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  • Student Postmortem: Igneous

    - Ben Gable
  •  What if you were on a bridge while it was exploding? WHAT IF THIS BRIDGE WERE INSIDE AN erupting volcano? And what if one wrong step sent you to a horrible fiery doom? Well, you would have Igneous, a junior/senior-level student project at DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond, WA.

    It was during one of our many design meetings that we came up with this scenario. While we dismissed it as nothing more than a cool concept at first, it eventually came back around to inspire the core concept of our frantic action-platformer.

    Team "Going Down In Flames" was born when four passionate students at DigiPen got together and decided that we wanted to "win IGF." IGF is the annual Independent Games Festival held every year at the Game Developers Conference. It's become a kind of tradition at the college these days. Every year, DigiPen students form into teams to create a game from scratch; it's a required class that all students must take (it is a game development college after all). Since the IGF has a student category, most teams set their sights on getting into the finals for a shot at winning big with the grand prize. We were one such team, and while we didn't have a solid game concept when we started out, one thing we did know was that we would do anything and everything we could to build a game worthy of the competition. We wanted to make something the student world had never seen before.

    And so we started with a blank computer screen and slowly built Igneous from scratch over the next 16 months. We laughed, we argued, and we ate at more buffets than most people do in a lifetime, but we never cried­-or slept.

    Ok that last one was a lie. But we never cried, ever.

    What Went Right

    1. Simplicity.

    Move and jump to get from point A to point B. That's all you do in Igneous. There are no power-ups, special moves, or any other objectives that a player needs to worry about. Igneous is a simple platformer at its core, and that's it. Since we were shooting for the IGF competition, we knew that judges were going to have hundreds of entries to get through and very little time with each one. We wanted them in the action immediately so that they "got" the game-no wasting time on tutorials or reading back stories.

    We had experienced the pain of complexity with our initial design. Believe it or not, Igneous started out as an arena-based combat game. Upon playing it for the first time, players would sit and read the fighting controls and then fumble around trying to remember what all of them were while hordes of lava blobs destroyed them. The learning curve was fairly steep and it took a while before players became comfortable enough to really get into the game. While some enjoyed this challenge and complexity, we knew it was going to hurt first impressions for competitions, and we just didn't like the idea of making a long and drawn-out tutorial.

    It wasn't just the players and judges we were worried about­-we were worried about ourselves as well. A combat game has many intricacies you have to get right if you want the game to be fun. You have to balance all the attacks, make player progression interesting, create lots of animations, and so forth. It was going to take a significant chunk of development time to make all this content, and even more to test and polish it. It was far too much for one producer and three developers to tackle while simultaneously taking upward of 15 college credits each.

    So our motto for controls became "easy to pick up but hard to master," and our game design was simply "move and jump to get from point A to point B." It was a turning point for us. Instead of trying to force the game to be this complex beast of combat systems, we let the design naturally grow from our ultra minimalist concept. We tried to be as simple and straightforward as possible in every design aspect. After much iteration, we finally had something that our non-gaming parents could actually pick up and play. They didn't beat the game of course, but within 30 seconds of grabbing the controller, they were in the experience and knew exactly what they had to do and how to do it. For the team, this was the ultimate indication that we achieved that "easy to pick up" goal.

    2. Balancing Challenge.

    Our team had always struggled with this one. On one side, we had testers that would blow through the game without breaking a sweat. On the other, we had testers that couldn't make it past the first level without melting themselves in lava 50 times. It's truly eye-opening (and sometimes very frustrating) to see the incredible things that players can or cannot do. It can be anything from missing a turn that's seemingly very obvious, to naively falling into the same giant death pit over and over and over. With such a wide range of player skill out in the gaming world, we had to try and find a way to make Igneous not too difficult, but not too easy, either. We didn't want potential judges bored or frustrated with the game.

    Balancing the challenge turned out to be non-trivial, and after many days of tweaking, our answer to the problem was to have two modes of play: normal mode and impossible mode. Normal mode presented a reasonable difficulty curve and health system that gave players the ability to fall into lava or get torched by a laser and still keep rolling along. Of course, if they decided to go for a long swim, they would eventually die. However, their health would regenerate over time, hopefully letting them learn from their mistakes. Impossible mode, on the other hand, was exactly what it sounded like. Throwing out the difficulty curve entirely, if players touched any fire or lava, it resulted in instant death and a restart of the level. And we threw twice as much fire and lava at them as well. Impossible mode was not for the faint of heart.

    While it took us a while to get to this answer to our difficulty problems, it turned out to work amazingly well for our game. Players that couldn't beat the game before now could, and the ones that thought it was too easy found themselves gritting their teeth in frustration. That's exactly what we wanted to see!


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