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  • Student Postmortem: Gesundheit!

    - Matt Hammill
  •  [Matt Hammill's graphically adorable 2D overhead action-puzzle game Gesundheit! was an IGF Student Showcase finalist in 2008, and in this postmortem, he discusses its creation in-depth.]

    In my final term of Sheridan College's illustration program in Ontario, Canada, I took a class in which each student had to propose and develop his or her own project. While this assignment obviously had to include some illustration, the form of the final product was up to the individual.

    Suggested projects included books, posters, and advertisements, but for some reason I had become obsessed with the idea of making a computer game. At first, my goal wasn't very sophisticated -- the gameplay would just be an excuse for me to animate little monsters eating each other.

    A year or two earlier, I had created a few little point-and-click adventure games using Adventure Game Studio (a free engine for creating 2D King's Quest-type games), and in the summer before my final four-month term, I had been testing some action game concepts with the same engine.

    When classes started, I was able to show my illustration teacher Harvey Chan, a rough prototype of the game I wanted to make, and he encouraged me to follow through with it on the condition that I give it some decent artwork. "Make it look like your drawings," he said.

    With that advice, I jumped fully into production on Gesundheit!, a 2D overhead action-puzzle game with single-screen levels, hand-drawn graphics, snot-eating monsters, and a sneezing pig.

    What Went Right

    1. Having a one-man team.

    Obviously, making a game with a team of one meant that there would be severe limits to the scope of my project. But seeing what other soloists had done with the AGS engine -- Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw's games are a great example -- was very encouraging. Besides, I knew that Cave Story was a one-man show, and if Pixel could do it, then so could I!

    In fact, there were indeed a lot of nice things about me being the entire team. I didn't have to worry about any conflicts of vision, and nobody felt like their views were being ignored. There was no miscommunication, either -- if some animation took longer than expected, I wouldn't have to explain it to a programmer.

    I was lucky in that I already had a bit of experience in some useful areas. I'd lately been making pixel animations for fun. I had done some Quake mod animation back in high school, and I'd been playing and recording music with amateur rock bands for years. Also, in the making of my last point-and-click game, I began to learn the AGS scripting language.

    I hadn't a clue how to make an action game, and I'd never done any real programming before, but with the help of the AGS forums, I felt I could figure it out. Besides, I didn't really have the option of working with a team. The assignment was an independent project, and my artist classmates weren't too inclined to venture into the technical sludge of making a game.

    It was only after I had posted my first release of Gesundheit! -- and again later at the Independent Games Festival -- that I thought how nice it would have been to have somebody to share the process with. Knowing a programmer would have been convenient, too, but really, it never once occurred to me that my project required another person.

    2. Finalizing the game mechanic first.

    Because I was working alone, I couldn't afford to spend too much time on things that didn't directly serve the end product. I needed to have a simple and easy-to-make game mechanic that could provide a reasonable amount of gameplay on limited assets, because I could only generate so much artwork. Even though I originally only wanted an excuse to make graphics, I knew the gameplay had to be settled first so that I could focus on assets that would actually be needed.

    I had a pretty good idea from the start about the kind of game I wanted to make. I had loved Lemmings for its cleverness, cuteness, and goriness, and I liked figuring out some of the overhead puzzles in the 2D Zelda games and God of Thunder. I was mostly thinking of those kinds of spatial puzzles when I did my first prototype, but I guess a little bit of Metal Gear Solid snuck in subconsciously.

    My original build featured a sneezing character (at the time it was an old pixel drawing of my girlfriend) that shot boogers to lure snot-eating enemies through maze-like levels. The puzzles were based on line-of-sight, and the challenge was to lead the monsters through the maze into traps while keeping yourself hidden. If there were no boogers to eat, the monsters attacked.

    Gameplay concepts were sketched out before coding.

    I had this whole concept drawn out in my sketchbook before I began my first line of code, and although it needed to go through several iterations before I started finding the fun in it, the final gameplay is pretty faithful to my original sketches. (It no longer stars my girlfriend, though; the main character became a green pig with prominent snot-launching nostrils.)

    Not being a programmer, it's hard for me to toss off gameplay tests, so I was lucky that I liked my original concept for Gesundheit! well enough to see it through production. And tweaking the gameplay, far from being a chore, was actually quite interesting and enjoyable.

    3. Using the AGS engine.

    Chris Jones' AGS engine was an enormous boon to my development process. Without it, there's absolutely no way Gesundheit! would exist. In fact, the only reason I began making games in the first place was because of how quickly I could pull some animation frames into the engine and see my own characters walking through crudely drawn backgrounds. It's wonderful that, thanks to engines like this, an art student like me with no technical background can put together a game.

    Of course, there are limits to what AGS can do, but when I was starting Gesundheit! I had no problem with that. The low res (640x480) 2D graphics didn't bother me because it kept the sprites manageable and the download size small. The single-screen backgrounds worked fine for the line-of-sight gameplay, too, because I didn't want to worry about monsters being able to spot the player from beyond the edge of the screen. Also, AGS has a great pathfinder for point-and-click adventure games (so your hero can find his way around a table, say) and I used this extensively for both the player control and the movement of the pursuing monsters. I barely had to think about pathfinding at all when I was designing the levels.


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