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  • To N-finity and Beyond

    [05.29.14]
    - Raigan Burns and Mare Sheppard

  • Changing directions

    As we worked on the project, we discovered that it was far more fun to careen around levels pulling off crazy moves at top speed than it was to sneak around slowly and stealthily. That felt significant, so we changed gears to take advantage of it, which was definitely the right decision in hindsight.

    One of the most pivotal moments in the game's development was when we added the player character, which had previously been represented by a circle-we drew out a little stick figure, tweaked it and added some flare (oh yes, pun intended) and then began animating, using Flash's keyframe and tweening system, and borrowing heavily from Muybridge's frame-by-frame photo animations of people in motion.

    As soon as we added the ninja, the game immediately gained a personality, an identity of its own. That one little change transformed the feel of the game completely; it really "sold" the feeling of speed and acrobatic movement and made it more exciting to play. There were many other little moments like that, which made the process thoroughly enjoyable: we especially liked making and playing levels, and started to name them with the goal of making each other laugh. It was rewarding, which took the edge off the intense stress and overall difficulty of game development. This sort of silly levity kept us sane by helping to make our 12-hour days a bit less gruelling, in much the same way as the slapstick ragdoll death animations in N help to soften it a bit and make failure in the game less brutal to repeatedly endure.

    So, over the course of those six weeks, N eventually emerged. The name seemed like a natural idea: simple, minimal, different, and representative of the game itself. (Also, we really liked how that particular glyph looked in the bitmap screen font we wanted to use: very abstract and monolithic, the perfect logo.) It didn't occur to us until afterwards that it would be terrifically difficult for people to search for the game!

    (Incidentally, the name "N" doesn't, as is commonly assumed, stand for "Ninja"-it represents The Way of the Ninja, the fictitious "highly advanced system of spiritual, cognitive and physical training" detailed in N's story. The sarcastic plot was a reaction to the still-prevalent notion that narrative is somehow an integral part of what games are-N's story was our tongue-in-cheek way of poking fun at that idea.)

    In a lot of ways, N was a reflection of what we liked in games-we combined parts of some games we loved, added some things we were interested in, and made sure to avoid what we didn't like about other games. It was a silly, irreverent game made just for us, and not surprisingly, we thought it was pretty good.

    For the love of the game

    We entered the contest, and waited, and waited. Two weeks passed, and the finalists were announced: N didn't even place! The game that eventually won the final round was Starsky and Hutch Pinball. This was a very disappointing experience; we felt like failures. We really enjoyed playing N, and had begun to mistakenly believe that this thing we'd made was objectively amazing, but the world said Starsky and Hutch Pinball was better. And since that was obviously crap, we figured our game must be even worse!

    We realized we'd let ourselves get deluded, thinking that because we'd finally finished a game, and this achievement was so momentous in our lives, that it would of course make a big splash outside of them as well. Not necessarily so! We learned that at the end of the day, you really have to be making games for you, because then you'll have something you're happy with regardless of what anyone else thinks. In other words, do it because you love it, but not because you think other people will. (Also, it's a great learning experience, and learning is incredibly rewarding.)

    And we did love N. Imperfect as it was, we still thought it was fun, so we said ‘what the hell' and released version 1.2 as freeware in 2004; we wanted to give back to the game community that had given us so many hours of enjoyment, and that had helped us learn how to program in the first place. Surprisingly, after a month or two, people wrote to us saying they liked it. And that they hated it. They told us N was the most frustrating game in the world (fair point). We got a lot of feedback.

    Finding the fun (and the fans)

    That feedback encouraged us to continue working on the game, refining it, adding more levels, and some new functionality such as online high scores. We listened to the criticism and praise, filtered by our own vision, and over the course of the next year we made something that was better than it was when we started. (To be fair, this wasn't hard: The first version of N relied on NES-style passwords to save progress, because we hadn't had time to figure out how to save data properly! Yikes.)

    We giddily incorporated Metanet Software, as a joke. (It turns out that the joke was on us-corporate taxes are horrible.) We entered N v1.4 into the Independent Games Festival in 2005; it managed to win the Audience Choice Award, thanks mostly to the active and passionate online community of fans which had sprung up around the game. When we won the Audience Award at the Slamdance Guerrilla Games Festival the following year, we were again quite amazed, although this may have been pure luck: we randomly chose the table closest to the door to display our game, which meant we got a lot more walk-by traffic than other games. Attending GDC and Slamdance was wonderful: to be around lots of other game developers from around the world was an immensely exciting experience. Talking with them was incredibly inspiring and energizing, and gave us a ton of insight on how and why other people make games.

    So, after a rough start and a lot of work, N was starting to do alright. We were shocked and proud that this little thing we'd made had found an audience. The whole point of us making games in the first place was that there were games that we wanted to play that didn't yet exist; we found it a bit mindblowing that other people wanted to play it too. One of our most proud achievements was that N was named a "Top Dog" on Home of the Underdogs-seeing a game we ourselves had made on the very site that was the source of our original inspiration to make games was really rewarding.

    Feeling like the game was still pretty rough and unfinished, and that we owed our fans something really special for believing in us, we promised more updates. But we were also itching to move on to new projects, since we'd gained insight and a whole whack of new ideas during the process of working on N. The success we'd experienced with N was a double-edged sword-our own expectations for our second game were immensely high, and we could feel that weight every day. We worked on a few other game ideas, but we mostly floundered under the pressure.

    On top of that, we were struggling to stay afloat, bolstered only by our extreme frugality; we were still working day jobs, now supplemented with the occasional freelance game programming contract, but since we had released N for free, Metanet Software was not yet self-sustaining.

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